Editor's Note:  From time to time we want to share some of the technololgy that is developing around the world that will have a major impact on our business model [es/obc] in the future.  If we are aware of these changes and devlopments, then we can begin to position ourselves to best advantage. 

Portrait Of A Virtual Contact Center - it's coming, folks!

IBM and T. Rowe Price have created a unique call center environment that boasts human-like interaction from a virtual account representative who can respond to more than 35,000 phrases.
by Jennifer Tomaro

T. Rowe Price (Nasdaq: TROW), a Baltimore-based investment management firm, began by analyzing how their customers conversed with their telephone representatives. T. Rowe Price Participant Service Center representatives supplied more than 35,000 phrases and commands based on their first-hand experience servicing plan participants over the years.IBM was then able to create a voice solution that could respond and act according to these types of conversations.

IBM's technology listens for clues as a caller speaks, and then responds at the conversational pause with either a response, or additional questions to fill in any remaining blanks. The system also remembers context so that when asked for "that one" it recognizes what the caller wanted. During the course of the "dialogue," the technology simultaneously analyzes the conversation so that it can figure out more quickly what a customer wants.

IBM's "Natural Language Understanding" Voice Recognition System lets T. Rowe Price's clientele manage their accounts by speaking naturally into the phone to an auto attendant. The system lets participants in 401(k) plans check fund and account balances, fund prices and investment objectives; request statements; and enter or change personal identification numbers -- using natural phrases such as "I'd like my balance, please" or "What funds are in my plan?" Unlike conventional response systems that rely on touch tones or prescribed voice responses, the system allows people to change their minds and execute tasks in any order.

Subsequent phases of the system will add transactional capability, letting all 1.1 million plan participants increase or decrease contributions, move money between funds, change how contributions are invested, change plan selections, and request a loan using voice commands.

The Natural Language Understanding (NLU) feature, part of IBM's WebSphere Voice Server and DirectTalk products for voice-enabling contact centers and the Web, is being launched as part of the T. Rowe Price Plan Account Line (PAL), the toll-free service by which 401(k) participants can access their retirement plan accounts.

The enhanced Plan Account Line doesn't require a particular script; its developers have "taught" it to respond to virtually thousands of different ways a person might express a request -- from diverse phrasings and sentence structures to regional accents. For example, the system understands that when a customer says, "How much money do I have in Investment A?" it means the same as "Tell me the balance I have in Investment A."

When the caller dials the Plan Account Line, he or she is presented with a choice of either the conventional touch-tone mode or the NLU speech recognition mode. Engaging NLU, the caller then says what he or she wants to do. The system "hears" the sentence, breaks it down into its component parts, and picks up key words and phrases that it has been programmed to connect with certain inquiry or transaction functions. The system then checks to see if the caller's request is valid according to the rules of his or her plan, and then responds appropriately.

Like the regular touch-tone system, the new service offers plan participants 24-hour access to their accounts, using the same toll-free PAL number and personal identification numbers (PIN) they currently use. Callers can also transfer to a representative at any time during the call by saying "I'd like to speak with a representative."

T. Rowe Price is the first company to test and use IBM's technology for financial applications. The new system is currently being offered through a pilot program to a handful of T. Rowe Price clients. The program will be fine-tuned based on feedback from plan sponsors and participants in these beta tests and is scheduled to be rolled out to all plans over the course of the year.



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