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How Siri Created the Next Big Thing in Customer Service


The rapid proliferation of smartphones and an appetite for more personal self service has sparked a new dawn in mobile customer service innovation. Developers are creating Siri-like support apps that have the potential to become the consumer's support channel of choice.

“Steve Jobs–knowingly or not–identified a great opportunity for customer service with Siri, and we are only just now at the tipping point,” says Andy Peart, chief marketing officer for Artificial Solutions, which develops Siri-like apps for customer service.

This opportunity is the company’s ability to accomplish two things at once: provide human-like interactions with customers that don’t involve additional payroll, and feed the consumer’s need for an instant response.

Why Now?

Several trends have converged recently to create this so-called dawn in mobile customer support innovation.

  • First, smartphones have become ubiquitous, and more consumers want to use their device for customer service.
  • Second, these devices have become more powerful, and are able to run increasingly sophisticated applications.
  • Thirdly, their manufacturers have made it easier to develop applications for their platforms.
  • Also, Natural Language Understanding (NLU) and speech recognition technologies have advanced. Nuance Communications, featured later in the article, for example has compiled data from more than 10 billion conversations annually to improve speech recognition. NLU is the technology that takes the spoken word and intelligently figures out the intent and context behind those words.
  • And finally, Siri–developed by SRI International–was the first to combine NLU and speech recognition technology into one highly-intelligent mobile experience.

Collectively, these trends have set the stage for an explosion in mobile applications that leverage voice for customer self-service. With speech, consumers get answers without cumbersome Web navigation or annoying phone trees. Plus, this conversational tone cultivates a feeling of closeness between consumers and the brand.

Here’s the direction two innovative companies are taking to capitalize on this.

Lola Gets Personal

Spanish banking giant BBVA had one goal when executives approached SRI International, the research and development organization that developed Siri.

“They wanted to build the Internet bank of the future,” recalls Norman Winarsky, Ph.D., vice president of SRI Ventures, the venture, license development, and commercialization arm of SRI International.

BBVA hired consultants worldwide to figure out what this future would look like for online and traditional banking. One name came up repeatedly: Lola, one of the bank’s top agents.

“They kept saying, no matter what you get the system to do, no one can do what Lola does. She makes [customers] feel connected, happy and secure,” Winarsky says.

SRI decided to create a mobile application that emulated the kind of conversation the real-world Lola delivered–and named it after her. This conversation is nothing like Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems that require prompted keywords to deliver answers. Instead, Lola uses sophisticated NLU algorithms and decades worth of speech recognition data to determine the context and intent of the question, no matter how it’s asked.

For example, a banking customer could ask the application, “What was my balance yesterday?” Lola would recognize that “balance” refers to the dollar amount in the bank account and “yesterday” means to exclude transactions from today.

Lola also remembers the context of the conversation. Continuing the previous example, the customer could then ask, “What about the day before?” Lola understands that the customer is still referring to their account balance, and that “the day before” means to exclude transactions from today and yesterday.

Winarsky said the biggest value with Lola is the ability to extend the personal feeling of physical interactions to a mobile, virtual environment. BBVA doesn’t need to hire a bunch of new Lola’s, but they still capitalize on what she does best and customers love. The app is specific to BBVA for now, but SRI is open to developing customer technology for other companies.

Nina is Made to be Mobile

Customers typically face two common annoyances when they access self-service offerings on a smartphone or tablet. While many automated customer service tools offer online portals with responsive design (or instantly shrinking the page view to the size of the device screen), they still often require the user to type login information and search terms on a tiny keyboard. Additionally, they have to dig through FAQ or community forum pages to find the answer they are looking for.

Speech is the perfect vehicle for addressing both of these issues. Even though traditional customer service applications might only require tapping through a few pages, that’s enough to stop many consumers conditioned for instant gratification.

“Mobile is this really interesting space where customers now carry around a microphone and a screen in their pocket all day,” says Andy Mauro, senior manager of mobile innovation for Nuance Communications.

His company released in August new mobile customer service technology that capitalizes on this idea for voice-enabled self service. They created a Software Development Kit (SDK) called “Nina” that enables companies to add speech recognition and NLU into an existing mobile application. The result is an app that conversates similar to Lola. “[Apps built with Nina] enable faster, more convenient navigation using your own phrasing,” Mauro explains.

He gave the example of a banking customer that wanted to find the nearest ATM. It can be a tricky undertaking on some mobile devices. The user might have to navigate to the bank website, find the locations tab, pull their city and state from a drop down menu, then enter that address into their GPS or maps app. Even with a banking mobile app, the ATM finder is still likely several clicks away, if they have one at all.

With Nina, the user would just open up the app, and ask “Where’s the nearest ATM?” or “Where can I get cash?” or “I need to withdraw cash from my account?” and get the location dictated to them immediately.

Nuance developers drew on the company’s experience automating more than 10 billion calls annually to teach Nina how to interpret the questions mentioned above. She would also know in back-and-forth conversations, for example, that “yeah,” “yes ma’am,” “sure” and other variations all indicate an affirmative response.

Another neat trick: Nina can use voice biometrics–your voice fingerprint–to authenticate a user’s identity. This is a more reliable security measure than simply entering a password, as voices are unique and can’t be hacked or guessed–unless someone pulled a James Bond move and secretly records you.

“It’s Happening Like a Tsunami”

These technologies have clearly tapped into an unmet need in the customer service market: better, more enjoyable self service. Customers don’t have to wade through frustrating IVRs, sit on hold, or fish through massive community forums. They get instant answers to their questions from a friendly, virtual agent that already knows everything about them.

“User experience is most natural when it uses what we’ve evolved over millions of years to perfect–language,” Winarsky says, adding interest in Lola has flooded in like a “tsunami” since the release.

Soon, customers will expect to talk to all of their devices in this way. Then, they won’t ever have to learn how to use new technology. They will just tell the device what they want it to do.

What advantages or disadvantages do you see with Siri-like apps for customer service? Leave your comments on the trend here.

Special thanks to Craig Bassin and John Morrell, CEO and vice president of product marketing for EasyAsk, respectively, who both provided valuable input for this story. Thumbnail image created by Antonio Silveira.

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Ashley Verrill

About the Author

Ashley Verrill has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has been featured or cited in Inc., Forbes, Business Insider, TechCrunch, GigaOM,, Yahoo News, the Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal, among others.

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