In 2010, An Post, the Irish postal service set about addressing a series of issues which were impacting service quality to their customers. An Post selected SpeechStorm to provide solutions to customer experience and self-service challenges facing the company, through the introduction of an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) self-service solution. SpeechStorm’s solution was introduced to improve the efficiency of An Post’s Track and Trace service for verifying mail deliveries and their customers’ experience of using it.

The Customer – An Post
An Post is the commercial semi-state-owned universal service provider of postal services in Ireland, as well as financial and state services to all parts of the country though its nationwide network of over 1,100 post offices, 130 postal agents, and 2,500 PostPoint payment channels at retail outlets. It is one of Ireland’s largest employers with 10,000 full and part-time staff working at its retail, processing and delivery points. The company processes and delivers more than 2.5 million items of mail to 2.2 million business and residential customers every week.

The Vendor – SpeechStorm
SpeechStorm® helps organisations of all sizes make everyday tasks easier for their customers. The company provides pre-built IVR, speech self-service and mobile apps that reduce waiting times for customers and reduce call handling times in the contact centre. Its solutions are quick to implement and easy to manage, putting the business in control of the customer experience.

The Challenge
Prior to 2010, An Post mail delivery offices across the country were receiving large volumes of calls from customers looking for Track and Trace information about premium service mail they had posted (or were expecting), as well as other basic enquiries such as pricing and service options. Local delivery offices were not equipped, or staffed, to handle such calls – their focus was purely around operational quality. Also, in some of the smaller delivery offices, all the staff might be out delivering mail so customers became irate and frustrated when their calls went unanswered. A system was required to ensure consistent, top-quality call service based on the direction of calls into a central contact centre. While customers had the choice of ringing An Post’s main call centre, or visiting the company’s website to obtain tracking and other information, they typically chose to call their delivery office.

A customer survey by An Post also revealed that many businesses were relying on their office admin staff to make their tracking enquiry calls. As it turned out, these callers preferred to deal with a real member of An Post staff to source the tracking information, because this left them free to get on with other tasks in their office while they were ‘holding’. This customer desire to multi-task was both time-consuming and manpower intensive for An Post, particularly when customers often asked for more than one item to be checked. A more efficient approach had to be found.

Addressing the Problem
In early 2010, Aidan Hughes, Customer Service Manager at An Post began to look in detail at IVR technology and self-service solutions to address the problems relating to the Track and Trace portfolio.

“We spoke to a number of companies in the IVR marketplace and put the requirement out to tender,” Hughes says. “Out of a tough, competitive field, SpeechStorm came back to us with the most robust solution – and what we received was exactly as they said it would be.”

Before making a final commitment, however, SpeechStorm was invited to set up a mini-test environment, enabling the customer to put the solution through its paces. One test involved calling into the proposed IVR system with the broad spectrum of the accents with which An Post staff deal on a daily basis. These included broad regional Irish dialects as well as some non-Irish European accents. Hughes admits, “We actually tried to ‘break’ the system with these voices, but it bettered us every time!”

The Team
Another crucial factor for Hughes was the caliber of the team being proposed to service the solution. “We were convinced by the Speechstorm product on offer, which was essential, for both board-level buy-in and to ensure the business case. But of equal importance was the fact that we could work so easily with the people we were dealing with at SpeechStorm – it was one of the first things we noticed about the company. As a result, a strong relationship has developed from there. This is extremely important, because my call centre team had to be able to work closely with the service provider. We have all worked hard to improve our service levels to match the very best you’ll find anywhere in the world, and the team has a real sense of ownership around that. Our supplier had to be able to earn our trust and support in practice, as well as on paper, or in theory. They have helped me improve our customer experience and, as the technical experts, they have opened our eyes to what is possible using their technology and we’ve been able to pick and choose the most appropriate functionality for our purposes.

“SpeechStorm approaches our relationship as a team player. When we’ve had a problem to solve they’ve always looked at the challenge, considered how it can be approached and come up with a practical, workable solution – and always with transparency and trust.”

The Solution
The solution eventually introduced by SpeechStorm in the first half of 2010, (and still in operation today), is an IVR solution with initial DTMF (touch-tone dialing) interaction and DTMF as a back-up. DTMF options kick in if a caller with an enquiry has an incoherent accent not recognized by the system, in which case they will be asked to enter the numbers included in their ID Code using the phone keypad.

Track and Trace products, such as An Post’s Courier Post product, have an identifier code, which comprises two letters followed by nine numbers with two final letters at the end, e.g. EP123456789IE. A caller will be told straightaway that “the fastest way to track your parcel is to press 1 now”, at which point the voice recognition system asks them to say their ID Code “like this” and delivers a clear example of the manner in which the code must be said, i.e. without hesitation or pauses. In most cases, tracking information follows along the lines: “Your item was delivered at 11am on 10th December and that information is provided by our delivery service unit in Cork”.

If a call has to be put through to a live member of staff, the An Post implementation also includes SpeechStorm’s Whisper Technology, whereby an agent to whom a call is being passed will hear the ID Code of the customer before they come through on his/her headset, in turn enabling them to greet the caller with: ‘I hear you are enquiring about ID Code XYZ…’ This removes any need for the caller to repeat the same number again, together with any subsequent frustration.
“This is purely to improve the customer experience,” says Hughes. “They don’t have to repeat themselves and we don’t have to handle the common complaint: ‘‘why do I have to say this all over again?”

Also introduced as part of the solution is a product and pricing information DTMF menu enabling customers, who, for instance, want to know how much it costs to send a registered letter to New York, to find that information out quickly and easily. Again, this frees up contact centre staff to use their skills for more complex issues.

The Importance of Making Changes Easy
Being able to make changes easily to a SpeechStorm IVR solution is a crucial part of its functionality. Customers such as An Post have the means to make such “tweaks and changes”, as Aidan Hughes refers to them, themselves, but in this case Hughes chose to keep in constant touch with the SpeechStorm team and collaborate on change making. “It’s very important for us to be able to make changes to the system easily and we make most of the changes we need through SpeechStorm. We have a regular quarterly meeting with them and also speak with our account manager twice a month, at least,” says Hughes. “We make suggestions and SpeechStorm comes back to us with recommendations based on the raw data they have, showing, for instance, when customers fail to go through the full cycle of the IVR/self-service experience. Such information helps them deduce why something is happening and they can then suggest a fix.”

One such issue came to light when a number of self-service Track and Trace customer enquiries for items whose code numbers ended in the letters, IE (the country code for a package delivery within Ireland), failed to complete and ended up with an operative having to solve the issue. It turned out that customers were reading the ‘I’ as a ‘1’ (one), and this led SpeechStorm to adapt the system to recognize this ‘event’ each time, so that it knows when a customer is reading the letter ‘I’ as a one.

The Customer Experience
“We see customer service as a differentiator that we offer in a manner that sets us ahead of our competitors,” says Aiden Hughes. “In line with this, we believe that those calls and enquiries that can be handled automatically ought to be dealt with this way. This not only delivers the fastest resolution possible for Track and Trace, but also helps us identify and deal with other, often more pressing issues.”

Having all calls routed into its centralized call centre has helped An Post quickly identify when and where something is going wrong in the network; lots of calls from customers in Cork, for instance, will flag up a problem in that region, which may previously have taken longer to register.

“We now have between 450 and 710 calls a day going into the Track and Trace solution alone,” says Hughes. “People requesting pricing information also account for between 325 and 470 calls to the same number, and these are routed into the DTMF menu. With this amount of calls handled automatically by the SpeechStorm platform, valuable time and energy is freed up. Not only are we now sure that all calls are being answered, we know, too, that customers are getting the same experience no matter where they are calling from, or to, within the An Post network. Eliminating variation saves time, money and stress! ” he adds.

Final Word
“Anyone considering such an implementation should know that a solution like this can deliver immediate returns and wins. To realize that its full potential, however – and this is a positive factor – is the capacity for ongoing tweaking and adaptation, which is all important so that you can harvest additional, small-percentage gains all the way through its life. The SpeechStorm solution has certainly helped us to keep our customers happy and made our lives easier, more productive and more efficient, at the same time.”

Damian KellyDamian Kelly is VP Product for mobile and voice applications company SpeechStorm. Damian co-founded SpeechStorm as an independent company in 2010 following a 20 year consulting career in Customer Relationship Management, Business Process Management and the contact centre industry, delivering solutions for clients in telecoms, financial services and utilities.

Damian is passionate about customer service and always on the lookout for new ways to improve the customer’s experience.
Damian has a Master of Management Science and Bachelor of Commerce from University College, Dublin.
Born in Dublin, home for Damian is now in South East England with his wife and three children where fun includes family time, playing rhythm guitar with a local soul band and putting in the miles on a road bike.

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