I attended the SpeechTEK conference in New York City last week and I can’t help feeling like it’s the end of an era for this long-running event. This year SpeechTEK turned 20. As they describe on their web site, “through the years, we’ve seen so many exciting changes in the industry, from the 90’s when ASR was first made available to consumers and the first IVR from BellSouth was introduced, to today, when we can speak to our computers, phones, cars, and more. We’ve witnessed incredible innovations and look forward to the future and all of the ways speech technologies can be used to help make your job easier.” Indeed a lot has changed in the last twenty years, especially in the last five years, and the rate of change will only increase going forward. One thing that has become clear over time is that speech technologies are necessary (but not sufficient) for success in the future and that companies will need to make other complementary investments to fully meet the needs of their customers.
During the conference, I talked with a number of customers and also completed many press and analyst interviews. In each of those discussions, I was inevitably asked what big trends I was seeing in the industry and how those trends were affecting our strategy. For sure, we see speech technologies as relevant as ever – if not more so – as:
- the phone becomes more of an escalation channel and solutions like call steering go from being “nice to have” to absolutely essential in dealing with the increased diversity and complexity of incoming phone inquiries,
- companies implement voice biometrics to overcome security issues and consumer frustration with PINs and passwords, and
- the introduction of new devices and form factors with limited or no visual interfaces, as part of the Internet of Things, for example, require high-quality speech interfaces for effective input and output.
At the same time, companies are focused on delivering seamless and personalized omnichannel experiences to their customers (often through text-based rather than speech-based interfaces), supporting new interaction paradigms such as virtual assistants, and more broadly seeking to apply artificial intelligence (AI) to customer service. In all of these endeavors, technology alone (speech technology and beyond) can only get us collectively so far. It’s the development of new technologies (NLU, conversational engines, AI, etc.) combined with enough wisdom, know-how and thought leadership to implement those technologies in a way that meets heightened expectations for design and experience.
During these same conversations, I shared an announcement we made on Monday unveiling advancements in conversational multi-channel customer self-service. Recent survey data has shown that human-like, conversational self-service experiences help meet customer expectations and make it more likely that consumers will either recommend or continue doing business with an organization. For example, a recent Nuance survey showed that 83% of consumers would prefer a conversational IVR system that leverages speech and natural language understanding. Similarly, survey data has also shown that 73% of consumers agree that interacting with an automated system that they could converse with would significantly improve the experience. In response, Nuance has driven its NLU and conversational engagement innovations across IVR, web, and mobile channels to deliver cost-effective, compelling customer self-service experiences and recently extended that leadership across additional channels and adding new capabilities. We also recently extended partnerships with large organizations to leverage AI as part of the self-service experience. More on all of that in our press release along with a recent blog post from my colleague Philip Cherian regarding two-way text messaging with NLU.
One of the things that struck me about some of these discussions was people’s perceptions of Nuance and our customer service portfolio despite the investments we’ve made over the last few years. Nuance has been so strong with speech technologies for so long that it’s hard for some people to expand their view of us to also include natural language understanding (applied to text-based input in addition to speech-based input), conversational interfaces, multi-channel customer self-service, and AI – along with the wisdom and know-how to implement those technologies to meet diverse business objectives.
SpeechTEK has exactly the same challenge. Despite adding an entire conference track this year regarding virtual agents and a number of sessions regarding omnichannel customer experiences, the event is still primarily associated with speech technologies and, while relevant and well-attended, the non-speech sessions somehow seemed a bit out of place to conference-goers. Seems to me that SpeechTEK has a looming identity crisis coming (not that dissimilar from the one we had a few years ago) and needs to evolve their mandate by leveraging thought leaders who help the industry cross a bridge from technology discussions to a broader human/technology interaction story. I’ll be interested to see how the conference organizers respond. If they want to talk sometime, I’m available. =)