Answering the call

Few things in life can raise one’s ire like being left hanging on the phone line while your airline tries to figure out who you are and what you want — before your call is directed to the appropriate agent.

Air Canada and its subsidiary customer loyalty entity, Montréal based Aeroplan Inc.,

needed a better means of directing telephone traffic among its seven North American call centres.

One major customer service problem, explains Aeroplan’s vice-president of information technology Andre Hebert, was the company’s IVRs (interactive voice response systems) were placed behind its PBXs (private branch exchange). Each time an Air Canada customer or Aeroplan member would call the airline from anywhere in North America, the company’s sophisticated, Genesis-based phone system would “”guess”” which call centre should receive the call based on its origin.

“”From a technology point of view, we’d have to decide what the caller wanted and what language they spoke, before directing their call to the appropriate call centre,”” Hebert says. “”So for instance, if the call was being made from the 514 exchange (Montréal’s area code), the assumption would be the person calling was likely French and they should be directed to the call centre in Montréal, to a French language representative. It was a little erratic at times and sometimes we guessed wrong.””

To remedy the situation, the IVRs were placed in front of Air Canada’s PBXs. Moreover, the airline’s seven call centres were consolidated into two centralized IVR farms, Hebert says, with one in Ottawa and the other in Montréal.

In the event one of the two centres goes down, Hebert says a solid disaster recovery strategy is in place for the other to simply take over.

According to Hebert, Air Canada and Aeroplan couldn’t have implemented this new system as smoothly as it did without the help of Time iCR Inc., an Ottawa-based developer and provider of customized, managed and hosted speech-enabled call processing, IVR systems.

The two entities had become acquainted in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 tragedy, Hebert says, when Time iCR helped Air Canada out with routing its call centre traffic in short order.

Hebert says Time iCR’s IVR has already paid dividends to the airline’s bottom line.

“”Time iCR has teamed with Sprint Canada, so we got a great rate in terms of our telcos,”” he says. “”Clearly the ROI (return-on-investment) on our consolidated phone traffic has already been realized.””

Hebert says the new system not only improved the company’s customer service, but it did so invisibly, going live just over three weeks ago.

“”The implementation was extremely well done and we conducted a significant amount of testing before going live with the system, for it had to be perfect in every way,”” he says.

“”The testing component was critical, and we implemented the system with a team that consisted of in-house technicians from Aeroplan, Air Canada, and Time iCR. They did a fantastic job before going live.””

According to Botho von Hampeln, Time iCR’s CEO, the human voice is the most fundamental communications tool for self-service.

“”Speech recognition technology has improved significantly,”” he says. “”It’s made a quantum leap in the last two to three years. IVR can handle hundreds of thousands of calls with 93 per cent accuracy. A human operator is only about 85 per cent accurate (comprehending dialect), so those aren’t bad numbers.””

Von Hampeln says future versions of the company’s IVR will include biometric technology such as voice recognition and verification.

According to Lawrence Surtees, director of telecom research for IDC Canada in Toronto, IVR’s true potential can be found in marrying its speech recognition technology to IP network architecture.

“”The next big frontier we can all envisage is speech recognition married to HTML and XML,”” he says. “”Right now, this technology is still in its infancy.””

Hebert says beyond that, Aeroplan is investigating “”fan-cier technologies”” such as voice print recognition and speech recognition.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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