By Gary Flood \u201cI didn\u2019t understand that\u2014please say it again.\u201d All too often this is the negative experience consumers have with interactive voice recognition (IVR) and speech recognition software. The technology seems very fragile, easy to confuse and often plain irritating.\n\nFinding your voiceThat all may be changing as speech recognition gets more robust and is being used increasingly by organizations as a way to interact with the customer. A recent survey of use of speech, for instance, identified applications in travel and transport, public sector, utilities and retail banking\u2014ranging from checking arrival times, location of council services, meter readings or finding the nearest automatic teller machine. While many companies see online as the best first call for customer self-service support, there does seem to be a growing niche for speech as an adjunct to call center functionality. So is it time to revise not just the consumer perception of speech but also that of the sceptical CIO?CIO UK spoke to four organizations regarding their successful implementations of a speech channel: utility Bournemouth & West Hampshire Water, budget hotel chain Travelodge, travel company First Choice and Bss, an outsourced contact center for the public sector.Mike Sylvester is IT project manager at Bournemouth Water, which has implemented a voice recognition payments system for its 420,000 users. He told CIO UK how the company had been able to accept payment cards for a few years, but \u201cdue to the potential impact on our call center we had not publicized this service.\u201d Speech recognition, he says, has been the main way to solve the problem as the automated system avoids extra call traffic to the organization\u2019s call center advisors. \u201cWe see this as key to improving customer service, making the service available 24-hours and in the long term [we will] increase speed of payment and lower bad debt issues through offering this option.\u201dSylvester sees scope for functionality like customer account balance checks, direct debit sign-up and general call routing as other future uses of speech.Travelodge describes itself as the U.K.\u2019s number one budget hotel chain with nearly 300 hotels nationwide. It too has turned to this form of customer interaction: \u201cSpeech self-service was introduced for a number of reasons,\u201d says Shona Fraser, its director of revenue and reservations.\u201cThe principal one was to extend our voice reservations service to cover a 24-hour period, therefore allowing us to reach a wider market without increasing the cost of a room. The huge growth in our estate over the past three years has resulted in a growth in reservations. But rather than increase costs and staffing within our existing call centers, using the Web as a platform the speech self-service technology lets us capture business in a low-cost way,\u201d she says. \u201cThis fits well with our brand strategy to champion low cost rates and enable more people to stay in hotels, more of the time.\u201dSpeech self-service is now a round-the-clock service which started as a simple booking service but which has since been significantly enhanced. A suite of voice-based applications allow the customer to quickly identify the nearest Travelodge hotels in a given location. The system can then advise callers regarding availability, offer them the best rate for a room and make reservations. The system can also capture the full contact and address details for the booking. In August a new service was added which enables Travelodge customers to find directions to hotels and answers frequently asked questions, among other features such as amending previous bookings. Use of technology like speech aligns in the wider sense with Travelodge\u2019s core strategy. \u201cOur aim is always to add value to our services without increasing cost to the customer; speech self-service helps to fulfil this goal,\u201d says Fraser.\u201cOur philosophy is to make hotels more accessible to more people and this can only be achieved with the development of IT. Using the Web as our focus platform for reservations has reduced the cost of making a reservation to the extent that we now sell rooms at a lower price than when we set up 21 years ago. This enables us to attract more customers and realize our goal to expand the number of Travelodge rooms in the U.K.\u201dFuture roles for speech at this company include developing more intuitive IVR to help reduce the time customers spend on a call by easing their flow through the reservations system.Another leisure firm that says speech has proven a winner is travel specialist First Choice. \u201cThe concept of using a virtual agent to efficiently and effectively handle the routine transactional calls makes good business sense,\u201d says Julia Sockett, its head of call centers. Callers are given the choice of three options; to check a balance, make a payment or get an update on their ticket status, enquiries the company had identified as the three most common reasons for calling. The speech recognition system now successfully handles 600 of these calls each day.Meanwhile an organization in quite a different business, Bss, a provider of outsourced contact center and fulfilment services to charities and public sector organizations such as Learndirect, Consumer Direct and the BBC, has also found speech a useful tool in its portfolio.\u201cWe have added speech as an added value or extension to the current services we offer,\u201d says Michael O\u2019Toole, sales and marketing director at the organization. \u201cIn our area of expertise\u2014public sector contact centers\u2014we see live advisor response handling as the mainstay of most services. However, an automated voice recognition system adds an extra dimension to that. The automated functionality can be perfect in certain cases such as out-of-hours service, call routing and enabling quick and simple payment processing.\u201dFor O\u2019Toole the use of speech reflects the central importance of technology to his company\u2019s business. \u201cIT is fundamental today in almost all our services. We believe in enabling the widest reach and accessibility to the services we run which provide vital information and advice to citizens in order to empower them through the provision of information. Intelligent use of a range of channels ensures that helplines offer the most effective and efficient media to access information and advice services.\u201dThe verdict seems clear\u2014speech has found a place in today\u2019s customer self-service market. This story originally appeared in CIO UK.