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Call centres have become ubiquitous as a tool for companies to sell their goods, gather information or deal with customers’ complaints. Despite their growth, however, little attention has been paid to how telephone communication can help companies convey their brand message to consumers.

This may be about to change, however, with the emergence of a new marketing tool: persona design.

Three years ago, Vodafone Australia, the mobile telephone operator, introduced an automated call handling system to make it easier for customers to register SIM cards. At its heart was Lara, a virtual call centre operator developed to improve customers’ experience of interacting with the company by phone.

Lara’s role is now being extended beyond SIM cards: from April, hers will be the first voice heard by callers to Vodafone Australia.

The system is speech-operated rather than touch-tone operated, and the persona’s voice is strikingly responsive. Care has been taken to ensure Lara’s voice patterns, vocabulary and pace of speech is as naturalistic – and sounds as unscripted – as possible.

She uses exclamations such as “hey” and “oh” and informal phrases such as “let’s get started”. If the caller makes an error imparting their details, she even says: “Mmm, I don’t think that’s right”.

When a caller, asked to specify whether the phone they are registering is for business or personal use, replies ‘personal’, she answers: “Great. Personal’s always more fun than business.”

“She’s 26, single, lives in Sydney, has a belly button and drives a VW Beetle,” says Paul Scott, manager of interactive solutions at Dimension Data, the South Africa-based IT provider that conceived the Lara character to reflect Vodafone Australia’s brand values.

The profile was drawn up to represent aspects of the brand most likely to appeal to its target consumers in Australia. The company then recruited a voice-over artist whose voice best conveyed Lara’s personality, a process which also involved psychologists and linguists.

“Many elements in spoken speech are non-verbal, such as tone, intonation, pace and also pauses,” says Joanne Nicholson, a voice/user interface designer at Dimension Data. “All of this must be taken into account when developing a persona, as each can convey to a customer – or undermine any claim made by a business – that its brand personality is extrovert, sombre, accessible or fun.”

Phone-based communication between customers and businesses is on the rise. Between 2004 and 2006, monthly call volumes in minutes for call centres in North America and Western Europe grew by 25 per cent, according to Datamonitor. In the coming months, Dimension Data is to launch similar call-handling systems for the express delivery company TNT and a leading South African bank.

Managers facing growing numbers of calls can always recruit more call centre operatives. However, this raises costs, often forcing companies to relocate their call-handling facilities offshore. Instead, many companies are choosing automated systems.

“There has been a long-term shift towards the adoption of speech recognition systems with voice-activated systems increasingly replacing older systems activated by callers pushing buttons on their phone,” according to David Bradshaw, principal analyst at IT and telecoms consultancy Ovum.

Technological limitations and failure to understand how best to use these systems, however, restricted their development until the past year or two, he adds. Now, however, a growing number of companies are using them in tandem with live call centre staff.

Vodafone Australia’s decision to invest in a sophisticated speech-enabled self-service system was driven by a desire to improve customer service.

Since then, however, the company has seen other benefits. Automating mundane caller transactions, for example, has freed call centre staff to deal more efficiently with complex enquiries, says Mr Scott.

Adam Spence, the Vodafone Group manager who is now overseeing the roll-out of similar systems in other markets adds that the decision to adopt a persona has already made the system more approachable.

“Giving an intangible piece of technology a third-person identity has broken down the awkwardness staff and customers can feel about using it, and provided a more human interface for the business.”

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