The arrival of World Voice Day, April 16, is the perfect moment to contemplate how amazing the voice is as an instrument and why – even as other channels grow in maturity, the human voice will remain a crucial factor in delivering a winning customer experience (CX).
“Voice is more direct, personal and intimate than any other form of communication,” begins James Lee, VP, Digital Strategy for TSC Americas, Sitel Group’s digital expert agency. “The key to the smart speaker’s rocketing popularity is that it is voice-operated and the best interface between a person and a machine is no interface – that’s what voice delivers.”
This immediacy is also why when a customer has a serious issue to resolve, they reach for the phone. The 2018 CCW Market Study of U.S. consumers’ attitudes towards CX finds that a voice conversation is still the No.1 customer service preference – 71 percent of respondents said a live agent conversation is their preferred way of receiving customer support. Likewise, the 2018 Contact Center Satisfaction Index highlights that an interaction with a customer service agent is the biggest driver of overall customer satisfaction.
This preference for the phone isn’t simply because consumers are creatures of habit that have become conditioned to call when they have an issue to resolve. Our voices convey everything from emotional intent to clues regarding our physical appearance.
As a result, voice has been the topic of scientific scrutiny for millennia, starting with the Ancients Greeks and continuing today with investigations into everything from whether personality traits are carried in the voice to whether or not how a person speaks is enough to make others change their mind.
For example, Agata Groyecka, a researcher from the University of Wroclaw in Poland who led a systematic review of 30 years’ worth of scientific studies on the topic found that there’s enough supporting data to prove listeners can determine not just age and gender but also the speaker’s body size, potential attractiveness and whether the person is more likely to be dominant or cooperative.
Indeed your voice can literally be a calling card, conveying personality traits and even professional position. “Whether it’s parents attempting to assert authority over unruly children […] or negotiations between heads of states, the sound of the voices involved may profoundly determine the outcome of those interactions,” explains psychological scientist Sei Jin Ko of San Diego State University.
He was lead researcher on a study that tried to establish whether being in authority altered a person’s voice and whether, in turn, those that heard it, behaved differently.
Indeed, people in power started speaking in a higher yet more monotone pitch and with varying loudness. More importantly; those hearing such voices knew they were the words of someone with responsibility.
“These findings suggest that listeners are quite perceptive to these subtle variations in vocal cues and they use these cues to decide who is in charge,” said fellow researcher Adam Galinsky.
In another experiment conducted by the University of Illinois, University of British Columbia and Harvard University, researchers found that if a person lowers his or her vocal pitch during the early moments of a conversation, they were more likely to be seen as dominant, influential and therefore more able to convince or to win an argument. But taking this approach could make someone a lonely leader.
“People judge the person as wanting to be more influential, more powerful, more intimidating or more domineering. But they don’t think the person is interested in gaining more respect,” said lead researcher psychology professor Joey Cheng of the results.
Likewise, just because a voice sounds powerful or convincing, doesn’t necessarily mean the person that owns it would be good in a leadership position.
A number of studies have shown that the U.S. population is more likely to vote for a congressional or presidential candidate with a lower, deeper voice. So researchers from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Miami set out in March 2018 to find if there was any correlation between tone and political capability. The short answer was “no.”
Regardless of professional proficiency, if you were to meet the President, there’s every chance that your own voice will go up in pitch several notches.
A University of Stirling experiment that used the pretext of a job interview to see if and how candidates would alter their speech patterns discovered that: “Voice characteristics appear to be an important way to communicate social status. We found both men and women alter their pitch [upwards] in response to people they think are dominant and prestigious,” said Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Viktoria Mileva.
However, pitch, tone or timbre aside, a person’s voice is a better measure of their emotional state than even their facial expression.
In a series of five experiments involving 1,800 participants, Michael Kraus, PhD, of Yale University allowed some subjects to watch and listen to an interaction between two people, others to watch without sound, and another group just to listen to what was being said. He found that those that could only listen were better at identifying the emotions the people talking were experiencing and conveying.
“The findings suggest that we should be focusing more on studying vocalizations of emotion,” said Kraus. “Listening matters. Actually considering what people are saying and the ways in which they say it can, I believe, lead to improved understanding of others at work or in your personal relationships.”
This unique combination of characteristics is why voice endures as digital and self-service channels are beginning to assert themselves in the sphere of customer service.
“Ten years ago, people were saying call centers were about to become obsolete,” reminds Lee. “Instead, voice has remained integral to delivering customer experience and contact centers have metamorphosed into true customer engagement centers.”
This doesn’t mean that growing automation and continued innovations in the area of artificial intelligence (AI) aren’t going to continue shaping the contact center. Deloitte research suggests that voice currently represents 64 percent of total contact center interactions but will fall to 47 percent by decade’s end.
However, these changes will serve to underline the importance of the human voice and of human emotional intelligence as part of a brand’s CX strategy, especially for complex customer issues.
“To understand why voice is still so crucial, look at companies such as AirBnB and Lyft who are rightly heralded as digital disruptive pioneers,” Lee explains. “Despite being digital by default, they still put voice at the heart of their customer service. When it’s a moment of truth, a customer wants to speak to another person who understands the situation and can act with empathy.”
When the millennial generation, which is also digital by default, becomes the biggest customer demographic, the use of digital channels will increase. But so will the value of a human interaction.
“As the world becomes increasingly digital, every opportunity to deliver a real, personalized human touch will need to be seized with both hands, if your brand is serious about CX,” warns Lee. “And increasingly, that human touch will be augmented and empowered by the very same digital technologies.”
Digital and self-service channels such as chatbots will deflect low-value calls away from contact centers. AI and automation will take over routine tasks that would otherwise prevent a customer service representative from taking a call. The same technology will also improve workflow, prequalifying callers so that agents speak to a mix of people with a variety of different problems.
“By augmenting our people’s skills with these new technologies, they’ll be empowered to deliver an even richer experience for customers,” says Lee. “But the innovation will also help to make our people feel more engaged. Machine learning and speech analysis can also help our people to understand a customer’s emotional situation more quickly and identify the next best offer.”
This new approach that builds around the voice and empowers and better engages employees will deliver a differentiated CX. But it will also give organizations that are prepared for this change a new found flexibility and agility – understanding the possibilities and beneficial impacts of the contact center in the coming years is something quite different from understanding how your organization goes from its current situation to this future state.
“As customer expectations change, and technology presents new challenges and opportunities, the businesses that succeed will be the ones that can prioritize moving to align with these changes,” warns Lee. “But this is only possible with an holistic vision that takes into account what can be achieved with the latest CX technologies and investment in training the right contact center representatives as well as a wider business transformation.”
In these situations it’s hard to know who to listen to. That’s why it’s crucial to seek out a partnership with an organization that has a fundamental understanding of the customer mindset. “Looking for someone to provide technical support for a project won’t get you over the line,” Lee clarifies. “Only by selecting a real partner that can bring together all of the pieces from security and data protection to digitalization and marketing and channel integration, can you be certain you can always meet that moment of truth or resolve even the most complex of issue.”
Startups, small-to-medium-sized businesses and enterprise and Fortune 500 companies alike rely on Sitel Group as their partner for this very reason. They expect positive, consistent CX across every channel, in multiple languages and from multiple geographies.
As a leading global outsourcing provider of customer experience management, we understand better than anyone how critical your customer relationships are. With 150 offices across 27 countries and more than 75,000 associates speaking 48 languages, our contact center associates deliver more than 3.5 million unique customer experiences every day.