Strong Financial Corporation of Menomonee, Wis., has debuted a comprehensive interactive voice response system (IVR) dubbed Strong Direct, which was built by Nuance of Menlo Park, Calif. Strong says that it is among the first to adopt the upgraded Nuance 8 system. Nuance also is the force behind the speech recognition system of financial services provider Charles Schwab of San Francisco.

The system understands natural language phrases, allowing Strong clients to literally speak their minds and accomplish a variety of their needs, from obtaining a stock quote to buying shares of their favorite Strong mutual fund, virtually hands-free.

This not only marks Strong's entry into the wonderful world of natural speech recognition, but also allows Strong to provide a single interactive telephone platform for all of its customers whether they invest in Strong's proprietary mutual funds or college savings plan, have a Strong brokerage account, or are part of Strong's discretionary Strong Advisor program. "The system allows investors to bring their whole portfolio under one log-in," said Chuck Paul, Manager of Direct Investor Systems at Strong.

Previously, investors who had multiple relationships with Strong had to call and then log-in to different IVR phone systems depending upon their investments. Callers were also required to navigate through a sometimes-laborious touch-tone, menu-driven phone system that prompted callers to press certain buttons on their telephone keypads.

Strong execs decided to consider a new telephone system because the original IVR system used for mutual fund investors was showing its age. In addition, there were some functional limitations within the separate phone system utilized by Strong's broker/dealer clients, Paul said. All in all, the idea was to make the entire phone call much easier for investors to navigate, and allow them to articulate requests in plain speech, he added.

Toe-May-Toe vs. Toh-Mah-Toh

The new capability makes it infinitely more appealing to multi-tasking cell phone fans, as well as removing a level of complexity in identifying certain stocks which previously had to be spelled out via a telephone key pad. Now, callers can simply verbalize their requests, such as asking for a quote on IBM. The Nuance system's "glossary" has already built-in synonyms and name variations such as where a caller refers to IBM by its International Business Machines' moniker, or even its nickname "Big Blue." Mutual fund investors can now verbalize the specific Strong fund's code, which identifies each individual fund, or simply call out the name of the fund they are invested in, Paul added.

Strong's system can accommodate most regional or foreign accents and can even learn as it goes what callers are trying to communicate. Where the system is unsure as to what command was given, the system's female voice will prompt the caller to clarify what he or she wants to do. It is even adept at understanding and interpreting commands spoken from cell phones where there is significant background noise, such as where callers are in airports, Paul said.

Strong hasn't gone over the edge with its technological quantum leap. The speech recognition program doesn't force callers into the technological abyss. It still allows callers to let their fingers do the walking and alternatively physically enter information that might be judged "sensitive." Investors already told Strong that they would rather key in than say out loud certain required data, such as where specific dollar amounts or social security numbers are involved, Paul said.

Hi-Tech Versus High Touch

Moreover, for those callers who prefer to connect with a real, live person, a proprietary team of Strong's Series 7 customer service representatives is still available around the clock, 365 days of the year, said Jamie Wanless, Director of Strong's Client Relationship Team. For Strong the second week in January has traditionally been the busiest phone season, although IRA contribution time can also mean extra phone calls. Despite the availability of any new technology, Strong has found about 50% of all calls from retail customers are serviced by its IVR said Wanless. "We've seen that plateau. Our clients have gotten to a place where they're comfortable using a certain level of technology," he added.

Although Wanless declined to specify how much Strong has invested in the new speech recognition system, he noted that the cost is roughly equivalent to Strong's old system.

But Wanless admits there were some surprises along the way. For one, he was amazed at the initial complexity of such a system. "It's amazing just how complicated and meticulous it can be to create a voice response system in order to maximize the client's experience," Wanless concedes.

But he also was pleasantly surprised. He expected that when the speech recognition phone system was installed that there would be numerous concerns among Strong investors. That never happened, Wanless said. For users who haven't experienced natural language systems before, the system can take them through a demo, and even suggests a demo tour if they pause for too long at any juncture.

Copyright 2003 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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