I heard it again the other day, this time when I called my cell-phone company: "This call is being recorded for quality-assurance purposes." It's the same automated declaration from practically every customer-service number these days, at banks, insurers, and airlines. By now, I figure, I've made as many recordings as the late great Johnny Cash—except, no one's actually listening, right?
Well, no. Wrong. Chances are, someone is paying attention.
Until recently, call recording was mostly anecdotal, offering haphazard glimpses into the interactions between service reps and customers. Some companies recorded calls manually; others paid supervisors to listen in or programmed call-recording software to collect a random sample. Those techniques didn't provide much in the way of meaningful insight into customer behavior or service quality—and they were time-consuming to boot.
Enter companies like NICE Systems (www.nice.com), founded 18 years ago by four Israeli army intelligence officers. Today, NICE claims to provide call-recording software to 67 of the Fortune 100 companies and says its customer-service centers capture about 40 million calls a day. That's 463 orders, reservations, and complaints every second.
Now that calls can be digitized, compressed, and stored on a hard drive, more companies are opting for "total recording," says Bar Veinstein, director of innovative technology at NICE's U.S. office in Rutherford, New Jersey. The latest version of NICE's software performs "word spotting," scanning sound files for predetermined words or phrases, such as "cancel my order" or the names of competitors. It can even search for anger in callers' or agents' voices by examining the pitch, speed, and other criteria, much as a lie detector would.
Because conversations can be analyzed as easily as a spreadsheet, they represent a potential gold mine of information about why customers buy (or why not), which competitors are stealing customers, and which agents defuse irritated callers. The system identifies the most valuable customer interactions, says Chris Files, quality development facilitator at FedEx Custom Critical, which is about to employ word spotting. One of the search terms she plans to use is "wow." "Why not?" she asks. "We want to track the customer experience."
Files expects to be able to analyze a day's worth of calls—thousands of them—the following morning, a task that otherwise would take her four-person team weeks to complete. The software generates reports organized by transaction, cancellation, time spent on hold, and anger—210 criteria in all. "This way we can be proactive," says Files. "We can follow up with customers right away to resolve the situation."
So call recording, its proponents argue, isn't a spooky invasion of privacy anymore. It's a consumer-friendly technology. "My advice is to make sure your call is recorded," says Ian Ehrenberg, vice president of sales and marketing for the Americas at NICE. Yes—demand that your call be recorded for quality-assurance purposes! "If a company doesn't do what it promises, you've got it on the record."
No doubt, 40 million callers a day are relieved.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.