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Analyze this -- Anger management software

Go ahead, lose your cool. But be sure to speak distinctly. Speech recognition software is designed to bring customer service to a whole new level.

Wisconsin Physicians Services, a not-for-profit health care insurer, fields about 4 million calls a year from customers. And about a year ago, the company really started listening to them.

The Madison, Wis.-based company uses sophisticated speech recognition software to highlight words that can indicate trouble on the line -- like confused and cancel. The company can also monitor, in real time, telltale changes in the pitch, volume and timbre of a customer's voice. Hostile tones and rising anger are likely to be flagged.

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"Fortunately for us, it doesn't happen often but when it does, that is where we can really set ourselves apart," said Sharon Whitwam, vice president of member services at WPS.

The callers identified by the software are "almost immediately" sent to a call center supervisor, who listens and follows up. "That makes such an impression, she explained: "Wow, this company cared that much to call me back to say 'What can we help you with.' "

The speech analytics software is from NICE Systems Ltd., an Israeli firm that has been providing call-recording services to many of the world's largest companies since 1986. In late 2004, the company launched NICE Perform, which is currently used by about 100 companies, said Eyal Danon, vice president of global marketing.

The emotion algorithm, which takes a base line reading at the start of the call and measures any deviation, similar to a lie detector, has attracted a lot of press attention.

But early adopter companies are using the software's word-spotting capabilities to identify trends, train employees and even shape business strategy. FedEx, for example, triggered the system to flag conversations in which customers said the word, "Wow," and made agents listen to the interaction and learn why the customer was excited.

WPS's Whitwam said the word-spotting function is the "real power." The organization is putting NICE to the test right now, she said, as senior citizen customers enroll in the government's new (and notoriously confusing) Medicare prescription drug program. She said WPS is using word spotting (i.e. "I don't understand.") to flag calls and determine whether problems can be fixed with better staff training or improved marketing materials.

"I get a report for the Medicare prescription drug program that actually has links to the phone calls, so I can go right in and listen to those calls," Whitwam said.

There are repercussions for agents. WPS has long recorded all of its customer service calls. But Whitwam said she was initially wary of how employees would react to a tool that monitors their every word. The company has about 90 agents at two centers.

"I knew that if this was going to be successful, it would have to be embraced by our people as something that helps us do our jobs and not as creating a watchdog environment," Whitwam said.

The tool is gaining acceptance. About a year ago, Whitman said, irate customers were complaining because a provider was incorrectly coding claims that were being rejected. The call center agents were frustrated. "Through the use of word spotting, we were able to hone in on the problem, go to the provider and get the coding fixed. Our staff was appreciative of that," Whitwam said.

Seema Lall, an industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan Inc. in San Antonio, said the speech analytics market is still in an early adopter stage, as companies see the potential of the technology as a business intelligence tool. "Once translated, this data can be shared though the enterprise, and if accurately acted upon, can potentially increase performance and profitability," Lall said in an e-mail.

Competing vendors in the speech analytics space include NICE, Verint Systems Inc. in Melville, N.Y., Envision Telephony Inc. in Seattle and Witness Systems Inc. in Roswell, Ga. Lall identified NICE as having the most comprehensive product and Verint as a close second.

At WPS, the speech analytics tools are yielding business value, Whitwam said. The organization recently picked up a new customer, a large municipality. Recognizing that changing carriers can be traumatic for employers, WPS quickly built some word-spotting capabilities specific to this city's transition.

"Very early on, right after we started processing claims, we discovered in one phone call a benefits setup problem that would have caused us to pay a lot of claims incorrectly," Whitwam said. "I can't put a price tag on that."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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