Having trouble understanding that person at the end of the support line you’ve called to get some customer service? A Silicon Valley company wants to make those kinds of problems a thing of the past.
The company, Sanas, makes software that uses artificial intelligence to remove the accents in the speech of non-native, or even native, English speakers and output a more standard version of the language. “The program does phonetic-based speech synthesis in real-time,” one of the firm’s founders, Sharath Keshava Narayana, told TechNewsWorld.
In addition, the voice characteristics remain the same even after the accent is removed. The voice output by the software sounds the same as the voice input, only the accent has been removed so, for example, the sex of the speaker is preserved.
“What we’re doing is allowing agents to maintain their identity, maintain their accents, without the need to change it,” said Sanas CEO Maxim Serebryakov.
“The call center market is enormous. It’s 4% of India’s GDP, 14% of the Philippine’s GDP,” he told TechNewsWorld. “We’re not talking about a few thousand people getting discriminated against on a daily basis because of their cultural identity. We’re talking about millions and millions of people that get treated differently because of the way they sound.”
“The concept is sound. If they can make it work, it’s a big deal,” observed Jack E. Gold, founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, an IT advisory company in Northborough, Mass.
“It can make companies more efficient and more effective and more responsive to consumers,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Gold explained that locals tend to better understand local dialects and associate with them better. “Even talking to someone with a heavy Southern accent sometimes gives me pause,” said the Massachusetts resident. “It affects the effectiveness of the call center if you can be much more like me.”
“Many call center workers are based overseas and customers could easily have trouble understanding what they’re saying in the case of strong accents,” John Harmon, a senior analyst with Coresight Research, a global advisory and research firm specializing in retail and technology, told TechNewsWorld.
“But the same could be true even for regional U.S. accents,” he added.
However, Taylor Goucher, COO of Connext Global Solutions, an outsourcing company in Honolulu, discounted accents as a source of customer frustration.
“It is well known that companies outsource call center support to different countries and rural parts of the United States,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The larger issue is the right selection of employees for the position and the training and processes that are in place to make them successful.”
Harmon noted that consumers can have a negative reaction when they encounter a support person with a foreign accent at the other end of a support line. “A caller could feel that a company is not taking customer support seriously because it’s finding a cheaper solution by outsourcing service to an overseas call center,” he said.
“Also,” he added, “some customers might feel that someone overseas might be less able to help them.”
Goucher cited a study taken by Zendesk in 2011 that showed customer satisfaction dropping from 79% to 58% when a call center was moved outside the United States. “Everyone that I know has likely had a poor customer experience at some point in their lives with an agent that they couldn’t understand,” he observed.
He noted that the biggest problem with bad customer experience is the lack of support systems, training, and management oversight in the call center.
“Frequently we see companies move call centers offshore just to have the phone answered.” he said. “In customer service, answering the phone isn’t the most important part, it’s what happens after.”
“Agents, accent or no accent, will be able to provide winning customer experiences if they are the right person for the role, have the right training, and have the right tools to solve customer problems,” he added. “Saying the accent is the problem is an easy out.”
Bias Against Accents
When a customer support person doesn’t have the tools to solve a problem, it can be a huge frustration to a customer, Gold observed. “If I call somebody, I want my problem solved, and I don’t want to go through 88 steps to get there,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me because I just spent a whole bunch of money with your company.”
“Anything that can be done to get over that hump faster has multiple benefits,” he continued. “From the consumer perspective, there’s the benefit of not pissing me off. In addition, if I can get through faster, it means the service person can spend less time with me and can handle more calls. And if I can hone in on the problem better, I won’t have to call again about it.”
Regardless of whether a customer support person has the tools they need to provide top-notch service, accents can influence a caller’s response to the person at the other end of a phone line.
“A customer could become upset at having to decode a foreign accent,” Harmon said. “There is also the stereotype that some U.S. accents sound uneducated, and a customer could feel like that the service provider is getting by with cheaper support.”
“In some cases, I think the biggest pre-existing bias is that if the agent has an accent, they aren’t going to be able to solve my problem,” Goucher added.
Choice for Voice
Serebryakov noted that one of the goals of Sanas is to provide people with choice when it comes to their voice. “When we post photos on Instagram, we can use filters to represent ourselves however we want to,” he explained. “But you don’t have a similar medium for voice. Our mission at Sanas is to provide that kind of choice.”
Although Sanas has initially targeted call centers for its technology, there are other areas that hold potential for it.
“One of the biggest uses we see for the technology is in enterprise communication,” Narayana said. “We got a call from Samsung saying they’ve got 70,000 engineers in Korea who interact with engineers in the U.S., and they don’t talk at team meetings because they’re scared how they’ll be interpreted. That’s the next use case we want to solve.”
The technology also has potential in gaming, health care, telemedicine, and education, he added.
Sanas on June 22 announced a $32 million Series A, boasting the largest Series A round in history for a speech technology company.