January 31, 2001, 11:24 AM

How Office Depot's voice-recognition call center is harmonizing with its web site

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Office Depot will modify the system early this year to include what Office Depot is calling “Rapid-Fire Ordering.” That modification will incorporate the online frequent ordering list so callers who replenish the same order can do so as quickly by phone as they could online. Office Depot customers can use the web site to create frequently ordered lists and name those lists (such as new employee list). The rapid-fire program will allow a customer who already has an online list to order the “new employee list” by phone. The system will allow callers to edit the items and quantities of the list, as they can online. Office Depot also has expanded the system to handle larger orders. Office Depot had set the order limit to 50 items, but found that customers wanted to make larger phone orders. The system was expanded to handle 500 items per order.

The direct link between the speech-recognition system and Office Depot’s backend server was a key deciding factor for Office Depot when choosing the system. Helping to make the decision easier was Office Depot’s compatible infrastructure. Because the system was able to work with Office Depot’s existing hardware, there were no infrastructure costs, Jackowitz says.

Dewey Anderson, NetByTel’s CTO, says NetByTel houses all the system’s hardware. It’s the direct link to Office Depot’s servers that allows for the real-time inventorying. Office Depot bears none of the IT responsibility. It took Office Depot only 16 hours of technical effort to deploy the system. Office Depot already used a completely integrated backend system. Portions of the backend architecture were exposed so the speech-recognition system could talk to the servers as would a web browser. “This has really validated our own infrastructure,” Jackowitz says.

Paying for the system is directly tied to how often it works. NetByTel waived Office Depot’s up-front fee, which Avalone says can be as much as $500,000, in exchange for a pay-for-performance system. NetByTel gets a flat fee each time a call is completed-whether it’s a request for information or a purchase.

Jackowitz says using the speech-recognition system is about 85% cheaper per call than using a live operator. In the short term, this frees the call center to concentrate on customers who need personal attention. Down the road, the system will allow Office Depot to either reduce the call center staff or reallocate them to making out-going sales calls.

Jackowitz says the company would have never attempted automated ordering with its push-button prompt system because push-button systems can be unwieldy. Speech-recognized systems will not likely spell the death of conventional push-button prompt systems, Elliot says. But, because the technology is affordable, speech-recognition will increasingly replace the older systems.

With the telephone integrated to its web site, Office Depot is clearly hoping that the voice-recognition system will prove the old adage that talk is cheap.

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