Biometrics gets vocal

Biometrics technologies have made enormous advances in recent years.

Many airports already use finger-print or iris scanners to protect borders, and Google employs iris scanners to control access to its data centers.

But not all hardware-based biometrics implementations have been successful. The UK Border Agency spent £9 million on iris-recognition machines, only to discover that they do not work properly. It has now abandoned iris recognition.

In the cost-sensitive consumer market, biometrics faces particular challenges. Just below the keyboard on my laptop is a small knock-out panel where the designer thought the fingerprint reader would go. But the manufacturer had a last-minute change of heart and left the scanner out of the production spec, presumably to save costs.

Voice biometrics, because it is server-based, is potentially much better suited to mass-market applications as the end-users do not need any special hardware — all they need is their voice, in fact.

TD Waterhouse, the Canadian online broker, announced four years ago that it would start using voice biometrics to authenticate the identity of callers. The technology must work as its use has now been extended to TD Waterhouse’s UK arm, of which I am a customer.

So last month when I called TD Waterhouse, I was asked if I wanted to enrol in its Voice Print system.

The big selling point of Voice Print for customers is that it provides a faster and easier way to identify yourself as you do not need to memorize passwords. This is becoming a big issue as more customers interact with call centers using mobile phones and so are less likely to have their password to hand — even though we all know you are never supposed to write them down!

The advantage of voice biometrics for TD Waterhouse is that it frees the call center agent from the time-consuming and low-value task of repeatedly asking customers to respond to challenges such as third and fourth character from password, first line of address, date of birth and so on.

The TD Waterhouse Voice Print enrolment process is relatively quick and required me to repeat my account number five times, presumably to get an average reading of my voice print.

Once successfully enrolled, I can now get rapid access to an agent without having to go through the challenges.

I read recently that Turkcell, the Turkish mobile operator, has used voice biometrics to save 20 seconds on its customer identity verification process — with more than 4.2m customers, the cost savings quickly add up.

But I think the advantages are more than simple costs savings. Voice biometrics reduces the effort required by your customers to interact with your business in much the same way that natural language technologies do.

A customer who has not had to spend the first three minutes of their call answering security questions or going through successive IVR menus is much more likely to be predisposed to engage positively with the call center agent.

So think positively — and speak clearly!

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