Automating the Call-Center Application for Xbox Customer Support
Technical Case Study
Published: August 2007
The Microsoft Xbox product team wanted to improve the experience of the call-center help line for Xbox customers. In addition to increasing the overall level of call-center efficiency, the team wanted to increase the productivity of call-center agents and reduce support costs. The existing solution, which used a voice-activated menu to route calls, had many performance issues and was not meeting the team's business needs. Microsoft Information Technology (Microsoft IT), along with a team of internal and external developers, created a customized application built on Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 Speech Server, Microsoft ASP.NET, Microsoft SQL Server 2005, and Microsoft Visual Studio® 2005. This application, an in-production beta, has already resulted in automated problem resolution, improved call containment, and cost savings.
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Products & Technologies
The Xbox team at Microsoft needed to improve the rate of call containment in the Xbox call center. It also wanted a new solution that would reduce the number of calls that live agents handle.
By working with external and internal developers, the Xbox team developed and deployed a new automated call-center application based on Speech Server and other Microsoft technologies.
Since the Xbox video game console was introduced in late 2001, customers have called a toll-free support number for technical assistance for the original Xbox and Microsoft Xbox 360 products. A call prompter application provided by the organization's telephony provider processed these Xbox customer support calls. This application had been built on an older platform and featured Dual Tone Multiple Frequency (DTMF) signaling. This technology is used for telephone signaling over the telephone line in the voice-frequency band to the call-switching center. By using a DTMF-based application, the solution offered callers separate menus for the original and Xbox 360 products. Similar to many basic call prompters, the application transferred callers to specific areas of Xbox support based on a caller's response to a voice-activated menu. Callers simply pressed touch-tone phone digits to start the process.
However, this application was not effective in giving Xbox customers the optimal customer service experience. For example, the solution's basic recorded prompts featured a dull, generic voice.
Another problem was that the application did not give users any control, in the form of self-service features, to help easily and quickly direct them to a live agent. The Xbox team wanted to find an automated solution that would efficiently route each customer call to the appropriate agent based on console version, type of problem, and other variables.
"The application was very low-tech, and not at all innovative or successful at directing callers to the right agent," says Tom Martin, a senior solutions manager in the customer support organization. "It used very basic prompts to get a customer to an agent. Microsoft IT wanted to improve the overall Xbox customer experience with this application."
Call containment was another factor that Microsoft IT was not satisfied with. Call containment refers to the number of calls coming into the application minus the number going out. For example, if the application receives 100 calls and transfers 88 of those calls to agents, the containment rate is 12 percent. The rate that the Xbox team saw was much lower than 12 percent through the existing application. A lower call-containment rate equates to a greater expenditure on customer support.
The Xbox and Microsoft IT teams sought to decrease the amount of manual operator dependency on the number of daily calls received. For example, many Xbox customer calls were basic problems with easy solutions, such as inquiries about flashing red lights on the Xbox console. "That type of problem doesn't need a lot of discussion," says Martin. "That is a two-minute call that could be easily solved with automated instructions. Unfortunately, our call-center agents were handling a lot of simple calls like that, and they were wasting their time."
Cost was a factor as well. "It's more expensive to have a live agent field a customer call than it is to allow that caller to solve the problem on their own through the Web," Martin adds. In addition, Microsoft IT discovered that making simple changes to the application was costly and technically difficult.
Microsoft IT, along with representatives from the Xbox team, realized that if customer calls could somehow be grouped by topic, those calls could potentially be automated. For example, if customers were calling the system to pay a bill, an automated Interactive Voice Response (IVR) interface could be built to guide them through the payment process. Such a system was attractive to the teams, which realized that the existing call-center solution was not meeting business needs.
In late 2006, Microsoft IT resolved to build its own customized call-center application. The team wanted to build an automated application that would improve the customer experience while increasing the overall call containment rate. To accomplish that, it realized that an IVR platform that used advanced speech functionality would be the best solution.
Because Microsoft IT wanted the application to be entirely based on Microsoft products and technologies, it quickly decided on Office Communications Server 2007 Speech Server as the main technology for the new call-center solution. Speech Server is an IVR platform that uses Microsoft speech technology and combines Web technologies, speech-processing services, and telephony capabilities in an integrated system. Speech Server runs on the Windows Server® 2003 operating system and performs speech recognition and synthesis for applications that can be accessed via telephone, cell phone, or mobile device. The platform can be used to develop telephony-based DTMF applications or speech-enabled telephony applications.
"Choosing Speech Server made sense, because it's an internal platform, which we knew would help us save money on development," says Peter Mann, a group program manager in Microsoft IT. "We knew that Speech Server could help us create an application that would provide a more interactive customer experience and give us the ability to build more advanced self-help options than we had in the past."
Tools and Features
Speech Server contains a range of development tools and advanced speech features. These include:
- Integrated development tools. Speech Server contains a complete set of tools that is fully integrated into the Visual Studio 2005 development system. These tools reduce the complexity and cost of developing and deploying speech applications. Developers can create applications in standards-based Web languages such as VoiceXML 2.x and Speech Application Language Tags (SALT), as well as on the Microsoft .NET Framework, either in managed code or by using Windows® Workflow Foundation.
- All-in-one runtime. Speech Server is an integrated all-in-one runtime application
- A Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony subsystem.
- A Microsoft .NET��based application runtime environment that hosts VoiceXML and SALT browsers and a Windows Workflow Foundation hosting environment.
- Speech engine services with Microsoft speech recognition and speech synthesis technologies, along with full touch-tone support.
- Speech recognition. Speech Server contains speech recognition algorithms, wireless modeling, state-of-the-art grammar handling, multiple language support, and pre-built grammar and application controls. The application also supports small and large grammar files, including files that contain millions of words.
- Text-to-speech (TTS) engine. Speech Server includes a TTS engine, which converts normal language text into speech. In addition, the application includes a Microsoft engine for playing pre-recorded Wave (WAV) file format prompts.
- Conversational Understanding. By using the new Conversational Understanding feature in Speech Server, callers can use normal conversational speech when calling. Because the meaning of what they say is clearly understood by natural language understanding, these customers have an improved overall experience with the call center.
- Speech tuning capability. Speech Server contains advanced tuning and analysis tools.
- Data warehousing and reporting. Speech Server features data warehouse��building capabilities, via SQL Server 2005 Integration Services.
The Xbox team was particularly interested in the speech recognition and Conversational Understanding features of the Speech Server platform. "Those were the main things we knew would make the application successful in terms of an innovative customer experience," says Geoff Lowe, a director in the customer support organization.
Building the Development Team
Because the product would be a beta application, Microsoft IT knew that it would need technical support and project management from the Speech Server team. According to Marc Lauzon, a program manager on the Speech Server team, this meant that his team would have to work closely with Microsoft IT on developing the product. "We became a central liaison between the various parties involved in the development phase," he says. "That included providing some design advice, development guidance, and technical support."
Additionally, because the IVR field is considered a specialized industry, it was paramount that the development team also featured developers experienced in this technology. To that end, the IT team met with the Speech Server team to find technology partners. By using the ability to successfully implement Speech Server as the primary criterion, the teams reduced the list to two vendors: Gold Systems, a Boulder, Colorado��based software development company that specializes in telephone applications that use IVR, TTS, and speech recognition solutions; and Vail Systems, a leading provider of IP telephony platform technology based in Deerfield, Illinois. In addition to their IVR experience, both vendors had specific technical knowledge about Speech Server.
Cost was another factor in the decision to hire the two vendors. The Xbox team wanted to provide around-the-clock hosting services for the finished application, but hosting such support internally would require a certain budget. The Xbox team chose Vail Systems to host and operate the call-center application, because the team knew that the company could perform those duties in a cost-effective way and had the right amount of product knowledge and experience.
In early June 2006, the Xbox team, the Microsoft IT team, the Speech Server team, Gold Systems, and Vail Systems met and formally kicked off the project, with the goal of having the new solution ready in time for the end of the year. The teams��which composed the application development team for the project��quickly agreed on project responsibilities, and it planned daily conference calls and other regular communications to make sure that deadlines were met.
One of the challenges at the outset was that the new call-center application would be a customer-facing beta version, which is not standard protocol for a new product. The Speech Server team's involvement in the project became a critical factor in making sure that this aspect of the project went smoothly.
Creating the Application
Gold Systems wrote the code for the application. Developers relied primarily on Windows Workflow Foundation, the same programming model, engine, and toolset that was used to develop Speech Server. Windows Workflow Foundation is based on the .NET Framework and is also fully integrated into the Visual Studio 2005 development system.
Speech Server contains its own integrated tools that help reduce the complexity and costs associated with creating speech applications. For example, it contains the Microsoft Speech Application Software Development Kit, a set of application authoring tools that enabled the developers to quickly add speech interfaces to the application. By using these tools, which are integrated into Visual Studio 2005, the developers were able to add spoken command functionality.
The following high-level diagram illustrates the Speech Server components and the relationships between them as applied to the run-time stage of application deployment. This diagram is a consolidated version of the actual architecture that Microsoft IT and the partner teams created. As this diagram indicates, Microsoft IT is running a distributed deployment where components such as Speech Server, Microsoft Operations Manager 2005, SQL Server 2005, and a Web server run on separate computers.
Figure 1 contains the following acronyms:
- A natural, conversational-speech user interface (with DTMF options still available).
- Targeted Web deflection messages.
- Normalized amplitude.
- New caller self-service options.
- More user control options.
- A simple Web user interface that gives developers the ability to perform quick, easy application updates.
The first phase of the project was deployed as an in-production beta application in October 2006, approximately five months after the vendor teams and Microsoft teams first met. To date, the application has fielded several million calls. "Since the application has been up and running, there have been zero Speech Server product support issues to speak of," says Lauzon. "For an application that is managing so many calls each month, that's something we're definitely excited about."
Thus far, the application has resulted in automated resolution of customer issues, increased call containment, and cost savings in the areas of support and management for the Xbox team.
Automated Issue Resolution
Built as an integrated application through Speech Server, ASP.NET, SQL Server 2005, and Visual Studio 2005, the new Xbox call center now resolves customer issues within a fully automated environment. Because the application features a unique electronic persona, it can provide easy-to-use support to customers who call for assistance.
As a result, Xbox call-center agents no longer waste their time handling simple, often redundant customer questions. Instead, the newly automated application can efficiently handle those questions.
Increased Call Containment
When the development team first set out to build the new, automated Xbox application, one of its tasks was to improve the overall call containment rate. The original objective was to deflect five percent of customer calls.
However, since its release, the new application has actually deflected close to 20 percent of calls, most of which have been technical support calls. Overall, the rate of containment has tripled compared to the previous platform.
Because the Xbox call-center application was developed on the Microsoft Speech Server platform, the developers were able to take advantage of existing internal products and technologies that already integrate with Speech Server. In addition, the Speech Server platform itself allowed for flexibility in designing the application. "Speech Server provides the ability to quickly build a speech-enabled application," says Lowe. "It gave us the ability to do development in many different ways, using advanced technologies and features. The Speech Server platform made it simple for us to create and deploy a large-scale IVR platform in a short amount of time, which meant we got a fast return on investment."
The application's ability to decrease the overall number of agent-handled calls also generated cost savings. In addition, the development team's automation of the application has improved call segmentation. Fewer call transfers occur between agents, because the application efficiently segments calls by topic��so a caller immediately goes to the right agent for that particular problem. Because of the way in which calls are routed through the system, the lowest-cost call center always handles a particular customer request. "Different call centers are more expensive than others," says Martin. "The Xbox credit card processing center, for example, is less expensive for us to operate than other centers. We can easily direct calls by expertise and subject area, and can save money in the process."
Because of these advantages, the Xbox team has reduced support and management costs on the new IVR platform by 30 percent, which equates to hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. The team expects to save $1 million in total costs by the end of the first year of the application's use.
New Features in Next Phase
The second phase of the Xbox call-center application is slated for release in the fall of 2007. Before that release, an application update will offer callers new features such as automated access to console repair status.
Although the fall release will retain the same automated customer assistance and caller segmentation functionality of the current application, it will include several important new features. One of those is a customer identification feature that will enable automated registration of Xbox consoles. Based on registration information, the application will automatically ask a registered Xbox user for console identification, and then walk that customer through a security process to validate data such as social security information.
Another new feature is a process called Screen Pop, which will shorten the length of a customer call. When a call is transferred, that caller's updated reason for calling will be automatically passed to that agent, so that the agent can address a customer's problem or query without needing to ask about it. "This will tie the data collected in the system to the agent's desktop," says Lowe. "It will be another way to improve agent productivity by shortening call time, which is actually advantageous for both agents and customers."
Other new features planned for inclusion in the next release are further conversational understanding capabilities, new updates and revisions to the application's troubleshooting area, and technology that allows repeat customers' calls to be routed to an agent more quickly. These features are all part of the overall strategy for the application, which is to prevent agents from handling simple, time-consuming phone transactions through automation.
New languages are also planned for the next release, including U.K. English, Australian English, and French Canadian. In addition, the application will likely be integrated with Office Communications Server 2007.
The Xbox call-center application is only the beginning of automated Microsoft platforms. In the future, Microsoft expects all of its internal voice-response systems to run on Speech Server��based applications.
The Microsoft Xbox team wanted to find a new call-center solution, because the existing application was not meeting the needs of Xbox customers or the Xbox internal team. The Xbox team sought a solution that would improve productivity for call-center agents while also helping to reduce support costs.
In late 2006, the Xbox team formed a development group that included two outside vendors, Microsoft IT, and the Microsoft Speech Server team. Together, these teams created a new customized call-center application built on the Speech Server platform. This integrated platform performs speech recognition for applications that are accessed by telephone, cell phone, or mobile device.
The new automated IVR application has resulted in better, faster resolution of customer problems, in addition to an improvement in the call containment rate. In addition, overall operating costs have dropped significantly.
For More Information
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Gold Systems is a unified communications specialist that develops and deploys voice-driven communications solutions that utilize IVR, text-to-speech, and speech recognition. The company's offerings include packaged applications and customized contact center solutions built on Microsoft Speech Server and Office Communications Server technology, unified messaging deployment and telephony interfaces, and password management for telephone-based self-service. Gold Systems is a Microsoft Gold Certified Managed Partner. Contact Gold Systems by calling (303) 447-2774 and saying "Sales," or sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vail Systems builds, manages, and hosts enhanced telephony and IVR solutions by taking advantage of the latest speech recognition, computer-telephony integration (CTI), and IP telephony technologies. Vail lowers the total cost of ownership by hosting solutions delivered on highly available and fully redundant platforms. Vail also develops standards-based applications to deliver a high quality caller experience. Contact Vail at (800) 360-VAIL or go to www.vailsys.com.
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