AFL deploys voice recognition to remain on top of the game

The Australian Football League (AFL) has partnered with Melbourne-based voice recognition company, Inference Communications, to keep on the top of the deluge of calls it receives from supporters during the season.

In the four-week period leading up to the Grand Final, for example, the AFL receives around 7000 phone calls from its 49,000 members and the public, with a barrage of queries about tickets and other aspects of the finals series.

Dealing with the influx of calls is a challenge for the AFL’s Membership Customer Service Centre representatives and a recent, unsuccessful trial of a push button phone selection system resulted in long queues, adding to the callers’ frustrations.

“We have an e-mail address on record for only about 50 percent of our membership base. So even though we actually do a lot of e-mail communication, we have a high percentage of older people on our database and others who may not have access to the Internet or [are not interested in] changing their behaviour to go and seek out that information,” said AFL manager of membership and ticketing, Darren Birch.

With thousands of members calling to clarify issues about matches and ticket purchases, Birch says the AFL “needed a seamless voice recognition solution, capable of identifying callers, the nature of their calls and the information they required.”

A year ago the AFL Service Centre began using voice recognition systems from Inference Communications, trialling one of their products in the lead-up to the 2007 Grand Final and then adding more services when they repeated the exercise in 2008.

The two products selected were a short-term information service for notifying callers about AFL finals’ games, ticket entitlements, broadcast details and event information and a “call steering” service which would steer callers to the most appropriate information, person or department. Both services ran 24/7, which meant that callers could receive information when it was convenient for them.

“One of the things which appealed to us was that it is database driven, and has a Web interface to it, enabling us to change information really quickly,” said Birch.

As an example, Birch highlighted the last game of the 2008 regular season, when St Kilda beat Essendon by 20 goals, causing the top eight team rankings to change dramatically. Birch said that the new voice recognition software enabled them to key in changes to the system and re-do messaging prompts in real time. Making changes via a Web interface meant the automated voice heard by callers immediately reflected the rapid changes to the finals’ games.

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The Inference Communications technology sits on a platform with hosting partner SmartSpeak, alleviating the need to invest in infrastructure traditionally required by voice recognition systems such as voice recognizers, vxml interpreters and text-to-speech engines.

“With SmartSpeak we can take an unlimited number of calls. About 80 percent of the calls we received [during the finals period] were able to go to an automated channel, so it’s changed the entire way that our members can access information,” said Birch.

Birch says efficient customer-facing systems are crucial for the unique clientele of the AFL’s Membership Customer Service Centre.

“Football is passionate and the supporters get anxious about missing out on information related to seeing their team play, so we need to quickly and efficiently supply the information they require, to provide the best possible service to our members,” said Birch.

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