Microsoft Just Raised the Bar

As Big Tech continues to set the rules on customer experience, Microsoft just put another big item on insurers' technology to-do list: speech recognition.

While insurance has been steadily improving communications with customers through gradual adoption of chatbots, Microsoft just put another big item on the industry's technology to-do list: speech recognition.

Microsoft's announcement on Monday that it is buying speech-recognition firm Nuance for $16 billion means that insurers will have to confront the technology -- likely sooner than they had expected. Big Tech has already been getting consumers accustomed to having their speech understood by devices, mostly via Siri and Alexa, and the Microsoft purchase of Nuance will push speech recognition into many business transactions. All industries, including insurance, will have to react as Big Tech again raises the bar for what constitutes a reasonable customer experience.

So, it's worth spending a minute thinking about what speech recognition will -- and won't -- change in insurance.

My bet, having followed the development of a host of fundamental changes in technology for decades now, is that speech recognition mostly will mean the end of the sorts of decision trees that customers now have to go through to get to the right spot in a call center or a corporation.

At the moment, such automated answering systems generally ask callers to respond to a series of options by saying a number or pressing a key. The systems may then ask callers to repeat the process, maybe even multiple times, as a decision tree gradually narrows down the options and determines where to direct the call.

With a system based on speech recognition, customers will simply begin a conversation by saying something like, "I'm calling to check on a payment," or, "I'd like to check on the status of my claim." The artificial intelligence may be able to respond immediately, if it can match the caller's phone number with the appropriate records. If not, the AI can then ask a question or two and respond to simple questions on its own or transfer the call to the right human representative for a more extended conversation.

If a caller wants to speak Spanish, he'll just start talking in Spanish rather than having to oprima numero dos.

Doing away with these automated menus won't materially change any caller's life, but they are enough of an annoyance that insurers and big agencies will need to get rid of them as soon as speech recognition allows. As the world continues to move toward self-service, the industry will need to keep expanding the capabilities of the speech-recognition systems to handle more complex queries and more extended conversations -- along the lines of the progression occurring with chatbots.

The change to speech recognition will be a heavy lift. It not only requires mastering the speech recognition technology but tying it into back-end computer systems and integrating voice queries with customer interactions via text message and via the website or app. Training and staffing of agents will need to change, too.

The shift won't have to happen right away. Nuance (which developed the initial speech-recognition technology for Siri) has a heavy focus on healthcare, so Microsoft won't immediately be raising customer expectations across all industries. But the change to speech recognition will take long enough and be disruptive enough that insurance companies should develop road maps soon.

Now, I've seen some project even more sweeping changes because of speech recognition, but the claims are overwrought. Yes, speaking is often more convenient than typing, but speech has its limitations. If I'm traveling alone and looking for a hotel or a place to eat, I might ask Siri to give me some options, but I'm going to pull off to the side of the road to scroll through them and investigate. And if I'm going to need to read about such relatively simple options, imagine how much more important reading is for all but the simplest queries related to insurance.

Speech won't become the primary interface for the internet any time soon, despite what some have written and despite great improvement in the technology.

But speech recognition still marks a significant change, and Big Tech is once again setting rules for customer experience that the rest of us will have to abide by.

Stay safe.


P.S. Here are the six articles I'd like to highlight from the past week:

The Future of AI in Insurance

Organizations hoping to deploy artificial intelligence have to know what problems they’re solving — no vague questions allowed.

10 Ways to Prepare for the Hard Market

In soft markets, differentiation can be challenging. But hard markets present an opportunity for the best insurance professionals to stand apart.

How to Deliver the ROI From AI

A technology has emerged that can harness AI across all departments of a business like never before. It's called a feature store.

Benchmarks, Analytics Post-COVID

The pandemic introduced several variables that question the validity of actuarial models and benchmarks.

The Key to the Future of Mobility

Telematics can help solve some of the insurance industry's oldest problems, but, first, insurers must win the client's trust.

Time to Start Over on Secondary Towing

The current system for secondary towing is excruciating. The only reasonable solution is to start over from scratch.

Paul Carroll

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Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership.

He is also co-author of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the Future We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050 and Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993.

Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.


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