EchoStar: Talk to the Robot

This fall, Rob Strickland will mobilize almost two dozen androids.

No, he’s not a mad scientist: The CIO of EchoStar Communications Corp. is aiming to use the robots to close the gap with his chief rival, DirecTV, on automated customer service—and save upward of $18 million a year.

EchoStar, with $8.4 billion in sales last year, operates the Dish Network satellite TV service for 12.2 million subscribers. Its call-center operations comprise 9,000 agents at 11 centers in the U.S., India and the Philippines.

When Strickland joined the Englewood, Colo.-based company as chief information officer in May 2005, he found that the call centers weren’t as efficient as they could have been. In fact, until last year, EchoStar had no automated call features for its tech support line, according to Strickland. Callers were connected to the next available agent, even if they had a simple question, like how to order a pay-per-view program.

The two other big areas handled by the call centers—billing and sales—had some automation, but used a 7-year-old system that prompted callers with keypad menus (e.g., “press 1 for your account balance”).

All told, Strickland says, EchoStar last year handled about 32% of its 135 million customer calls using automated systems. And that’s a lower rate than its key competitor, DirecTV Group. DirecTV, which has 15 million subscribers and receives about 120 million calls per year into its customer service center, reports an “interactive voice-response containment rate”—the percentage of calls that are never transferred to an agent—of 39%, says spokesman Robert Mercer. (At press time, EchoStar and DirecTV were rumored to be in merger talks, according to published reports.)

Strickland was previously president of application monitoring software vendor Silas Technologies, now called VSR Networks, whose customers include EchoStar. Now, as EchoStar’s CIO, he saw room for improvement. “A 2% increase in automated call handling will result in about 1 million [fewer] calls to our agents,” he says.

His team added some basic routing features to the technical support line. But Strickland thought a voice-recognition system, to let customers navigate menus by talking, would have a bigger effect.

Do people really want to chat with a machine? Yes, says Strickland, because they can get what they want faster. For one thing, they’re not shy about interrupting a robot. “Customers want a well-defined voice application that’s more Web-like,” he says. DirecTV, incidentally, uses speech recognition for several customer service functions, including ordering pay-per-view shows.

Call Corral

In August 2005, EchoStar launched a project based on a speech-recognition system from Intervoice, running on 20 clustered Hewlett-Packard servers at four sites. The company spent $8.4 million on the project, the first phase of which was completed in January.

Initially, EchoStar introduced two key speech-recognition applications for tech support: one that helps customers program their Dish Network remote controls (for example, to control their TV sets), and another that provides answers to frequently asked questions, such as how to record a show on a digital video recorder.

Prerecorded prompts walk a customer through various configuration or troubleshooting tasks, the way a live agent would, asking if callers are ready to move to the next step (to which they reply “yes” or “no”). One change the EchoStar team made in the design stage of the project: The robot needed to wait longer—about 6 seconds—before asking if someone had completed a step; at first, the system piped up after 2 seconds.

With the new system, Strickland claims, the automated call-handling rate for technical support calls is now 15%. He estimates that the first phase of the project, which included a redesigned main menu, will offload 1.3 million calls per year from agents, saving $4.5 million.

A second phase, to go live by the end of this year, is supposed to provide additional voice-recognition applications for billing questions, changing service plans and assisting Dish Network field-service installers. EchoStar expects to have 23 applications running on the Intervoice system, including a program that greets callers with an open-ended question (“Welcome to EchoStar. How may I help you?”) and identifies keywords in their replies to route calls even faster.

Those additions, Strickland hopes, will drive the overall rate of automated call handling toward 40%. Projected total savings: $18 million per year, by reducing the number of call-center staff needed by 13%—about 1,200 agents—though Strickland notes the company will likely shift agents to support new products, such as its DishNow prepaid service. “It’s material for us to put this in place,” he says.

Yet, $18 million is just a blip on the overall budget, amounting to 0.5% of EchoStar’s $4 billion in subscriber-related expenses for 2005. Strickland, though, says the speech-recognition automation projects, besides saving some money, will also deliver better service, as measured on customer-satisfaction surveys.

Here, he’s got his eye on improving Dish Network’s standing relative to—once again—DirecTV. According to J.D. Power and Associates’ 2005 satellite and cable TV customer satisfaction study, Dish had a score of 708 out of 1,000 possible points, slightly lower than DirecTV’s 716 points.

“It’s not about avoiding the calls,” he says. “It’s about providing customers faster time to resolution.” Assuming, of course, EchoStar’s phone-bots are as efficient as Strickland predicts.