Relationship Marketing: 'Persona' grata

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Jenni McDermott is friendly, happy and fun to hang out with.

At least that's what Yahoo! by Phone callers say about the person who answers when they call 1-800-MY-YAHOO to access e-mail, voicemail or news, stocks, sports and weather information.

But Jenni is not a person at all. She is a "persona," or voice-enabled technology developed by Nuance, a company that, like SpeechWorks, IBM Corp. and others, provides speech recognition and text-to-speech software for marketers looking to extend their brands to the phone.

As relationship marketing and customer service become increasingly important retention tools, marketers-strapped with stagnant or shrinking ad budgets-are trading in touch-tone systems or impersonal, robotic voices for virtual personas. "The idea is that we want to help companies extend their own brand," said Wally Brill, director of persona design and production at Nuance.

To that end, Nuance creates personas based on customer demographics and focus groups, as well as tailored to the specific tasks the callers will need to accomplish on the phone. In addition to Jenni McDermott-created specifically for Yahoo!-Nuance's standard personas include "David Southerland," a CEO of a Midwest insurance firm and "Reed Johnston," a surfer dude-turned novelist who reads sports updates to Yahoo! callers.

"We are basically inventing a character," Mr. Brill said, adding that the persona taking credit-card applications over the phone for Wells Fargo, one of Nuance's clients, is more businesslike than the fun-loving, cheerful Jenni McDermott. "It's got to be appropriate," Mr. Brill added.

"It delivers a great ROI in a very short time frame, plus it gives you some improved customer satisfaction," said Tom LaCentra, VP-director of customer service at Wells Fargo, which switched from a touch-tone system to a "30-something phone banker, professional, trustworthy, calm" persona from Nuance for its credit-card division.

Customer satisfaction is a marketing imperative, said Mark Plakias, senior VP-communications and infrastructure practice at Kelsey Group, an independent market research and consulting company that tracks technology and media. He added that the current economic environment also puts cost-cutting as a primary goal, and estimates the average annual savings to companies is $1 million.

This year companies will spend more than $700 million on voice-enabled software and hardware alone, according to Mr. Plakias. He estimates that figure will rise to $2.2 billion by 2006.

Since replacing Yahoo! by Phone's touch-tone system with Nuance's technology and personas in February, areas such as weather and finance have gotten more use. "Users are able to access their tasks faster and better than before," said Madhu Yarlagadda, director of Yahoo! Everywhere, which extends Yahoo! services to devices including phones and personal digital assistants. "And it has increased retention as well as the number of users."

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