Call Center Voice Biometrics Is Coming

By Israel Ronn

The future is upon us, and there’s no time to waste. The call center sector, dynamic by definition, is changing again as new legislation for banking, medical, and homeland security regulations make it necessary for call centers to move quickly now to find highly accurate, proven, low-cost solutions for higher levels of ID authentication. Whether the shift is met proactively or comes as a sudden shock is up to the shrewd operations manager.

This is a good time for call centers, which are experiencing unprecedented growth. According to a 2005 study by IDC, the customer care services market are forecast to reach $83.5 billion by 2009, with a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of12.7%. Offshore outsourcing is also on the rise, according to a 2006 strategy report by Datamonitor, which states that the worldwide market for offshore, outsourced contact center services will grow at a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.4% to over 300,000 offshore, outsourced agent positions by 2010. So, the worldwide market for contact centers, help desks, customer care, customer relations management (CRM), and support centers is growing steadily and rapidly.

Concurrently, however, new laws are coming into effect that could impede this projected growth. The financial impact of implementation on call center operations managers is significant – but more on that later. First, let’s look at some of the laws.

Designed to protect individuals from identity theft, the overall intention of these laws is good. There is the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) in the United States (also referred to as the Anti Money-Laundering Law), along with recent anti-money laundering amendments to the BSA, including provisions for the US Patriot Act. Then there is the US Patriot Act itself, whose Financial Anti-Terrorism Act deals with both with money laundering and/or other suspicious transactions. Other laws include the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (FISMA); the Financial Modernization Act of 1999, also known as the “Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act” (GLBA), which includes provisions to protect consumers’ personal financial information held by financial institutions; and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), designed to protect the privacy of personal health information.

All these new regulations require higher levels of authentication / verification – and time is of the essence. For example, by the end of 2008, US banks must provide three levels of authentication / verification in all over-network transactions. By necessity, call centers must begin sourcing out ways to comply with these new regulations while still keeping costs low. The problem: unless they increase security, call centers won’t be allowed to expand, but expansion can’t happen without ongoing cost-efficiency measures because compliance is expensive. For example, some experts believe the cost of implementing HIPAA will exceed Y2K preparedness costs.

Up until now, identification / recognition methods such as Challenge Questions and PIN codes were good enough. A system would ask, “Who is this?” and receive an answer that could be used to fetch a record of the person, compare the answer with a database, and find a match.

Higher levels of authentication / verification, however, must answer the question, “Is this person who he/she claims to be?” using three factors: something the person knows, something the person has, and something the person is. That last factor can only be answered by biometrics, defined as “technologies for measuring and analyzing a person’s physiological or behavioral characteristics, such as fingerprints, irises, voice patterns, facial patterns, and hand measurements.” Each technology has its pluses and minuses: about 5% of the population doesn’t have readable fingerprints 2; iris recognition technology (IRT) requires enrollees to hold still in a certain spot; hand geometry readers, while unlike fingerprints are not affected by dirty hands, have a lower rate of accuracy, and almost all require special scanning devices. 3 Of all the options, voice biometrics is the least invasive, is the only technology that can be applied over phone lines, and is most readily available because you always have your voice with you.

In the call center world, voice biometrics is the ideal solution: it provides higher levels of authentication / verification, but keeps costs low by increasing process automation. Today, most call centers ask for personal identification numbers (PIN) numbers and, if another level of security is required, ask a “challenge question.” But many people could know the answer to a challenge question. Someone’s brother or sister, for instance, could easily answer questions about birth date, father’s birthplace, mother’s maiden name, and the like. Plus, it takes twenty to forty seconds to answer a challenge question, while a voice biometrics system can recognize an individual voiceprint within three to seven seconds. Time is money, and a large call center can save tens of thousands of dollars every month simply by eliminating this process. Voice biometrics can also be used to eliminate the time-consuming “password reset” process. With information input automatically, without the involvement of call center operators, data control levels rise, thus increasing quality of service, reducing wait time, and, in turn, providing a rapid return on investment (ROI).

The vision of voice biometrics’ rapid entry into call centers is backed up by market projections. According to the recent Frost & Sullivan report, “World Voice Verification Biometrics Markets,” the segment known as “transactional authentication” is expected to become the largest market for voice verification in the long term. Transactional authentication includes applications like caller verification, caller authentication, online banking transactions, e-commerce transactions, and network banking. It accounted for $9.8 million in revenue in 2004 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 50.2 percent over the forecast period, to reach $169.2 million in revenue in 2011. In total, according to Frost & Sullivan, the world voice verification biometrics market generated $31.6 million in 2004 and is expected to amount to $533.7 million in 2011, growing at a CAGR of 49.8 percent from 2004 to 2011.

An influx in post-9/11 venture investments in security technologies has brought about a quantum leap in voice biometrics. According to the Frost & Sullivan research, new voice solutions are performing far beyond current market offerings; one “moderately secured solution” reaching a False Acceptance Rate (FAR) of 170% over current market offerings and a False Rejection Rate (FRR) of 315%, while FAR for its “highly secured solution” was in the infinite range of percentages. Moreover, the newer technologies can adapt to voiceprint changes (a stuffy nose, for example), can supportinput over landlines, VoIP, and have even overcome cellular phone distortion.

With these problems solved, voice biometrics will become commonplace. People forget PIN numbers, lose magnetic swipe cards, and scanners still aren’t standard home computer gear – but with voice biometrics, all that’s needed is a landline phone, a mobile phone, or a microphone, and a call center operations manager ready to meet the challenges of the new regulations. One thing is certain: deadlines are looming, and noncompliance is not an option.

Israel Ronn is CEO of CellMax Systems Ltd., a developer and provider of innovative voice biometric technology solutions to the call center market.

[From Connection Magazine March 2007]