Forget passwords and PINs, memorable dates and card verification numbers. Advances in voice biometric technology have made accessing bank accounts through client service centres as simple as small talk.

Keeping track of the multiple passwords, PINs, memorable dates and other authentication details needed to gain remote access to accounts is one of modern life’s less appealing challenges. Not only are individuals expected to remember details for an ever-growing number of services – accessed via telephone, web or mobile apps – but the issue is compounded by the guidance from service providers and security experts that customers should maintain different sets of sign-ins for different accounts.

In some instances, though, that memory test has already become a thing of the past. Taking advantage of recent innovations in voice biometric technology, a handful of pioneering organisations are now providing secure access to their call centres by verifying the customer’s identity simply from the sound of their voice.

During the normal conversation at the start of any call, advanced voice biometric technology, such as FreeSpeech from Nuance Communications, checks the client’s voice against their stored “voiceprints”, returning a verification result to the service executive and – assuming it’s positive – allowing them to provide information and complete transactions within seconds.

Unlike earlier voice-based authentication, this new generation of technology is:

  • Passive and transparent
    The required voice verification data is acquired during the opening conversation between caller and service centre executive, eliminating the need for any cumbersome authentication questions.

  • Text-independent and freeform
    The client doesn’t have to state any specific words or phrases, a facet that may have previously led to concerns that a voice recording of an individual’s discrete speech could be used to fraudulently access an account.

  • Content, language and accent-independent
    The capturing of the client’s voiceprint is unrelated to the content of the conversation; rather, the closeness of a match to the stored print is determined by subtly unique characteristics such as vocal tract length and shape, pitch and speaking rate.

  • Non-intrusive when enrolling the client
    The system initially records one or two conversations, extracts the voice features that are distinctive to the client, automatically creates a reference voiceprint and stores it in a secure directory.

  • More secure
    By its very nature, the speaker’s biometric data is unique, making the technique more secure that any password-based or “challenge question” process.

Such transparent authentication is already proving highly effective for a select group of customer-focused early adopters.

Speak easy banking

Barclays Wealth and Investment Management, for example, was recently recognised for being the first organisation in the world to deploy a passive voice security service with the primary aim of transforming the customer service experience. Using the system, its International Banking customers are automatically verified as they speak with a service centre executive. Not only does that cut the authentication time by about 20 seconds but critically the approach enables service teams and relationship managers to focus on clients’ needs rather than the mechanics of authentication.

“Like every financial service organisation, we have a duty to protect the integrity of our client’s accounts,” says Matt Smallman who leads the Client Experience Strategy and Change team for Barclays Wealth and Investment Management. “But when both our clients and colleagues told us that these processes where getting in the way of meeting their needs we knew something had to be done.“

He continues: “We believe that when a client chooses to phone us, as opposed to using one of our self-service channels, they have made a choice to speak to another human being, not a computer, and that there is generally an urgent, complex or emotional component to their request that can only really be addressed by getting our systems and processes out of the way and empowering our people to resolve the issue.“

“Our voice security service is essential to delivering this vision as it enables our colleagues to really listen to our clients rather than be distracted by compulsory processes.”

The system has been in action at Barclays since mid-2012 and has certainly gained early endorsement from customers: in a recent poll, 93 per cent of client users scored Barclays at least 9 out of 10 for the speed, ease of use and security of voice authentication.

“We have some great examples of occasions when, because clients were using the voice security service, our service executives were able to concentrate on the underlying client need, as opposed to focusing on the security questions that needed to be asked. And so they were able to propose solutions that were far more effective and better value for the client,” says Smallman.

Analysts’ choice

Such innovation has also won Barclays some plaudits from independent observers. In late 2012, the authentication system was selected by a panel of contact centre industry experts for its Analysts’ Choice Award for Customer Service Innovation.

As one of the judges, Dan Miller, senior analyst at Opus Research, commented: “Barclays use of passive voice biometrics is unique in that it complements the live agent customer service experience and person-to-person interactions effortlessly. [It] lets its highly skilled representatives focus on handling the core purpose of each customer call.”

Such experts have historically highlighted a number of key factors that have undermined user acceptance of voice recognition, but which are now fading in importance. One is the ability to deal with background noise (such as a call from a crowded restaurant); another is when the caller’s voice is altered by something like a cold or a throat inflection. In such cases, when the recognition score may be lower than normal, the agent can simply revert to traditional verification layers.

One further concern is also evaporating. Many customers who may not have been exposed to the concept of computer-based voice recognition have being engaging with such technology much more frequently. Since the launch of the Siri voice interface on Apple iPhones in late 2011, and the extension of such technologies to other mobile devices, the use of voice recognition is now much more commonplace.

As a result of such developments, industry analysts like Miller estimate that the number of voiceprints stored worldwide will almost double over the next two years to reach 27 million in 2015. “Over time, banks, insurance companies, government agencies, telcos and retailers will find that strong, rapid authentication will enable them to serve their best, longest-standing customers in the most personal and efficient way,” says Miller. For some customers, that time has already come.