Voice biometrics adoption and call center demand increase during lockdown, Pindrop CEO says

Remote authentication keeps the world working: a Biometric Update interview series
Voice biometrics adoption and call center demand increase during lockdown, Pindrop CEO says

For companies in some industries, including tech, working from home has long been an option for many workers. For other sectors, like the call centers who make up Pindrop’s voice and behavioral biometrics customers, the challenge is radically different. Pindrop CEO Vijay Balasubramanian says in an interview his company has heard “crazy stories” about the attempts by these businesses to get remote workforces up and running.

The company’s IVR customers have experienced call volume increases of 140 percent on average due to the pandemic, but the agent channel was simply unable to handle more calls at first. This is where fraudsters attack, socially engineering agents. Fraud volumes in this channel have gone up, but roughly within a standard deviation, Balasubramanian says.

The shift has meant some significant changes for voice biometrics and fraud in the voice channel, however. A six percent increase is not major, “but the tactics have definitely changed,” Balasubramanian notes.

The reason call volumes to agents did not increase at first is that the number of seats call centers were able to get functioning from home was limited, so in some cases call volumes handled actually dropped at first. Wait times spiked, however, with calls during the week of March 16 averaging over an hour, according to Pindrop customer data. Once they were able to bring more agents online, and buy more seats, those call volumes began to increase.

Because of the need for security, call center traffic must be routed through VPNs, and many call centers were only able to fit 30 percent of their agents into the VPN capacity they had. Many Pindrop customers are up to 80 percent of their agents now, but few have reached 100 percent.

Those agents are in many cases trying to deliver critical services to people, such as those stranded abroad who need to apply a travel note to a credit card. Once such a notice is applied, most fraud checks are bypassed. This creates an opportunity for fraudsters who have scripts adapted to the situation, according to Balasubramanian.

“Agents are hired because of their empathy,” he points out. One tactic call centers have adopted is telling agents to stick to the script. Others have taken more drastic measures.

“They’ve actually roped in their fraud investigators to serve as call center agents so any time a Pindrop high risk alert comes, they’re actually routing the call directly to the more advanced agent or person who’s more perceptive of risk,” says Balasubramanian.

Biometrics are another tool that can help. Balasubramanian says Pindrop has observed an increase in customers taking up voice biometrics, with the number of people using the technology when offered it by agents rising from 70 percent to 79 percent.

“More customers are taking it up, because they’re calling more often, and they’re avoiding all of the questions,” Balasubramanian explains.

Some call center agents may forget to offer or deprioritize biometric enrollment under pressure and in a new environment. Call centers still asking customers to enroll can shave a minute off the call time, and then handle the surge in call volume better due to better authentication.

“Rather than ease up on the demands you have to say ‘hey, this is important,’” Balasubramanian argues. “People who are communicating better to their remote contact center agents are actually finding that they are able to handle the call volumes without additional seats. So there are a lot of interesting dynamics happening.”

Along with that time savings, which is felt by both the call center and the end user, passive voice biometrics have the advantage of less friction, as people do not have to be asked to repeat a phrase repeatedly.

“The perception is always that security is a pain,” Balasubramanian observes. “But this is one of those rare situations where security actually makes life easier. The fact is that people don’t immediately perceive that until they experience it.”

Enrolling is a different experience with passive than active voice biometrics, avoiding the need to have the customer repeat a phrase. They simply consent, and the next time they call, the experience is different. With so many repeat calls, especially to services like brokerages that handle rapidly changing situations, the difference in time and aggravation can accumulate.

Balasubramanian sees the potential for a virtuous cycle to drive further adoption when the lockdowns are over. “People are going to start talking about it, and adoption is going to start growing because of that,” he says.

From that perspective, work from home requirements could fuel a move up the adoption curve from early adopters to the early majority. Once they sign up, they begin to look for the technology elsewhere, and then majority join in.

Furthermore, those call center customers seeing efficiency gains may put in place stronger policies to encourage their users to enroll in the aftermath.

“No-one’s thinking about biometrics until they fix their infrastructure,” according to Balasubramanian. “But once you’ve done that, helping your customers get through cues quicker is going to help you enhance security, help you improve operational efficiency in crazy ways, and ultimately leave behind an experience that will seem like the experience of the future, and people will want it everywhere.”

Prindrop has also experienced a dramatic spike in traffic to its website from search engines, and early indicators of increased interest in the market, so end users, existing customers, and soon new customers could all push the adoption of passive biometric technologies in the voice channel towards ubiquity.

“Crazy times sometimes create breakaway moments for certain technologies,” Balasubramanian muses. “I think this is biometrics’ breakaway moment.”

Read more from this interview series

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Biometrics are enabling trust for access control and fraud prevention during the pandemic and resulting social change, and the industry impact could be major and lasting.

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Behavioral biometrics and continuous authentication advance as business adapts to remote everything

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