Ever since Domino's Pizza franchisee Dan Lewis hired Mia to work the phones at his two Danville, Calif., pizza stores, some of the town's high school boys have dropped by to meet her.
Problem is, they can't see Mia; she works inside a box bolted to the shop wall, and Lewis can't let her out.
"It's pretty funny when they come here asking, 'Where's Mia?' " said Lewis. "They don't even know she's not real until we tell them."
Fact is, Mia is real, just not flesh-and-bones real. Mia is the name of the female voice heard on Lewis' OrderStream call management "box" manufactured by Jacent Technologies. The OrderStream cyber-siren directs Domino's callers to order via voice prompts instead of human order takers. The process is known technically as integrated voice recognition (IVR).
Amazingly, the digital dame speaks with convincing smoothness, not the choppy, robotic cadence of most computerized voices.
"They've added a feature that even makes it sound like she's typing on a keyboard," Lewis added. "The voice inflection makes it sound like it's a real person. I don't know how they do it, but it's pretty neat."
Like a lot of women, Mia's thoughtful, and remembers every item of every repeat caller's past orders. She's also generous to the point of becoming a telephonic trollop when she encourages and rewards those who use her.
"The voice says, 'You can get free food by ordering through me,' " said Trevor Stout, president of Jacent, based in Santa Clara, Calif. Domino's frequency reward program "gives them an incentive to use the system."
IVR systems like OrderStream aren't new. Airlines, for example, have used the technology for years to streamline customer service.
They are new to the pizza industry, however, and some predict they'll remain that way for a while.
"The reality is the pizza industry isn't ready for it because of the personal care operators want to give their customers," said Rick Stanbridge, co-founder of Fidelity Communications Corp., in Novi, Mich. Fidelity manufactures and services CallWorks call management systems. "Most people still want to talk to a live person when they place the order."
Call managers like CallWorks and OrderStream, Stanbridge said, are most effective for marketing to customers and upselling orders. When the machine picks up the line, callers hear that day's specials and are offered side items while their call is directed to human order takers on a first-come, first-served basis.
Since it's integrated with the POS system, the call manager also identifies the customer by phone number, recalls that customer's order history and displays it on the POS screen in front of the order taker. In theory a call manager will reduce customer hang-ups, speed up order times and remove the challenge of upselling under the pressure of a Friday rush. In actuality, that's pretty much what happens, operators say.
"When people call, if they hear a voice that sounds panicked, they immediately start wondering how long it's going to take to get their pizza," said Lewis. "If they hear a calm voice, they feel everything is under control. That's one big benefit of these things."
Rob Scheiper simply likes the benefit of knowing which customer is next in line.
"When you've got six to eight lines at every store and you're really busy, you put somebody on hold and they sometimes get lost because all you see is those phone lines lit up," said Schieper, one of three partners in Mar Pizza, which franchises 20 Domino's stores in California. Fourteen of his stores have CallWorks units. "Now all we do is look at a screen on the wall to see who's next."
Operators say call managers also ease tension in the store. Order takers can handle more calls because the system
Domino's Pizza franchisee Dan Lewis with his OrderStream call manager.
Perhaps most importantly, call managers are effective upselling tools. They suggest only the items they're prompted to sell, and, say manufacturers, customers don't feel as pressured to buy when a machine is doing the selling.
Sort of in the middle of those options is Mia, who Lewis said has done a bang up-job selling side items since 'she' started a few months ago.
"Our check average was $17.90, but now it's $21," he said. "You can really tell it's working in the rush because we've got all kinds of breadsticks and wings coming out of the oven."
Scheiper said his call manager's reporting capability is an invaluable asset. Some of the data it provides includes a store's average transaction time, call hold time and the number of dropped calls (customer hang-ups because of busy signals or hold times), as well as whether the machine's marketing messages are yielding sales. All that information can be downloaded via modem from the store of his choice and to his office in Paramount, Calif.
Using the data, he can apply a grading system to judge certain aspects of store performance.
"The grade of service number we look for is 85 percent or higher," Scheiper began. "So it makes it pretty easy to spot problems if you have a lot of stores in the 80s and then one in the 60s. Now you can go to that store and ask what the problem is."
Stanbridge points to another benefit: customer call-backs. As soon as a delivery driver pulls an order ticket from the POS printer on her way out the door, the CallWorks unit lets the customer know the pizza is on the way.
"It calls the customer back with a cutesy sort of message that says the order has left the store and would you please leave the porch light on," he said. "That reduces the customer's anxiety level because now they're not wondering when the order is going to get there."
Where call managers are increasingly helpful is in their ability to serve Spanish-speaking customers. U.S. Census Bureau surveys found that Hispanics have surpassed African-Americans in number, and the agency predicts they could represent as much as 25 percent of the country's population in just 20 years.
Now call managers provide marketing messages recorded
"Voice prompts add to processing times because you have to take steps to make sure everything is correct, like pressing 1 to confirm a step. I think you run into problems when you give customers automation instead of service. You have to provide automation that enhances service, which I don't think IVR really does just yet."
*Rick Stanbridge Co-founder, Fidelity Communications
"I don't speak any Spanish at all, so if I answered the phone, I was unable to take an order," said Scheiper. "Now we can see on the screen that we need to get someone who can speak Spanish to take the order."
Currently, 320 CallWorks units feature bilingual messages, and Jacent hopes to teach Mia to habla Español later this year.
"We're shooting for the third or fourth quarter of this year," said Shawn Cunningham, vice president of marketing for Jacent. "Certainly in some locations, such as Southern California, this is a front-burner issue."
Count the cyber-cost
Both Stanbridge and Jacent's Stout agree that call managers are significant investments. CallWorks units sold without IVR cost $3,400 (but can be leased at $139 per month). Sold with IVR, the price rises to $5,400.
IVR is standard on OrderStream, and that pushes the purchase cost up to $9,500 (lease price is $350 per month). Currently the product, which was released in March, is in use at just a handful of Domino's franchise stores, though Stout said the unit is slated for use at some major pizza chains very soon. By contrast, CallWorks units are operating in some 2,100 pizza stores.
And the bucks don't stop there. On top of the purchase price comes monthly maintenance fees for things like software upgrades, and if necessary, professionally recorded messages that can be downloaded to each unit via modem. Those fees range from $50 to $125 per month.
The high cost of IVR, Stanbridge said, is another reason why the pizza industry isn't ready for such technology. At some point, operators need to draw the line on expenses and seriously calculate their return on investment.
Scheiper said he chose not to test an OrderStream unit because of the cost, but though Lewis agreed it was pricey, he said it "is definitely worth it if you have the money."
Jacent's Stout concurred.
"The ROI is pretty significant for a box like this," he said. "We've calculated a break-even analysis based on this: If you can stop just two dropped calls a day with this, you can recoup the cost of this unit pretty quickly."
Stanbridge said he's not so certain that will happen; he believes IVR slows transaction times slightly. In essence, he said, operators are back in the same situation they were before, dealing with transaction times approaching two minutes. That's about one minute too long, he said.
"Voice prompts add to processing times because you have to take steps to make sure everything is correct, like pressing 1 to confirm a step," he said. "I think you run into problems when you give customers automation instead of service. You have to provide automation that enhances service, which I don't think IVR really does just yet."