For the estimated 70 million deaf people in the world, customer service over the phone poses a significant challenge. This is how Italian Pedius helps
Even in the age of instant messaging, the classic phone call is still king in customer service. While platforms like chats and SMS can work fine with friends, most contact with businesses is still conducted over the phone. More importantly, it is the model that call centers use for interacting with customers, making it essential for many of the less frequent yet often critical communications that people have with companies.
For most folks, this remains a relatively convenient way to get things done, and helps the service provider engage with their customers on a more personal level.
There is one group though for whom this model continues to pose a significant challenge to getting even some of the most basic tasks done: the estimated 70 million deaf people and others with hearing impairments.
Call centers are unlikely to make the necessary changes any time soon as doing so can entail costly integrations of systems, and including a TTY machine and operator is generally not a viable option.
In looking to find workable solutions for this problem, an Italian company called Pedius based out of Espoo in Finland may have found an answer with their newest app, which is available on Android and iOS.
Founded in late 2013 by CEO Lorenzo Di Ciaccio, CTO Stefano La Cesa, and their Lead Developer Alessandro Gaeta, Di Ciaccio tells Geektime that the idea for the app came when his deaf friend Gabriele was in an accident. Gabriele could not call for an ambulance or a tow truck since neither were equipped to help the deaf.
So far, they have received €410,000 in seed funding from TIM Ventures and Embed Capital and Sistema Investimenti in December 2014, which along with an additional grant, gives the Pedius team a war chest of €435,000 to work with moving forward.
Pedius is a voice-to-text and text-to-voice service that is fully automated, negating the need to have human interpreters in place to facilitate communication for the hearing impaired community. When a deaf person uses the app to make a call, they are able to write out their message, and the person on the other end will hear it via a spoken voice message. When they receive the call, the hearing person will first be played a message explaining that “This call is made via Pedius, a phone service for deaf people,” explaining the computerized voice. Conversely, when a call comes in, the user will see the call come up as text.
Opening up an untapped market
The target market for the service is split between the B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) audiences. While users can call each other with the app, call centers have been a prime focus thus far, with an emphasis on driver assistance providers like Axa as well as banks. BNP’s affiliate BNL has implemented Pedius, having found that their provision of security and privacy met with the bank’s standards policy. The company is currently waiting to receive ISO 27001 certification for their information security standards, which significantly open them up to an even wider audience. One of their first partnerships was in their native Italy with Telecom Italia (TIM).
When a call center receives the call from a Pedius user, it is directed to an employee that has been trained on how to work with the system and the deaf community. They say that this is ideal for companies since they do not need to bring in expensive equipment in order to serve their customers.
On the other side are the B2C users that are starting to take advantage of the service. Di Ciaccio, who met with Geektime at the Vertical health accelerator in Espoo, explains that originally they had wanted to set up the user app as a free service, relying on the business from the call centers to pay the bills.
However they found a surprising response from the community, when they heard from users that they wanted to pay for the service. What they said was that receiving a free service felt condescending, and that paying for its use made them not feel like people in need.
The app is free to download and users have 20 free minutes per month. The two paid options are the 100 minute Premium package for $5, and the Pedius Unlimited that goes for $30 a year.
Is this a sound product?
Geektime reached out to the community for feedback on the idea. One person responded that, “I think it’s a really great idea and I’ve always wanted a way to avoid phone calls and have people text me instead — whether it’s friends or the delivery guy — so I think there’s a lot of potential.”
That said, she noted that she was worried that some people might hang up on her after hearing the recorded message. She also took issue with the app identifying that the app was for deaf folks, saying that, “It’s a bit too much personal information in a way. I don’t need the tow truck guy or the restaurant or whatever to know my whole life story.”
The app itself performed well during a live test while Geektime was in Finland. When presented with the “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” test, its only mistake came in mixing up a “would” for one of the “wood”s, which is pretty impressive speech recognition, especially when compared with Siri’s own capabilities.
They are competing with RogerVoice, a French company that also offers a voice-to-text service. At a glance, it seems that RogerVoice is focused more on the B2C market, with no real indicators that they are looking at the call centers like Pedius has. RogerVoice’s plans run monthly on a similar rate, for the monthly contract, but then they charge €20 a month for the unlimited, which works out to be far more expensive when compared with the Pedius plan of $30 for the year.
Neither Pedius nor RogerVoice allow for emergency calls, likely due to it being a VoIP service. Di Ciaccio says that since they have partnered with AXA Assistance, a leading European road assistance company, their users can use the app call for help through that service. Perhaps the change necessary for them to handle emergency calls needs to come from the call center side of the equation, but there is really no excuse for these institutions not to have upgraded to handle text and VoIP options.
One of the concerns that has come up is over the app’s ability to recognize speech accurately. For the time being, their current version does this pretty well. This should be even less of an issue when it comes to working with the call centers since the person on the end of the line will already be used to many of the mistakes that could occur, although most of the issues will be on the voice-to-text side, if at all.
Pedius is only active in a limited number of countries — including the U.S., Canada, UK, Ireland, Italy, France, Spain, Australia and New Zealand — but are likely to expand to more as they grow.
On the face of it, this is a very exciting service that has the potential to make life just that much easier for people in the deaf community. As they slowly but surely branch out into the call centers and publicize that this is now an option, hopefully it will lead to more innovations to make communication more accessible.