Calgary tech start-up booms despite the bust

A Calgary software developer is helping revolutionize automated voice messaging and says its next step is working emotion into the automation.

Company uses voice actors from all over the world

Wall of awards outside the Calgary offices of Splice Software. The tech company has been named one of the country's fastest growing companies for five years running. (Judy Aldous)

Tara Kelly, founder and CEO of Splice Software knows when an automated phone message sounds like a computer, with the words awkwardly edited together, you are likely to hang up.

"It's very unnatural. And our brain recognizes — oh this is a computer talking to me. And your level of trust and any emotional commitment goes down dramatically."

And that is bad for business.

Through her software company based in southwest Calgary, Kelly is in the business of improving the quality of those voice messages.

Recording a series of phrases

Kelly starts by getting personalized information like names and hobbies, using data from her clients. 

Using voice actors from all over the world, Kelly has them record messages in a series of phrases, rather than word by word.

Using Splice software, the company can then almost instantaneously assemble those phrases to make personalized messages.

Calgary's Splice Software developed personalized automated messages like this one for the insurance industry. 0:21

Her biggest clients are insurance companies and retail outfits like La-Z-Boy Furniture that want quality automated services to encourage clients to do their interactions online without needing to talk to a real human.

Real people are expensive.

Double to triple digit growth

There's obviously a big demand for the product as Splice is one of the fastest growing companies in Canada, peaking at 800 per cent growth in 2008.

Kelly says her revenues are in the "$5 million range" though she imagines them reaching $30 million in the not-too-distant future.

"We are growing at double digits, not triple digits anymore, but we think there will be a return to triple digit growth with the onset of virtual agent."

Automated with feeling

Virtual agent conversations are the next frontier in automated voice messaging, and it's a rich vein that Kelly is already started to mine.

It's not an easy concept to grasp, so Kelly often uses the Hollywood movie Her as a way of explaining..

"He [actor Joaquin Phoenix] falls in love with his operating system. What are the odds? But the movie worked because it felt real," said Kelly. 

Kelly tries to recreate that 'real feeling' by inserting an emotional quality into the voice options in her automated messages.

For example, she has her actors record the same message using three different tones of voice.

If the client trying to access online services appears to be angry through his voice or the messages he's sending, then he gets the 'angry voice' message, which is a less-perky sounding voice.

If the client appears pleased with the service he's receiving online, he gets the 'happy voice.'

Splice Software has developed personalized voice messages for insurance companies like this one. 0:12

Tara Kelly says emotionally appropriate responses help customer relations.

"When you're overly happy, an angry person will take that as patronizing. It will further heighten it. I love the example of saying when you're having a fight 'would you just calm down?' Oh my gosh, when  someone tells me to calm down, you amp that up. I think that is what is happening with computers. That happy, cheerful, brand-perfect automated voice is not right for your customers, especially when you're starting to get distance and agitation."

These virtual agent conversations are still in the demo phase but Kelly is confident that will change.

"You're starting to see a very large world appetite for a product that we have very little competition in."

Downturn? What downturn? 

"The downturn is really irrelevant to our business. Just like when it booms it's irrelevant to our business. When the rest of the world is very excited about $100 oil, it just means maybe we pay more for our staff here in Calgary."

The low dollar is another matter. 

Because Kelly says 70 per cent of her revenue is generated in the United States, she thrives when the dollar doesn't.

About the Author

Judy Aldous

CBC Radio

Judy Aldous is an award-winning reporter and producer who has worked across the country for CBC Radio. She's been working with CBC Calgary since 2002 and is currently the host of alberta@noon.


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