Tom Darnell, Chief Operating Officer at IRIS Audio Technologies, sits down with Marcell and Greg to explore the overlooked aspect of audio quality and its key impacts on both employee and customer experience in our digital age.
The Importance of Audio
Much of our lives today are lived in a digital world. We create and consume a vast range of media and communications, most of which are augmented by our ears and their ability to hear. But do we actually stop to consider the impact of audio quality? After all, we listen to stuff all the time, so the impact is pretty large. This constant stream of stimulation is what causes the question to be overlooked since we tend to take audio for granted. In this episode, we explore why audio is actually far more influential to how we act, feel and buy than we think, and why audio quality may be essential to improving customer and employee experience in the majority of service industries.
One key finding from the whitepaper released by IRIS was that 69% of call centre agents claim background noise has a negative effect on their mental wellbeing. This staggering statistic, combined with the rest of their research, suggests that there is a deep, neurological link between what we listen to, and how our emotions and behaviour respond. Simply put, better audio quality can enable better moods, greater performance, and a higher value experience – in both the short and long term.
This article summarises podcast episode 86 “Audio Quality: An Overlooked Piece of the CX Puzzle” recorded by CX Insider. For more information, listen to the episode, or contact Tom on his LinkedIn profile.
Written by Marcell Debreceni
Full Episode Transcript
Tom: I actually feel quite sad for the day when we just plug our brains directly into the mainframe and never leave our house. One of my former bosses said to me, Before you ever created a great customer experience, you got to create a great employee experience. And it turned out that the front end of this guy’s car had been wiped out by a bus. How could you write a book on the learnings of Genghis Khan and deploy it to start-ups with butter on it?
Marcell: Hey everyone, welcome back to CX Insider with me, your host Marcell. Today we explore the crucial yet underlooked impacts of audio quality on the employee and customer experiences in our digital age. We’re joined by the CEO of Iris Audio Technologies, Tom Darnell, who kindly took the time to share these eye-opening insights. Now, if you want to find out more about Iris, check the links in the description. And if you like the podcast, why not subscribe to our YouTube channel for Insider’s Best Content or share the episode and leave a comment down below? By the way, this podcast is brought to you by ACF Technologies. Now let’s jump in. So hey Tom, thanks very much for coming on the podcast. A pleasure to have you. To start off, would you like to tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Tom: Yeah, thanks. A pleasure to be here. Good to see you guys again. And I’m Tom Darnell. I’m the chief operating officer at Iris Audio Technologies, and more commonly known at the moment as Iris Clarity, which is a voice isolation software for contact centres and a number of other enterprise use cases, audio comms for Formula One and NASCAR and IndyCar, which Formula One was our kind of origins back in lockdown? Yeah, I guess we’re a start-up moving to a scale-up and it’s exciting times for our business.
Marcell: Yeah, and you mentioned before that you’ve been kind of through a few brand reinventions. You want to tell us a bit about that and kind of the history of the company, how it’s come along?
Tom: Yeah, the company’s always been Iris. We started life in 2018. Jacobi Anstruther, who’s the CEO and founder, had this vision for an audio company that would revolutionize the way that we process audio as human beings. There’s a lot of science behind how our brains are neurologically active in that process of hearing audio, particularly in the live environment. We see a lot of brain activity in the live environment when we’re speaking. Now you can hear me. The sound waves are bouncing off all of these surfaces and arriving at your ears and your brain is heavily involved in processing that information. And Jacobi was building a business based on software around how we bring digital experiences more into the real world. And for an activation of that neurology on streamed audio or any digital audio, we worked with Goldsmiths University to prove that a scientist called Joydeep Bhattacharya and we started building a business. I joined him at the end of 2018 to help shape that. We packaged that software, which is called Iris engage into a headphone product, the Iris Flow headphones. And we launched those at the start of 2020. And within 3 or 4 weeks we were plunged into the deepest, darkest depths of a COVID pandemic.
Tom: But in that moment was actually the realization of the immediate need that we needed to solve for people as it relates to audio. And that is communication is its productivity, its focus when we’re on a video call or any other format is suboptimal because of the environment that we see ourselves in. We call this the uncontrollable environment. So how can we bring control to that? And it starts by removing background noise. So we pivoted our engineers to solve this problem of background noise. So you are left with nothing but the focal point, which is obviously the voice allowing us to have more productive, more focused conversations with better outcomes. And you know, as we looked at the market, what market really stood out to us as being super important for this was contact centres and 15 million agents globally. How can we improve the experience not just for the customer at the other end, but also the agent themselves? And you know, the technology is all built off of AI and bi-directional, so you need it at the call centre end for both participants to benefit.
Marcell: And it sounds like Iris was essentially really in the right place at the right time to solve those problems. And obviously, the way people use and consume digital audio has changed a lot in the last few years, and that has also changed the importance of such technologies. Could you maybe go into a bit about how that’s changed and why that has really boosted the need for your software?
Tom: First of all, in terms of just music, let’s look at that. We went from a situation where you had an incredible amount of data on a big plastic disc called an LP or a record, and then we crushed that down to a CD 50 meg or something like that. And then and then we started to, to stream music and, you know, that was something like ten factors smaller in size. So essentially you lose the fidelity, you lose the detail. And that’s the same with, you know, anything that’s recorded and streamed the level of fidelity and therefore our connected nature to that audio stream is diminished. So you’ve got that dynamic. Then you’ve got the dynamic of virtual working. Virtual communications actually feel quite sad for the day where we just plug our brains directly into the mainframe and never leave our house. But no doubt, you know, COVID accelerated that virtual way of working. Particularly towards us, and it showed companies that they can be more productive in that virtual setting. So rather than shy away from that, how can technology enable those kinds of work patterns to be more productive and more like a team working in one place for one common goal? And you know, that starts with audio. If we lose the video stream on a teams or a zoom call, you know, you can still be productive because you can hear the other person. In fact, many people join those calls and they turn the video off because they don’t want to be seen anyway.
Tom: But if we lose the audio, there’s not much work that’s going to get done. So how can we elevate that experience as it relates to audio? Because in our experience, audio is often the thing that’s left till the end and the thing that’s not focused on so much, which is a shame because that’s where the value is. The value is in the content of the words that we are speaking, and that’s where we’re relaying ideas and information to a better outcome. So, so no doubt the world isn’t going to turn around again now. You know, we’re not going to go back to that, you know, physical all the time. People are going to be on less flights. They’re going to be working in this way. In terms of the contact centre world, I think you probably all experienced this when you are speaking to a company now, you’ve got automation chat bots and they tend to handle some of the more simplistic queries when voice steps in which is still there. And actually the number of call centre operatives started to grow again through the pandemic, 15 million seats globally today and something like 18 million within five years. They tend to be the more complex, higher value, higher pain point queries. Therefore, we should match that level of premium nature of the conversation with the experience. In terms of the audio. And again, that’s where we really see an opportunity in that market. In particular call and contact centres.
Marcell: Tom has made it clear that the role of audio in our lives is not only extremely important but often profoundly overlooked. Why is that? As we take a closer look at the deep connection between human experience in the modern age and the consumption of audio, let’s consider the current landscape groundbreaking software like Iris Clarity is specifically tackling this issue, yet still their efforts are unknown by many. What sets them apart from the competition? Like the built-in solutions from teams or Zoom? And what value does their vision provide?
Tom: As you entered into the pandemic? There weren’t solutions, you know, now, you know, teams has got that Zoom has got that Google meets has got that. We’re not trying to compete with them. Iris Clarity is is a desktop application for Mac and for Windows that does do that same or similar function. Our own internal research testing in comparison shows that we do it more effectively than those solutions. But, you know, that’s not our battle to go against. That’s not where we win. We win by being a software that seamlessly integrates with the plethora of UX and platforms in the cloud where you can immediately resolve background noise as a challenge in your contact centre environment. And that goes for whether you’re still working at home or you’re working back in the office. If you’re working back in the office, you know, you might have 100 people around you that are all doing similar calls and you can all relate to that experience where you speak to a call centre and it’s just you can barely hear what they’re saying. By the way, it’s the same for the agent because you’re not in a predictable location, right? You’re out and about, daily life going on around you.
Tom: You might be taking a call from your insurance firm or you’re in a coffee shop or just walking down the street or around your family and noises there. So we can fundamentally transform that experience for both sides of the call. And we’ve proven that that reduces average handling time. So there’s an immediate cost benefit to the company deploying this. It improves the employee experience, it reduces the neurological fatigue. They might be doing tens, if not into a hundred calls a day. It improves the customer experience. So you get a better CSAT score for those that are familiar with the buzzwords in the industry. And ultimately that’s going to lead to better commercial outcomes. Yeah, our game is not to compete with big tech, it’s to provide a solution that retrofits essentially and works seamlessly with the array of VoIP and cloud services that are out there. But important use cases like blue light and emergency situation clarity of communication is vitally important, and by removing some of that background noise, you can really get to a better outcome.
Marcell: So quality of audio really just transcends any layer of customer experience. Exactly.
Greg: And I think that’s a big part of our world, isn’t it? Yeah, Every aspect of our day-to-day life, whether it’s phone calls and, you know, online calls with colleagues or like you say, interacting with brands, to me it sort of feels like the last few years it’s just been brought to the surface, like it really wasn’t a thing we even considered before. But now it’s absolutely fundamental. Like we need to look at the future trajectory of how important it is in our day-to-day lives, but also for brands.
Marcell: Speaking of which, our sponsor, ACF Technologies, specialises in providing software solutions that enable things like video appointments, queue management and booking systems to run seamlessly being tailored to your company so you can focus on the more important stuff like audio. Follow the link in the description to discover more about what ACF could do to transform your CX.
Greg: A lot of our listeners and viewers of the podcast are all in positions where you know they’re responsible for either shaping the customer experience in the immediate or also looking at future strategies. And what’s your thoughts on like the general trajectory of the importance of audio? Is it going to continue? It’s obviously gone through a massive growth phase in the last few years. Do you think it’s going to continue in that trajectory?
Tom: Well, look. We’re talking on a podcast. Yeah. So, you know, and I know that I know that this will go out on YouTube, but it will go out on the various platforms similar to our podcast that you kindly join. Greg And you know, audio is so vital, but the key insight before clarity was even a conceptualized product, the bedrock of what we built this company around was audio not being an afterthought, but being the primary thought. When you’re building propositions that are around communication, entertainment, whatever it might be. And it’s quite a shame really, that we almost took a backwards step. Why is it that television screens went from, you know, fuzzy things to 8-K definition, yet the audio is like coming out of some rubbish speakers in the side of the thing? It doesn’t make any sense. You know, that’s the vision for the company and what we truly believe in. I mean, I don’t know how deep you want to go on it, but also audio is, it can be harnessed for our mental wellbeing. You know, there’s a lot of research into how music activates centres of the brain that are under-stimulated by other media, and music really lights us up and all audio does, particularly in the live environment. It’s why we drift off on those online meetings, right? Because it’s just like, oh, you know, just a drone in the background. I think people can all relate to in the lockdown when we were like on six hours of those things a day, that’s fatiguing. That’s really fatiguing. And a lot of that is to do with the fact that the audio you’re not in the room, you’re not present as a human being.
Greg: So I think that’s continued as well because like not sure about you guys, but like at least a couple of days of my working week are at home and most of that is on calls. So I think it’s even though we have started to return to office working and stuff like that, if you take the work, work setting, a lot of it’s still six, seven hours a day at least on calls. So, you know, it’s needed in that respect, I’d say to reduce the stress.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, there’s so many techniques and we’ve talked a lot about it with some great experts around hybrid working and virtual working, you know, the importance of taking a regular break, removing yourself from that environment, taking a walk, maybe listening to some sort of wellbeing soundtrack. You know, there’s a lot of science. This is just a fascinating area around how we can activate our neurology through different types of audio. And we were fortunate enough to do some fantastic research with Goldsmiths University that explored our technology. But you know, broader than that is about how, you know, audio can really be a source of wellbeing. And but it all starts with making sure you’ve got a decent set of headphones. You know, if you’re going to be listening to that stuff all day, don’t have a crackly speaker on you like fix that stuff, you know, because, because otherwise, you know, you just, you just subjecting your, your brain to some really poor quality stuff you wouldn’t put… Well you might put poor quality food in your body, but you know, you don’t want to pollute your ears and your brain inwardly with a poor audio experience. It will fatigue you much more rapidly.
Marcell: Iris Audio Technologies recently released a whitepaper on the role of audio in a digital world in which their vastness of research findings broke down. The problem and its major impacts on both employee and customer experience. Let’s discuss some of their key stat takeaways and how they provide clarity to our understanding of audio.
Tom: You know, it really pins on three killer stats. 89% of agents find this in the call centre space. Find background noise impacts their ability to perform. So let’s look at that in the moment. Okay. So if it’s hard to hear the customer that’s going to obviously make your ability to do a good job diminish. But let’s look at the knock-on effect. If that’s 100 times every single day, that’s going to affect your ability to really enjoy your job. If you don’t feel like you can focus. I mean, I couldn’t do that job fundamentally could not do that job, have a massive appreciation for people that do. And what we see as another stat that knocks on from that is 69% of agents tell us that background noise is actually affecting their mental wellbeing. Let’s unpackage that a second. This is an industry that has 40% plus employee churn and I bet you there are. You know, hopefully this sparks some inspiration for companies to dig in. But I know mental wellbeing has been such a rightfully a massive focus for us, more so in recent times and it needs to continue to be. But you know, let’s look at the root causes of some of that mental fatigue. So that was the second key stat that we. He discovered from a pure ROI perspective, 85% of agents told us that it resulted in wasted time through repetition. And we actually did some work to really kind of dig into that ROI situation. Even if you just wasted ten seconds a call on repetition, if that’s a two-minute call on average, that’s a significant amount of time and…
Marcell: It adds up.
Tom: It just adds up. And then so you start to layer these things in average handling time in the moment is affected longitudinally. You’re affecting your employee well-being. Ultimately, that increases employee churn. The cost of replacing staff, particularly in today’s market, is highly expensive. So there’s a lot to unpack there. And as you said, Greg, you know, people can download that white paper with the link that’ll be here or somewhere or here anyway, Um, you know, and that’s free and people can just digest that. And you know, it’s the first study of its kind with that quantity of agents in the UK and the US and also customers. So we surveyed both to get an understanding of this.
Greg: What do you think is the importance in terms of like the long-term brand implications? Every interaction matters. And therefore how does that play out long term?
Tom: You’re absolutely right. I mean, we talk about whatever your measure is, Net Promoter Score, CSR, you know, all of these different things, you know, no doubt there are. We’re always trying to chase down that quick KPI nudge, right? But yeah, and you know, that can be achieved If we reduce average handling time, you’re going to see an effect on that in a matter of days. But longitudinally, you know CSR knock on. Net Promoter score or whatever it might be, that’s going to be your customer referrals, your loyalty, repeat business. And these things do all add up. And I think like we touched on earlier, the nature of conversation. When you are speaking to a physical human being on a call, they tend to be these higher-value moments. So imagine that experience now. So you’ve gone to your chatbot, okay, Yeah, You know, where’s my delivery? Call this number or we’re connecting you to an agent or whatever. You know, the automation might lead to, you know, a higher touch point. So you might have had a good experience up to that point. Okay. Yeah. Okay. You’ve channelled me to the right way, and then suddenly you’re speaking to it. You can’t hear what they’re saying. You have to relay your postcode actually quite complicated to get that across. So, you know, that can have that one moment in that journey and a high-value potential moment. You lose that brand and be really make or break. That was a disaster. I hate dealing with them. Whereas if you transform that into, you know, another good experience, it’s the difference between a happy customer and a frustrated customer.
Marcell: We’ve touched on the long-term implications that poor audio quality in your products, services and especially communications can have on both brand perception and stakeholder experience. Following on into the future, what predictions does Tom have for the current digital environment and how does he see the role of audio evolving in the space?
Tom: Mental wellbeing is a big one. Yeah, absolutely huge. I think the industry kind of was one of the first to grapple with Homeworking. Those contact centres had to continue working through the pandemic, so they were amongst the first that had to uncover how to do this. And it isn’t necessarily good enough to send a laptop and a headphone out to someone. Are you paying for their WiFi again? You know, we’ve spoken to a lot of people around what’s the touch point with their manager, you know, So I think mental wellbeing and, and how the industry is really supporting staff is important. I think there are so many different technologies out there, so many different automations, ways that we can manage call workflow and all of these sorts of things. You know, speech analytics is clearly continuing to be prolific. There’s a lot of cool things out there and what I quite like is that we got a little differentiated thing that we can plug in pretty much across all of those solutions. But yeah, I mean, other key learning points, there’s a lot of money spent on soundproofing, by the way, so loads of money. What in contacts in contact centres, how do they get partitioning up? If you’re a BPO and you’ve got two clients that are doing we had one that we were speaking to, they were doing support for sports gambling company and on this side, raising money for research company for a charity.
Greg: Slightly different.
Tom: Right? That to put partitions and we were like, well, maybe you don’t. Maybe you don’t have to invest that capital expenditure. You can invest it in a different solution. So lots of challenges around how you staff your operation technology and I guess hardware in some kind of way to resolve those challenges. I think staffing is a big still a big trend with that churn. How do you staff your operation? I still think it’s probably an employees market at the minute. I think, you know, a lot of companies, not just in those positions but more generally, are probably, you know, having to work a bit harder to attract and keep their talent problems that businesses should continue to need to sharpen up on. I think actually.
Greg: Yeah, employee satisfaction, employee experience is a huge topic I think, across the board. So I’m glad that you sort of raised that because everyone we seem to speak to, regardless of what area they’re responsible for or what sort of role they play in the business, just the satisfaction of their staff, whether they are even customer-facing or not. It all has a knock-on effect down to the customer. That employee is not satisfied. They’re less productive, less productive, which means they don’t produce as great an idea which does eventually impact the customer. Either way.
Tom: One of my former bosses said to me, Before you ever create a great customer experience, you’ve got to create a great employee experience. And it’s so true because, you know, if your team are hacked off, then they’re not going to do a very good job for you. And ultimately that’s going to leak out into the way that we interface with customers. What a wonderful opportunity, though, that digital and software and different solutions present to companies of all sizes. Right? You guys know this. It’s a leveller of the playing field in a big, big way. And actually, the opportunity in the real sense for smaller companies and we talk about this is you have an opportunity to be way better and more agile than some of the bigger companies that are out there because they’re stuck with infrastructure that’s old. And it would take a lot of effort to get that out and put something new in that industry is moving towards the cloud, and they need to hurry up. Yeah, yeah. Honestly, we have to really understand and embrace what the hybrid model looks like. Yep. I think that’s crucial too, and I think that’s a maturity from management, but also from staff.
Tom: What really irritates me, we’re doing a virtual call because it’s a Friday, but all of us are in the office. The day before we could have done the meeting around the whiteboard. Yeah, now there’s a maturity levelling up thing around everybody in that. Similarly, I think management needs to accept that this is a way that you attract staff. Now a lot of people want to work, work remotely. How do we make that productive? Well then arm your teams with the tools and the capabilities needed to be effective and be productive. And, you know, that whole customer journey, piece of making it feel like it’s your brand, That’s definitely your last point is really I mean, one of the main things I think that companies are going to be focusing on because it’s harder to win customers and keep them right now. So you’ve got to do the best you can across all touchpoints. I think that is going to be a focus and how technology enables that will play a massive part.
Marcell: Thank you for listening. We hope you enjoyed the podcast and if you did, why not subscribe to our YouTube channel for access to full-length videos and YouTube shorts? You can also like share and comment on the episode to keep the conversation going. If you want to join our growing community of thought leaders, head over to LinkedIn and follow us at Insider podcast to stay updated. Thanks again. I’ve been Marcell and I’ll see you in two weeks, but for now, enjoy our Rapid fire questions. And by the way, this podcast has been brought to you by ACF Technologies, the Global Leaders in Customer Experience Management Solutions. So my first question is, would you rather listen to music or a podcast or music?
Tom: Oh, music. This podcast obviously, before music.
Marcell: Good answer. And who’s your favourite artist?
Tom: I’m a big fan of Muse. I want them to go back to their kind of raw beginnings, but stop doing this experimental stuff. But Muse.
Greg: Okay. Let’s get ’em on the podcast and then we’ll chat to them about it. Yeah.
Tom: Invite me back if you get them on.
Greg: Yeah, exactly.
Marcell: Uh, what’s one thing you’re looking forward to doing this year?
Tom: Oh, um, near-term, we’re moving into our new office, which is in the same building, but a slightly better location overlooking Oxford Street. So we’ll get some good people watching.
Marcell: Okay, cool. Sweet or salted popcorn?
Tom: Salted! Yeah. Every time. With butter on it.
Marcell: With butter. Not even mixed.
Tom: No, I mean, it’s literally the worst moment in my life if you’re reaching in and it’s. And it’s a mix, and then you get that sweet one. It’s not for me.
Marcell: Fair enough. Are you more of a minimalist or a hoarder?
Tom: Minimalist, definitely. I used to be a hoarder and then realized that that was not good for my for my Gigi. So I… I, um. Yeah, I’m a minimalist.
Marcell: Would you rather travel 100 years in the past or the future?
Tom: 100 years in the past.
Marcell: Yeah. Why is that?
Tom: The future is quite terrifying, really. I’m not bought in. This whole notion of the metaverse and plugging our brains in, like I said earlier, to the mainframe terrifies me. And I’m more into the human connection. And I think 100 years ago was probably where I should have existed.
Marcell: And if you were there, where would you go? What would you want to see most?
Tom: I’d probably be down in the basement serving some rich dude with a top hat. Okay. My dream would be to be in some sort of, I don’t know, Westworld-esque scene and be a bartender. Nice. That just I don’t know why that came to me, but it must be true. It came to me quite, quite fluid.
Greg: Like customer service, that’d be.
Tom: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Marcell: And then my final question, we usually ask this. If you could interview anyone, dead or alive, who would that be and why?
Tom: Oh, dead or alive, who would it be? Oh, wow. I’m trying to think of something edgy, and it’s really not coming up. I’d like to interview Genghis Khan. Okay? Why was he such a cruel…
Greg: So and so. Yeah. Yeah. Genghis Khan.
Tom: Why did I think of that? I think I was looking at some history of him the other day. He seemed like, pretty ruthless. So.
Marcell: Yeah, that’d definitely be an interesting podcast.
Tom: Yeah. How could you write a book on the learnings of Genghis Khan and deploy it to startups?
Greg: I’ll research that for you. We’ll do a podcast on that. Yeah. Okay. Brilliant. Do you have any funny stories of taking calls or doing meetings in funny places because of the audio, because of bad background noise or anything like that?
Tom: Oh my gosh. Okay, I’ll tell this one, which is slightly a little bit. So I was in a car and I was joining with hands-free. And there were a couple of other people. This was back in the day where it was called a bridge, a conference bridge.
Greg: Oh, yeah.
Tom: And there was a few other people joining and there was somebody delivering some content and was quite timid. It was they were quite new to the company, so they were delivering some content and they were presenting and it was quite a lot of it was quite boisterous salespeople in their car or whatever, and then all of a sudden she’d presented and all of a sudden someone shouted… ‘Are you some sort of [redacted]!? Yes, you!’
Tom: And it turned out that the front end of this guy’s car had been wiped out by a bus. Oh, and this girl thought he was directing the abuse at her. She was like, ‘oh, well, I’ll be quiet then.’ So anyway, sometimes it’s better to find yourself a more convenient location. And I definitely don’t think people do it so much anymore. During a conference call from a car, it’s like a little bit, but you used to be a big thing. Sales reps out doing the morning meetings, you know, and you’d group and see what the plan of the day was. But yeah, I don’t recommend that.
Marcell: So the car just…
Tom: Got, got wiped out by a bus. Yeah. The front end of it was taken off by a bus and that played out.
Marcell: It’s amazing the call didn’t end.
Tom: Yeah. If they had IRIS Clarity, we would have never have known.
Greg: Yeah, that’s true.