Voice recognition software has become ubiquitous in the tech world; Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, to name a few, have made recent moves in the industry. Amongst the giants, though, there is a much smaller organization that has been steadily leading the way in speech technology for over 25 years, and that organization is right here in Massachusetts.
What Parlance Corporation lacks in size, it makes up for in expertise and industry experience. Since 1996 its fewer than 100 employees have consistently delivered industry-leading speech recognition technology for the healthcare sector from their headquarters in Woburn.
Joseph Maxwell, CEO, and Scott D’Entremont, Chief Revenue Officer, recently sat down with Jeffrey Davis of Radio Entrepreneurs to share more about Parlance, the company’s origins, its dominance of healthcare voice tech, and what comes next.
Tell me about Parlance.
Joseph: Parlance is in the business of improving the first 30 seconds of the caller’s journey. We provide a managed service that essentially delivers software-based virtual agents with speech recognition software. We’ve been around since 1996, so we know a lot about the industry and a lot about callers and how to help make it easier for them to access the resources that they need.
Scott: The primary vertical that we work in is healthcare. We have many big institutions around the country that rely on us for their communications, both answering the front door and helping with the access problem that almost every healthcare institution has these days. It just isn’t that easy to get an appointment, and people have really clamored for technology platforms like Parlance to make it easier to interact with their patients.
What are some of the operational efficiencies of speech-enabling phone systems?
Scott: The main one is time. Agents are busy and overwhelmed in this economy. Almost universally, there are staffing shortages, COVID overwhelmed many of these facilities, and the ability to do things like verify the identity of the caller in a HIPAA compliant way to get them ready so that the agent can work with them is really helpful.
The other thing we run into a lot is healthcare organizations that publish vanity numbers. This makes it easier for local consumers to remember the number and call, but then that call center ends up fielding calls for all sorts of functions the particular call center may not be able to help them with. Parlance is able to reduce the number of calls the agents need to address by making self-service much easier for routine callers.
That must make it more efficient for family members and patients to do communications in this way. Is that correct?
Scott: Absolutely. For us, it’s really both. Health systems like improving the phone experience for their patients, but budgets are tight. You need to be able to cost-justify it against the labor reductions. Parlance doesn’t mean that people are getting pink slips; we’re almost always replacing open hires on the org chart, as often hospitals and clinics are struggling to fill these positions.
Give me a little bit of both of your histories and how you got to this company. Can you give me some of your background?
Joseph: I’ve been around since the beginning. In my grad program in college, I spent a lot of time learning about how people hear and the signal processing around that. I took a job out on the West Coast, but my interest in a signal processing space stayed with me, and I ended up coming into speech recognition about the time the technology became real-time.
I jumped into a company called BBN at the time, and Parlance spun out of that. That was about 25 years ago. When we spun out, we were really trying to tackle the problem of making it easy for people to call into organizations and access the resources that they need. This 25-year journey has been all about making that solution more effective for the callers, but also making it easy for the businesses that use the service to subscribe to the results and not have to deal with software and figuring out how speech recognition works and tuning solutions.
I was one of the founding entrepreneurs. There were three of us that were working on the original code of taking it from a prototype into version 1 software, but as we spun out to form the organization, there was a larger group of us, probably about a dozen to 15 of us.
Scott: I’ve been at Parlance now for four years. I joined to help Joseph on the revenue generation side. It was an opportunity to get involved with a company that had great people, great product and engineering, great service, and referenceable customers, but hadn’t spent as much time on the sales and revenue generation side of the business. It’s been a great journey to see that take off and see us expand.
Before Parlance, I’d done a number of different entrepreneurial ventures. I started out in telecommunications working for some of the upstarts that competed with the Bell Telephone companies, in the CLEC business, if you’re familiar with that, and was a founder and CEO of a company called Netspoke that was a web and audio-conferencing platform, much like what we’re on with Zoom. I sold the business. I’ve been around this kind of collaboration technology for a very long time and wound up here.
How do you see this technology changing in the next couple of years?
Scott: Part of our challenge that makes this fun, sometimes scary, but ultimately exciting, is that we are that little fish in a big pond. Some of the biggest corporations in the world have decided that this is a space that’s interesting. Microsoft bought Nuance, Amazon is in this space, there’s Google as well. We see all that interest lifting all boats, but there’s going to be a focus on driving artificial intelligence as a way to get things done further and further for us as consumers.
In healthcare, we think there’s a particular niche for us because of all of our domain experience. It’s very difficult and specialized to figure out where that blend of technology and human service should be. I’ll just give you a quick example. We’d all be happy to have a quick path to use our voice to schedule a routine physical for our kids’ sports, but if somebody tried to put technology in front of you to interact with in order to schedule heart surgery, you wouldn’t be too happy or comfortable. That blend of technology in and human service and where to put it is something that we’re really good at, based on working with hundreds of healthcare institutions around the country.
Joseph: One benefit of being in this space for a long time is that we really understand what the caller is looking to accomplish. A lot of our history has been in putting the tools and processes in place to allow us to optimize that experience and understand what that balance should be. We have some great tools and some great know-how around being able to do that. Having hundreds of customers that we’re already working with, some as partners helping us work out what the future looks like, is a big plus. All this puts us in a great position to immediately solve communication frustrations for healthcare consumers while also saving money for health systems.