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VoiceXML making Web heard in call centers

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Aspect Communications this week will announce call center software that essentially will enable users to navigate Web content via voice commands.

The Aspect news comes on the heels of Avaya's announcement last week of interactive voice response (IVR) software that will make data contained in corporate directories and databases available to callers via spoken commands.

At the heart of both efforts is support for the latest release of VoiceXML (VXML), Version 2.0. An extension to the XML document formatting standard, VXML streamlines development of voice-driven applications for retrieving Web content.

While using voice commands to retrieve information is a routine IVR task, emerging tools support more complex, speech-driven activities, such as filling out forms or retrieving product information, all in a standards compliant rather than proprietary environment.

In Aspect's case, customers will be able to use the same databases, application servers and business rules to process voice self-service interactions as they do to process Web self-service transactions. The firm is building the voice-activated service features into its existing software suite, Aspect IP Contact Suite.

Avaya is adding VXML capabilities to Version 9.0 of its Avaya IVR server. Previous versions offered speech-recognition features, but 9.0 is the first to embed VXML support.

Adoption of standards such as VXML is just one contributor to an overall trend to increase the sophistication of IVR products, making them less dependent on menus that bury information several layers deep and better able to handle queries phrased in natural language, says Martin Prunty, president of consulting firm Contact Center Professionals.

This evolution is not unlike that of Web-search technology, which has progressed from keyword dependencies to natural language-based search tools developed by vendors such as Ask Jeeves, Prunty says.

Companies today are starting to realize that the phone and the Web should not be treated as separate customer links, with independent data retrieval and collection systems, but as elements of a corporatewide CRM strategy, Prunty says.

"Customer channels, whether they're using people or self-service, have to be integrated and have to be part of an overall strategy of dealing with customers," he says. "But that's not how it is in the real world today."

Investments growing

In general, call centers are gaining a growing share of IT budgets as companies seek to improve customer service and better utilize customer service personnel and resources. Among 672 companies surveyed, IDC found 35% have a call center and 11% say they soon will need one.

Among 321 companies with plans to invest in their call centers, 54% will acquire new technology, 31% will enhance existing systems, 12% will build new functions, and 3% will turn to an application service provider, IDC says.

Companies are interested in call center technology in part because they are trying to keep their loyal customers - an ongoing challenge that tends to get more attention in times of economic slowdowns, IDC says. The research firm found the No. 1 reason companies invest in call center technology is to improve customer support (see graphic).

That is what led Armstrong World Industries, a Lancaster, Pa., maker of industrial and home flooring and ceiling products, to its latest call center upgrade. The manufacturer recently installed Version 7.0 of Avaya IVR to solve a communication problem between the company's call center and the retail stores that carry Armstrong products.

In the past, sales representatives from retail home-improvement stores would deluge Armstrong's call center, checking on the status of customers' orders and tying up Armstrong's call agents, says Jeff Fountaine, network analyst with the company.

Now salespeople at home retail stores can tap into Armstrong's order-processing system and check on orders by speaking the order number into the system.

The Avaya IVR server connects calls from an Avaya Definity G3R PBX to the back-end systems, housed on an AS/400 and separate SAP servers.

Fountaine says speech recognition was necessary because of Armstrong's alphanumeric purchase-order system, which prevented use of a phone keypad for entering information. The results of the system have pleased Armstrong and its partners.

"The IVR system has cut our call volume in half," Fountain says, which equates to 15,000 order checks per month that do not have to be handled by a representative.

"Another benefit is the good will it brings between Armstrong and our home center partners," he adds, because retail sales representatives now can get information on demand for customers.

Changing landscape

Aspect is unveiling its voice self-service software at this week's International Call Center Management (ICCM) Conference & Exhibition in Chicago. Advanstar Communications, the show's organizer, says 5,000 attendees are expected.

Lori Bocklund, vice president of call center consultancy Vanguard Communications and a speaker at the ICCM show, cautions call center technology buyers to focus on business requirements before shopping for new products.

She warns the market has gotten ahead of buyers.

"There's more technology than people know what to do with," Bocklund says. That's not necessarily bad, but it can be overwhelming for buyers - who need to figure out what software and equipment they need and how new products will work with the gear they have before making a purchase, Bocklund says.

Big changes

Companies face big changes in applications and network infrastructure, Bocklund says. On the applications side, vendors are working to off-load call routing, queuing and reporting tasks from the PBX to server-based applications.

In call center networks, the issue is migrating from circuit-switched to IP-based platforms. Voice-over-IP networks promise to decrease costs and drive productivity by merging separate voice and data services on a unified infrastructure, reducing toll charges and enabling the development of more sophisticated converged applications, such as Web chat. VoIP could help companies simplify the integration and management of distributed voice and Web customer services.

However, implementing VoIP networks can be costly and complex. Companies should consider getting their feet wet with VoIP by deploying a trial application that's not mission-critical, Bocklund says. She stresses the importance of careful planning.

"If people don't plan for VoIP and put together a migration strategy, they're just going to buy something cool because some vendor bends the right ear," Bocklund says.

"Then they're going to start heading down a path that may not fit with their other objectives," she adds.

Others announcing call center products this week include:

  • Rockwell FirstPoint Contact, which has beefed up its FirstPoint Enterprise 2002 platform to include skills-based routing features for e-mail, Web, wireless and VoIP communications. The new Advanced Intelligent Router feature identifies agents with appropriate skills and can route messages accordingly. Queue Optimizer lets customers choose when they would like the system to call back, rather than waiting.

  • Blue Pumpkin, which is launching its new Workforce Optimization Suite. The suite pools two new performance-based modules - Activity Manager, which tracks how call center employees spend their time, and Advisor, which highlights agents' successes and problem areas - with existing scheduling components.

  • Vertical Networks, which has aimed new IVR technology in its Call Management Suite software at smaller shops, for whom the price of IVR technology often is prohibitive.

    The application runs on the vendor's InstantOffice line of converged PBX phone systems for small and midsize companies and can provide call routing and queuing, along with IVR applications for letting customers interface with the phone system through spoken commands.

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