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Custom IVR Applications

This section of our technical library presents information and documentation relating to IVR Development and custom IVR software and products. Business phone systems and toll free answering systems (generally 800 numbers and their equivalent) are very popular for service and sales organizations, allowing customers and prospects to call your organization anywhere in the country. The PACER and WIZARD IVR System is just one of many DSC call center phone system features..

What Is IVR?. An Interactive Voice Response (IVR) processes inbound phone calls, plays recorded messages including information extracted from databases and the internet, and potentially routes calls to either inhouse service agents or transfers the caller to an outside extension.

Contact DSC today. to learn more about our IVR services and IVR application development software.

The New IVR: Talking to You
Page 2

By Robert Richardson, Computer Telephony

IVR is moving off the premise and into the network. And its front and back-ends are changing - to embrace wireless, the web, and Net development models.

The first thing to notice here is that the call is processed as far as possible out at the local ICS. It looks for all the world like what a traditional IT manager would call client-server architecture, still controlled from the center but with the heavy CPU cycles distributed out to lots of locations at once.

IVR That Lives On A Web Server

The second thing to notice is that the IVR applications are stored on a web server. They are, in fact stored in a markup language, an application of extensible markup language (XML) developed by Telera specifically for this purpose. Building on a web framework gives Telera ready-made mechanisms for caching static data elements (such as the .WAV files used to record audio prompts) at the ICS. Web caches are old-hat by now - your browser has a perfectly serviceable caching mechanism built in, for example - and the HTTP protocol inherently supports mechanisms that force the cache to refresh as needed. Good caching means performance at the ICS doesn't lag while waiting on instructions from the NCS.

This all adds up to an IVR architecture that neatly handles the prerouting side of IVR. But this, as Uppaluru himself notes, is only half of the IVR picture. There's still the other half, the self-service half, where we'll want to dip into company back-office databases to get the information we need to provide self-service support and to complete complex transactions automatically by phone.

"If there is one thing that is protecting CPE today," Uppaluru says, "it's the difficulty of integrating the phone system with the back office." IT developers, he points out, "have spent God knows how many hours of integration work integrating with 3270 screen scrapes - every bank, every institution has their own way of accessing the data from their back offices."

"But many of these businesses have the need to access that same information and deliver that information over the web. So they're going through this reinvestment process. They're basically doing it one of two ways. One is a completely different silo that goes to the mainframe. Or, alternatively, more forward-looking businesses are saying, 'Look, I've got to do this thing one more time for WAP. And perhaps I have to do it one more time for Palm Pilot. So let's figure out an integrated data access mechanism for my back office.' As a result, many companies that we've talked to are now architecting what I'd call a data access server that acts as an intermediary between their back and front office systems. The trend we see that's going to facilitate and accelerate this is XML."

When a company develops XML schema for its warehoused data, it inherently makes that data more readily transferable to an XML-based framework like that provided by an ICS. Furthermore, using an XML schema to describe IVR transactions means that development for web interactions can foster similar markup language for phone interactions, potentially leading to rich voice access to company resources. The data mining and programming a company brings to its website is suddenly available at the handset.

Not surprisingly, Telera isn't alone in taking an XML-based approach. Indeed, an industry consortium founded by AT&T, IBM, Lucent, and Motorola has created voiceXML as a potential standard. The W3C has adopted voiceXML as the basis for its own standards approval process, meaning that voiceXML is on track for general Internet adoption.

We'll take an in-depth look at voiceXML in a moment, but first note that voiceXML is a somewhat different animal than Telera XML. As Uppaluru explains: "We started this company almost two and a half years ago and at that time, voiceXML wasn't around. We had to invent something similar to voiceXML. Rather than just focusing on speech interactions - the primary focus of voiceXML - we focused on being able to describe the industrial-strength IVR applications that exist today." Part of that, Uppaluru says, was speech interaction. "And the speech interaction part of our XML will become compatible with voiceXML."

But Telera took on more than capturing voice interactions. "We have a complete set of call management functionality. We can receive a phone call, route the phone call, transfer the call to an agent to a remote site, switch a call from one agent to another agent, conference an agent together with a supervisor, and so on. All of this is the sort of call control that a sophisticated call center has to have."

Telera has created a graphical development tool and a downloadable SDK for creating Telera-compatible XML scenarios. In addition, Telera has implemented a test network in addition to its production network. This is similar to Tellme's test harness (see the sidebar, "Roll Your Own"), except that it has so far been used only by Telera and its partners. "Watch this space for coming announcements," Uppaluru says. "You'll see our plans for opening this up soon."

Telera's eagerness to open up its test network is driven in part by development programs created by voice portal operators like Tellme.com (Mountain View, CA - 650-930-9000, www.tellme.com) and BeVocal (Santa Clara, CA - 408-748-8700, www.bevocal.com). Check the sidebar for more specifics on Tellme, but the key point here is that developer programs that make it very easy for companies to create IVR content are blurring the lines between so-called voice portals - which are firmly in the realm of Internet development (with all the hype and hustle that this implies) - and traditional IVR, which historically has been a world of closed, proprietary systems based on state machines expressed in languages useful only in that realm.

The universe of potential IVR application developers is broadening, similarly to the way the web has turned a lot of time-honored assumptions about publishing and software distribution inside out. Access to web content means that IVR systems can have incredibly broad reach in their offerings; workable speech recognition means that this reach won't exceed the grasp of unnavigable touchtone menus. Users can simply ask for what they need. You can get a sense of what this is like right away, in fact, by trying out Tellme's national service (1-800-555-TELL), which formally launched this past July. Or try BeVocal at 1-800-4BVOCAL.

The Component Approach

XML isn't the only workable approach to more open and approachable IVR development, however. In fact, the emphasis on scripting that one finds in XML runs somewhat counter to the object-oriented paradigm that has permeated software development work in the past several years (in the Java language, for example). So it's not surprising to see companies focused on making interchangeable components to use as building blocks.

In fact, there is a component approach nested inside the XML approach: Nuance's (Menlo Park, CA - 650-847-0000, www.nuance.com) speech-recognizing SpeechObjects, which are Java object classes tailored for telephony interfaces. SpeechObjects are designed to work in tandem with VoiceXML, Nuance vice president of marketing Steve Ehrlich explains: "On a web page today you have HTML with the basic user interface and behind it you have complex processing done with Java. VoiceXML does the basic rendering of the voice user interface, but behind it you need some components to do the heavy lifting on the user interface. Speech Objects are there for that purpose."

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Contact DSC today. to learn more about our IVR services and IVR application development software.