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IVR Development

This section of our technical library presents information and documentation relating to IVR Vendors 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.

Automated Customer Service

Customer service is the heart of all business and business relationships. Technology is providing companies with new and innovative methods for increasing satisfaction while controlling costs.

In the Technology Review article "Are You Being Served?", Joe Nickell states:

" A new breed of customer service agents will be so attentive to your needs that you'll never guess you're talking to software.

Somehow it seems the more businesses cater to customers through the use of new technologies, the harder it is to get good service. It's hard to find a company of any size today that answers its phone or e-mail without first sending customers through a maze of touch-tone menus or voice prompts-"voice hell" always a 1-800 number away. Then there are online customer support centers: soulless lists of frequently asked questions, hyperlinked conceptual puzzles and unintuitive search engines that never quite answer the question at hand.

"What customers very often end up wanting is an F-U button," jokes Dr. Rosalind Picard, an associate professor at MIT whose research examines the role of emotions in human-computer interactions.

Undaunted, technology providers and their corporate clients are pushing toward a future in which an increasing percentage of customer inquiries can be handled automatically and, hopefully, with better results. They aim to build so-called "service bots"-software-hardware hybrid systems that understand spoken or written English (or any other dialect or language preferred by the customer), interpret vague or broad queries, possess a thorough understanding of both the company's products and the customer's past interactions, and speak or write answers in an intelligible, context- and emotion-sensitive fashion. The necessary skill set for the perfect service bot demands several interdependent layers of technology: voice recognition modules, natural language understanding engines, artificial intelligence for data extraction and text-to-speech synthesizers.

Customers should like these new bots because they would be faster, more accurate and more consistent than live service agents, providing personalized interactions managed across any medium, available any time of the day. Companies will line up for the new technology in order to fend off ever-rising customer service costs and catastrophic call-center employee turn-over rates.

That's the premise, anyway. It may all sound pie-in-the-sky, but numerous technology companies, as well as research centers at leading academic institutions, are hammering away at the challenges of building a better service bot. The first generation is already here. Ford Motor Company employs a chatty online bot named Ernie, built by San Francisco-based NativeMinds, who helps technicians at its network of dealerships diagnose car problems and order parts. IBM's Lotus software division employs a service bot from Support.com that can examine a user's software, diagnose problems and fix them by uploading patches to the user's computer-without any necessary intervention by human tech support personnel.

And in an odd twist, Electronic Arts has built an entire game, called Majestic, around service bot technology built by San Francisco-based developer eGain. Majestic carries players through a complex, multi-media episodic mystery. Players receive clues and information via pager, fax, e-mail, Web sites and even telephone calls. eGain's service bot keeps track of player information such as what clues they've collected and how they have reacted. The software can handle 100,000 simultaneous player interactions.

But given the lousy track record of automated customer service so far, consumers have reason to be skeptical of this new generation of talking machines. Confusing or insufficient menu choices, lack of personalization, outdated or insufficient responses and failure to carry over punched-in account information to conversations with live reps rank at the top of consumer complaints about automated customer service systems today. Almost 40 percent of Americans press zero whenever they encounter an automated answering system, rather than waiting to hear the menu options, according to a study conducted in 1998 by the Center for Client Retention.

So will service bots truly give us better service, or will they simply allow companies to reinforce the walls between themselves and customers? Can we really hope for a better-than-human service bot? And, is it realistic to expect companies to deploy tomorrow's automated systems any better than they deploy today's?

"I don't think it's possible to even imagine a generic customer service [bot] that can handle any kind of question in any industry," says Joe Bigus, leader of the Agent Building and Learning Environment (ABLE) project at IBM Research. Bigus' research group has recently produced a toolkit that allows developers to build small software agents-programs that gather information and perform duties automatically-in Java. The toolkit consists of software code that provides baked-in machine learning capabilities and a set of instructions for customizing the software agents with specific domain knowledge. This allows developers to design any number of discreet agents that possess specialized knowledge and problem-solving capabilities; the agents can even interact with one another when faced with a complex problem.

By facilitating the deployment of a number of small, specialized software agents-rather than one massively complex agent-this approach mimicks the way human resources are managed: customer service agents at Sony aren't all trained to understand every product from audio cassettes to digital video cameras. Instead, small groups of service agents are given specific products to understand thoroughly.

The key to building functioning service bots, Bigus says, is customization: "programming as much of your specific domain knowledge into the system up front as possible, and then keeping it up to date." In essence, service bots require the same kind of training that humans do: in understanding the structure of company knowledge databases, the protocol for handling customer inquiries and the methods for explaining often complex instructions in plain English.

A more basic problem that stands in the way of building intelligent service bots: the quality and consistency of company information itself. "Most companies don't even have their own internal links to company knowledge figured out and standardized yet, so that knowledge is hardly ready to go live with end customers," says Dr. Kristian Hammond, professor of computer science and director of the Intelligent Information Lab at Northwestern University in Chicago. Company knowledge is typically segregated into a number of databases: customer account information is stored in a separate vault from product marketing information, both of which are separate from technical support documentation. These database systems are often built by different companies and are rife with incompatibilities.

To view this article, please visit www.technologyreview.com.

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