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IVR systems interactive voice response

IVR Technology Solutions

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 Interactive Voice Response?. 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.

Updating Your System - Is VoiceXML right for your customer service strategy?

By Jonathan Eisenzopf

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems are a popular way to provide automated customer support over the telephone. Chances are good that you've used these systems yourself. Whenever you call the toll-free number on the back of your ATM bank card, you're greeted by an IVR system that prompts you for your account number and PIN code, then provides a menu of options. The airline industry and Amtrak have also employed IVR systems, by which customers can check automated arrival and departure information. For customers who lack Web access, such systems are an alternative to online customer service.

Where IVR Meets the Web

Let's say that your company has recently rolled out an e-commerce and CRM application so that customers can place and check orders via the Web. Imagine that after the first six months of operation, 20 percent of your customers are using the Web to place and check on orders. This has saved the company money and improved customer supportóbut it still leaves 80 percent of your customers placing orders by telephone, fax, or postal mail.

This scenario, sadly, is all too common. Despite the benefits of the Web, most customers still use the phone to obtain flight departure times, order products, or pay late bills. As soon as a customer picks up the telephone, your company loses some of the money and effort spent implementing a comprehensive enterprise Web infrastructure. To fully realize the return on your investment, you need to be able to extend the service system to these customers as well.

CRM and e-commerce vendors like Blue Martini and Siebel have addressed the issue of telephone integration by partnering with leading IVR vendors, like Edify and Apropos. These vendors provide an integration layer between the Web and telephone support systems. Unfortunately, no single IVR vendor has support from every application vendor. Creating an enterprise-wide system might therefore require multiple IVR implementations tied together by transferring incoming calls from one system to another. What's more, proprietary IVR systems don't let you use your existing Web applications and infrastructure.

The ideal, then, would be a standardized language for creating interactive telephone applications. VoiceXML is just such a solution. Maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), VoiceXML is an XML-derived language for creating speech dialogs. It lets you support customers via the telephone using the same code base, infrastructure, and tools used to develop your Web and wireless applications. Hence, you can deploy a VoiceXML gateway on your network and integrate it with your existing Web applications, thereby increasing your new B2B application's coverage from 20 percent to nearly 75 percent.

Inside VoiceXML

VoiceXML is based on technology that has been used in IVR systems for years and deployed in many Fortune 500 companies. VoiceXML is simply a thin veneer that abstracts the low-level APIs used to develop IVR applications. Voice dialogs are specified by static (or dynamic) XML documents that contain sets of recorded or synthesized prompts and speech recognition grammars. These XML documents are converted by a VoiceXML gateway into low-level commands that interact with the digital signal processors (DSP) and telephony boards in a VoiceXML gateway.

It's unlikely that VoiceXML will bring the Web to the phone, however. Despite the hype, VoiceXML isn't well suited as a general-purpose interface for providing telephone access to the Web. Instead, the two areas where it can provide immediate and compelling benefits are customer service and order entry.

As I mentioned, the airline industry has used IVR systems to provide flight arrival and departure information for some time. This has dramatically reduced costs by eliminating the need for live operators and shortening the average length of each call. However, customers can be frustrated by touch tone IVR systems, and will often press zero in an attempt to reach a live representative.

VoiceXML-based IVRs are a better alternative to such systems because they offer speech recognition and text-to-speech capabilities. For example, Amtrak's IVR application lets callers speak to the system, rather than navigating through multiple menus. Before updating its IVR system to use speech recognition, roughly 70 percent of customers using the system would exit to speak with an operator. After the speech recognition technology was added, Amtrak reports that the exit rate was reduced to 30 percent.

Assessing the Costs

The time and cost required to deploy a VoiceXML gateway largely depends on the size and complexity of the Web application, the degree to which the application separates the presentation layer from the business logic, and the experience of the developers doing the integration. If you're using in-house staff to integrate the application, expect a three to six month learning curve for them to learn VoiceXML. They can use that time to develop pilot applications that can be repurposed for the production rollout.

You can reduce the learning curve by one or two months by sending your staff to a VoiceXML training course, or by outsourcing the development to a consulting company that specializes in VoiceXML application development. To ensure that your customers will accept your application, you should also factor in the cost of hiring a consultant who has experience designing voice applications and language grammars.

Other than training and labor costs, a VoiceXML solution includes the expense of a VoiceXML gateway: a dedicated server that connects directly to your telephone system and IP network. While many companies offer VoiceXML gateway products, I'd recommend focusing on product lines from Cisco, VoiceGenie, and Cambridge VoiceTech.

Cisco offers a total solution for PBX, VoiceXML, fax, and email in a cohesive product set. VoiceGenie is probably the best known vendor for its gateway, professional services team, and development tools, while Cambridge VoiceTech strongly focuses on performance and scalability. Pricing typically starts around $10,000 and scales based on the number of telephone ports you need, ranging from a minimum of four analog phone lines to a full T1. You could also build your own system, which typically includes telephony boards from Dialogic, NMS, or Aculab and speech synthesis, recognition, and VoiceXML gateway software from Nuance or Speechworks.

Gauging Your Return

There are several ways you can calculate the potential return on investment of a VoiceXML system. First, you could estimate the difference in the call time and per-minute cost between a live operator and an automated system by calculating the current cost in salary, long distance service, and equipment for each customer service representative and comparing that figure to the estimated cost per minute for the automated system. You could also estimate cost savings based on the reduced number of representatives needed to answer fewer callsóagain, this largely depends on the system's adoption rate.

Returning to our hypothetical deployment scenario, suppose our company employs 20 people who take phone orders and answer requests. Each employee's salary is approximately $45,000 per year, including benefits. By deploying an automated ordering system at an initial cost of $80,000, you could recover the cost of the automated system in three to six months, based on the new system's adoption rate. There would, of course, be ongoing maintenance costs and personnel expenses in either scenario, and you should take these into account.

How Well Supported?

The concept of a multi-model development environment where you can build applications for the Web, wireless devices, PDAs, and the telephone is gaining acceptance among software providers. Oracle, for example, offers VoiceXML support in its Oracle9iAS Wireless product, which transforms Internet content into XML and then delivers it in multiple formats. Even so, in most cases you'll need to customize your VoiceXML application to suit the limitations of voice interfaces.

Although VoiceXML hasn't been widely adopted yet, the fact that technology vendors are taking an interest in the standard is reassuring. With companies like Oracle, HP, Motorola, and IBM jumping on the VoiceXML bandwagon, it's likely that you'll have access to VoiceXML-capable tools the next time you upgrade your application servers and Web development software.

Future developments might even include automated agents that can hold a complete conversation with a customer. There are several issues that must be solved before that happens, however. First, computers must be able to effectively understand the context and contents of what a caller is saying, beyond predefined grammars for a specific knowledge domain. Second, the quality of synthesized speech must improve so that dynamic applications don't require prerecorded scripts. Third, and most importantly, customers must become comfortable with the idea of talking to a computer.

Several companies are already working to improve VoiceXML systems to address these issues. As with most technologies, once VoiceXML's appeal broadens and the benefits of deploying IVR solutions as a compliment to online e-business applications become more evident, the rate of adoption will increase. If you currently handle order entry and customer support with a combination of online and telephone support, now may be the time to consider VoiceXML as a way to reduce costs and realize greater return on your existing software investments.

Jonathan is a member of the Ferrum Group, LLC, which offers VoiceXML consulting and training as well as the VoiceXML Report, a free newsletter that covers the VoiceXML industry. You can contact him at eisen@ferrumgroup.com.