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September 2003

Rich Tehrani Road-Trip Roundup

By Rich Tehrani
Group Editor-In-Chief, Technology Marketing Corporation

Like most people, I seldom look forward to embarking on a writing project, but having just returned from a whirlwind tour of the Northeast and California, I welcome a few minutes off my feet. I spent much of my time in Silicon Valley and have positive news to report, as things seem to be picking up in this veritable primordial soup of technological innovation. Whereas last year I saw a lack of traffic on the freeways, this time I was stuck in three jams in four days (this is good news, really). Where there was once pessimism among the companies in this area, I am seeing cautious optimism due to increases in sales and RFPs. One thing that hasn't changed is the for lease signs, which may have even increased since my last visit. Of course, this can simply be credited to overbuilding during the Internet and telecom bubbles.

One of the more interesting things I saw came from a relatively small company that has been around for seven years. The company is called VirtualPBX (www.virtualpbx.com) and may be the first communications ASP. Of course, the term ASP is out of fashion, thanks to the various VCs that pumped billions of dollars into these companies in the manner of mindless sheep being led to slaughter. All at once, the VCs decided they would stop the funding of these companies, essentially leaving them all to die. This wouldn't have been such a catastrophe if the VCs hadn't forced the companies in which they invested to sign leases in the most expensive buildings and to spend money like it had no value.

But enough ranting. As it turns out, all ASPs aren't dead'they're just called something else. Hosted applications or Web services are terms that refer to the same old ASPs. The hosted companies are beginning to do well. Salesforce.com is catching on like wildfire due to its ease-of-use and reasonable pay-as-you-go costs. White Pajama also is doing well after the founder of the company repurchased the company from its VCs and is steering it in the right direction.

Proving that my train of thought does indeed have a caboose, I'll come back to VirtualPBX. The company was founded by Steve Lang, who was instrumental in developing one of the first languages that allowed DSP board-based CTI to take place. Lang decided to take his intimate knowledge of Dialogic boards and build a company that allows an organization to take advantage of distributed PBX and ACD functionality for a song.

So how do I define 'song'? How about $150 per month and $5 to $15 a month per extension depending on the volume of extensions? It is probably not possible to be profitable at these low prices, so there is also a per-minute charge that ranges between 5.5 and 6.9 cents a minute for domestic calls, while international calls are around 20 cents per minute. These are still reasonable rates for the smaller companies that are the primary target of this service. To be precise, the best customer for this type of service is one that is distributed either around the country or around the world. The reason for this is the lack of requirement for equipment, which can add up when equipping multiple locations. Via the Web, a user can assign 800 numbers to ring to different extensions or calling queues. Agents can log into the various queues and receive calls as they come in. Agents can be members of multiple queues. A verbal message tells the agent with which queue the call is associated, allowing the agent to alter the greeting accordingly.

Examples of ideal customers are companies that want to provide 24-hour customer service by distributing agents in different time zones. Companies that have agents who spend a lot of time away from their desks can also take advantage of the VirtualPBX. The ACD functions are numerous, but not as numerous as a full-featured ACD found in the typical customer interaction center. This, however, is not the main target audience for VirtualPBX, except in certain circumstances. I'll come back for more on that topic later.

Other benefits of this service include:

' Elimination of the need to give out multiple phone numbers for cell phones and home phones;

' Follow-me functions;

' Screening functions;

' Notification of messages on pagers and cell phones;

' The ability to play and forward voice mail messages via the Web and e-mail, respectively; and

' Unlimited virtual extensions.

There is much more, so check the company's Web site for more information. Additionally, the company tells me they have as customers small workgroups in large companies, as well. The service is very flexible and I give VirtualPBX a great deal of credit for being such an early implementer of technology that I believe is integral to increasing corporate productivity.

For companies that are looking for redundancy in their telecommunications, they can purchase the VirtualPBX Parachute, which functions as a fail-safe rollover of PBX/ACD functions. This is especially useful as recently the largest power outage in the U.S. knocked out electricity and phone systems in the eastern U.S. and Canada. For $1,000 per year plus an incremental extension cost of $4, users can take advantage of redundancy in their phone systems without the need to have second locations.

I first visited Genesys about seven years ago, when the company had less than 50 people on staff. They now have 1,100 and are owned by Alcatel. Genesys has a great deal of new products, including Genesys Voice Callback, a feature that allows callers to opt for a return phone call at a time of their choosing instead of waiting idly on hold. This makes sense to me'if you've read my columns in the past, you'll know I am not a fan of waiting on hold, but who is? Genesys can further support a number of IP-PBXs, including Cisco CallManager, with its call center software, allowing users to build pure IP or hybrid contact centers depending on their needs. This is not so unusual, as working with multiple switch vendors has been a big differentiator for the company. A pure IP-based contact center can be as large as 300 agents.

The Hosted Model
Genesys has worked to expand its relationship with Salesforce.com, another plus for the hosted model. To further the strength of this model, they will soon release a product called Network IPCC that allows service providers to host call center functions for their customers.

Aspect, a big player in the customer interaction market, also has a great deal happening. Its product line is being renamed as Uniphi Call Center, and we will see the company focus more on applications. This makes sense, as hardware usually becomes commoditized over time. Aspect too has a scheduled callback product, which like Genesys, can tie in with the IVR and ACD, but also can tie in with the workforce management suite to ensure that agents are available when the customer wants the callback. Not surprisingly, the company has the ability to support IP as well, and they feel customers can use hardware purchased from them today for the next 10 years, allowing users to migrate to IP when they are ready.

A company that came to visit us at TMC and is worth sharing with readers is Tuvox, a company that focuses on automating high-tech customer service via phone. The problem they solve is simple to understand: technical customer services reps are expensive, and if you can automate a costly factor such as this, you have a winner of a product. That is what the company is hoping the market will think of its product, and judging by the size of some of its customers, the product works well.

Tuvox creates conversational applications based on conversational agents with the aim of making voice interaction with a computer more like a conversation between people. Such an automated agent might be what the company refers to as a 'data clerk' that accepts an account number and returns a balance. More advanced automated agents can route calls and solve problems step-by-step.

The goal of this approach is to eliminate the query model in which a user needs to ask a different set of questions depending on the problem. A PDA that has a problem synchronizing is a very different problem than one that reboots on its own or has a recharging issue. Using speech recognition with many other systems means a company needs thousands of dialogs if it has an unstructured knowledge base.

The company is able to focus on applications, as it is not a speech recognition company. Speech recognition is handled by companies like Nuance and SpeechWorks (now ScanSoft). This focus has allowed Tuvox to land customers such as Tivo as well as other category leaders such as Handspring and Activision.

Another area in which Tuvox can help is in healthcare, where a typical problem for customers is trying to figure out what different medical procedures are covered. For example, how many ultrasound sessions will the insurance company pick up and depending on what circumstances?

Tuvox says they can reduce the amount of time it takes for automated systems to provide these types of answers, which currently can take nearly 10 minutes or more. I did a brief test of the Tivo system and I was impressed. You won't mistake the system for a live person, but it is certainly much better than the many IVR systems I have used in the past.

I liked the ability to interrupt the system while it was speaking, though it's a common feature, and the ability to put my session on hold, which is pretty unique.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the system is how a user programs it. It has the ability to be fed vast amounts of information from archived documents such as a Web-based library of support documentation. Using this text, the system will do linguistic analysis and build an automatic structure in which commands such as 'wait,' 'yes' and 'no' are built in. Using this method, Tuvox aims to be 80 to 90 percent accurate, and it is at this point where the customer would proof to make sure the system has all the data in a correct format. Another important tool Tuvox provides is the ability to combine multiple support topics into a single topic, if needed, allowing support to be adapted to suit voice communications more efficiently. Testing and tuning are important when building such complex applications and the system helps you identify things that aren't understood correctly as well as helping you deal with error recovery.

Obviously, speech cannot replace the Web for support when the resolution to a problem is too long to be read comfortably over the phone. In these cases, a customer can be referred to a Web-based document once the problem has been identified.

Since software does much of the work, the implementation time is relatively short. The average time for Activision and Handspring to implement a system with 100 topics was six weeks, resulting in a system with an ability to resolve an average of over 20 percent of calls.

As is becoming more common, you may choose to have the application hosted by Tuvox, or you can purchase licenses, as well.

I hope this column was educational and informative. I have a lot more travel coming up and will keep you posted on any hot new companies I come across. Stay tuned!


Rich Tehrani
Group Publisher, Group Editor-in-Chief

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