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Feature Article
January 2003


VXML 2.0: Freeing Hands and Leveling the IVR Playing Field

BY CHARLIE RABIE

While only about 150 million PC users have Internet access, more than 1 billion people worldwide use telephones, a number that continues to grow. The sheer number of consumers who regularly use the phone makes the global potential for new voice self-service applications enormous.

A new standard, VoiceXML 2.0, coupled with IP contact centers is creating a revolution in self-service, allowing users to access Web pages, fill out detailed order forms or conduct any transaction over the telephone that would normally be completed over the Web. This revolution in self-service can extend to just about any application that frees the hands of phone users to continue writing, typing, driving -- or just resting.

Historically, it has often been cheaper to provide customer service over the Internet rather than over the phone. The advent of VoIP-based IVR has led companies to reexamine phone-based customer service for potential cost-savings with the still-growing global reach unmatched by younger modes of customer interaction. Speech technology allows us to tap into this opportunity with highly effective voice self-service solutions that maintain interoperability with both legacy hardware and back-end architecture, while staying open to new technologies as they advance and become accessible.

In the past, widely adopted proprietary solutions that are incompatible with new technologies have stifled innovation. VoiceXML, which avoids this problem by providing a universal framework for building voice applications, eliminates the need for proprietary IVR software. Because VoiceXML bridges the gap between Web and voice data, companies now have the ability to reduce service costs while providing more reliable, interconnected, flexible, and convenient customer experiences over the phone. VoiceXML is a powerful tool that provides developers with a common ground on which to build voice applications. This in turn saves companies money and ultimately improves customer service.

Companies such as IBM, AT&T, and Motorola worked on early versions of languages that eventually merged into VoiceXML.

VoiceXML allows for streamlined application development, smooth portability and the facilitation of voice/data/Web convergence. VoiceXML is an open protocol for enabling speech recognition technology, allowing end users to access Web-based data over the phone. The creators of VoiceXML consider open systems to be of great importance to the advancement of speech recognition and the accessibility of new technologies through vocal interaction. The open standards approach lends itself well to the growing market of speech recognition technology.

Of course, vendors of proprietary technology face the grim reality that compliance with VoiceXML standards has essentially leveled the playing field for newcomers. Some have argued that there is still a need for both VoiceXML interoperable software and proprietary technology for vertical-specific needs that are too complex for current versions of VoiceXML to support.

The truth is that VoiceXML 2.0 allows for the creation of standards-based solutions that are interoperable, portable, and highly complex, while saving costs in development, implementation, and upgrading. �VoiceXML is clearly gaining credibility as a leading protocol for customer service voice applications,� said Bern Elliot, research director at Gartner Group. �And because it enables companies to leverage existing Web applications, VoiceXML-based self-service provides the framework for a more integrated customer contact management solution.�

VoiceXML provides a universal method for building voice applications that use natural speech recognition technology. The advantages of VoiceXML have resulted in a rapid adoption rate. By tightening ambiguities that existed within prior versions of the standard and improving portability for more complex applications, VoiceXML 2.0 is a milestone in a path towards IVR system development based upon pure standards rather than proprietary technology. VoiceXML has brought elegant interoperability to IVR software -- protecting customer investment and controlling cost of ownership. Adoption of VoiceXML affords developers competitive advantages while extending portability into the historically proprietary interactive voice response (IVR) market. VoiceXML 2.0, enhances extensibility and provides an elegant framework for voice technology development and data convergence.

Growing devotion to pure standards-based voice technology and systems will bolster service reliability, tighten information security, justify total cost of ownership, and ultimately enhance the customer experience. The World Wide Web Consortium developed the 2.0 specification for VoiceXML 2.0, released in October of 2001, which gleans the proven elements of newly developed IVR software and universalizes them without encroaching on more sophisticated solutions in which dedicated applications are still needed, and essential, for more granular and application-specific development layers. According to Gartner Group�s Bern Elliot, contact center outsourcers that do not offer VoiceXML solutions by the end of 2003 will suffer a significant competitive disadvantage by a probability of 80 percent.

VoiceXML�s standard development environment saves developers time and saves companies money. As the standard enjoys broader adoption and application, it will stimulate innovation and collaboration among experienced engineers while preserving precious resources in this era of tight budgets.

Already, vertical-specific workshops and forums take place, allowing participants to share scripts and foster collaboration that applies directly to their market. For example, in the healthcare industry, linking to a specific data type like medical test results or medical histories might be performed a number of ways. By sharing VoiceXML-based development knowledge, innovators and administrators can home in on the most effective way to access and provide these specific data types via voice systems. In turn, the refinement process feeds back to the standard itself. As speech technology developers identify excellence in applications, these methods can be evaluated for broad applicability and folded into successive versions of the overall standard. As with any standardization, VoiceXML must skate the razor-fine edge between complexity and broad universality. As standards go, VoiceXML has balanced this beautifully -- capturing the ingenuity of proprietary developments through each successive version without committing to unproven methodologies.

One of the greatest benefits of VoiceXML as a standard is the inherent portability of compatible applications. Software developed following this standard is more valuable to purchasers as it extends the lifecycle of the application, and in turn, the user�s system. For example, VoiceXML 2.0 includes the valuable addition of a standard format for grammars. Until 2.0, grammar was still proprietary, limiting portability across speech vendors. Now, with standardized grammar, VoiceXML 2.0 further supports vendor neutral portability and strengthens the viability and usability of speech recognition applications. VoiceXML-compliant vendors provide service differentiation by offering greater flexibility, enhanced convenience and improved customer experience.

VoiceXML has a strong impact on the customer experience of self-service applications. The majority of self-service applications that exist today are DTMF (touchtone) driven or Web-based. While DTMF systems have saved companies money, they have damaged user confidence in computerized assistance. Just about anybody who�s completed transaction by phone can tell stories of the seemingly endless phone trees. The rise of the IP contact center coupled with VoiceXML 2.0 means customers are freed from lengthy paper forms or clicking through Web fields to exchange information. The key to taking full advantage of the IVR is for developers and businesses alike to remember that self-service is not a replacement for personalized service. VoiceXML provides customers with multiple options on multiple channels and specialized service, while optimizing the time and skill sets of agents. Adding more types of voice-self service transactions will help businesses provide better live service. By relegating repetitive and formulaic interaction to now sophisticated natural language IVR, contact centers can preserve human resources for personal and interpretive interaction. Agent satisfaction is intrinsic to both customer satisfaction and productivity. By providing an avenue for repetitive tasks to be routed away from agents, contact centers can offer a more stimulating and motivating work environment while improving their bottom line.

VoiceXML provides additional benefits to companies trying to provide excellent service while keeping costs down. It enables developers to build automated voice services using the same technology they use to create visual Web sites, significantly reducing the cost of construction and delivery of new capabilities for the traditional phone customer. VoiceXML also allows for a standard development environment, shorter and simpler application development, application portability, and the decoupling of data from telephony.

�The IVR market is currently going through the biggest change in its history,� says Brian Strachman, a senior analyst with In-Stat/MDR. �Revolutions in technology are changing where and how IVR systems are used. VXML opens the door to hosted IVR services and custom applications. In addition, advances in speech recognition are broadening the scope of potential applications, while Speech Application Language Tags (SALT) is poised to open the floodgates of IVR applications into the wireless market.�

VoiceXML is paving the way for natural language phone self-service, bringing innovation to the forefront, improving user experience and fostering a blooming IVR market based on standards and open systems. Through each successive version of VoiceXML, the voices of consumers, developers, and businesses can be better heard.

Charlie Rabie is Vice President of Self-Service Applications Development, Aspect Communications. Aspect Communications is a leading provider of business communications solutions that help companies improve customer satisfaction, reduce operating costs, gather market intelligence, and increase revenue. For more information, please visit their Web site at www.aspect.com.

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