TMCnet - World's Largest Communications and Technology Community




esalesfeature.gif (2323 bytes)
November 1999

Can We Talk?


Let's Talk Business
The ready availability of multimedia PCs, multiple telephone lines and technical sophistication is already speeding the acceptance of business-to-business (b-to-b) interaction centers. For example, faced with increasing training, staffing and telecommunications costs, Cisco Systems, in its effort to maintain good customer service while controlling operational overhead, has enhanced the capabilities of its technical assistance call centers with an interactive Web site. Cisco can use this site to provide an extensive range of technical assistance services including a knowledge base for self-service, e-mail links for technical inquiries, requests for immediate callbacks and visual collaboration with skilled representatives. These options save money by helping customers help themselves and by reducing the need for skilled technicians to travel to customers' sites.

Real-time customer interaction can be implemented in several ways. Customers can interact with company representatives using online chat or they can have a telephone conversation. The agent’s responses to the customer can be based on intelligent hypertext scripts that augment the agent’s skills and knowledge. These scripts can guide the agent’s discussion with the customer and provide links to guide the customer’s browser to relevant content on the Web.

In addition, the agent and customer can engage in a whiteboard conferencing session that enables both parties to draw diagrams and fully interact both graphically and verbally. For instance, a data networking expert could collaborate with a customer to modify the customer’s network infrastructure to improve router performance. Software companies and software help desks can take advantage of application sharing technology in their interaction centers. Application sharing enables representatives to demonstrate software applications, help customers navigate complex menus or even troubleshoot configuration problems on their system. The technology can be used in a wide range of modes from simple one-way software demos to full bi-directional desktop control.

With synchronous multimedia communications options, customers can now get their issues resolved faster than waiting on hold for a call center representative — and save the time that might otherwise be lost while waiting for an onsite visit by a technician, or until a videoconference session could be established. In turn, this high level of service is building customer loyalty and repeat business, while enabling companies like Cisco to minimize the overhead costs of delivering the outstanding service their customers expect.

Your Customers Will Talk
Business-to-consumer (b-to-c) interaction centers are booming as well. This is due, in part, to the proliferation of technologies such as cable modems, DSL, ISDN and multiple phone lines. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology is now allowing voice and data to be carried over a single telephone line. Nearly 40 percent of Internet-enabled households have more than one phone line according to Forrester Research. Interestingly, many online retail businesses are finding that a large percentage of their customers are shopping on the Web from their place of employment where they have a high-speed Internet connection plus a telephone line.

Collaboration technologies can be used for consumer-to-consumer (c-to-c) interactions as well. In this scenario, consumers can collaborate as they jointly interact with a company’s Web site. For example, a sister living in Massachusetts and her brother living in California could visit a retailer’s Web site together and select birthday gifts for their parents. Effectively, the retailer is building a “community of interest” on its Web site. The retailer is attracting more customers, providing a comfortable, familiar method of shopping with friends and family members and ultimately generating more business from the Web.

Although real-time, synchronous interactions may be supported by any given interaction center, companies may not want to provide them across the board to all customers or business partners. Instead, this highest possible level of service may be reserved for high-dollar transactions, high-value customers, high-volume business partners or customers with service level agreements that stipulate rapid response times.

To support these various levels of access, companies may restrict synchronous interactions to a predefined set of customers. Alternatively, a set of rules can be established that selectively allow real-time access based on the situation at hand. If a customer is about to make a high-dollar purchase, for example, he or she may be offered a button to click to resolve any last-minute issues. Remember, these individuals may only be one click away from closing the sale with you, but they are also one click away from your competitor, so any extra service can be critical.

Selective synchronous interactions may also be important in support scenarios. If a customer is inquiring about an issue that is time-sensitive, for example, the customer may be presented with synchronous interaction options. Alternatively, if an issue is not time-critical, the customer may be presented with asynchronous interaction options such as a Web form or e-mail.

Everyone Is Talking About E-Commerce
By enhancing Web sites with personal contact options, e-commerce can be taken to the next level, away from a vending machine-like paradigm and into the realm of a bona fide, full-service, widely adopted business medium. There are several reasons why e-commerce will benefit from synchronous communications. First, customer relationships will be strengthened by providing the information, support and service customers need, when they need it, and in the way they want it delivered. As a result, both corporate and brand loyalty will improve to the point where customer satisfaction will translate into repeat business and increased revenue. This is critical in today’s business environment because even selling a single item to every person on the Web will not ensure long-term success; only repeat e-commerce business can accomplish this universal objective.

Equally important, synchronous, real-time interactions can be critical to creating and maintaining strong business relationships. A multimedia interaction center, for instance, can be extremely important for providing assistance to suppliers and helping them integrate their operations very closely with your business. Likewise, these technologies can improve the performance of your company’s distribution channel. If end customers encounter product issues that require attention, synchronous, real-time interactions between your company and your distributor can speed resolution times, which can have a profound effect on repeat business. Providing personal support to the sales operations of your distribution channel using the Web or an Extranet will reduce sales cycle times and overhead and improve cash flow performance.

By implementing an interaction center that offers real-time communications options, companies can leverage their existing Web sites and their existing call centers to cost-effectively boost sales, strengthen relationships, increase profitability and stay competitive. In fact, in a world growing increasingly dependent on e-commerce, availability of synchronous communications options can be a valuable differentiator, an essential element in creating the competitive edge required to maintain — and grow — market share.

Enough Talking, Let Me Show You
In addition to real-time callbacks and online chat, a range of visual collaboration technologies allow interaction centers to employ the eyes as well as the ears of the customer. Follow-me browsing, for example, allows a customer’s browser to repeat all steps taken by the customer service representative’s browser. Alternatively, the CSR may enable the customer’s browser to take the lead to resolve an issue. Page synchronization features can be used when an agent needs to navigate a series of hypertext links quickly, before bringing the customer directly to the same page.

Another visual collaboration technology called split-screen comparisons can also come in handy in a range of e-commerce sales and marketing efforts. If a customer is considering two products, a CSR can present background data on both alternatives by splitting the customer’s screen between two Web pages. By giving agents shared control over customers’ browsers, they can also assist in completing forms that may be required when ordering products or getting sales or support issues resolved. And, if the company happens to a be software vendor, interaction center agents can also demonstrate applications to customers and partners through the browser interface. Help desks could even use full application sharing to assist customers over the Internet.

Talking Turkey
With the business benefits of real-time human interaction in e-commerce established, it remains for companies to implement the best solution for their needs. When considering available alternatives, be sure the solution can seamlessly blend real-time, Web-based interactions with the existing telephony infrastructure. If the telephony infrastructure supports load balancing among multiple sites, for example, then so too must the multimedia interaction center solution. Similarly, if a Web site is already established, the interaction center should be able to leverage that resource and not require a complete make-over.

Or, if an e-commerce solution is already being used, the interaction center solution should be able to enhance that solution, not replace it. Some solutions offer e-commerce adapters, software that allows companies to enhance their existing e-commerce application with collaborative features, enabling parties involved in a transaction to have different capabilities and privileges. An agent working for a mutual fund company may be able to direct a customer to information about a variety of mutual funds, but only the customer can make a purchase.

Not to be overlooked is scalability. E-commerce may be hot right now, but it’s likely to get even hotter — so whatever solution is implemented should be able to meet not only today’s requirements, but tomorrow’s as well.

Another important consideration is its ability to interface with existing operational structures so a cohesive Web strategy can be created enterprisewide.

In other words, the platform that supports synchronous interactions must interface with marketing, sales and other core business applications. Failure to do so will result in a situation where the left hand is not aware of what the right hand is doing, preventing the marketing department, for example, from benefiting from sales information and vice versa. But with an enterprisewide Web strategy, customer service can be optimized, even while cross-selling, loyalty-building and revenue-generating opportunities are maximized.

What it comes down to is this: As the century draws to a close, competitive forces, along with an increasingly educated consumer population, are forcing companies to focus on building strong relationships with customers and business partners. There just is no escaping this fundamental truth of doing business in the ’90s and beyond. Loyal customers and repeat buyers are the key to profitability.

To gain and maintain these strong relationships, companies must use all the tools modern technology has to offer. But tools alone will not enable companies to achieve this end. Strong business relationships, like all others, depend on human interaction, or, to put it another way, talking. It is here that multimedia interaction centers excel, providing the very best technology tools available and all the communications options — including live conversations — that people want.

Nice talking to you!

Zoltan A. Poleretzky is director of product marketing at WebLine Communications. WebLine, based in Burlington, Massachusetts, is a provider of enterprise solutions for enabling interactive electronic commerce and Internet customer service.

VoiceXML: Surfing With Speech


Is There Someone I Can Talk To, Please?
Until recently, the Web operated like a giant vending machine: consumers located the product they wanted, clicked a few buttons, paid for their purchase by entering a credit card number, and out came their product. But as consumers and technology have become more sophisticated, expectations have been raised. Increasingly, what is required to make an e-commerce business venture successful is personalized service with a human touch. In short, consumers are no longer satisfied with just buying a product through an impersonal, machine-like interface; they want more presale service, more hand-holding and more post-sale support.

To meet these expectations, companies engaging in e-commerce are now beginning to implement multimedia interaction centers that pick up where both Web sites and call centers of old left off. These new centers let customers, prospects, suppliers, distributors and business partners choose to have their questions addressed synchronously, in real-time, through immediate voice callback, online chat, videoconferencing and visual collaboration. The ultimate benefits of interaction centers include increased customer loyalty and profits.

Despite the rapid growth of the Internet, the telephone still remains the world’s most relied-upon means of communications. Recent dazzling technological advances aside, computers are still relatively expensive and difficult to use. In contrast, the humble telephone remains cheap to purchase and simple to operate.

The advent of the World Wide Web has generated a great virtual warehouse of information. Much of this may be trivial nonsense, yet there is a considerable amount of data that could benefit millions of people who do not have Web access.

Given this, the next real challenge for the telecommunications industry is to give the Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) access to this expansive wealth of information now found on the Web.

VoiceXML: Teaching A (Very) Old Dog New Tricks
The answer lies in the recent development of Voice eXtensible Mark-up Language (VoiceXML). Rather than using a computer and Web browser to access a Web server, a user would make a telephone call on an ordinary telephone to call a VoiceXML server. The server would then access a designated Web page (via a network). Information on that Web page would be translated into speech and “read” to the user by the VoiceXML server. The user accesses hypertext links via speech or DTMF tones. While the VoiceXML server may cache some commonly used Web pages, it does not have a separate database. All information that is retrieved is pulled directly from the Web site’s database.

VoiceXML shares many similarities with HTML. The only real difference between the two is the addition of a set of “tags” (or commands) governing the management of telephony functions and features. As such, HTML programmers can easily adopt this new technology.

YAPS! (Yet Another Paradigm Shift)
With its flexibility and ease of programming, VoiceXML opens a new world of opportunity for service and content providers. Some examples of these new opportunities include:

  • New types of flexible, Web-based integrated voice response (IVR) systems. With VoiceXML, call centers will be able to custom design their own call management system at a far lower cost and in much less time. Unlike many types of IVR, VoiceXML systems run on off-the-shelf, Pentium-based hardware. There is no requirement for proprietary technology. Moreover, since the VoiceXML system uses the company’s Web site as its database, there is no need to support duplicate databases. This ensures lower costs and keeps the information provided by both the Web and telephone IVR consistent. Further, since VoiceXML-based IVR servers are fully automated, call center staff can be used in a more effective and efficient manner. Automatic speech recognition (ASR) enabled VoiceXML servers can handle simple requests for information, while operators could handle more complex requests. Finally, VoiceXML servers can also be configured to handle outbound communications. This means time-critical information (i.e., stock quotes, emergency weather advisories) can be captured by the VoiceXML server and relayed to customers via telephone, e-mail, fax or pager.
  • Voice-accessed “content gateways” will give advertisers (and their customers) a new and highly effective marketing channel. With this application, customers would be able to call a free-information service and receive a highly focused advertisement. Consider the example of a person looking for the nearest cinema playing the latest Star Wars movie. He could call a “cinema hot line” service, which lists the top-10 new releases for the month. The VoiceXML server would capture the person’s location (via caller I.D. or automatic speech recognition) and look up the information. The server would then “read” the customer an advertisement (e.g., a special premovie dinner at a restaurant near the cinema). The server would then offer the customer the chance to make the reservation at the restaurant. If the customer said yes (or hit a “1” on the keypad), the server would connect the customer to the restaurant for the reservation.

This is something different! Advertisers will now get a highly effective way to directly communicate with prequalified prospects. Customer feedback is swift and clear and ad campaigns can be quickly modified and easily developed. The VoiceXML server also allows “personalization” of the required information and messages. An individual who calls an “entertainment hot line” looking for different jazz clubs each week could be recognized (via voice, PIN or caller I.D.). She could hear a list of new clubs in her neighborhood or a list of those she has already visited.

  • Advanced personal information managers would allow subscribers to access a variety of telephone information services. Systems like AT&T’s OneReach Service allow their subscribers to configure the exact feature they need. For example, the user can access a private Web page and quickly create a set of speed-dial lists, as well as a virtual address book. The user can also activate voice mail, follow-me, long-distance calling and Web-based information services like MSNBC or ESPN sports. Once configured, this user may access these same services from any telephone simply by dialing a toll-free number and entering a PIN.

Aside from providing significant value-added features, this kind of service clearly is a revenue generator for the service agency that provides it.

Standards: The VoiceXML Forum
As VoiceXML is a relatively new technology, there is near-universal recognition that it must become standards-based, sooner rather than later. Companies like AT&T, Lucent, Motorola, IBM, Array Systems Computing and Phillips are actively participating in the VoiceXML Forum. This group will focus on developing a standard set of specifications to access the World Wide Web by telephone. Further information can be found at www.vxmlforum.com.

The Future: The More Things Change…
As we have seen, the advent of VoiceXML technology will have considerable impact on the commercial and consumer environments. The net result of these impacts will be a dramatic growth in advanced wire/wireless telecommunications systems. Voice-XML, automatic speech recognition and new text-to-speech engines will allow telecom manufacturers to build the equivalent of the old-style “candlestick” telephones. Rather than keying in a telephone number, customers will simply pick up the receiver and ask for a phone number (call home), a service (get me a pizza) or information (what’s today’s weather?). We believe that today’s telephone will evolve into a true “personal digital assistant,” providing simple, instant and secure access to a universe of information and services.

The rapid commercialization of the Internet has significantly changed the way we search for and acquire information. The advent of VoiceXML will, over a relatively brief period of time, tear down the walls that separate the telephone from the Internet. The best, indeed, is yet to come.

Bruce Eidsvik is currently responsible for Array Systems Computing Inc.’s business development efforts and recently has been managing the company’s growth in CTI and Voice eXtensible Markup Language. Array Systems Computing Inc. is a software engineering and systems integration company.

Technology Marketing Corporation

2 Trap Falls Road Suite 106, Shelton, CT 06484 USA
Ph: +1-203-852-6800, 800-243-6002

General comments: [email protected].
Comments about this site: [email protected].


© 2023 Technology Marketing Corporation. All rights reserved | Privacy Policy