Can We Talk?
BY ZOLTAN A. POLERETZKY, WEBLINE COMMUNICATIONS CORP.
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
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 agents responses to the customer can be based on intelligent
hypertext scripts that augment the agents skills and knowledge. These scripts can
guide the agents discussion with the customer and provide links to guide the
customers 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 customers 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
companys Web site. For example, a sister living in Massachusetts and her brother
living in California could visit a retailers 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 todays 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 companys 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
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 customers browser to
repeat all steps taken by the customer service representatives browser.
Alternatively, the CSR may enable the customers 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 customers 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.
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 its
likely to get even hotter so whatever solution is implemented should be able to
meet not only todays requirements, but tomorrows 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.
Surfing With Speech
BY BRUCE EIDSVIK, ARRAY SYSTEMS COMPUTING INC.
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 worlds
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 sites 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
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
- 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 companys 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 persons 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&Ts
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 (whats todays
weather?). We believe that todays 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 companys growth in
CTI and Voice eXtensible Markup Language. Array Systems Computing Inc. is a software
engineering and systems integration company.