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Feature Article
May 2003

VoIP Enabled E-Commerce


Between 1999 and 2004, it is expected that e-commerce retailers will have lost $173 billion in sales due to poor service, according to Datamonitor. Approximately 90 percent of all on-line transactions are abandoned before completion. This astounding figure is often attributed to the lack of the familiar human element that provides reassurance and sales advice in competing brick-and-mortar businesses. Voice over IP (VoIP) has started to address this void in e-commerce by giving customers the ability to speak with sales staff as they browse online through a vendor�s products and services. The technology foundation for this shift has already been laid. Microsoft has said that personal computers running its Windows XP operating system will support the VoIP SIP protocol. In addition, VoIP is becoming integrated with Voice XML browsers. These developments, coupled with speech recognition technology, are affording e-commerce customers the ability to have their questions addressed and answered with live human interaction. The end result of these advances is to successfully walk customers through the process of closing their transactions, and minimize instances of abandoned cyber-shopping carts.

While many are attracted to the convenience of shopping online, visitors frequently leave a vendor�s Web site without clicking that all-important final �Place Order� button. Very often this is due to a lingering doubt about some attribute of the product or service under consideration. In many instances, simple reinforcement by the vendor is all that would be required to drive the sale through -- benefiting both the customer�s and merchant�s bottom line. The need for this final push has not been lost on companies, and many have implemented IP-based communication systems to facilitate the flow of information to customers in real-time via the avenue that is most convenient to them.

These modes include instant chat, which allows the customer to initiate a real-time text conversation with a salesperson. The agent can then address any questions or concerns that are raised, and discuss the product attributes to help close the sale. Such systems also enable the salesperson to push a Web address onto the customer�s browser -- helping the customer to visually view the pertinent information. However, the key value of IP-based communications systems is giving shoppers the click-to-talk ability. This enables customers to initiate a cost-free VoIP session with a qualified sales agent who can then provide a reassuring human voice and walk them through the final steps of the sale.

VoIP enabled e-commerce has been bolstered, in part, by Microsoft�s plans to enable all personal computers with telephony through VoIP. Microsoft�s Windows XP operating system supports the VoIP Session Initial Protocol (SIP). SIP provides signaling and call control for IP-based communications -- initiating and routing a user�s call to the proper party. With its HTTP-based roots, SIP offers easy integration of voice with other Web services, enabling multimedia communications such as video conferencing and chat, that enrich an e-commerce Web site. SIP has helped change the face of e-commerce by offering online customers multiple avenues to secure information in a manner that best appeals to them. These innovations are also reflected in the changing call centers supporting eCommerce vendors. The conventional 800 number call bank that might be employed by an eCommerce merchant can now be replaced by a more efficient IP-based communication center capable of managing different multimedia channels that enrich the traditional voice based communications. All of this results in better customer relationship management, regardless of how a shopper chooses to contact the vendor.

Once on the Web site, a shopper can simply click a phone icon to contact the IP-based communications center. The user�s computer, via SIP, will contact the VoIP gateway at the vendor�s end. Here, a router card will act as the media gateway, with all call processing and switching functions done via packets. An independent server is used to manage call control. In the case of multiple call center sites, this provides simple and centralized control over VoIP streams. In addition, a media server can be used to provide music on hold, announcements and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) functionality. Such IP centric call centers provide a scalable and flexible architecture for call routing. Depending on the size of the vendor, multiple call centers can be set up in different geographical areas, with centralized headquarters call control and media servers being leveraged across the different sites. The IP centric call centers also help eCommerce vendors reduce costs by eliminating the need for TDM components in addition to maintaining a data network.

IVR is another key element helping enable eCommerce. IVR is based on speech recognition technology, which now has recognition reliability rates in the 90 percent range. Different IVR platforms leveraging VoiceXML browsers/interpreters enable users to make queries and get intelligent responses on the Web site. The XML-based language is used to format data for voice-based interactions in a manner similar to how HTML is used to format data for the Internet. By standardizing on VoiceXML, standard user interfaces have been established, allowing multiple third parties to deliver applications and content for the burgeoning eCommerce speech segment. VoIP has helped take this even further by making VoiceXML products become even more powerful and cost effective for eCommerce applications. Different companies are introducing products that support both VoiceXML and VoIP. This will further enable eCommerce because users will be able to place free or low-cost VoIP calls via the Internet to the applicable VoiceXML browser to access products and services. This results in reduced long-distance charges both to vendors, in the case of toll free 800 numbers, and end customers. Consequently this will reduce the costs associated with the deployment of Voice Web services.

VoIP is proving to bolster the acceptance of eCommerce by providing that reassuring human element as customers make their final �Place Order� click. The associated technologies and protocols around it are providing multiple avenues for customers to secure information from online merchants -- via video, text, and interactive Web browsing as sales agents talk the customer through the buying process. Through the use of VoIP, vendors will also be able to convert their call centers to IP centric ones, thus reducing overall operational costs while adding new services and features.

Irvind S. Ghai is worldwide high-density voice manager for Texas Instruments� Voice over Packet Business Unit. Texas Instruments is a world leader in digital signal processing and analog technologies. For more information, visit the company online at www.ti.com.

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