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Feature Article
November 2001

Voice Portal Renaissance: Looking Beyond The Portal To Meet Business Customers' Needs


The first wave of voice portals targeted the consumer market, providing Internet-based information such as sports scores, weather forecasts, news headlines, and horoscopes via the telephone. Voice portals promised easy access to information users might find on the Internet, without requiring an Internet connection. While consumers enjoyed the convenience of mining the Web from
anywhere using any phone, they didn't enjoy it enough to pay for it, leaving the service dependent on advertising revenue for support. This type of service has not proven to be a sustainable business model. And as interesting as these portals are, do people really want to talk to the Internet?

Voice portal providers are now trying to reinvent themselves and have turned their attention beyond providing traffic reports and stock quotes to streamlining business interactions. This shift from consumer to business applications demonstrates that businesses are looking for more sophisticated ways to stay in touch with their customers.

Even more important than the portals themselves are the platforms that the voice portals run on -- voice portals are simply applications that run on Web-driven platforms. The power of the technology behind voice portals could significantly influence the way that businesses and their customers interact. With the right platform, businesses can run other applications that are mission-critical for serving customers and generating revenue. A business portal application through which a company offers information on locations and business hours is a nice service for customers. However, enabling transactions and getting customers in contact with the right agent for conducting business is what keeps your business running.

Not all providers of voice portals can adequately support business applications because they are not built on a reliable, scalable, and carrier-grade platform. Let's face it, who really cares if they can't get a sports score? But, when it comes to mission-critical telephony applications, every call is critical. A Voice Web platform is the key element for supporting business applications.

The Voice Web is based on VoiceXML, the emerging standard for voice applications. Using VoiceXML, voice applications are developed and implemented as easily as Web applications, therefore, the flexibility, performance, and control inherent in Web-based computing can now be brought to the world of telecommunications. The Voice Web platform merges the reliability and scalability of the telephone network with the innovation of the Internet to deliver a range of services, from voice portals to applications that more effectively process and queue calls, send outbound notification messages, and provide interactive voice-based self-service. It's important to look beyond the applications to the platform underneath in order to determine whether you'll be limited to a simple voice portal or if you'll have the flexibility to deliver additional revenue-generating applications based on the same platform.

The Voice Web platform bridges the worlds of telecommunications and the Internet. It uses standard technologies developed primarily for Internet use to deliver information and services to any telephone. As rapidly as the Internet has entered the public consciousness and become part of daily life, the telephone is still the most ubiquitous, most widely used communications tool. When customers want immediate service, they pick up the phone. It makes sense, therefore, for businesses to design services to be accessed via telephone, even if they leverage Internet technologies to do so. This transforms the telephone from a simple communications tool into a powerful information tool.

The Voice Web platform should be built on open standards. One reason for the rapid pace of innovation on the Internet was the fact that it was developed using open industry standards. That meant that developers were free to create new applications that would work on the Internet and in conjunction with other Internet applications. In contrast, telecommunications has primarily relied on proprietary systems owned by particular vendors. Service providers were limited by the applications and services developed by the large switch vendors. The Voice Web platform, driven by Internet standards such as VoiceXML, is open to the same kind of innovative development as the World Wide Web has been, and it brings the same kind of innovation to services that can be delivered to the telephone. An open platform creates opportunities for a range of application development, maximizing the benefit from the platform.

The platform should be able to run more applications than just the voice portal. It's these other applications that provide the true value because they deliver mission-critical services. These solutions include outbound notification, in which customers or employees can be automatically notified of specific events or issues, such as shipments, reminders, and alerts. Another service is speech-enabled self-service, which allows a more flexible and intuitive interaction, and integrated Web and telephone-based systems for a more consistent customer experience, drawing upon the same databases and information.

The Web-driven technology also enables enhanced personalization for a more customized customer interaction. Call routing applications running on the Voice Web platform enable enterprises to make more efficient use of call center resources, with personalized treatment of callers, network-level queuing and routing for a "virtual" call center that covers multiple locations and interactive, intelligent routing and queuing based on a number of defined parameters.

These applications all enable enterprises to generate additional revenue, improve their customer service and cut costs associated with providing customer service. Because the platform uses standards-based technology, the number and variety of solutions possible for the platform are limited only by the imagination of developers. Third-party developers, service providers, and enterprises all can develop new services to meet specific business needs.

If the platform is to run mission-critical applications, then it must be built to meet carrier-class standards of reliability and redundancy. It's only a minor inconvenience if a customer has to call back to get a horoscope or a business location. When important business services fail, the business can't function. Enterprises must be assured that their voice applications have the same kind of five-nines reliability as they've come to expect from telephone service.

While applications such as voice portals based on a Web-driven platform provide benefits for enterprises, they have the potential to jumpstart new business
opportunities for service providers. That's because the platform makes it possible for service providers to deliver a variety of enhanced voice services and value-added, high-margin voice applications to their enterprise customers. 

While consumer voice portal applications may serve a public relations and branding function for service providers, business applications that solve business problems are where they will make their money. Businesses already spend more than $40 billion per year on technology to help them provide better customer service by telephone. The Voice Web platform gives service providers the opportunity to tap into this market while strengthening their relationships with existing customers by offering additional services. The more services a customer receives from a particular service provider, the more difficult it is to switch service providers, especially if competitors don't offer the same range of services.

While voice portals offer an appealing way to leverage the Internet to deliver Web content to customers, business-savvy enterprises and service providers will look beyond simple voice portals. They'll investigate platforms that support not only voice portal services, but also a range of other applications that impact the bottom line. These applications benefit enterprises by delivering a consistent, personalized experience across all contact points. Meanwhile, Voice Web platforms offer a way for service providers to enter new business areas that will enable them to provide value-added services to their enterprise customers.

And they can still use the platform to offer business or consumer voice portal services.

Prem Uppaluru is president, CEO, and co-founder of Telera, the developer of some of first software platforms to deliver and manage Web-driven voice applications. He has over 20 years of telecommunications, network management, multimedia, and telephony experience.

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