Get the message with voice technology


29 Jan 2003

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In the spirit of an old Latin proverb “Eloquence avails nothing against a voice of gold”, the transformation of existing business process to be activated by new voice technologies including biometrics, interactive voice response (IVR) and VoiceXML (extensible markup language) presents a money-saving opportunity for Irish small to medium-sized enterprises (SME).

In other words, the days of receptionists in cost-conscious SMEs could be numbered as new technologies that enable callers to locate people or departments directly or by unified messaging across text and email using the power of their voice takes hold.

IVR technologies have been with us since time immemorial, often irritating the average caller as they try to reach an evasive customer support person or give us a menu of options that leave us fuming and slamming the phone down with preternatural firmness. However, significant developments have enabled technology firms to bolster IVR and tie it in with new software standards that allow customers and employees of firms to negotiate customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning systems in an easy and unobtrusive way.

As well as this, the growth in biometric security protocols has resulted in firms using voice prints to monitor employee attendance as well as enable voice-commerce applications. Dublin software firm BuyTel has secured major deals in the US and South Africa amongst banks, government departments and security and defence organisations.

Earlier this month, the Irish subsidiary of telecoms carrier Cable & Wireless formed an alliance with Belfast-based BlueChip Technologies to distribute a new automated switchboard control (ASC) system. Using proven voice recognition technology, ASC will instantly connect a caller to the correct extension and enables businesses to reduce incoming call-handling costs significantly and improve customer service by eliminating lost and queued calls.

The increasing prevalence of new software languages such as XML and web services means that web users aren’t restricted to the PC as a means of navigating a website or business intranet. Instead they can use their TV, their mobile phone or their personal digital assistant and today their voice to navigate through services and get what they want in a secure manner.

This has resulted in the creation of VoiceXML, a language for creating voice-user interfaces for the telephone. It uses speech recognition and touch-tone for input, and pre-recorded audio and text-to-speech synthesis for output.

Support for VoiceXML has been strong and in December, IBM bolstered its WebSphere line-up with tools for building applications with a voice interface that adheres to the VoiceXML and the Java programming languages, allowing developers to create voice portals or websites that people can navigate by speaking commands.

Earlier last year, Sun Microsystems entered the fray with a range of voice recognition products called Voice Tone that enables phone carriers to allow phone customers to enjoy voice-activated dialling and have their emails read to them over the phone. Hewlett-Packard and Nortel Networks have also added their research and development muscle to the effort.

Not to be outdone by this, Microsoft has started developing its own speech applications over speech application language tags (SALT), a cousin of HTML, to enable the growing support for speech delivery and recognition features in phone banking and financial services.

In recent months, Microsoft began shipping its .Net Speech Software Developer Kit, which is also downloadable from its website. In a related development, Microsoft formed a partnership with Intervoice to create web-based speech software for IVR, CRM and ERP needs in businesses.

According to Barry Moylan, sales and marketing director at Cable & Wireless Systems Integration Ireland, the potential take-up of ASC systems, which piggyback on the PBXes common in most Irish firms, is strong.

“We are focusing on a target market of 1,000 firms that have Nortel Meridian PBXes installed in Ireland. The opportunity that is there for Irish firms that are conscious of costs is that the intelligent manner in which calls can be route easily by voice to an individual’s extension, mobile or email. This removes the need for the constant presence of a receptionist who could easily be deployed to more value-creating roles like sales, HR [human resource] or accounts. The ASC system can work directly with an individual’s Outlook Email and Contacts directories insofar as they can ring through the corporate network if they are on the road and access their address books and call a contact. This application alone could save Irish SMEs a small fortune in cutting down on workers ringing directory enquiries all the time. I know of at least three Irish companies that spend €30,000 per annum on paying for directory enquiry calls because their workers don’t have their address books to hand,” he says.

Sean Gregan, business development manager with BlueChip Technologies, which developed the ASC system, says that the service is available to firms 24×7, offsetting obvious staffing needs. “The caller simply speaks the name of the person or department and the system verifies it and they are instantly connected. Companies can introduce ASC on a phased basis, initially for employee calls only, then supplier calls and ultimately customer calls,” he says.

Gregan concludes that currently three large corporate firms in the Irish market are evaluating using ASC technology to enable remote or mobile workers to navigate through their ERP and CRM systems, resulting in greater integration and efficiency as well as cutting costs.

Pictured: Barry Moylan, sales and marketing director, Cable & Wireless and Sean Gregan, business development manager, BlueChip Technologies