Spread the Word

If the combination of SpeechTEK, TVUI and SAXPO has any common denominator, it is this: We have made great strides in educating ourselves about the power of standards and the Internet in making 'insanely great' self-service, telephone-based applications. Now is the time to take our message to corporate board rooms, in general, with special attention to executives in charge of the information systems and information technology world at large.

In his keynote address at SpeechTEK, Tom Peters paid homage to companies that use IT to gain competitive advantage by doing more with less. His poster child was food distributor, SYSCO Corporation (which he termed "the one that spells 'Cisco' funny"), which grew from a $115 million firm when it went public in the 1970s to a firm that generated nearly $30 billion in revenue in 2004. Peters observed that executive leadership, basically, "bet the company" on new IT systems by delaying or canceling spending on "maintenance" projects and targeting a strategy of using IT to "leapfrog" the competition. It is a plan that worked and one that Peters credits to a management designed to "embrace the new technologies with child-like enthusiasm and a revolutionary's zeal."

The 1990s and early 1980s were characterized by sales training programs with names like "Selling to VITO," a reference to the "very important top officer." With respect to speech and IP-telephony, selling to VITO remains an important concept, but we have to do more than keep our fingers crossed that VITO is an enlightened, child-like technologist with the impatience of Steve Jobs and a dedication to 'insanely great' solutions that use new technologies to break through organizational and political log-jams to beat the competition and better serve the customer.

Helping VITO Across the Chasm
Earlier this year, Opus Research and AmComm fielded the first Future Readiness Survey, soliciting input from enterprise decision-makers to determine their position on the path toward positioning automated speech as just one of many channels for high-quality customer service [a PowerPoint displaying the high-level results of the research is available by contacting pheadrick@opusresearch.net]. Through the survey, we asked such questions as whether a company was deploying Voice over IP, whether they had recently upgraded their ACD or IVR systems, and whether they were deploying new technologies, such as "natural language understanding."

A growing number of enterprises (around half of the people responding) had VoIP baked into their communications plans. Over 60 percent were planning a project or procurement involving natural language understanding. More importantly, from a future-readiness perspective, just over 35 percent had self-service projects underway that take into account multiple channels - leveraging self-service logic and data that support the Web across contact centers, email response, kiosks and even text messaging.

Unlike SYSCO, most firms take an incremental approach. Almost exactly half of the respondents to our Future Readiness Survey regard their projects as an upgrade of existing systems or platforms (such as ACDs or IVRs). The technology in place has staying power and any moves to 'the next generation' must accommodate multiple vendors, operating systems and application environments.

The survey also exposed a significant gap in the size of the population planning to deploy new technologies and those that have actually deployed. In the case of natural language, for instance, over 60 percent showed interest, while fewer than 10 percent had deployed. It is more important than ever for vendors of automated speech software, computer-telephone integration, IP-telephony and application development tools to take on the collective effort of moving the corporate BORG toward multi-channel, self-service solutions that have speech baked in.

To their credit, Microsoft (all the way up to Bill Gates), IBM, Avaya, Cisco and Alcatel/Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories have amplified the long-standing efforts of Scansoft (SpeechWorks) and Nuance, doing yeoman's work in keeping speech as part of the equation. Efforts of the VoiceXML Forum and the W3C are also having an effect. The major disappointment has been a general lack of oomph from the major CRM companies. So now we look to SAP, Siebel, Oracle (Peoplesoft), Microsoft CRM, Salesforce.com and their competitors to join in on the educational efforts.

Mark Plakias is principal researcher at OPUS Research. You can reach him at mplakias@opusresearch.net , or better yet, connect to the resources available at www.opusresearch.net.

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