All Too Human Factor Determining the Speech Growth-Market

There seems to be a growing awareness among speech industry players that making money in speech is more a function of good VUI design practices than the mere exercise of ever more innovative and impressive technologies. This was evident at the Telephony Voice User Interface Conference this year in a number of ways. Fewer presentations touted Miracle Demos, and the breathless foretelling of the riches to be made by the adoption of "product this" or "product that" was all but gone. True, these are fairly stagnant times in general and the speech industry took some real hits last year. But the lack of hoopla at TVUI bespoke a maturing industry as much as it reflected an economy in the doldrums. In fact, various attendees described how they had actually seen increased demand and that has translated into real business growth. Who is making money in the speech market today? Which companies are growing while others fair less well? What are the successful companies doing right? And where is the market that drives their success? This column is devoted to issues of human factors in the speech industry, not its market analysis. However, there seem to be some common themes among companies who have been enjoying some growth, and I believe that another kind of human factor can explain the traction. There is no doubt that current speech technologies are capable of supporting incredibly impressive applications. On the other hand, customers have been hesitant to jump into the deep end of the speech technology pool. Why is this? One reason is that many corporate IT decision makers think they have been-there-and-done-that before. Most still remember the boasts and promises of the artificial intelligence companies of the eighties. Parading Miracle Demos in front of these levelheaded skeptics is a sure way to lose a sale. The higher the tech, the more risky and revolutionary the proposition appears. What corporate IT professionals clearly understand is their existing investment in traditional IVR hardware and applications. They also know the limitations of DTMF user interfaces and they are sensitive to their customers' general hostility toward IVR systems. What corporate IT professionals are looking for are ways to maximize their existing investment and they seek to do so as incrementally and painlessly as possible. This is why the greatest growth market in speech today is in IVR upgrades. According to Michael Thompson, director of solutions marketing at SpeechWorks, "The IVR upgrade theory is very much on target. Seventy to seventy-five percent of speech deployments are based in traditional call centers on traditional IVR hardware. Customers have saved money with touchtone technologies, but the capabilities of DTMF have been 'maxxed out'." Bruce Balentine of EIG stated in a similar vein, "IVR is never going to go away. But companies want to get more from their IVR platforms and they rightly see speech as the way to do so." Of course the ROI argument is what is driving this market. But it does not completely explain the phenomenon. It can probably be best understood in terms of some simple human tendencies. As creatures of habit, we are resistant to change. But the fact that IVR systems were cost justified and succeeded historically, tends to make us perceive them as valuable tools, not to be cast out, but on which to build and expand. For each corporate IVR customer, someone, at sometime put their job on the line when they made the decision to go with the technology. And that person is likely to reject ideas and technology that make their decision appear in a bad light today. The companies that are currently enjoying growth understand this all too human factor, all too well.
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