On Good Speaking Terms

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Customers have adapted to speaking with voice user interfaces (VUIs) to buy products, lodge complaints, or make travel plans. They understand that interacting with a VUI is not the same as chatting with a friend, but they do expect to be heard.

Though current VUI technology is a long stretch from normal everyday interaction, companies that design the dialogues for those systems must strike a balance between conforming to user expectations and system capability restraints. By harmonizing the client's infrastructure requirements with enduser expectations, those same companies are finding new ways to deliver more effective solutions.

One such firm is Interactive Northwest Inc. (INI), based in Portland, Ore. It works with clients and IT vendors to build an infrastructure focused on design while integrating voice response and speech-recognition technologies with existing business systems.

Among its clients is NTELOS, a digital wireless PCS provider in the Mid- Atlantic. NTELOS turned to INI to build an interactive voice response application allowing its wireless customers to receive minute usage information without talking to a live agent.

A few years ago, NTELOS acquired another wireless provider that enabled its wireless customers to dial #225 to access account information. Following the acquisition, NTELOS needed to continue this service, but did not have the systems in place to support it in an automated manner. As a result, all account information inquiries ended up at the NTELOS call center.

INI's solution combined Avaya's Definity servers and Conversant script builder applications running on the Conversant platform. It included an application detector, allowing the IVR to read incoming digits from the Definity vector into the application, and an account information IVR application with a host interface via a proxy NT server to an AS/400 database. The system gives callers three options:
1. receive current minute usage via a text message to their mobile phones;
2. hear their account information over the phone; or
3. make a payment over the phone.

The solution met company and customer goals by improving customer service, lowering caller wait times and avoiding a potential 30 percent increase in staff.

"We start out by trying to make sure the goals of the caller and the goals of the business are not incongruous," says Gary Van Gordon, vice president of interactive solutions at INI. "We start with what the customer is calling about as the starting point."

Van Gordon says it's easy to get overwhelmed with what the system is going to say and recommends taking a step back to focus on the big picture of how the customer wishes to be treated. As part of that process, INI has coached clients to ensure they leave a provision for human contact.

"Any business that thinks it is going to put in self-service to eliminate all need for human contact would be making a serious mistake," he explains.

Spencer Stern, senior manager at Virchow, Krause & Co., a business and IT consulting firm, agrees. "In these days of email, people often prefer not to talk to people," he says. "But you always need to provide the option."

Intervoice, a Dallas-based solution provider that integrates voice automation platforms, software, applications, and services, focuses on striking the right balance. It helps clients make the appropriate tradeoffs for getting the highest possible percentages of call completion and task completion while meeting timelines and budgets.

"Anyone can build an application that has a hundred percent call completion rate, but it won't necessarily have a hundred percent task completion rate for the user," says Dave Pelland, director of Intervoice's Design Collaborative. "Often a company will talk about customer satisfaction and a world-class user interface, but the only measurements they use for success on the project are call completion rates, time, and effort. On the other hand, their users don't usually care where their call completes, as long as they've successfully completed their task."

To meet these tasks, Intervoice executives say the key is to build a solution around open standards such as VoiceXML, CCXML, and other Web technologies. This makes it easier to maintain an implementation. It also allows for easy integration with other third-party systems and software, including rules-based engines and BEA Systems applications.

"The benefit of open standards is that you're not locked into a particular brand or type of hardware," Pelland says. "You have flexibility to choose."

Another key is supporting logging and metrics. Since maintaining a speech application can require specialized talent to analyze recognizer output, determine problem areas, and suggest new dialogues and grammar changes, a VUI integrator needs to be able to get a complete picture of the running system. Most, if not all, standards-based systems have this support today, but it still requires attention, Pelland says. 

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