Keith Ward, Chief Technology Officer, Product Support Solutions

Product Support Solutions is a voice self-service and contact center specialist.  The company focuses on helping its customers improve and optimize the voice self-service channel.  Product Support Solutions provides vendor-independent technology and business solution advice, systems development, delivery and deployment of infrastructure and applications, and maintenance and support. Product Support Solutions manages voice self-service channel for companies including Prescription Solutions, Standard Insurance, Verizon and Wells Fargo.

Speech Technology Magazine sat down with Keith Ward, CTO of Product Support Solutions, to discuss the latest issues surrounding migration, technology advantages with next generation platforms as well as some of the company's customers.

Q. Keith, please tell us a little bit about Products Support Solutions and your role with the company.

A. Product Support Solutions was founded 4 years ago with the goal of providing a path forward and migration strategy for the myriad of Legacy IVR customers left stranded by their current vendors' roadmaps.  We support the Legacy systems now, provide consultation and migration services towards NextGen and then, through our multiple partnerships with the best-of-breed NextGen product companies, bring these new technologies to fruition for our customers.  We have grown to support over 100 large enterprise and Telco customers which also includes over 20 from the Fortune/Global 500 from both a Legacy and NextGen Voice Self-Service perspective.

One of the most rewarding parts of our position within this industry is the "trusted partner" relationship we have been able to cultivate and maintain with all our large enterprise and Telco customers.  With this trust comes the responsibility to educate the customer on this ever-changing marketplace, the standards that are driving these changes and the benefits of moving to open-standards based Voice Self-Service platforms.  I spend a great deal of my time in the role of educator and it is my responsibility to keep abreast of this ever-changing landscape from both a technology and vendor perspective.

Q. What services does Product Support Solutions offer to enterprises? How is this different from other speech vendor offerings?

A. We have a responsibility to provide, what I term "wholistic" solutions to these customers.  PSS provides everything to help customers through their transition from Legacy maintenance and support, consultation, migration services, Professional Services, best practices, VUI Design, application design and development, Systems Integration as well as the ongoing support and maintenance of the NextGen IVR Self-Service environment.  We are able to accomplish this through our close relationship with the best-of-breed NextGen IVR product companies such as Holly Connects and Genesys/VoiceGenie as well as our deep understanding of the marketplace and our vast experience in Voice Self-Service.

We have really morphed over the past 4 years from a support, service and maintenance organization for Legacy IVR into a company that has built an incredible amount of knowledge in the NextGen Voice Self-Service marketplace.  We found that many of our customers preferred being able to go to one vendor for a total solution while still taking full advantage of a multi-vendor, multi-solutions environment that best suits their needs.  In other words, through PSS, our customers have the best-of-breed products and technology by which to choose from while still holding us accountable to deliver the wanted outcome.  We call this accountability "one throat to choke" and I have yet to be strangled!

Q. Who are some of your technology partners and how do you determine who you will partner with?

A. With our combined 200+ years of IVR experience and our expert knowledge and view of the marketplace, PSS is in an excellent position to work with each NextGen platform and see both its merits and possible issues.  From this experience and in conjunction with many of the NextGen providers out there today - we have created technology partnerships with the providers that we believe have the strongest story.  Not just a technology story, but from working closely with these partners we can see how they react to customer needs and our needs from both the platform and support/service perspectives.

With all NextGen IVR platforms having to meet the "table stakes" of a VoiceXML 2.0 compliant and, hopefully, certified environment - it has become obvious that platform differentiation needs to come from not just technology - but support of that technology to their resellers and end customers.  We want to make sure that the partners we have can supply a great platform, back it up with world-class support and that they are a partner, right along with PSS, for our customer base.  This 3-way partnership is the strongest evaluation point for our technology partnerships.

That said, we have been very excited about our relationship with Holly Connects.  We have been able to secure the North American System Integration and Distribution rights for Holly and the Holly Voice Platform which, from a technology perspective, fits extremely well with our large enterprise and Telco customer base.  They are also an incredibly like-minded group of people who truly put the customer first and work hand-in-hand with us to deliver superior technology and solutions to our customers.

We are also partners with VoiceGenie and separately, with Genesys and we look forward to the consolidated organization and their combined ability to deliver a new, converged, platform (Aladdin) with a new focus on support and their customers needs.  We do have several other partnerships in the Speech ecosystem that we continue to nurture and talk to our customers about.

Q. What is your opinion of developing standards for speech technology to migrate easily between platforms (i.e. - VoiceXML, SALT, etc.)?

A. I don't regard VoiceXML as a developing standard - but the migration of 2+ million ports of Legacy IVR is definitely an emerging business.  VoiceXML allows a true decoupling between application development and a specific vendor's platform.  Customers used to have to take into account the development tools and environments that would allow them to create proprietary applications as part of the overall assessment of the vendor's solution.  These standards really put the customer in the driver's seat - instead of buying into a solution and a long-term product roadmap - there is now an opportunity to incorporate the tools and products that best fit their environment, methodologies and preferred price points.

It's not just VoiceXML that is driving this paradigm shift, both VoIP and MRCP (Multimedia Resource Control Protocol) further the decoupling of the telephony and speech engines, respectively, from the platform.  Again, this puts the customer in a very powerful position allowing them to use the best-of-breed components that fit their unique set of requirements and environment.  It is also a great opportunity for increased technology differentiation and pricing competition amongst vendors who provide these "peripheral" components to the Voice Browser such as ASR and TTS engines as well as TDM to VoIP gateways.  The end result being more options at more price points with diverse and unique capabilities - I see this as a true "win/win" for us as the reseller and customers in the market for a NextGen Self-Service solution that meets their needs.

Q. What are the advantages of using next generation platforms?

A. Besides the decoupling of the application development, platform, telephony and speech engines - NextGen platforms allow us to leverage the back-end data/resources, business logic/intelligence and Services Oriented Architecture and/or webservices environments that are being implemented by many of our large enterprise and Telco customers.  VoiceXML is a presentation-level language that was modeled after other presentation-level languages such as HTML.  As HTML provides a methodology to display data via webservices to a self-service customer on a web browser - VoiceXML allows this similar capability via a Voice Browser to a self-service customer over the phone.  The parallels between these customer "touch points" at the display level can now be leveraged into a single set of business logic / business intelligence thus allowing one code base and data warehouse infrastructure.

On the other hand, if a customer has disparate data sources, multiple logic engines and departmental segregation - there is the ability, via SOA, to gather data and intelligence from these multiple, disaggregated sources and show one "front end" to the end customer whether via web, voice, wireless, etc.  So whether you are on the consolidation or dis-aggregation curve within your organization, NextGen platforms allow you to continue down your chosen path while leveraging your investments in code, business intelligence, software services and even the base hardware components.

Another advantage to NextGen platforms stems from vendors that have taken the opportunity to create value around the platform.  There has never been more focus on the OA&M (Operations, Administration and Management) tools, reporting tools and other operational and application tuning componentry.  Every vendor has a story and a different focus on what they consider to be the most important aspect of ongoing support and operations of these systems.  What that means for the customer is more choice and the ability to buy product from a vendor who has a similar perspective to their own.  One area where I really see a big advantage over all the Legacy IVR systems is in multi-tenancy - the ability to segment or "virtualize" a system into different operating regions.  The idea of multi-tenancy really came out of the Telco and service provider arenas but many of our enterprise customers are seeing the advantages for departmental, application specific and even development environments to segregate statistics and operational control between different groups.  It's been interesting to see how enterprises and Telcos are leveraging these new tools to facilitate the ongoing support and operations of these Self-Service environments.

Q. Do you have any customer (enterprise) examples of these advantages?

A. One customer we have been working very closely with over the past year is Prescription Solutions.  They are a pharmacy benefit management company and subsidiary of United Healthcare and they had a Prescription Refill application that was ripe for Speech.  Furthermore, they are in the midst of moving to a webservices model and wanted to be able to take advantage of the services they had created for other applications and call-center needs.

The initial application had a very short, 3 month, timeline to go into production due to other IT changes within their organization.  This really drove us to work with them very closely to see what webservices were in place and what needed to be built in order to both meet their implementation deadline and need to provide information to the customer via this new Self-Service channel.

The outcome was a successful rollout of a fully integrated Speech Enabled Self-Service NextGen platform that both leveraged the webservices components they had in their environment and newly built webservices components that can now be reused by Prescription Solutions for other initiatives.  We continue to work with them also to tune the application and grammars for an even better customer experience and, of course, we continue to support the NextGen platform we installed and Integrated.

It's a great example for what open standards can do to drive not only a move to NextGen Self-Service platforms but also to speed both implementation and uptake of these technologies in the right customer environment.  It is also an example of how PSS brought their "wholistic" approach to this project from the consultation, System Integrating VoiceGenie as the NextGen platform, working with TuVox to drive a best-of-breed implementation and providing the ongoing tuning, support and even training required to provide a successful result.

Q. Any additional thoughts?

A. There are many reasons and driving factors within organizations to make a move towards a NextGen Self-Service platform.  Some of the more obvious are Speech enablement, the leveraging of webservices, even the perceived "end of ability" that comes from an End of Life statement made by a vendor.  But what I think also drives customers towards open standards / NextGen platforms is freedom … freedom to design, develop, build and maintain systems that are not driven by a specific vendors vision - but driven by what the enterprise needs to do to help their end customers succeed!

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