Translating Towers of Babel Getting Voice, Web and Data to Speak

By Roxane Richter

For years, utilities fed customer communiq&uacutees through telephone-based customer relationship management (CRM) systems. With the advent of the Internet, companies shifted to eRM (electronic relationsip management) systems to leverage Web-based interactions.

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But as the Internet touched business processes, it also changed customer interactions from “call-center-based” dealings to “customer-interaction” or “e-contact-center-based” interfaces. This means interaction centers for modern-day customers must handle a myriad of multi-channel messaging (fax, PDAs, phone, pagers, smart phones, Web, e-mail, instant messaging, video, wireless, etc.). So now the shift from call center to “e-call center” is rapidly underway. By 2004, Winterberry Group predicts 70 percent of all contact centers will be multi-channel centers, handling everything from walk-ins to voice-driven Web-based services.

“If you look at utilities today, you’re going to get some people who’ll use the Web but you’re still going to get people who walk into a service center,” said John Gregg, president of SCT energy, utilities and communications. “Like my 72-year-old mother, she’ll always walk in to pay her bill.”

As for higher-tech moves in customer services, Gregg explained that utilities first moved into using voice response units then self-service via the Web about three to four years ago. But even today, Gregg countered, some utilities haven’t “bought into the Web.”

“Right now, we don’t see a lot of interest in VoiceXML from utilities, but we’re seeing more and more interest in wireless phones and PDAs,” he said. “Ultimately, we need to be able to convert everything into digital.”

Multi-channel Access: E-contact Centers

The multi-channel, Web-enabled e-contact center, using an Internet Protocol (IP) network as its transport base, fills the need to merge voice and data communications. Systems like Cincinnati-based Cintech’s NetVIA (see figure, pg. 42) use an IP-based network for transport and connectivity, stabling “virtual connectivity,” breaking down distance barriers and overcoming workforce issues (allowing the real-time management of employees from home offices, etc.), plus streamlining the transfer of customers (ensuring no call-backs or toll fees).

There are several key considerations for implementing a voice-data solution, including voice quality, call signaling and processing (ability to set up, route and remove calls), delay times, price, scalability and the data protocol performance. The transport network that is chosen-some options are frame relay (VoFR), IP (VoIP) or ATM (VoATM)-also affects the outcome of any voice-data system.

A more recent voice-data technology is Voice-over-IP (VoIP) transport, which holds a potential for mass deployment due to the increasing adoption of the Internet Protocol, which can be used across a wide area network (WAN) or over the Internet. Experts predict that by 2003, call center systems will make up almost 30 percent of the worldwide VoIP revenue, projected to be $1.4 billion. According to, 46 percent of call center agent seats will be based on multi-channel IP platform technology by 2004. Plus, by the end of 2001, the Gartner Group estimated that 25 percent of customer contacts would come through IP-based channels. Accordingly, purchases of IP contact center solutions are expected to grow by more than 100 percent annually from 2001 to 2004.

Virtual contact centers can ring up significant savings. If a company has four locations with 115 agents, handling 1,600 calls per hour, it could save the company about $322,400 a year according to Customer Interaction Solution magazine (based on a cost-per-agent estimate of $32,000 and monthly T1 connection costs of $7,800).

Voice Webbing It

A move back in 1998-AT&T’s acquisition of IBM’s global IP-based network-gave an indication that carriers were targeting data services, not voice, as the communication venue of the future. But seemingly, the tide is turning, and the latest in new-fangled high-tech communications gadgetry is, in fact, the trusty old telephone.

The phone and the Web are fast becoming the proverbial keys to unlocking successful customer interactions. More than 2 billion people will use Internet voice portals, voice-enabled Web sites, and Web-based IVR systems by 2005, according to Davidson Consulting estimates. Allied Business Intelligence estimates there will be 71 million voice portal users by 2005, up from 4.4 million users in 2001.

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Already, voice-enabled services are hitting the information highway. The Utah Department of Transportation and Mountain View, Calif.-based Tellme just signed a three-year, $1.8 million contract to run a free 511voice-activated line as a public service. The voice portal uses Tellme’s voice recognition software to retrieve and translate information from the Internet. Through a user’s spoken words, the service doles out stock quotes, horoscopes, driving directions, sports scores and more. The 511 service took about a year to get up and running and costs the city and its associations $600,000 annually. The service was implemented to aid visitors to this year’s Winter Olympic games.

According to Speech Recognition Update, there are three main factors playing into the ever-broadening usage and acceptance of Voice Web:

Telephony voice user interface: The most fundamental enabling factor is the maturing of telephone speech recognition (and, to a lesser degree, text-to-speech synthesis). Speech recognition makes Voice Web services possible. It is analogous in importance to the graphical interface of the World Wide Web in the development of the Internet.

Decreased telephony costs and changes in billing practices: The cost of a telephone call is dropping, and there is a trend toward charging a single monthly rate. Eventually, the cost of using the telephone will be equivalent to the cost of using the Internet.

Availability of Internet databases: The Internet has caused companies to create and centralize data that can now be accessed automatically over a telephone. The existing data infrastructures can support telephone applications with minimal incremental investment.

The ABC’s of XML

The most natural of human interaction mechanisms-the voice-is coming back with a vengeance, fighting off rigid, keypad-driven traditional models. Simply by speaking, users can have instant access to any e-business data and application, such as Web sites, interactive voice response (IVR) systems, contact centers, etc., through VoiceXML (sometimes referred to as VXML).

VoiceXML is a markup language for voice applications based on extensible markup language (XML), providing direct voice access to Web content and services. In October 2001, VoiceXML 2.0 became a W3C Working Draft, a major step toward developing a standard speech interface framework. The market for voice-enabled Internet services is growing, and the VoiceXML Forum (see already boasts more than 550 organizations. Those industries that are ready to uncover VoiceXML’s efficiencies are on the bleeding-edge of high-touch high-tech customer care.

“Utilities in particular can find great efficiencies with VoiceXML,” said Paul van Berkum, vice president of product development at Chicago-based ShopTalk, a developer of contact center voice applications that offers voice-driven CRM through a partnership with Toronto-based VoiceGenie’s VoiceXML Gateway. “Utility service peaks are enormous. With outages, there’s a short period of time with drastic peaks of usage. Most utilities have to overcompensate if they’re subject to fines from state-regulated time restrictions on service complaints.”

But by using VoiceXML, van Berkum explained, utilities can easily augment existing IVR hosted services with little effort and a return on investment (ROI) in under a year for centers averaging 5,000 calls per day; or in four to six months with significant call volumes (more than 40,000 a day). Plus, there’s a noteworthy difference in cost and integration time: A 48-port IVR with the application can cost $400,000 to $500,000, van Berkum said, “With half of the cost going to integration and application building.” With a Voice Web platform, “you can cut that number by 40 percent-around $120,000 to $130,000,” he said.

There are three considerable benefits to using a voice-enabled and open standard-based system like a VoiceXML-driven contact center, van Berkum said. First, you can cut integration time in half. Second, the use of pre-configured modules (like account balance and voice recognition, etc.) offers a high reuse of components out of the box. And lastly, VoiceXML is a catalyst of voice recognition, with automation efficiency gains hitting 40 to 50 percent-miles above the average 1 percent to 2 percent efficiencies uncovered in older DTMF (dial tone modulation frequency) usage.

Keeping Everyone Happy = Profits

In a nutshell, call centers today do a lot more than just facilitate telephone calls. E-contact centers must move data from a variety of sources and data channels into a single, seamless flow of communications.

Time and again, energy industry experts claim that the customer is the business in retail energy. Statistics support the assumption that customer retention is vital. In fact, cutting customer defections by just 5 percent has the effect of boosting profits between 25 percent and 95 percent (Harvard Business Review); others claim profitability improvements as high as 100 percent (Bain & Co.). Bearing that in mind, it’s easy to see that utilities that build a multimedia data network, allowing for voice and data to interface in a single network environment, will keep customers happy by meeting the digital explosion of communication channels.

A veteran energy journalist with more than a decade of reporting experience, Roxane Richter specializes in covering trading, risk, digital exchanges and IT systems. She can be reached at

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