For years, IT and business have heard the sexy promise of "IP convergence," which would allow all sorts of voice- and video-enabled applications to appear in business. However, for most organizations, this Jetsons-like vision has yet to occur.
But many IT organizations are in the midst of one major "IP convergence" transition -- from traditional proprietary interactive voice response (IVR) systems, the voice-prompt phone interfaces so common for automated customer service and other call-center activities, to standards-based voice portals. According to Datamonitor, sales of the "IP convergence" voice portal technology surpassed those of traditional IVR systems some time in 2007 and have continued their upward trend ever since. And with the current recession, IT may find IVR moving up its priority list.
A voice portal replaces the once-proprietary vendor IVR box in a legacy contact center system with software developed in Java, PHP, or .Net that sits on a standards-based application server and accepts commands from a special server-based voice browser, which in turn receives pages back from the application server in a standard called VoiceXML.
Standardization has a lot of advantages over the old proprietary IVR systems. You no longer need an Avaya, Nortel, or Intervoice expert to integrate your IVR with your back-end systems using screen scrapes and proprietary APIs. Instead, your voice portal can simply act as another Web service linked into existing Web-enabled infrastructure, including live sales data; personalization information; and back-end inventory order management, shipping, and accounting systems. "Since you're using the same logic as your Web interface, your customers get the same menus and the same answer to the same questions, regardless of how they come in," says Joe Outlaw, a principal analyst for Frost and Sullivan. All this can be accomplished without having to change any of your existing phone systems, be they TDM- or IP-based.
For business, the rationale for voice portals is clear: reducing the labor costs of answering calls. Well-developed voice portals can resolve many more calls without the need for a live agent than legacy IVR systems can. "A live-agent call can cost anywhere from $6 to $15," says Michael Perry, director of product management at Avaya's interactive solutions group, "but a typical voice portal call resolved without an agent runs between 25 and 50 cents, depending on whether speech recognition is used."
IT can get more business bang for its technology buck
But there are benefits to IT as well: One is the ability to respond more quickly to changing business needs than with traditional IVR systems. Another advantage is the ability to leverage the IVR effort to provide more functionality than the business group realized it could gain, which helps makes IT's case as a business enabler. And the third is to lower the costs of supporting IVR systems.