Cisco, IBM link speech products

IBM and Cisco have announced plans to link some of their voice products to make it easier for organisations to develop and deploy self-service speech applications. The two vendors have been working to integrate IBM's WebSphere Voice Server and Cisco's Customer Voice Portal and expect to deliver a combined offering by midyear.

Organisations increasingly are looking to provide speech-enabled applications that let customers conduct transactions automatically over the phone instead of requiring help from a live customer service agent. One goal is to alleviate traditionally high labor costs in call centres. IBM's Business Consulting Services division estimates labor-related expenses - such as payroll, staff turnover, training and retention - can comprise 75 per cent of call centre costs.

However, making the shift to automated customer service applications is no easy feat.

"The feedback that enterprises are giving very strongly is that vendors have made speech enablement just way too complicated," a senior analyst at Opus Research, Dan Miller, said.

Bundling strategies such as the IBM-Cisco technology pairing could help companies take advantage of existing Web-based processes and more easily extend those to other channels - such as voice - using Web standards, Miller said.

IBM's WebSphere Voice Server software pairs application server technology with tools for developing and deploying speech-enabled applications. Cisco's Customer Voice Portal is interactive voice response (IVR) software that combines call-management features with support for speech recognition and text-to-speech technologies.

Used together, the products will provide companies with a single platform for launching applications that let callers use speech commands to perform transactions such as paying a bill, submitting a claim, changing an address, tracking a product delivery, or locating a nearby office or retail location.

The bundle can access information from corporate Web servers so that phone inquiries reflect up-to-date transactions. In addition, it can distribute data the call centre collects back to enterprise business applications using standards such as VoiceXML and the Cisco-backed Media Resource Control Protocol (MRCP), which the Internet Engineering Task Force is considering to facilitate integration of speech recognition and text-to-speech platforms.

A key aspect of the IBM-Cisco technology combo is that it allows developers to use familiar Web-application development tools to extract shipping information from a supply chain management application, for example, instead of hard-coding that feature into a customized call center application.

"The programming model for developing a speech application is traditionally dramatically different from a Web application," vice-president of contact centre solutions at IBM, Bruce Morse, said. "But customer and business needs are forcing convergence around a common programming model."

To that end, Cisco said it would support IBM's Reusable Dialog Components (RDC) initiative.

RDCs are pre-built, Java-based components designed to speed development of speech applications. IBM contributed its RDCs to the Apache Software Foundation last year.

Overall, IBM has increased its focus on call center technologies in the last two years, particularly related to voice response systems that provide telephone access to Web-based information, Morse said. IBM has developed its own IVR technology in the past, but changed its strategy to partner with the big telephony vendors that have IP communications expertise, he says.

"IBM hasn't had a huge play in the telephony side of the house. We've had our own IVR and speech products, but most of our focus in the software business has been on the IT side of house," Morse said. "Given the dynamics going on in the contact center, with speech becoming more important, as well as the need to better integrate the contact center into the IT side of house, we recognized that we needed to broaden our strategy to align ourselves with the major contact center vendors and enable their products to work with our speech products."

Along with the Cisco partnership, Big Blue has existing relationships with Avaya and Genesys. The significance of the Cisco partnership is that it includes tooling recommendations as well as a dedicated professional services team in IBM's global services division that will help marry Cisco's IP contact centre technology with IBM's middleware a little more elegantly, Opus Research's Miller said.

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