Show to feature VoIP, voice-recognition gear

There are two things that always need improvement: airline food and telephone customer service. To address the latter issue, several new products are on tap at this week's International Call Center Management Conference and Expo in Chicago.

Products being rolled out at the show aim to improve how customer contact centers operate using voice recognition and IP telephony. Vendors say companies with big customer service centers can cut costs by voice-enabling many customer service applications, while IP telephony promises a more flexible call center infrastructure.

At the show, Intervoice is scheduled to announce its Omniva Voice Framework. The vendor says Omniva could let a company voice-enable any of its Web data, which could eliminate expensive data conversion projects that might have been required to add speech access with proprietary voice-recognition platforms.

Omniva is an application development tool that uses VoiceXML and Speech Application Language Tags (SALT) technology to link Intervoice's existing voice-recognition product with Web-based data. VoiceXML and SALT are developing Web services standards used to enable transactions between Web-based applications and data stores. The software also could be used to link data with other voice recognition front-end products.

Continental Airlines is one company that is sold on voice recognition. The airline has installed a speech recognition service based on technology from ScanSoft Inc. (an Intervoice competitor that also will exhibit at the ICCM show). Travelers within the U.S. can call a toll-free number and select voice-based information services. When a caller presses the corresponding number, automatic call distributors (ACD) at the Continental call center transfer the call to the ScanSoft server, which begins a voice conversation with the customer. Customers can ask questions on flight arrival and departures and other basic information.

Improved customer service

Although he could not speak to Continental's in-flight cuisine, Omar Alvi, manager of speech and wireless programs for the airline, says the ScanSoft technology has greatly improved customer service. Call center agents now can handle more complex service tasks, instead of just reading flight data off screens to callers.

There were reservations about replacing customer-facing agents with a computer, but the technology has evolved to the point where it's not a concern, Alvi says.

"Five or 10 years ago, speech recognition from a pure technology standpoint might not have met our customer expectations," he says. "But it has evolved into a very powerful tool.

In the area of call center infrastructure, Aspect Communications Corp. is set to unveil a new release of its core product, Aspect Call Center, along with a repackaging of some products for small to midsize call centers. Aspect also will announce its Uniphi Solution Suite, an all-IP-based call center product.

The Uniphi suite will create a group of applications, management features, reports and development tools that span a range of call technologies, including e-mail, chat and interactive voice response telephone systems. No release date or pricing has been set.

Joining hands

3Com Corp. and Aspect also are announcing a joint product development and marketing deal whereby the Uniphi suite will be integrated with 3Com's latest large-enterprise IP PBX platform - a repackaged product from its carrier-class CommWorks softswitch offering, which can scale to more than 10,000 phones.

Aspect says the deal with 3Com ends the company's own venture into IP-based PBX and ACD call control platforms. Aspect will continue to develop and support its TDM ACDs. Its Uniphi software also will work with Aspect's TDM-based based switches.

The key change in Version 9 of Aspect Call Center is the new Uniphi Connect card, which is plugged into a slot on the back of an Aspect TDM-based ACD to connect with an IP PBX. With the card, call center agents on public switched telephone networks or IP networks can use ACD-based services.

The Iphinity line, yet another new offering from Aspect, is aimed at call centers with 50 to 150 agents. The Iphinity CallCenter and Iphinity Workforce Management software are subsets of the enterprise versions of these products. In both cases, Aspect has preconfigured a range of settings and limited some options. This approach keeps down the price and speeds up deployment.

The CallCenter starts at US$199,000 for 48 agents. Pricing for Workforce Management has not been finalized.

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