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VoiceXML and Speech Recognition
VoiceXML and Speech Recognition

With all the hype surrounding the wireless Internet and its promises of anytime, anywhere information availability, the introduction of a new computing technology may make companies skeptical to yet another new Internet medium. However, extending corporate IT systems to a VoiceXML device will help to reshape the way you do business...again.

So far, the customer has been pushing the wave in IVR systems (interactive voice response), telephone information services, and DTMF (dial tone multifunction). However, it may be to your advantage to examine a new technology: VoiceXML and how it could impact your way of doing business. Is this the future? This article will endeavor to examine the current and future state of VoiceXML.

What Can VoiceXML Offer?
Extending your corporate systems to a VoiceXML device can create a new delivery channel that will broaden accessibility to your current applications, and leverage your existing Web sites and information systems while enhancing the operation of your current telephone services. This additional degree of access to your information will arguably help to reshape the entire way you do business.

VoiceXML infrastructure can empower your sales professionals with instant verbal access to customer resource management (CRM) from the field. VoiceXML can offer value-added services to your telephone service for your customers and partners. Access to voicemail from a phone is obvious, but voice-activated access to e-mail, messaging, portals, and ERP systems affords time-saving efficiency to anyone on your staff who is "on the road."

How Do You Make Your Calls Now?
So you're on the road and you need to get some data from your network. To do this via your phone, you need to do many things on your phone's keypad. For example, dial your access number to your network, then press 1, then wait for the dial-in welcome, then press 1, then enter your personal code (let's say, six digits) and star, then press in your PIN (another 6 digits) and star. Then press 6 to confirm and star again. Now you have access to your network and you can talk to a live person who proceeds through more prompts to get the data you need.

Very frustrating...and nearly impossible if you are driving. Now if you could speak the letters and have the system on the other end recognize your voice input, it would be a lot easier. Recent improvements to speech recognition software and Voice- XML ensure that you now can.

Why not do it this way instead? Dial the network access number and start the procedure to submit your PIN. Simply say your personal code, the system will respond by reading back the numbers and letters you used and ask you to confirm, yes or no. If yes, the system will ask you to speak your PIN. If it's correct, the system will allow you to access your system and confirm. Using your voice, you can select from a list of options to access your system.

Using the current IVR application, customers would have five rounds of button pushing before beginning to do what they want. DTMF is tedious. No wonder that 60% of customers using these systems hang up before completing their call. Some tasks that would take less than a minute can be time-consuming as customers are subjected to several minutes of multiple choice options.

With a speech-enabled system, a customer could have duplicated the above procedure, after dialing into the network, by simply stating, "My PIN number is 123456." Instead of choosing from a menu, which may not list their needs, consumers just say what they want. It is much less awkward to use speech when calling on a cell phone, or even a cordless handset at home, since the keypad is in the same handset you need to hold to your ear to hear the prompts.

The simplicity of this application is obvious.

The next step will be the convergence of the Internet and computer powered telephony to enable the creation of voice portals and voice commerce based upon your existing Web site. The new interactive IVR is a proven technology. Large companies who require extensive voice interacting with their customers have adapted this technology. Speech Technology Magazine reports that companies such as Sears, Hewlett Packard, FedEx, and United Airlines have employed this technology.

New Voice Recognition Software Apps
Businesses installed IVR DTMF systems in the last decade for the same reasons they will examine VoiceXML. Speech Technology Magazine indicates that two-thirds claim that the new IVR systems are as good as live customer service reps and, in fact, many prefer the IVR to live operators.

VoiceXML Review, another industry publication, says that the speech recognition application development is greatly simplified using familiar Web structures including authoring programs and Web servers. The comparison goes like this: VoiceXML is used to create voice-enabled applications in which HTML is used to create Web pages. Your VoiceXML application will work a lot like a Web page; organized prerecorded responses are prepared to answer all questions. If your customer goes to your Web pages, types in an order, and purchases the product using a credit card, the system works the same except the customer speaks all the necessary inputs. Your VoiceXML application will order and authorize the purchase, and confirm it by reading it back to the customer. No live operator involved and the exchange is done in a friendly tone.

How It Works - An Overview
Calling from a cell phone or a wireline phone, the call is answered by a VoiceXML gateway. The gateway is comprised of the speech recognition engine. Upon receiving a call, the gateway system executes a field tag to collect the verbal input. The engine will parse the input and will supply the correct response if the verbal input matches the data in the grammar field. If no match is found, a default response is generated. The engine output is either a canned or dynamic response often in the form of a wav. file. Since the request from the gateway looks like a request from a conventional HTML browser, a company can get better mileage out of their existing Web site. No need to acquire new IT staff, as this system, once installed, could be run by your current Webmaster.

Four Approaches to Using VoiceXML

  1. Speech-Enabled Systems
    Many companies currently have a system in place for channeling incoming telephone calls to specific areas of the company: order desk, customer service, help desk, etc. - to a live person.

    This type of system is a perfect example of where an interactive application could be utilized with rapid payback as more callers will use an automated system controlled by speech rather than using an operator-assisted feature or a push-button system (DTMF). Speech-based systems are better suited to callers who do not know how to spell the name of the person they are trying to reach, as the caller can simply say the person's name or extension number. The system can improve the level of service to the customer and free your receptionist to perform other duties. It also works after hours to direct calls to your staff's voice mail.

  2. Voice Portals
    The next level is the voice portal. A voice portal is a speech-based service that allows a caller to access information over the phone. It could act as a compendium to your existing Web site. If you have a site displaying weather, news, sports, or information about your company, it isn't readily available to the mobile caller unless the caller has a Web-enabled phone and you have a specific WAP site available to meet their needs.

    Nuance and Speechworks are two companies that offer basic portal functionality in the form of a voice browser using VoiceXML. These "off the shelf" browsers offer quick deployment of a voice browser using standard HTML/XML-based information services. The development of voice portals opens up new opportunities to all callers and could act as a compendium to your Web site.

    The concept of supplying timely information in an automated environment and reducing the cost and need for full-time live operators has created a robust market opportunity.

  3. Enterprise Applications
    Coinciding with the rapid growth of XML-based applications, the application of a voice-enabled system, as an input device to your enterprise software, can be a bonus.

    For example, if you operate a call center staffed with dozens of live operators, you know that the majority of the calls are for basic information. Only specific inquires will require the need for a live operator. VoiceXML can replace about 80% of the staff in your call centers, your service will be available 24x7, no one will ever be "put on hold till the next available agent is open," and the input is error free. Moreover, the use of simple HTML/XML authoring programs can be used to refresh the system and update the voice interface with new data.

  4. Voice Commerce
    Moving to the next level, the deployment of IVR commerce appears on the horizon. The use of VoiceXML to establish a site for carrying out fully automated commercial transaction is possible. Online verbal ordering of a product when the purchaser simply speaks the name of the product to be ordered and pays by speaking the credit card number and the expiry date is here.
Obviously, the first advantage of deploying VoiceXML lies in the ease of operation for the caller. The use of an interactive speech interface is easier ergonomically than keypunching (DTMF) on your phone. For the mobile professional the use of a speech user interface with some of the applications already available is hands-free and thus solves a safety issue for employees on the road.

Speech Technology Magazine reports that the cost of a live operator-assisted call is $1.47 whereas the cost of an IVR call using VoiceXML is 9 cents. Moreover, no one is put "on hold" and the system operates 24x7.

In VoiceXML Review, Jeff Kunins states, "For VoiceXML, the benefits of standardization are particularly strong. Because it is a thin layer that sits on top of the entire existing Web technology stack, it inherits complete and immediate interoperability with all existing infrastructure, software, and other standards that have been built to make enterprise Web deployments practical and efficient."

The Future of VoiceXML
What's the future of this technology? Peter Leppik of Dain Rauscher Wessels has just completed an extensive review in December 2000 of the speech recognition industry in his report titled, "I Hear and Obey." He states, "At this stage of the game, speech recognition vendors are only beginning to capture the low hanging fruit, and uses such as voice portals, voice commerce and enterprise applications represent substantial new markets that are only beginning to appear."

E-commerce is the biggest trend on the Internet today and voice portals are a potentially dynamic way to attract new customers and enhance your existing e-commerce applications. VoiceXML is poised to fundamentally change the way you interact with your customers.

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