Giving voice to far-flung transactions

Voice-enabling technologies promise to solve a slew of problems for enterprises. The new developments will literally give voice to mobile sales forces and field service staff and to an enterprise’s customer-centric, self-service e-commerce initiatives, according to observers.

In addition to those potential productivity benefits, many mundane tasks handled by expensive call centres could be handled by voice-enabled systems.

There is a natural affinity between speech and natural language recognition and CRM (customer relationship management) applications, analysts say. In addition, it is not considered to be a big leap to develop voice-enabled e-commerce and ERP (enterprise resource planning) platforms. Several vendors are beginning to break ground on this related front.

Nortel Networks, a supplier of networking solutions for voice, data and video transmission, and Siebel Systems, a major CRM player, have pilot projects under way that allow users to voice-activate CRM systems via wireless devices, said Peggy Menconi, a CRM analyst at AMR Research, based in Boston.

Officials at San Mateo, Calif.-based Siebel, and Brampton, Ont.-based Nortel, which owns CRM player Clarify, declined comment on the matter.

Menconi noted that if the mobile pilots pan out, this could be a killer application for voice-enabled CRM. “I’ve seen the demo – they both still need work,” she said of the Nortel and Siebel efforts. “[But] you can become your own assistant.”

In one possible scenario, a mobile sales force will be able to activate a CRM system for account information via voice commands, and the system will relay the relevant data back to the device in real time, Menconi said.

“It would be powerful for salespeople,” Menconi added. “Now, you have something that helps salespeople get some work done.”

Menconi predicts that major vendors are likely to offer products by the end of next year although she doesn’t expect large-scale adoption until the second generation of these offerings in 2002.

The first wave will be designed for the mobile sales forces and the second for field service staffs, she said. “I think there will be security and training issues to work out,” Menconi said.

But companies should expect difficulties in integrating the triggers for all the processes involved, Menconi added.

Echoing the interest of other users, Robert Robichaud, a manager at the Information Centre of Information Services at Apotex, a pharmaceutical firm based in Toronto, said that he was investigating how to provide voice-enabled services to the firm’s national sales force, which would allow the company to sidestep the need for laptop computers.

“It’s very expensive to support a remote sales force [through conventional means],” Robichaud said. Another plus is that the training for this kind of a setup would be minimal.

For those users who want to farm out their voice-enabled efforts, Unisys will be offering an ASP outsourcing option over the coming months, said Joe Yaworski, vice-president and general manager of the natural language business initiative at Unisys, in Malvern, Pa.

Their prospective “voice ASP” service will provide vertical applications for customer service and support, Yaworski said. The costs of voice-enabled services are likely to be far less than those provided by human beings, he said.

While mission-critical call centre applications should be kept in-house, routine matters might be handled through a service provider, Yaworski added.

“For a company to implement this, it would require putting in the telephony, speech and natural language infrastructure to answer the calls,” Yaworski said.

The design, development, and testing phases must also be considered, and the system for “peak calling rates” should be optimized, Yaworski said.

Voice applications may also reach uses beyond call centres and CRM. Sierra Atlantic, based in Fremont, Calif., and Nuance, of Menlo Park, Calif., showed off last month a Web-to-voice framework partnership to provide voice-enabled customer service and telephone access to enterprise information assets.

The combined offering will mix Sierra Atlantic’s i3-Frameworks collaborative software and Nuance’s Order Management Suite of voice-recognition applications.

Sierra Atlantic will offer prebuilt connectivity for storefront, call centre and wireless applications as well as links to the e-commerce offerings of BroadVision and ERP systems from Oracle and SAP.