VEE Is for Victory in Competitive Retail Arena: Page 2

Posted December 19, 2000

John Rossheim

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In coming years, industry observers say voice-enabled applications will branch deeper into the enterprise. For example, salespeople will be able to leave their laptops at the home office and check inventory levels and place orders from their clients' offices with a cell phone or voice-enabled handheld computer; purchasing managers will be able to participate in live B2B auctions while driving home from work.

Office Depot Takes Stock in Speech

All the potential payoffs of VEE applications notwithstanding, Jackowitz of Office Depot wasn't an easy mark. My immediate response was, No thanks', recalls Jackowitz. He was concerned about diverting resources from the company's intense focus on the Web site. But his competitive instincts prevailed. I saw the opportunity that we could be the first to offer speech-activated ordering, a more complex project that went live in September 2000.

What's so great about giving customers the option to interact with an automated voice rather than a live customer rep? Customers like the fact that, at peak times, they aren't put on hold to wait for a representative to become available. And Office Depot likes the cost, which Jackowitz says is up to 88% less then what the company pays for a staffed call center to handle a complex customer interaction. Office Depot pays NetByTel an undisclosed flat fee per call.

"We're seeing a shift from desktop-based dictation systems to network systems that allow true mobility and device independence, because the recognition is in the network."

Here's how the system works. When a customer calls Office Depot's toll-free number, he's given a choice of placing an order with a live person or through the speech system. If the customer chooses the speech system, his call is routed to NetByTel where it is handled within seconds by the firm's ordering module; even at busy times, customers aren't put on hold.

Entering a call flow jointly designed by Office Depot, NetByTel, and speech software maker SpeechWorks of Boston, the caller is prompted for key information such as a customer number, item numbers, and quantities. The customer speaks his responses, and an automated voice, either recorded or synthesized, confirms the customer's instructions by reciting the shipping address on file, the names of the ordered items, and so on, until the order is complete.

The NetByTel system talks to our back end, including our warehouses and supply chain, Jackowitz says. We had designed a fairly open API for other applications, he adds. This made implementation of the speech system relatively simple and quick, requiring two weeks of scripting work from an in-house programmer. The company did not have to purchase any additional hardware for the system.

The speech-recognition component, running SpeechWorks 6.0 on NetByTel's servers, does occasionally commit speech-recognition errors, some of which are discovered when the system validates users' responses. If the speech-recognition system doesn't recognize its own error, the user must either repeat his responses or back up through the hierarchy of prompts and correct the order or inquiry. However, according to Jackowitz, no one has complained about the system.

Jackowitz hopes to refine and expand the company's suite of NetByTel-based VEE applications, which now includes a system that allows Office Depot's truck drivers to communicate with warehouses by enabling their existing cell phones with ASR. NetByTel has stepped up to the scaling challenge, he says. Jackowitz would also like to see NetByTel offer additional reporting functionality, so he can better understand how customers are using the system.

Speech Counts at MyBeanCounter

Unlike Jackowitz, when Steve Kursh needed to choose a speech ASP for his new venture, he was placing a mission-critical bet. Kursh and his partner James Donovan founded Inc. to help mobile employees who need to track their time and expenses more efficiently and with less pain. The two felt people are happier interacting with a human voice--even if it's recorded or synthesized--than they are grappling with a complex spreadsheet or straining their eyes with a handheld PC. And professionals are always looking for ways to crunch more tasks into their day without expanding their working hours.

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