VEE Is for Victory in Competitive Retail Arena: Page 3

Posted December 19, 2000

John Rossheim

(Page 3 of 3)

Kursh searched far and wide for an ASP to host the MyBeanCounter voice system. He spoke with a number of vendors, including Exodus Communications Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., Telera, and Syntellect Inc. of Phoenix. MyBeanCounter finally settled on PriceInteractive in the spring of 2000 to help build the application and to host it. PriceInteractive takes care of the back end from soup to nuts, and we do our stuff with the business, says Kursh, CEO of the Wellesley Hills, Mass., firm. In theory, this kind of functionality and performance is wonderful, but PriceInteractive was the only one that got it,' that understood how speech software should interact with people.

When a company signs up for MyBeanCounter's services, its employees gain access to a voice-enabled expense-tracking application via a toll-free telephone number. Our system takes advantage of dead time, like when you're driving back from seeing a customer, says Kursh. In this scenario, an end user might use his cell phone to call into MyBeanCounter's voice system and record an expensed lunch, billable hours, and the like, all by answering a series of voice prompts. Kursh's system also has a useful customization feature: End users can personalize voice prompts to present lists of their own clients and projects, for example.

Lessons Learned About Voice-Enabled Enterprise Applications
  • The best way to quickly demonstrate ROI with VEE applications is to offload customer service calls from an expensive, staffed call center to a cost-saving, automated, speech-recognition system.

  • Field-test your voice system before rolling it out enterprisewide. What happens to transactions conducted via cell phone when transmission quality drops off? Does typical background noise introduce too many speech-recognition errors?

  • Evaluate speech ASPs' human-factors prowess by having them walk you through the conversion of one of your Web pages or database records into a script of voice prompts.

  • If your speech ASP brings in a third-party speech-recognition provider such as SpeechWorks, Nuance, or Lernout & Hauspie, extend your evaluation process to include the third party.

  • Don't force customers or partners to use a voice-enabled system to do business with you. Voice should be an additional channel for communication, not a replacement for existing channels that customers may prefer.
  • The voice-enabled application incorporates off-the-shelf speech-recognition and telephony software, plus custom-designed call flows. When end users call into MyBeanCounter's toll-free number to track their time, their voice input is routed to an interactive voice response (IVR) server running on UNIX or Windows NT at one of PriceInteractive's two operations centers. There, SpeechWorks 6.0 recognition software translates voice to data that is then stored in the user's account in a SQL database hosted by PriceInteractive.

    Kursh describes the development of the telephony and speech-based application as a three-way partnership. We designed the call flows and business requirements, and set up the speech application using SpeechWorks' development kit, he says. We worked with SpeechWorks to set up the initial systems, and now PriceInteractive is doing more on the development end, to refine and expand the system.

    MyBeanCounter's business relationship with PriceInteractive is short on up-front fees. We pay them a monthly fee to host, plus phone minutes, says Kursh. Those rates vary according to volume. MyBeanCounter and PriceInteractive decline to give specific pricing or comment on the number of system users.

    Keeping Tabs on Student Workers

    Time tracking was also on the mind of Lorraine Capobianco when she decided in 1999 to implement an enterprise speech system at Western Connecticut State University. For years, the university has used timesheets to track the hours of its hundreds of student workers. The timesheets are located in the main offices, says Capobianco, CIO at WCSU, in Danbury, Conn. But the jobs are scattered around campus, so many students make the trip to the main office just once at the end of each two-week pay period to record their actual work hours on timesheets. Because the timesheets are on paper and student access to them is limited, accuracy is a problem, Capobianco says.

    Seeking a way to upgrade accuracy, Capobianco considered a 1999 proposal from IBM, with whom the university has a long-term relationship, to implement a self-service system that would enable student workers to enter their hours accurately, using an enterprise voice system and the ubiquitous telephone. Capobianco chose IBM's WebSphere Voice Server software. Some other voice vendors' recognition accuracy might be one percentage point better, but WebSphere's stability makes it the top choice overall, says John Kulhawik, director of Information Systems at WCSU.

    The university's voice-enabled payroll application, which went into pilot in August 2000, links student users to an Oracle time-keeping database running WebSphere Application Server, IBM ViaVoice Pro for speech recognition, and ViaVoice Text-to-Speech Runtime version 5 for synthesis of speech prompts. These apps are running on Windows NT and IBM Netfinity servers at the Danbury campus.

    Because the payroll application is telephone-based, student workers can reach it whether their jobs are at the gym, in the cafeteria, or in the library stacks. At the beginning and end of each shift, the student punches in or out by calling into the voice application and following the prompts. Automatic time stamps help to keep workers honest about their hours.

    Capobianco and Kulhawik are pleased with IBM's WebSphere Studio version 3 tools. VoiceXML really does ease the development process, says Kulhawik. In fact, the university's information technology department has used students to do some of the development work. We'll be able to use a lot of the same logic to port the voice [student] payroll application to the Web, Kulhawik adds. This will enable supervisors to review student workers' time records online, for example.

    About 40 student workers are now using the pilot voice application; the system is scheduled to roll out to 300 students when it goes live in spring 2001. That sounds like a timely graduation gift for the IT folks and the payroll department. //

    John Rossheim writes about speech technologies, travel, and free-agent careers. He can be reached at

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