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By Phone Cards

Twenty-First Century Interactive Voice Response


I recently dialed my neighborhood Cookie Bouquet store and was greeted by a soothing, helpful female voice. Within record time I placed my order, provided payment information, and received a cheery thank you. I also received a tracking number for order referencing.

Did I speak with a great customer service rep? Well... sort of. I was actually communicating with a carefully-scripted, well-programmed, interactive voice response (IVR) system. And I was able to do it all from my cell phone as I sped off to my next business appointment.

Did I resent having my call serviced by a computer rather than a human being? Of course not. I was actually impressed Cookie Bouquet understood that many customers, like me, prefer a quick, efficient IVR to a live agent. I also appreciated the fact that I could call 24 hours a day to place another order or follow up on my existing one.

Studies have consistently shown that corporations utilizing well-designed, carefully-programmed IVRs are perceived by customers as more friendly, flexible, innovative, and concerned with providing the highest quality service. These enhanced business images help guarantee strong customer loyalty, revenues, and profits.

IVRs have evolved at warp speeds, right along with all other emerging telephony-related technologies. Along the way they ditched their reputations as repetitive, idiotic robots, to become highly-respected components of a company's voice and messaging system.

The Suburban Trust Company in Washington, DC was the first to implement a version of today's IVRs. That was in August 1967. This first commercial time-saving, service providing, audio response system (ARS) was built on an IBM 7770. The ARS was connected to the bank's central processing unit (CPU) and was utilized by bank employees and officers to query bank customer files for the 38 branch offices. Bank executives estimated that the system saved more than 400 hours of routine phone calls a week.

Although IVR technology was considered successful by the Suburban Trust Company, it took twenty more years for IVR technology to enter the business mainstream. In 1987, the Home Shopping Network launched its "Tootie" response system to allow huge numbers of phone shoppers to instantly buy products using their phone keypads. Phone companies and the business community began to smell lots of money in IVRs.

The emergence of PCs during the early 80s was another big turning point for IVR popularity. As PCs became more readily available and large computing power became cheaper, many corporations began implementing voice and IVR applications into their business platforms.

It was actually possible to "talk" to a PC before an IVR. Microsoft's Speech API (SAPI) delivered true text-to-speech (TTS) and speech recognition on PC platforms. When used in conjunction with an IVR, this technology opened new frontiers.

By the time the Web usage started to explode in the mid 90s, IVRs had garnered a new respect. Many telephony firms eagerly embraced killer IVR apps. By 1997, the most sophisticated IVR platforms included voice, fax, speech recognition, text-to-speech, and speaker verification.

The widespread release in the late 90s of automatic speech recognition (ASR) by leading companies such as L&H, Speechworks, Phillips (VCS), and Nuance provided a major impact on the IVR industry. ASR added a human quality to the mechanical nature of IVRs. Simple commands such as "Yes" and "No" could now be easily recognized along with digits and simple commands

As technologies evolve, our opinions of them often change as well. Such is the current case with IVR technologies. Many of us who cursed early "IVR hell" experiences are now highly agitated with live agents who take more than one ring to answer, put us on hold, can't process our requests in lightening speeds, and who have the unmitigated gall to demonstrate their human foibles. Not only do we now depend on efficient IVRs, we actually like them.

The days of entering IVR hell to be tortured by repetitive, robotic announcements is waning. The industry has matured, and the days of bad scripts and programming are largely in our past. IVR applications represent one of the biggest growth areas in the voice processing industry for the 21st century.

Resistant Service Industries Are Embracing IVRs
Service industries, proud of their personalized service features and fearful of nightmarish navigational problems, were most resistant to the adoption of IVRs in their business models. Small health care providers, spas, and upscale salons are now discovering that the majority of their customers value time and efficiency over the personal touch, which often translates to frustrating human interactions.

Service industries are increasingly jumping on the IVR bandwagon because they have recognized that today's customers are savvy consumers who have grown up with IVRs and appreciate their speed and efficiency. When all is said and done, the service industry providers with the best services will win the most customers. Companies that don't adopt the latest technologies will be left behind.

Society Has Embraced IVR Technology
The Web initiated society's growing appreciation for efficient IVR technologies. Early members of the Web's zero-tolerance "clickeratsi" generation were infamous for their "click and go" responses to slow Web pages and overall site incompetence.

Net-savvy brick and mortar customers demand the identical speed and quality of service they currently enjoy on the Web. They will disconnect and take their business to your competitor when they encounter incompetent or slow human agents, much like they do online.

Speech vendors continue to refine technologies that allow IVR systems to become less mechanical and more humanistic. Artificial Intelligence (AI) features incorporated into IVRs over the next decade are expected to be significant. AI will eventually allow IVRs to interact with humans in a deterministic way, even when they are presented with non-deterministic questions and information. The combination of advanced speech and AI options will change today's IVRs into highly advanced, humanized, intelligent tools.

Early 2000 witnessed the emergence of revolutionary and powerful new media servers. Similar to traditional IVRs, media servers receive all of their commands from media controllers tied to softswitches that utilize MGCP and/or SIP for controlling calls.

Intelligent messaging (IM) systems with integrated IVR capabilities supporting both circuit-switched and Internet Protocol (IP) telephone systems are also appearing. IM systems work simultaneously with both types of telephone systems, providing a flexible, smooth, cost-effective transition strategy for businesses as they migrate to IP telephony.

Web IVRs are designed to combine the ease of Net navigations with the fast communication of voice. Web IVRs offer all of the features of traditional IVRs except they are graphic, rather than audio, based. As Web IVRs evolve, IP phone-enabled users will have many new options for initiating human interaction.

Since IVRs are tied to other technologies, they will continue to evolve along with those technical advances. We will definitely see increasing sophistication of all IVR applications in the future. One thing is certain: IVRs are here for the duration.

Karen M. Shelton is president and CEO of T&S Software. T&S Software is a provider of intelligent voice products. Its enhanced services platform enables service providers to deliver a multitude of services on their PSTN and IP-based networks (VoIP). T&S Software products also give businesses the ability to offer superior automated voice and fax processing services. T&S, founded in 1995, is a privately held company based in Dallas. For more information visit the company's Web site or call 888-201-9493.



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