BT unites video conferencing

BT has made a smart move and investment to support interoperability among multiple video conferencing vendors like Cisco, Polycom, and TANDBERG. Okay, so it’s really two vendors considering in October 2009 TANDBERG had agreed to be gobbled up by Cisco. Still, BT One Source is a good business idea as there exists no standards in video conferencing interoperability. Although recently Cisco has somewhat warmed up to the idea of a telepresence open standard, there hasn’t been much momentum or talk to accelerate the processes involved. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone — Cisco enjoys a foothold in the telepresence market, so why be in a hurry to open it up to competitors?

Official BT One Source press release:

BT Conferencing today announced that it now offers interoperability between the video conferencing systems of the three top manufacturers of video conferencing equipment: Cisco, Polycom and TANDBERG, as part of the company’s managed service offering, BT One Source.

Inter-company video conferencing helps businesses maximize their investment in video technology by allowing them to collaborate effectively with partners, suppliers, customers and others, around the globe. BT One Source provides an end-to-end solution for each manufacturer’s video conferencing system resulting in an easy-to-use, reliable, and cost-effective environment regardless of the technology platform.

Aaron McCormack, CEO of BT Conferencing, said: “BT has successfully deployed this interoperability service for several large multi-national customers, enabling them to use a mixture of different endpoints in a video meeting. We also currently operate this service within BT’s internal video estate. Our goal is to help our customers maximize their investments in video technology by allowing them to collaborate with partners, suppliers, customers and others around the globe.”

BT One Source includes Engage Meeting Manager, BT’s universal customer interface that allows customers to operate different manufacturers’ products, creating a seamless, automated customer experience. BT customers can use Engage Meeting Manager to initiate a video call between Cisco TelePresence systems and traditional TANDBERG and Polycom video systems with a simple point and click.

BT’s managed video conferencing service also includes an Engage Tracker tool which helps organizations quantify the return on investment (ROI) of their video conferencing estate by tracking travel cost savings and carbon emission reductions resulting from video usage. Engage Tracker tallies savings on actual installed and utilized systems, not on industry averages, estimates or models. The tool is a unique feature available to BT’s video conferencing customers regardless of the equipment platform they use.

Notes to Editors:

[1] BT Conferencing, a global leader in offering fully managed video conferencing services across multiple vendor platforms, provides customers a complete solution within their enterprise or business-to-business (B2B) to external business partners via BT’s Global Video Exchange.

[2] BT has installed more than 500 immersive telepresence rooms around the world by technicians certified to install equipment from Cisco, Polycom and TANDBERG. BT currently has more than 25,000 video endpoints and 400 multipoint control units under management and support.

[3] BT offers customers a full suite of services, from planning, design and installation of video systems to full management and support including hosting and management of system components, network connectivity, enhanced “white glove” level service, adoption programs that help drive return on investment, and results tracking.

[4] BT’s expertise in managing telepresence and video conferencing for its customers, coupled with coverage provided by BT’s extensive global IP network across 170 countries and 24x7x365 Helpdesk support, helps ensure high quality conferencing services for customers worldwide

Skype makes another enterprise move with SIP trunks offering

Not satisfied with just capturing the hearts of everyday consumers, Skype will offer SIP trunks to attract more enterprise users. In a partnership with SBC and Acme Packet, Skype opens this beta program to enterprises that wish to save money and provide employees with a familiar VoIP client to communicate at work. The offering won’t support video yet, but we all know Skype excels in its wideband audio codec. Eventually video will be supported for sure.

Sorell Slaymaker writes about the immediate values with SIP trunks:

1. International Customer Calls–Supporting toll free internationally is expensive and difficult, especially for customers who call a lot. Skype offers a simple click to call application that any company can add to its web site. When a customer wants to talk with the company, they hit the click to call app, enter some information, then wait for a call. This gives the enterprise the ability to find the right resource and the right network to most efficiently and effectively interact with the customer.

2. Interaction with Colleagues–For conference calls of just a few people, where some of the people are offsite, Skype works well. If connectivity is not robust, colleagues understand. Most users with decent Internet access find Skype “good enough”.

3. Airplanes–As WiFi becomes available on more airplanes, users will demand voice communication, even if the quality is poor.

But for a good and updated read about this offering, check out Dan York’s post about this.

Loquendo’s mobile TTS and ASR offering now complete

With mobile devices becoming more powerful every day, they are destined to get some serious speech applications. Just do a search for iPhone speech applications. Turin, Italy based Loquendo couldn’t have released its mobile TTS and ASR platform at a better time.

And the company means business in the mobile market, too. Support for iPhone? Check. Support for Android? Check. Support for Maemo (open sourced from Nokia)? Whatever that is, check. Support for Moblin (Intel backed mobile OS)? Yep, check. Support for Android (Google open source, as we all know)? Check! With the exception of the iPhone, the rest are all open source Linux-based operating systems so understandably Loquendo could easily come out with its product to support all of them. (The iPhone OS is based on Mac OS X, and although not open source it still has some Unix lineage.)

I look forward to the day when my mobile phone can serve as an IVR…

Official press release:

Loquendo, leading speech technology provider worldwide, announces that Loquendo Embedded Technologies – ASR and TTS – are now available for OEMs and developers of multimedia applications on the Android, Maemo and Moblin software platforms.

Android is the first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices. Maemo is a software platform mostly based on open source code. Moblin is an open source operating system optimized for the next generation of mobile devices.

Android is available under a developer-friendly open-source license, which gives mobile operators and device manufacturers the freedom and flexibility to design innovative and exciting products. Recent arrivals to the market include Motorola’s Droid, HTC’s Nexus One, and the soon to be released Sony Ericsson Xperia X10.

According to IDC, shipments of handsets with the Android OS will reach 68m units by 2013, second only to Symbian. Gartner also forecasts that Android, by 2012, will rank second behind the Symbian OS.

Loquendo TTS and ASR seamlessly integrate with the Android platform, offering Java-level interfaces to developers.

Moreover, Loquendo TTS has been integrated into the Text-To-Speech Extended framework: this interface, once installed, makes Loquendo synthetic speech available to any Android app, allowing Android phone users to immediately upgrade to high quality TTS.

On Android, the TTS interface is very simple at the API level, and all functionalities are controlled through Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSML) tags. By offering a fully-fledged SSML implementation, Loquendo gives application developers full control over its TTS features.

The Maemo platform is built on large parts of open source components, and was developed by Nokia in collaboration with many open source projects such as the Linux kernel, Debian, GNOME, and many more. The Maemo SDK provides an open development environment for applications on top of the Maemo platform. Maemo is based on the Linux operating system kernel – able to support a wide range of different kinds of devices from wrist watches to large server systems, making it ideally placed for the MID (Mobile Internet Devices) and netbook as well as smartphone markets.

With the availability of Loquendo technologies, Maemo developers will be able to unleash the potential of speech in developing voice-enabled apps.

The Moblin platform, short for ‘mobile Linux’, is built around the Intel Atom processor and is an open source operating system for MIDs, netbooks, nettops and embedded devices. The concept behind the Moblin project is to create an operating system specifically designed for netbooks and MID devices by minimizing both boot times and power consumption. The central piece of the Moblin architecture is a hardware and usage-model independent layer providing a single, uniform way of developing such devices. Moblin is based on the Linux kernel.

Early this month, Intel and Nokia announced the merging of Moblin and Maemo into the MeeGo mobile software platform, for which Loquendo will also offer full support.

Loquendo Embedded TTS and ASR are the ideal choice for speech-enabling mobile apps and services, including voice-enabled phones, navigation applications, MIDs, ebook readers, assistive devices, etc.

Loquendo TTS is natural, fluent and highly expressive synthetic speech, while Loquendo ASR is fast, accurate speech recognition even on large-vocabulary, natural-language speech. Both are high-performing, high quality technologies, however compact the device.

Whether on device side or server side, Loquendo offers the same extensive choice of languages and voices, regardless of the architectural solution, enabling service providers to guarantee a seamless service even in mixed environments – where voice content generation is shared across device and network.

Loquendo Embedded Technologies leverage Loquendo TTS mixed language capability, support the TeleAtlas® and Navteq™ SAMPA phonetic alphabets, and are available for all major embedded operating systems: Android, Maemo, Moblin, Linux, iPhone, Symbian OS™ S60, Windows Mobile 5 & 6 (all editions), CE 5 & 6, Windows XP Embedded and Tablet PC ed., VxWorks and QNX.

For more information, or for help and support with your application ideas, please contact Loquendo at: embedded@loquendo.com.

About Loquendo – Vocal Technology and Services
Awarded Speech Industry ‘Market Leader’ for the past three consecutive years, Loquendo provides a complete range of speech technologies for server, embedded and desktop solutions – in 28 languages with 68 voices, and constantly growing – helping businesses deliver a next-generation client experience while saving them millions each year.

Loquendo Embedded Technologies are innovative, easy-to-integrate solutions deployed in more than 10 million mobile and on-board navigation systems globally, as well as powering PDAs, assistive devices, virtual Web-assistants and other embedded solutions around the world.

Loquendo TTS, Loquendo ASR, and Loquendo Speaker Identification and Verification are high-quality, high-performance technologies, also available on the Loquendo MRCP Server and VoiceXML and CCXML platform.

Loquendo is a Telecom Italia company headquartered in Turin, Italy, with offices in the US, Spain, Germany and France, and a global network of partners.

For more info, and to hear Loquendo TTS for yourself, go to www.loquendo.com.

Rethinking IVR surveys

Thank you for participating in our survey. Please use your telephone keypad to answer this survey. Press 1 for “Strongly Agree,” 2 for “Somewhat Agree,” 3 for “Neither Agree or Disagree,” 4 for “Somewhat Disagree,” and… CLICK!

I’m not sure about you, but that’s usually how long I last when I’m on the phone with one of these IVR survey applications. I’m glad that the company is offering surveys to callers in order to measure customer satisfaction, but there has to be a better way, especially when there are no incentives for completing the survey.

Survey Opt-In

Most companies leave it to the agents to offer the caller the choice of participating in a survey. After the customer is finished speaking with an agent, the agent will ask (politely) whether she or he would like to answer a survey. More often than not the answer from the caller is “no.” But if the answer is “yes” then the agent transfers the caller to an IVR survey application.

Some IVRs present the survey opt-in choice after the greeting. In other words, why bother the agent when the IVR itself can offer it? In conjunction with CTI, the customer’s opt-in choice can be presented during the screen-pop so the agent will know whether to send him (or her) off to the survey app upon completing the conversation.

Personal Touch

CTI can also determine the specific agent who helped the customer and populate agent information into the survey to be presented. Additionally, the use of speech technology can also improve the experience. For example, instead of the bland introduction:

Thank you for participating in our survey…

How about this:

I see that you spoke to our agent Jane Doe, employee number 12345. In order to help her better serve you and future customers, please answer the following…

It adds a personal touch to the survey. By attaching a name to the survey purpose, the participant will be more thoughtful in responding and the survey result is likely to be more accurate.

I can’t say I’ve encountered such a design in my run-ins with IVR surveys. Have you?

The design can even get more personal. How about using technology to detect excessive background noise and have the survey app offer the choice to call back another time? You know, for those moms juggling between their child and the phone, or customers at a bus stop trying to get to work. Many companies already have their agents ask this when the customer says “I’m kind of busy right now.”

The Phone Sucks

As a tool to capture survey input, the telephone sucks at it. The participant has to listen at the prompts and instructions, then use the keypad (or speech recognition, if lucky) to go through answering the questions.

So what’s a good alternative?

A more visual presentation is obvious. How about using the web? Offer to send an email with a link to the survey after the call. Your CRM system already has the customer’s email address (if not, remind the agent to ask for it), so why not just ask a simple question, either by the IVR or by the agent: Can we email you a survey after the call?

Today the majority of people are very comfortable with email and web navigation. The user experience is definitely better by visual means than just hanging onto the phone to complete a series of questions. You can have graphic designers help with constructing a visually appealing web survey, populate it with the personal touches (e.g. time and date, agent name, etc.), and even easily offer advertisement or rewards within the web page. Most people aren’t bothered with unobtrusive online ads but absolutely hate telemarketing messages. The survey can become a revenue stream.

Benefits and Challenges

By pushing surveys onto the web you are respecting the customer’s schedule. You allow the customer to complete it at his or her convenience. Not only that but you are also freeing up IVR (and to a degree, agents) resources to take those important incoming calls, rather than offering surveys that nobody really want to complete over the phone.

I have received emailed surveys after visiting a web site, but not after calling into an IVR or speaking with an agent. It is evident that contact center operations are not married to the corporate marketing (what web design usually falls under) and IT (what web programming usually falls under) departments.

Sure, the contact center director regularly submits reports to the marketing director to gauge the success of a campaign or product launch. But their relationship usually ends at that. So much more can be accomplished, however, by utilizing marketing resources to design a customer-focused contact center survey that’ll help the whole company.

The relationship with IT is usually more intimate, as the contact center relies on telecom, networking, and desktop equipment to work together seamlessly. Furthermore, it’s often a team of IT resources who develops the contact center apps and continues to support the technical environment. IT resources can certainly contribute to an enhanced contact center survey design and development.

A good survey is valuable but rare, yet with the close cooperation between the contact center, marketing, and IT, it can be transformed into something that customers enjoy participating in. Not only that, they would also be helping the company enormously by capturing more good data and goodwill from customers.

Noble Systems updates Noble TouchStar

Noble Systems announced the release of TouchStar 6.0, its core contact center offering. The press release:

ATLANTA, GA – February 16, 2010: Noble Systems Corporation, a global leader in innovative contact center technology solutions, today announced the release of Noble TouchStar 6.0, a comprehensive upgrade for the product’s core architecture and feature set.

“Noble TouchStar 6.0 offers substantial improvements by adding flexibility and enhancing data management and reporting functions,” says James K. Noble, President and CEO of Noble Systems. “The upgrade also demonstrates our ongoing commitment to the Noble TouchStar platform and the businesses that rely on it. We look forward to continuing innovation and support for the Noble TouchStar community.”

Noble TouchStar 6.0 includes new load-balancing multi-threaded software architecture and leverages Dialogic’s NMS carrier class hardware while remaining backwards compatible for customers who do not support it. In addition to these enhancements, Noble TouchStar 6.0 provides advanced automation of daily reporting, system activity logging and data management in a centralized user interface.

Noble Systems acquired TouchStar’s assets and intellectual property in 2009 to improve Noble’s small and medium business offerings, complement its large enterprise offer and provide TouchStar users a way forward with the resources of an experienced contact center technology partner. With the transaction, Noble Systems introduced hundreds of TouchStar customers to the Noble Solution suite featuring workforce management, desktop unification and unified contact technology along with dedicated services and support.

About Noble Systems

Noble Systems Corporation (NSC) is a global leader in contact center technology solutions, providing innovative products since 1989. Every day, millions of customer contacts are made by agents at 4,000+ client installations worldwide using the award-winning Noble platform for inbound/outbound/blended communications. The scalable, integrated Noble Solution includes advanced ACD and predictive dialing; unified contact processing; and integrated IVR, recording, messaging, quality/monitoring systems, scripting, and real-time reporting and management tools. Based in Atlanta, GA, Noble Systems was the first vendor to offer an open, scalable, fully-distributed platform. For more information, contact Lee Allum at 1.888.8NOBLE8 or visit http://www.noblesys.com.

When Noble Systems acquired TouchStar in September 2009, it was just for the premise-based products and solutions:

Noble acquired TouchStar’s ‘premise-based’ business line, encompassing the TouchStar brand and product line, as well as all intellectual property. The Noble® TouchStar product is specifically tailored to meet the needs of the SMB market. The surviving ‘hosted’ business will license Noble TouchStar solutions for its hosted-solution offer.

It’s interesting that the hosted business was not acquired considering the trend of hosted contact center solutions. It appears that Noble was focused on expanding its products and grabbing additional customers in other industries.

Rethinking IVR development

Previously I’d written about the lack of software development methodology in creating contact center applications such as self-service IVRs and routing logic. Since a lot of IVR developers are self-taught, without formal software engineering background, or forced by circumstance to take on the task, I believe a good way to approach this is to start from the very basics of software development. Set aside methodology for a moment and just simply contemplate on what an application is.

Like a Story

Who doesn’t love a good story? An introduction that hooks your attention, progresses to a climax that prevents you from setting down the book, and finally a conclusion that satisfies your curious appetite.

An application also has a beginning, middle, and ending. The beginning is taking some sort of data as input, the middle is to process that input, and the ending is the result of the execution. So in your mind just think of the app you’re creating as a simple outline for a story, with a beginning, middle, and ending. From that you will add a variety of elements to the outline, expand plots, and finish a complete story.

MVC

No, I’m not referring to “most valuable customer.” MVC is the famous Model-View-Controller design pattern, first conceived way back in 1979 by the brainiacs of Xerox PARC. You may already know that Xerox PARC was credited with the invention of the mouse, GUI (graphical user interface), and Ethernet. But equally important was its contributions to software development, like object-oriented programming (OOP), the Smalltalk programming language, and of course, MVC (from Wikipedia):

The model is the domain-specific representation of the data upon which the application operates. Domain logic adds meaning to raw data (for example, calculating whether today is the user’s birthday, or the totals, taxes, and shipping charges for shopping cart items). When a model changes its state, it notifies its associated views so they can refresh.

Many applications use a persistent storage mechanism such as a database to store data. MVC does not specifically mention the data access layer because it is understood to be underneath or encapsulated by the model. Models are not data access objects; however, in very simple apps that have little domain logic there is no real distinction to be made. Also, the ActiveRecord is an accepted design pattern which merges domain logic and data access code – a model which knows how to persist itself.

The view renders the model into a form suitable for interaction, typically a user interface element. Multiple views can exist for a single model for different purposes.

The controller receives input and initiates a response by making calls on model objects.

This is a very popular pattern when it comes to web app development. Next time you’re doing some online shopping think about all the facets of the experience and what has to come together to make it all work.

Now close your eyes and imagine how it would work without visual elements and only using your ears. In other words, think of your IVR app as a web app, but without the browser and only caters to blind users.

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Be conscious of the KISS principle, in designing the presentation (i.e. IVR menus and voice prompts) and in coding the business logic. Remember, your users are blind and their browser is a numeric keypad.

Learn to love abstraction. Break up big problems into smaller chunks, perfecting a chunk at a time. Refactor your code in order to simplify it, not only to you the developer, but also to others who may need to read it one day. That means grouping similar logic into functions or subroutines. Always comment your code and update documentation.

Write your app as if writing a story. Carefully craft the main characters, build upon subplots, be concise and clear, etc.

I used to write IVR apps with a sequential mindset, meaning that I’ll string up menu after menu. It made for hairy looking apps and difficult to navigate through the code when needing to make changes.

Then I learned from someone to code it like a state machine (or a wheel). Analyze the call flow to find logical abstractions. Create a label for each abstraction (e.g. Greeting, AskForCustNum, ProcessCustNum, etc.). In the code keep a variable to update the labels as you develop the whole call flow in the IVR as a gigantic loop. Here’s what I mean in pseudo-code:

// Initialize the state machine

SET state_label = ‘Greeting’

WHILE state_label NOT-EQUAL-TO ‘End’

IF state_label IS ‘Greeting’ THEN      // Greeting menu

{ play greeting prompt }

SET state_label = ‘AskForCustNum’

IF state_label IS ‘AskForCustNum’ THEN       // Get customer number menu and input

{ ask for customer number; get customer input }

SET state_label IS ‘ProcessCustNum’

.

.

.

IF state_label = ‘End’ THEN       // End of call flow

{ play thank you prompt }

EXIT WHILE

Obviously IVRs aren’t programmed like this anymore, so this would require some translation to whatever IVR development tool you’re using. But notice that this will flatten out the menu tree to make the app more readable, plus changes to the call flow can be made easily by just modifying the variable state_label accordingly. For example, in order to bypass the greeting all you have to do is initialize state_label to ‘AskForCustNum’ or whatever new entry point you want — there’s no need to move blocks around or reconnect any lines.

Conclusion

In any IVR development project it makes sense to step back a bit and soak in the broader picture before diving head first into the programming aspects. Write code as if writing prose, and always keep simplicity and abstraction in mind to ensure that not only you will enjoy the development process, but also others in the future.

Hate IVR menus? There’s an app for that…

Does your organization have an IVR, running a self-service application that maybe you’re very proud of? Well, it’s time for you to rethink your IVR strategy because IVR hatred has really gone mainstream with the release of Fonolo for iPhone. The app is free. And it has won awards.

According to Fonolo, here’s how the app can help you:

Tired of pressing 1 for this and 2 for that? We’ve mapped out the phone menus for hundreds of companies. Find the spot you need to call, then tap, and we’ll automatically connect you. Fonolo also organizes your history with each company, allowing you to save notes and listen to call recordings.

Do you call the same company and navigate to the same point over and over again? Bookmark that spot with Fonolo and next time you can easily repeat that call with a single tap. Your call history, notes and bookmarks can also be accessed via our website at fonolo.com.

Pretty neat application, especially the web integration. It’s almost like del.icio.us for IVRs.