Microsoft Tellme talks itself into embarrassment against Siri

The Xbox 360 is great. And with Kinect it’s phenomenal. But for Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie to dismiss Apple Siri and brag about Tellme in Windows smartphones?

Utter embarrassment, especially coming from an executive who’s supposed to be the technology visionary of the company. (Heck, we all know Ballmer isn’t the guy.)

Tellme was rumored to have cost $800 million in 2007, but has the technology been stuck in the past?

It’s now evident that the software giant does not consider speech technology important and will likely pay a price for it, much like when it played catch-up during the Web boom. While Microsoft wasn’t looking, Nuance had scooped up dozens of other companies and partnered with Apple to give Siri a voice in the cloud.

And now the blogosphere is abuzz with this:

What does Tellme tell you?

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Microsoft Lync coming to multiple mobile platforms soon?

Microsoft’s Office Communicator evolved into Lync and has gained traction in competing against other UC products. Considering that Microsoft is a software company and not a communications firm, it’s quite an impressive feat. Lync was one of the most anticipated UC products at Enterprise Connect 2011, and the keynote presentation was one of the most well received.

At my workplace a group of us are Lync users. I love it. It has a clean interface and not excessively featured (ahem, Office), it does a great job with chat and VOIP communications. I also enjoy the ability to easily set up multi-endpoint ringing, transferring to another device mid-conversation, and simple drag-and-drop for conferencing. What a great business tool.

Back then, in March 2011, Microsoft semi-promised a Lync client for all the major mobile platforms: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7, and Symbian. The plan was to release them before the end of the year.

Well, it’s almost December. Will Microsoft make good on this promise?

Yes, according to a tweet by Microsoft Australia. Within “the next four weeks.” (The tweet has since been removed.)

Most consumers probably won’t care about the release of mobile Lync clients, but for a lot of businesses that deployed Lync and have a workforce tethered to the various smartphones out there, this is welcomed news and could certainly boost productivity. More importantly, it’d truly demonstrate Microsoft’s commitment to unified communication.

(h/t BGR)

Customer service Thanksgiving

What developments in customer service are you thankful for? Is it a technology, a process, a methodology, or even a person?

Here are some things I’m thankful for:

  • Speech recognition – Helps in those situations where you’re driving and need to find out your account balance, flight itinerary, or simply when you feel lonely and need someone to talk to.
  • The “zero” key – The most important button in customer service. Yet, I’ve navigated touchtone IVRs that did not implement a zero key to get straight to an agent…
  • Social media – More ways for customers to keep companies on their toes! Always a good thing!
  • Virtual queuing – Understand this: the customer’s time is always more valuable than yours.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone!!!

Verizon picks inContact to offer ‘Virtual Contact Center’ services

Yesterday Verizon and inContact announced a deal for Verizon to offer “Virtual Contact Center” services based on inContact’s cloud platform. To me it’s an interesting partnership for the following reasons:

  • inContact has not shown up much on industry analysts’ radars. It gets mentioned in many analyst research reports, but primary because it has partnerships with other leaders and offer their products or integration via the cloud (e.g. Verint’s WFM, RightNow CRM).
  • inContact continues to lose money — its recent 3Q2011 results show net loss nearly tripled compared to 3Q2010. Revenues remain stagnant while gross margin has suffered. As of 3Q2011 it has $18 million of cash on hand.
  • About five months ago Siemens Enterprise Communications (SEN) and inContact announced a major partnership for SEN to resell inContact products, and for inContact to build a cloud for SEN in Europe. The deal also injects $15 million into inContact over a two year period.
It’s great that inContact continues to score big partnerships worldwide, a testament to the ongoing momentum seen in cloud services.

Press release:

NEW YORK – To help multinational businesses and government agencies communicate more effectively with their customers and provide better service, Verizon has teamed with inContact, the leading provider of cloud contact center solutions, to offer an advanced suite of cloud-based Virtual Contact Center services.

The innovative offering, available in January 2012, will enable customers of businesses and government agencies to choose how they want to contact and interact with the organization. For example, a customer reaching a company by phone would have the option of speaking with a live agent or requesting a call back if one is not immediately available. Customers could also use the Web for an online chat or to get answers to frequently asked questions. Other features include:

  • Special software that can recognize incoming callers and refer specific customers to agents with the appropriate level of expertise. This “first-call resolution” eliminates the need to transfer a customer from one agent to another, an often lengthy process that frustrates customers.
  • Comprehensive agent desktop tools to help educate and prepare agents to field customer inquiries and resolve them quickly.

Mike Palmer, vice president of enterprise strategy and marketing for Verizon, said, “Nine of the 10 largest banks in the U.S. and many other world-class businesses rely on Verizon’s Contact Center solutions to strengthen their customer relationships. We’ve joined forces with inContact, after an extensive review of the players in the market, to build on our successful track record of developing and delivering innovative customer care solutions. This strategic agreement and latest offering are advancing Verizon’s strategy to deliver enterprise cloud solutions for multinational and government customers worldwide.”

Since Virtual Contact Center solutions are cloud-based, there is no large upfront capital investment, and they can be employed to augment and adjust existing customer service operations to more flexibly address changing business requirements.

In her “Mid-Year 2011 Contact Center Trends Watch List,” Elizabeth Herrell, vice president and principal analyst for Constellation Research, said: “There is a big opportunity for companies who need to support departmental customer initiatives but lack budgets for acquiring the technology infrastructure. Alternatives include evaluating outsourcers or considering cloud-based services. Cloud services can inexpensively offer bundled solutions to quickly launch customer-support operations.”

Paul Jarman, inContact CEO, said: “Bringing inContact’s award-winning cloud platform and deep experience with highly satisfied customers to Verizon’s world-class suite of Contact Center solutions will help to accelerate cloud-based customer contact solution adoption. Together with Verizon’s global reach and world-class sales and service teams, we will be able to shape and meet the growing demand for these compelling and cost-effective customer-facing capabilities.”

Verizon Business delivers integrated IT and communications solutions via its high-IQ global IP and mobility networks to enable businesses to securely access information, share content and communicate. Verizon is rapidly transforming to a cloud-based “everything-as-a-service” delivery model that will put the power of enterprise-class solutions within the reach of every business. Find out more at www.verizonbusiness.com.

About inContact

inContact (NASDAQ: SAAS) helps contact centers around the globe create profitable customer experiences through its powerful portfolio of cloud-based contact center software solutions. The company’s services and solutions enable contact centers to operate more efficiently, optimize the cost and quality of every customer interaction, create new pathways to profit and ensure ongoing customer-centric business improvement and growth. To learn more, visit www.inContact.com.

About Verizon

Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE, Nasdaq: VZ), headquartered in New York, is a global leader in delivering broadband and other wireless and wireline communications services to consumer, business, government and wholesale customers. Verizon Wireless operates America’s most reliable wireless network, with more than 107 million total connections nationwide. Verizon also provides converged communications, information and entertainment services over America’s most advanced fiber-optic network, and delivers integrated business solutions to customers in more than 150 countries, including all of the Fortune 500. A Dow 30 company with $106.6 billion in 2010 revenues, Verizon employs a diverse workforce of more than 195,000. For more information, visit www.verizon.com.

####VERIZON’S ONLINE NEWS CENTER: Verizon news releases, executive speeches and biographies, media contacts, high-quality video and images, and other information are available at Verizon’s News Center on the World Wide Web at www.verizon.com/news. To receive news releases by e-mail, visit the News Center and register for customized automatic delivery of Verizon news releases.

Media Contacts:
Debbie Lewis
+1 610-257-7974
debbie.lewis@verizon.com
Heather Hurst
inContact
801-320-3591
heather.hurst@inContact.com

Hacking Siri into bits (and bytes)

Besides the significant hardware upgrades, the other selling point of the Apple iPhone 4S is Siri, the speech-enabled assistant that can help you schedule appointments, set reminders, read and compose SMS, and many other tasks. The technology is essentially a massive (considering how many iPhone 4S users are there in the U.S.) cloud-based speech recognition service reportedly provided by Nuance software.

Unfortunately Apple decided to make Siri only available on the iPhone 4S even though various resourceful hackers have proven that it can be run on the older 3GS and 4 models. Even the iPad 2 didn’t get Siri although its hardware is similar with the 4S.

Well, the folks at Applidium have cracked Siri’s protocol and published very informative technical details. Among them:

  • Siri uses TCP port 443, over HTTPS (Secure HTTP)
  • The request is a custom “ACE” method (as opposed to commonly used “GET”)
  • Raw audio data is sent but compressed using Speex codec
  • An iPhone 4S identifier is required with Siri
Don’t be shy, read the whole thing to get intimate with Siri.

Proactive, pre-emptive customer service

Most companies establish contact centers to handle all those inbound customer service requests, whether it’s calls, emails, or otherwise. But when tons of money and effort is being spent on the design and implementation of a world-class contact center, are there discussions on how to proactively pre-emptive an inbound interaction? In other words, pushing service out to customers. Most of the time there’s no brainstorming session on how to reduce inbound customer service calls and why that should be considered.

In other words, bringing up a contact center is usually an reactionary exercise: we forecast x inbound calls per month — how can we handle that volume? How many toll-free numbers, how many IVR ports, how many speech licenses, how many servers, how fast the networks, how many supervisors, how many agents, how many this and that… Nobody gives thought to how can we reduce that x number up front.

The benefits of reducing x is obvious. A lesser inbound volume could mean lesser resources — hardware, software, and labor — are required, therefore cost savings could be realized.

It boils down to notifying the customer when an event occurs that could trigger an inbound call. A good example of this (and to my pleasant surprise when I first encountered it) is from airlines automatically notifying changes to a passenger’s reservation or itinerary. One time when I was at an airport awaiting my flight I received a call on my mobile phone from the airline informing me of a change in my flight time. It was great because I could stay where I was sipping a cold beer and not having to find out later from a LCD monitor or bother a gate agent.

The applications are numerous. Cable companies could send out alerts to area customers whose service is down. Banks could inform customers when a large withdrawal is made on an account. Retailers could notify customers about an order’s shipping status.

Some of these are already implemented by companies. But with today’s technologies there’s a lot more that could be done.

For example, a cell phone carrier knows a subscriber’s monthly charges. Its systems ought to be able to establish a pattern of usage and charges. If suddenly there’s a usage spike which results in excess fees, why can’t the carrier send an immediate SMS or make a phone call to inform of such an unusual activity? Instead, we keep hearing reports of “bill shock” and disgruntled customers, and it wasn’t until recently that carriers finally came to terms with the government to curb this.

So it took thousands of complaints from subscribers and eventually government intervention to end this, when in reality the carriers could’ve provided better service by proactively informing the customers about abnormal usage and fees.

Or how about this: a smartphone-toting customer recently purchased a product that turned out to be defective and has initiated the process to return it. One day as the customer is out on the road and comes near the retailer’s brick and mortar store, s/he receives a call (or SMS) from the store manager inviting him/her to the store with an exchange unit ready for pickup. Such a scenario is no longer science fiction with GPS-enabled smartphones equipped with proximity awareness features.

Again, why wait until a customer contacts you when you have an opportunity to serve the customer beforehand, armed with the best knowledge of the customer gleaned from your systems.

Twilio now available in Europe

Silicon Valley-based cloud web telephony darling Twilio has launched its Voice product in the UK as well as opening a new office in East London, allowing developers to finally purchase UK phone numbers and target local users. It’s also serious about expanding in Europe — together with the UK launch, Twilio is offering beta services to developers in Poland, France, Portugal, Austria, and Denmark.

Developers have longed for Twilio to go international, and now three years later it’s finally happened. The company hopes to reach 11 more countries by the end of this year (um, two more months?!).

That’s one way to spend the $12 million raised about an year ago. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to have the attention of Valley super angels Dave McClure and Ron Conway. Not only do they back Twilio but also came up with the Twilio Fund “for startups that use Twilio’s messaging platform.”

Back in September Twilio signed up Zendesk (another well-funded Silicon Valley startup) as a major customer, and incidentally both companies seem to have aligned their European ambitions — Zendesk recently opened its London office, and will offer Zendesk Voice to its European customers as well.

On the other hand Tropo, a major competitor that’s backed by Orlando-based Voxeo, was first to offer international availability, but now it looks like there’s going to be an intense race to lure developers from across the pond and beyond.