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IBM to call centers: Call-flow development is your job

IBM has given the job of developing voice-application code to call center managers. Whether they will want the responsibility, however, remains unclear.

IBM has made available prototype voice-application development code that company officials believe is so easy to use, they're encouraging call center managers to help develop call flow.

"We're moving the technology up a notch, to the guys who understand customer needs, and [letting] them decide the call flow," said Brian Garr, manager of speech technology for IBM's pervasive computing division. "Then the guy that understands speech technology can use that [knowledge] as a [basis] to fine-tune it."

IBM is previewing the code as part of its Voice Toolkit, which can be downloaded from the company's AlphaWorks developer Web site.

Included in the toolkit is a new drag-and-drop feature, called Call Flow Builder, which enables non-IT staff, such as business analysts and call center managers, to build an application's user interface and dialogue before the voice developer gets involved, Garr said.

The toolkit also includes a feature that allows the user to create VoiceXML files using graphic tools. Additionally, the package includes a CCXML editor, as well as a set of tools that assist in the editing of data required for building NLU models.

The new features give more control to front-line workers, who are the ones ultimately responsible for controlling the costs of the call center, Garr said.

Speech technology has become an increasingly important part of call centers, as businesses realize the returns on investment gained when common inquiries and transactions are automated -- freeing up live call center operators to deal with more complex tasks.

Analysts say that putting the preliminary development of voice application technology into the hands of the call center manager is an interesting notion. But they are unsure whether managers will want that responsibility.

Charles King, research director with the Sageza Group, Mountain View, Calif., doesn't doubt that giving the call center worker input into the development of call flow is a strategically good move, but he questions how it will all work.

"I think what it presupposes is that companies will have enough expertise and resources to use this," King said. "I think the ability to use this adequately will differ radically from company to company."

Still, Garr contends that the strategy will work, and he said IBM will encourage developers to download the code and pass it along to the front line.

King agreed that the tools will offer call centers a way to build applications that are better suited to their specific needs. It will also allow call centers to offer services that are significantly different from those of their competitors.

"It's an interesting strategic proposition," he said.

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