The speech industry has seen some significant changes lately. No longer limited to use in contact centers, the technology is taking root throughout enterprises and in consumer markets in some very exciting ways.
First, foremost, and somewhat obviously, speech technology is now available on the vast majority of smartphones used by consumers. The average smartphone will let users perform a host of tasks via the power of the human voice. A user can, without typing a single word, speak an Internet search into her mobile device — "pizza parlors" for example — and the phone will return a list of local pizzerias, complete with reviews and maps indicating store locations.
And, perhaps more important, speech is taking hold other areas, namely sales force automation and field force automation. The newfound penetration in two of the oldest sectors of ÇRM is attributable to the massive proliferation of mobile devices and, in part, to a company that was once just a little start-up out of California, a company that is evolving and adapting the way speech technology is used.
That company is Ribbit, which bills itself as "Silicon Valley's first phone company." Named as one of CRM magazine's 2008 Rising Stars, Ribbit offers a much-heralded Salesforce.com plug-in called, appropriately enough, Ribbit for Salesforce — described by the company as a "sales productivity tool that unifies voice and SMS communications, Salesforce CRM, email, and voice-to-text transcriptions." Indeed, Ribbit's roots lead back to the telecommunications and speech industries, and its technology and mission might just change the way people communicate.
According to Ted Griggs, Ribbit's CEO, the idea behind the company -- which was founded a little more than three years ago -- is "to apply the thinking of a Google to telecoms."
Griggs says that when companies such as Amazon.com, Google, eBay, and Salesforce.com produce a service they also produce a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) and programmer interfaces that allow programmers to take those services and modify them. For example, Google Maps allows users to get driving directions, but it also allows developers to insert maps inside Web sites.
"They've taken a service and turned it into something programmers can use," Griggs says. "Phone companies, we observed, did not do that."
Griggs says phone companies essentially operate from what he calls a "walled garden," where they hold services close to the vest and let users have only a certain interface. As an example, Griggs offers voicemail. Before the iPhone and visual voicemail, a phone company's version of voicemail for end users was a touchtone interface and message waiting light.
But, Griggs says, in "Web World," when someone leaves a voice message, it amounts to user-generated content -- similar to the content generated on Facebook and other social networks -- that developers or users might want to employ.
"Why wouldn't a voice message be considered that kind ofcontent?" Griggs asks. "That's the thinking we took to telecom."
That thinking meant taking traditional services and the way people accessed them, bringing them onto the Web, opening them up, and giving Web developers access to tools once only in the hands of the phone companies.
Ribbit is able to do this because of its core technology, a class-five softswitch with all the features and reliability one might except from an Alcatel-Lucent or Avaya. But unlike those companies, Ribbit doesn't sell its core technology to carriers; instead the company enables third parties to access it via APIs.
"We want to be the platform for enabling communications in these applications on the Web," Griggs says.
And thus, Silicon Valley's first phone company was born. "Obviously, here in Silicon Valley, we have phone companies," jokes Griggs, explaining that the tag line refers to taking a Silicon Valley company's approach to opening up the phone company in how services are delivered.
What Ribbit Has to Offer
Ribbit's core product is its Ribbit Platform, an independent, scalable, flexible API platform that enables applications to use a set of communication tools, particularly on the Web. "Developers and companies come on and use that platform to augment their applications with voice," Griggs says, noting that applications don't need to be voice-centric.
However, Griggs says this created a problem of sorts. Because the platform is so powerful and developers can use so many tools and services, it became necessary to show their customer base just what Ribbit could do. To that end, the company created a couple of reference applications or use cases.
First and foremost is Ribbit for Salesforce -- a product that has been named Best Mobile Application for Salesforce.com two years in a row.
In building Ribbit for Salesforce, Crick Waters, senior vice president of strategy and business at Ribbit, says the company hired an independent contractor and said: "Make Salesforce.com a phone. Make it the mobile phone of the sales professional. Capture all the messages. Capture all the call records. Make everything transcribed. Give it all keywords and embed it into Salesforce."
And that's exactly what the company did. With Ribbit for Salesforce, salespeople can take advantage of a host of features and functionality, including:
- receiving transcribed voicemail as text messages on cell phones;
- enabling transcribed voicemail to flow into Salesforce.com accounts;
- speaking email drafts and meeting notes into mobile phones and having them transcribed into Salesforce.com;
- searching, tracking, and managing voice notes, voicemail, and calls alongside customer data in Salesforce;
- sending personal or automated SMS messages from Salesforce; and
- routing mobile calls to either a Web phone or desk phone.
Griggs says users have embraced the speech-to-text transcription functionality of Ribbit for Salesforce because it saves time and increases productivity. For example, it allows users to quickly check voice messages in meetings and speak meeting notes while on the road instead of waiting to return to the office, log into Salesforce.com, attempt to recall the meeting, and then manually type up the notes.
"I've saved myself all that time," he says. "What it does is make the person productive in their down time by being able to use speech instead of having to put everything in manually."
Waters agrees, noting that the ability to convert voice into text is useful in process automation from mobile. "We have the Googles of the world and the Microsofts of the world doing search with voice. Where business needs to go is using voice to automate the processes of whatever you're doing," he says, noting that this could be anything from salesforce automation to tech support automation to field operations: anything where a large part of an employee's day is spent catching up because he didn't have an easy way to input or collect data in the field.
"Voice automation or voice recognition through automation allows another quantum leap in the ability for people to be productive and accurate and timely," Waters adds.
The second reference application was Ribbit Mobile — which uses the same fundamental underlying platform tools and links landline and mobile phones to the Internet, allowing users to manage all their calls and messages in one place. With Ribbit Mobile, users can again take advantage of many features, including:
- listening to or reading transcriptions of voicemail messages;
- dictating memos into their mobile devices;
- answering calls on any phone; and
- sharing messages with others.
Additionally, the company offers Ribbit for Oracle CRM On Demand, a Ribbit Mobile iPhone App, and a conferencing application widget for Google Wave that allows for real-time conversation streams. "It is yet another example of, through rapid development with our simple tools, how we can help enable a workflow," Waters says.
The Speech Technology
When it comes to the speech technology behind Ribbit, Waters says the company partnered with industry leaders — the best of the best — to provide what he calls the factory side of the speech recognition component. For example, for Ribbit Mobile the company turned to SpinVox (recently acquired by Nuance Communications) and SimulScribe.
"We went to the SimulScribes and SpinVoxes and Nuances of the world and we built interfaces into their platforms," Waters says. "So we have the ability to provide best-in-class service depending on what service you want."
Griggs notes that offering customers a choice is important because each customer has individual needs and each vendor offers something different.
"What [this] model does is allow us to facilitate the end users to get the best [service] possible for their needs without them having to deal with all the intricacies," he says, noting that the process involves more than just turning voice to text: It creates metadata around the voice. "Now that you have the text information, the voice can be searched, indexed, and then used like you do any other document on the Web."
Waters echoes these sentiments, stressing that the technology around transcription is just one piece of a complex set of features that can include voice message storage, a retrieval API, an indexing system, and much more. "We provide a complete suite of services around these things where the actual technical transcription is provided by our best-of-breed third-party partners," he says.
According to Waters and Griggs, Ribbit has a host of customers who use the company's technology and services in a variety of ways. Waters points to a large retailer as one example. He says the company uses Ribbit's technology in an Internet advertisement for mobile phones. It works like this: A would-be customer visit a Web site, sees the ad, and runs his mouse over it; when the ad expands, the customer is allowed to make a free phone call using Ribbit's API.
"It's a way for them to engage with customers in a really relevant way," Waters says.
But despite this and many other examples of customers using Ribbit in new and different ways, the company is still best known for its integration with Salesforce.com. And no one knows this better than Kevin Edelman, CRM product solutions administrator for Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee. Edelman, who has been working with Ribbit since its early beta testing, first encountered the company in 2007 at Dreamforce -- Salesforce.com's annual cloud computing conference in California.
"We hooked up because I saw them at the tradeshow and saw a value in [Ribbit for Salesforce], where sales reps could leave themselves messages and record their activities that way," Edelman says.
Since then, Edelman has seen the company evolve. He successfully implemented Ribbit for Salesforce at Delta Dental, where about 40 sales reps use it mostly to receive transcripts of their voicemail messages on their mobile phones and to record memos and email drafts via voice. He estimates that Delta uses the technology to process 500 to 700 messages per month.
"I think [Ribbit] is very aggressive in coming together with some really great things," he says. "They've been adding a lot of different functionalities over the last year and a half.... It was good before, but now it's even better."
Edelman says reaction to Ribbit has been positive at Delta, but admits that adoption has been slower than anticipated -- with some older, less-tech-savvy salespeople resisting the new technology. Nonetheless, he remains very positive and suggests that enterprises start small when deploying Ribbit.
"Roll it out division by division," he says. "Have a plan for continuous education.... Find a power user in each division so they can then take over the championship of that application."
Recently, Edelman and Delta expanded their use of Ribbit, tying office voicemail to Ribbit for Salesforce -- something he calls a big success. "The sales staff has a single point of entry for all their voicemail," he says. "Everything gets recorded. Everything gets reported. It has improved our response time on critical issues and I have some managers that will swear by it."
Another ardent proponent of Ribbit for Salesforce is Marcel Sendejo, a regional manager at Selling Power, a publication currently read by more than 420,000 sales leaders and producer of the biannual Sales Leadership Conference series. Sendejo works remotely from Austin, Texas, and uses the solution when he is on the road to dictate notes into Salesforce and to keep up with voicemail messages. Like Edelman, Sendejo learned about Ribbit at Dreamforce and has had a relationship with the company ever since.
"It's just an organization tool that I pretty much can't live without now," he says, adding that he will walk out of a meeting and begin dictating notes immediately. "It helps me to be efficient. It helps me to be very organized."
Sendejo says Ribbit prevents him from having to log on to Salesforce and play catch-up after a long day on the road and allows his supervisors to keep tabs on his accounts without phone calls or additional meetings.
"The main thing [is] the convenience," he says. "The transcription is ideal. It's just a huge time saver.... I love the dictation aspect. The big story for me [is] time savings. And not having to do administrative work to keep everybody else in the loop."
And at Salesforce.com, Scott Holden, director of product marketing, and Al Falcione, senior director of product marketing, are also impressed with what they've seen from Ribbit.
"It's a pretty amazing solution," Falcione says. Holden agrees, noting that Ribbit is one of the most highly rated applications by customers using Salesforce's app exchange.
"If you look at just the ratings that the Ribbit application gets, it averages a 4.7 out of 5," he says. "And everything people say is really sort of game-changing about how they interact with the telephone and their voicemail and how they attach those voicemail and texts inside Salesforce."
Changing the Future?
When asked about the company's competitors, Griggs jokes, "We like to say we have no close competitors," adding that a number of companies -- such as Twilio, Ifbyphone, and Intellisphere -- have similar offerings. However, he and Waters say that Ribbit is different.
"Architecturally, we are unique in the industry by having what I would call a carrier-certified softswitching infrastructure," he says. "What sets us apart from the marketplace is we truly are the mashup of the Silicon Valley's first phone company perspective with a carrier infrastructure underneath it."
Also setting Ribbit apart is the fact that the company was recently purchased by telecommunications giant BT. As part of the deal, Griggs will now act as chief technology officer of BT Global Digital Voice and Ribbit will be able to leverage the core infrastructure of its platform across multiple BT properties. This means that in the coming years Ribbit is going to be available through the BT network.
Waters says what sets BT -- and the BT deal -- apart from other carriers is that they've left Ribbit as an independent corporation that works with other carrier partners around the world. And Griggs says that finding a partner carrier like BT was probably the smartest decision the company made in the past six months.
"That was a no-brainer," he says. "I think it was smart from both sides. It was very forward-thinking from BT to say this is something we need, and I think it was very telling for us to say that in order to get to the next level and to actually bring this to the scale that needs to happen you have to be someone the size of a BT, a Google, an Apple, a Microsoft.
"That is very significant because that's a phone company saying that essentially what this little start-up in Silicon Valley thought of is the way things should be going," he adds. "That is a big leap for a lot of people."
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