Open Standards in Contact Centers

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Across virtually all industries, companies with contact centers are transforming their customer service operations to reduce costs, increase customer satisfaction, grow revenue, and attain competitive advantage. Fundamental to this transformation is the creation, adoption, and promulgation of open standards. We have seen this transformation occur in technology cycles repeatedly. Without open standards, the Web would be a hodgepodge of markup languages that all need a unique browser with unique extensions and capabilities. But because of open standards the Web has flourished. You can choose from about four or five popular browsers and be fairly sure that most of the Web sites you go to will work just fine. The results are that companies can use the Web as a channel for sales and customer self-service at a dramatically reduced price to what it cost in the late 1990s. That same phenomenon is happening now in contact centers. The legacy paradigm is that everything runs on the IVR platform. The business logic is written in some proprietary language that is unique with each vendor's IVR. Redundancy and failover is difficult and expensive since everything runs on the same machine. Moving to a new IVR platform means a total rewrite of the applications in a new proprietary language. Speech entered the picture through proprietary APIs that were different for each IVR vendor, so the availability of choice in speech vendors was conditional on the cooperation between the speech vendor and the IVR vendor. Today we have made a complete shift because of open standards. With the advent and acceptance of VoiceXML, the IVR primarily takes on the job of answering the phone and passing off the call to an application server that sends a VoiceXML page to the IVR's voice browser, where it gets rendered. So the business logic is separated from the IVR function of answering and transferring phone calls. So now we can monitor and launch Web applications and speech applications from the same application server. What once used to be two silos of technology is now one horizontal, integrated infrastructure. But VoiceXML is just one of the open standards that gives the customer portability. SRGS and Speech Synthesis Markup Language are standards for grammar formats and text-to-speech tags, which make not only the applications portable, but the associated grammars as well. VoiceXML was first submitted to the W3C on May 22, 2000, and the adoption rates have been through the roof. According to the VoiceXML Forum (, there are thousands of VoiceXML applications running on platforms from nearly 100 different vendors. Not only has the standard taken off, but it has spawned a whole new category of tool vendors that specialize in application builders that generate VoiceXML. Now that we have an open standard that is well adopted that can let our applications be portable, which allows us choice in the IVR vendor, how do we get choice in our speech vendor? The answer lies in a new Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standard called the Media Resource Control Protocol (MRCP). While the MRCP spec is only two years old, already all three of the major speech vendors claim support for it. With MRCP, the proprietary connectors between the IVR and the speech vendor are gone. Open standards once again create a climate for choice. Call Control eXtensible Markup Language (CCXML) is a new proposed standard before the W3C that will standardize the call control functions of an IVR, such as "answer a call," "hang up," or "transfer a call." As we adopt more open standards in the contact center space, the proprietary nature of IVRs disappears and prices go down. The contact center becomes horizontally integrated with the rest of the IT shop and economies of size take shape and drive down the total cost of customer care while improving the customer experience. There remain many legacy, proprietary IVR systems from the Y2K buying binge. As businesses see the need to improve customer care and create new channels of revenue, they will see the business justifications for moving to open standards to reduced cost-per-touch, portability, and protection of their investment, to form a merged relationship with their other channels of contact center customer communications. About the Author Brian Garr is the IBM software group program director for contact center solutions. He is an evangelist and speaker worldwide on machine translation, text to speech, and speech recognition. He received the Smithsonian Institute's "Heroes of Technology" designation in 1998 for his work in machine translation.
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