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July 26, 2007

Interactive Voice Response for Business Communications Platforms

By Alan Rosenberg, BlueNote Networks

A business communications platform (BCP) delivers voice services as a reusable software component in an enterprise IT architecture. In its simplest form, a BCP can serve as a flexible software-based alternative to a traditional hardware-based IP-PBX. BCPs offer popular enterprise telephony features found in PBXs plus adjunct capabilities such as voicemail, auto-attendant, and conference bridging. But unlike PBXs, BCPs offer high level application programming interfaces that allow enterprises to quickly and easily add interactive voice capabilities to business processes, Web pages, and distributed software applications.

While PBXs typically are relegated to use as office telephone systems, BCPs can leverage the Internet to extend and improve exchanges with customers and partners outside the traditional four walls of the office, allowing enterprises to derive greater business value from their telecommunications infrastructures.
Interactive voice response (IVR) technologies enable human interaction with a phone system or business application using dual tone multi-frequency (DTMF) or speech. IVR capabilities emerged in the 1980s as the use of touchtone phones became widespread. Most traditional PBXs include basic IVR capabilities that can be used to manage voicemail or interact with an auto-attendant. But the IVR capabilities of most PBXs are not easily extensible to external business applications or processes.  
Most PBXs and automatic call dialers (ACDs) offer archaic proprietary IVR languages, or low-level computer telephone integration (CTI (News - Alert)) interfaces such as TAPI (Telephony Application Programming Interface) and JTAPI (Java TAPI) that are beyond the comprehension of today’s average Web developer. As a result, many enterprises pursue specialized IVR solutions or rely on remotely-hosted services for more complex IVR needs such as bank-by-phone solutions, stock/news/weather retrieval services or vote-by-phone applications (think American Idol).
VXML Benefits
  • Rapid, economical project development
  • Leverage existing staff
  • Minimal training and support requirements
  • Use existing application development environment and toolsets
  • Allow focus on business solution rather than telecommunications details
  • Support multiple platforms without software porting
Forward-looking businesses are turning to BCPs for rich communications services plus easily extensible IVR capabilities in a single platform. Modern BCPs feature VoiceXML (News - Alert) (VXML) interfaces that allow Web developers to easily add IVR capabilities to applications and business processes. VXML is a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standard for simplifying human interactions with telephony systems and software applications.
VXML is similar in concept to HTML. Just as HTML documents are interpreted by a Web browser, VXML documents are interpreted by a voice browser. The VXML standard covers voice prompts, voice recording, touchtone entry, voice recognition, and text-to-speech capabilities.
Sample IVR Applications
  • Account information and order status retrieval
  • Appointment reminders
  • Business transaction enablement
  • Call center modernization
  • Email retrieval (text-to-speech)
  • Information and emergency notifications
  • Package tracking and transportation logistics
  • Political campaigning and polling
  • Prescription refills
  • Stock/news/weather/traffic retrieval
  • Subscription renewals
  • Voice verification
  • Vote-by-phone
Because VXML is based on IP and Web technologies that most IT organizations are already familiar with, VXML-based applications can be developed and deployed quickly, with little or no additional training. Unlike with proprietary CTI approaches, VXML applications can be created in Java, .NET or any other Web-capable programming language. Furthermore, VXML applications can run on any Web-capable operating system. And any back-end server, mainframe, database, or system that has been Web or XML-enabled can be rapidly integrated with VXML.
IVR opportunities abound in nearly every industry and market segment. Here’s a simple example. Say you book a flight on the 11 AM JetAir shuttle to LaGuardia for a 1PM meeting in Manhattan. You provide your mobile phone number to the carrier at the time you make your reservation. At 9 AM you receive a phone call -- Flight 27, the 11 AM JetAir shuttle to LaGuardia has been cancelled due to equipment problems, press 1 to book a seat on the noon flight, press 2 to book a seat on the 1 PM flight, press 3 to request a refund, or press 4 or stay on the line to speak with a JetAir travel specialist.
A BCP can support this entire transaction in a single customer-managed platform. BCPs support outbound notification capabilities to alert the passenger of the cancelled flight, PSTN gateway functionality to complete the call, VXML-based IVR capabilities for business process integration, plus call control capabilities to direct the customer to a call center agent if necessary. Furthermore, the entire solution can be implemented by IT Web development staff, using their existing development environments and toolsets, with minimal training and support requirements.
VXML-based IVR capabilities serve as another example of how business communications platforms are helping enterprises derive increased business value from their telecommunications infrastructures by rapidly and efficiently integrating interactive communications with business processes and applications.
Alan Rosenberg is director of Product Line Management for BlueNote Networks (News - Alert) (News - Alert). With BlueNote SessionSuite platforms, enterprises, ISVs and partners can quickly and easily embed interactive real-time communication services into a range of commercial or custom software applications, Web sites and internal business processes using industry-standard interfaces and technology. He can be reached at [email protected].


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