Sunday, February 19, 2012

Press 1 for Cool - The Video IVR

I have worked in the contact center technology field for most of my IT career.  I've watched as the industry has moved from 30 year old ACD technology to skills-based routing, least-cost routing, business process routing, multimedia, and internet contact technologies.

I've attended trade shows and user group meetings, done consulting and worked as a full-time employee for fortune 50 companies.  It has been interesting to watch the unfolding of VoIP and SIP technologies and the decline of TDM technologies.  Contact center technology has changed rapidly since the turn of the century and, like all other tech, has had to evolve to accommodate an increasingly tech-wise population that would rather click hyperlinks than talk to a human when they need customer service.

In spite of all that progress, most organizations have struggled to really connect with their customers in a way that truly showcases the capabilities of the available technology.  The evolution of VXML and CCXML, as well as API exposure from the contact center technology providers, has opened doors that weren't even thought of 10 years ago.  We can do so much more than what we're doing right now in contact centers.

I'd have to say, the worst of the contact center experiences (other than language barriers) are poorly written IVR applications.

IVR applications are those things you talk to when you call an 800 number at your bank, or your electric company, or any other organization with which you do business, to self service your account.  Perhaps an example will show you what I mean.

You: beepbeepboopboopbeepboopbeepbeepboop (ok, this is really your phone)

IVR lady: Thank you for calling Big National Bank, where we love you.  No, really.  Please select from the following options.  For account management, press 1.  For loans, press 2.  For credit cards, press 3.  To repeat this menu, press 8 and don't ask us why we picked a non-sequential number for that option.

You: boop (you pressed 1)

IVR lady: You pressed 1, is that right?  If so, press 1 to accept.  To go back to the main menu, press 2.

You: boop

IVR lady: OK, account management.  For checking, press 1.  For savings, press 2.  For money laundering, press 3.

You: booeep (that's a 3, sounds ominous because it's the money laundering menu)

IVR lady: You pressed 3, is that right?  If so, press 1 to accept.  To go back to the previous menu, press 2.

You: boop (remember, that's a "1")

IVR lady: I'm sorry, I didn't understand your response.  Press 1 to accept, or press 2 to return to the previous menu.

You: beep (wait, was that 1 or 2?)

IVR lady: I'm still having trouble hearing you.  Press 1 to accept, or press 2 to return to the previous menu.

You: (wait, what am I accepting?  what was the previous menu?  Crap, I'm lost!  Desperate "boop" and inaudable swearing.)

IVR lady: You seem to be having trouble.  Should I give you a moment to familiarize yourself with your telephone keypad?  If yes, press 1.  If no, and to return to whatever menu we were talking about, press 2.

You: (more swearing, this time much more audible, and BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP on the 0 key to talk to a human).

IVR lady: Oh, you want to talk to one of our expensive agents.  Fine.  Your call is very important.  We estimate your wait time to be <dramatic pause> 17 <pause> minutes.

I think you will all agree that I'm only exaggerating a little with this example. You may have chuckled a bit reading the example (come on, humor me) but you probably don't chuckle, in fact, you probably cringe, when you really have to interact with one of these things.

This hasn't really progressed much past old mainframe green screen, menu-driven software. The sad thing is, there really are IVR applications like this being used in customer service organizations everywhere today.  Even sadder, the limitations are more around creativity than the technical capabilities of the available technology.

Remember this?

And you thought Kramer was just a funny guy. He invented the first speech driven IVR, more out of necessity than anything. Figured we all needed a laugh after that annoying IVR lady.

IVR development tools have gotten much more robust over the past few years, allowing developers to give the IVR quasi-intelligence, speech recognition, and the ability to interact with a myriad of backend systems. In the hands of a skilled developer, all kinds of possibilities open up.  Companies are slowly but surely embracing the tech and spending the money to catch up to it.

Let's talk about a seemingly unrelated topic for a second.  I promise to tie this together.

Personal assistant technology is beginning to show up on Apple and Android devices everywhere.  The two big players right now are Apple's Siri, and Speaktoit for Android.  These are both really in their infancy, and I refuse to make comparisons, as that always seems to stir up fights.  They both get the job done, but "the job" is fairly limited right now.  Basically, anything you can do on your smartphone the assistant can help with; send messages, respond to messages, open apps, check weather, time of day, etc., etc.  Pretty cool tech, but still a bit limited and the bots sometimes struggle to get it right.

Now, what does this have to do with the contact center industry?

The industry is beginning to take notice of these personal technology assistants and recognizes the potential for integration.  As the technology advances and the providers of personal assistants begin to open their API's and SDK's, contact center technology developers will begin using these to integrate personal assistants with customer service organizations' backend systems and provide self-service options to their customers via smartphone apps.

Instead of dialing a toll-free number and talking to a voice deeply rooted in tedious and cumbersome menu driven self-service using your keypad, you will talk to a personal assistant avatar on your smartphone screen in much more natural speech patterns in the next generation of intelligent Customer Front Door technology.  Some initial studies have shown that visual IVR technology can reduce the amount of time required to get through a self-service conversation.  Avatar-based visual IVR's could reduce that even further.

Now, let's try that bank call again, but this time, you're talking to Hal, your personal assistant on your smartphone screen.

You: Hello, Hal.  I need to check a balance in my primary checking account and transfer some money to my offshore account.
Hal: I'd be delighted to help you with that Dave.  Can you give me your password?
You: Yes, the password is **********.
Hal: Ten asterisks is an odd password, Dave, but whatever.  Your primary checking account balance is ninety-seven dollars and thirty-four cents.  How much would you like to transfer to your offshore account?
You: Three thousand dollars.
Hal: I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do that for you right now, that exceeds your balance.  It can only be attributable to human error.
You: Thanks, Hal.  Just seeing if you were paying attention.
Hal: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore.  Goodbye.

In spite of Hal's condescending demeanor, you walk away happy because that took much less time than that annoying IVR lady that could probably drive even Hal crazy.

Over the next few years, we will see big changes in the contact center experience.  While nobody will ever be able to come up with anything as cool as Kramer's Moviefone, visual platforms will become increasingly popular and, as the technology improves, will remove some of the pain from customer service.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Apple Will Fail

Before we get started here, let's get a few things straight.

I am not an Apple Hater.

I started using Macs back in the 90's when I worked for a newspaper doing advertising layout.  We used the Macs for layout and electronic pre-press instead of sending the huge printing plates to the printer. Nothing could do the job like the Macs.

A few years later, I wrote a FileMaker Pro application for a small finance company and converted all their offices to Macs.  This was back in the PowerPC and G3/G4 days.

Efficiency in the offices increased due to the simplicity and intuitive interface of the MacOS, and, of course, my brilliant code.  Well, mostly because of the intuitive interface of the MacOS.

I have since that time owned Mac devices from the original iPod to the latest iPad model.  I don’t care what theory you subscribe to, they make some awesome tech.

I will also admit, I am primarily a user of other devices and other mobile operating systems.  I try to avoid comparisons and realize that all of them fill a need in the market and appeal to different people.

I think the "this is better than that" mindset is juvenile and narrow minded.  Why can't we just all get along?

Anyway, now that we're on the same page, let me tell you why I think Apple will fail.

I should point out, of course, that this is a theory.  I realized my crystal ball was flawed many years ago when Truman defeated Dewey.  OK, I’m not quite that old.  My theory is based on the “past behavior is the best predictor of future performance” idea.  Apple’s history is fraught with evidence that the company’s success is very closely tied, maybe even inextricably tied, to the actions, ideas, and presence of Steve Jobs.

When Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985, you know, when John Sculley didn’t fire him, Apple launched into a singularly unimpressive 12 year period of net flat stock prices and uninspired leadership.  John Sculley, former CEO of Pepsi and Gil Amelio, previously the CEO of National Semiconductor proved to the world that CEOs with proven track records of leadership could do nothing but steer the Apple ship into the seas of mediocrity.

It was during this period that Apple proved it could be just like all the other boring, dull tech companies.  They did the “licensing thing” with Motorola and released several laptops, desktops, and servers.  It was a very unexciting time in Apple history, and the stock price was slowly dwindling away along with market share.  By 1997, it seemed the end was inevitable.

Then, Jobs returned.

Apple went on the offensive and, just over a year later, released the iMac.  The excitement was back.  The stock soared out of the twenty-dollars-a-share bargain basement to an unprecedented $141.31 a share on March 22, 2000.  Jobs had almost single-handedly resurrected the rotting Apple with his first directive from the captain’s chair since his return.

The Dot Com Bomb of 2000, housing market collapse, and The Great Recession weren’t enough to keep Apple down.  If you look at the graph below, Apple’s stock prices began a steady climb after the Dot Com Bomb and soared to an insane $400 a share with the iPhone and iPad releases.

Did you notice the drop in the stock when Jobs’ health issues became apparent and he took medical leave from the company in 2009?  Is it just me, or is it significant that, while Apple was riding the wave from the iPhone success, it took such a downturn on the bad news surrounding Jobs health?  Sure, Apple recovered, but why?  Because of the iPad, another brilliant idea from Steve Jobs.

Apple’s success has always been tied to the truly brilliant ideas of Steve Jobs.  As a matter of fact, the other companies started by Jobs, NeXT and Pixar, reveal some other interesting precedents that speak volumes about what happens to companies that were started by Jobs when he leaves.

The technology developed at NeXT was brought back to Apple with Jobs and became the basis for OS X.  NeXT has been reduced to nothing more than a user group consisting of the remnants of a small, zealous user base and former employees.

Pixar, well, that’s a little different.  When Disney bought Pixar and made Steve Jobs a board member (and its largest shareholder), their intent was to get their hands on the Pixar platform which was their implementation of the industry standard RenderMan. 

Disney has writers, but they needed something to take their in-house, mediocre animation to the next level.  Who had the answer?  Steve Jobs.  The technology is now part of Disney, and Pixar, while not forgotten, is nothing more than a wholly owned subsidiary of Disney.  Pixar, another of Jobs creations, will always be remembered for revolutionizing animation.

Apple enthusiasts, it’s time to face facts.  Apple, the company, was the fortunate recipient of the genius of Steve Jobs.  Put simply, Apple was Steve Jobs.  It doesn’t matter that he hand-picked his replacement because his replacement isn’t Steve Jobs.  No amount of teaching and indoctrination can duplicate what Steve brought to the table.  I challenge anyone to show me one thing with any staying power that came out of Apple that isn’t tied to Steve Jobs.

Guys like Steve Jobs don’t come along every day.  Sure, there are smart people out there, but Steve Jobs was more than just smart.  Steve Jobs possessed something unique and special.  He was an inventor, artist, gearhead, and businessman all rolled into a single package and he excelled at all of those things.  He was just wired differently than most people and it is truly a gift.  I can’t go to school to learn that.

Steve Jobs has been compared to Thomas Edison and I believe the analogy is appropriate.  Just like we all have light bulbs in our homes 130 years after the first successful test that vaguely resemble the original invention, people 130 years from now will most likely have something similar to an iPod with all their favorite tunes on it connected to the sound system in their flying car.

We may have had those sooner if Steve had gotten into the car business.