RealTime IT News

Beatriz Infante, CEO, VoiceObjects

Beatriz InfantePress 1 to continue reading this article. Press 2 to make another selection ...

The above instructions aren't real, but may be familiar to anyone who's experienced the voice menu hell of trying to navigate automated phone systems. The VoiceObjects alternative is a more personalized customer-service experience that the company says currently serves some 500 million callers annually. Its flagship product, VoiceObjects Server, supports phone-based applications used by more than 50 companies, including Adobe, T-Mobile and Volkswagen Financial Services.

Phone application servers have the ability to dynamically generate VoiceXML to create personalized dialogs with each caller, using information in an organization's CRM  system or other database.

Beatriz Infante, VoiceObject's president and CEO, has headed many large tech operations. Most recently she was chairman, president and CEO of Aspect Communications. Prior to Aspect, she was a senior vice president of Oracle's Application Server division, growing license revenue to over $40 million, and was responsible for Oracle's open systems business units, managing 50 percent revenue growth to $1.1 billion.

Infante spoke to internetnews.com about her San Mateo, Calif.-based company's plans to spawn the next generation of phone services.

Q: What is the opportunity or shortcoming in the market VoiceObjects addresses?

It's a tremendous opportunity. What was interesting for me, after running a billion dollar business at Oracle, is the notion of write once and run anywhere. VoiceObjects has that.

Today, most people hate voice menus. We like to joke that if Amazon worked this way it would be like "Press here" to talk to an agent and be given a personalized list of the books you want to order. Amazon is great because of the instant decisions it makes. The personalization based on your past experiences makes your experience different than mine.

Q: That personalization can be brought to the phone?

Right, that is how phone applications should be developed to reach mass scale. We're excited about the Apple iPhone because we believe there is a sea change happening. We enable every phone to work like an iPhone, with a mix of voice, text and Flash. We have a server-based deployment model so you can customize your experience dynamically in the same way that Amazon [presents information to you] based on what you did previously at the site.

Q: What technology are we talking about?

We call it a phone application server. What created Google, Amazon and eBay was the idea of an application server and an n-tier architecture without a fat client. The market today is run by Interactive Voice Response (IVR), which is like "Press 1 for Service" and "Press 2 for Sales." But IVR is arcane and one size fits all.

Q: And the VoiceObjects alternative?

We sit inside an application server, like WebSphere or WebLogic, and bring the power to your phone. If you're trying to develop, for example, a Fandango-like movie application for the phone, you want to listen to the local theater listings and download a preview. You need a phone application server to write the application once and manage the content. You also need analytics so you know, for example, when you have a premium customer on the line you might want to offer more services to.

Q: Are companies implementing this personalization today?

Yes. One of our best customers, Postbank in Germany, offers completely personalized banking via the phone. One aspect of this is you get a different response based on what the system knows about you. An older person might start out with a slower interactive persona, but that can be changed as the user gets more comfortable with the system.

Q: Who do you consider competitors?

There are companies that claim to be in our space, but we believe what we offer is unique. We revolutionize the ability to deploy applications to your phone. Our solution is now broadly deployed in a large number of mobile carriers in Europe.

Q: You've mentioned the iPhone, which has its own touch-screen technology and Apple software. How does that stack up with what VoiceObjects offers?

We love the iPhone because it's an indicator of the market and shows we're reaching that wave of cool technology; there's a demand that must be filled. The last six to nine months we've been selling to early adopters who are looking at their bottom line and saying, "If I don't offer things like banking through the phone, I'll be in deep trouble."

There are fixed-line carriers losing 100,000 customers a month. They need new kinds of enhanced services and new applications like banking that may not be sexy, but if you can make it cool and fun, customers will spend more time on their phones and that's additional revenue.

Q: What are some other examples besides banking?

We have customers that offer free voicemail with ads, or you get bonus points or free ring tones for using the service. Another customer, a newspaper, offers a free taxi dispatch service. It's a single number you call and it's location-based so they know where to send the taxi. At the end of the call you hear an ad for a newspaper subscription. So this newspaper put together this taxi dispatch service for the simple purpose of demand creation and lead generation. Companies are thinking outside the box as to how to leverage these new services.

Q: Some might say personalization and automation are conflicting ideas.

To me they are actually two halves of the same coin. Think about Amazon and eBay. They are automating your Internet experience. It's like on Yahoo, I can see my news on the left or right side of the screen. You are determining your view of the universe on the Internet. It's personalization.

What we do is keep track of customer data, so the next time you call, you get the message, for example, "You stopped your last transaction midway. Do you want to continue with that now? The consumer doesn't have to start from scratch each call. This is the problem with traditional systems, the user has to reenter information each time.

Q: This is an enterprise system. What level company is your base customer and what kind of price range are we talking about?

The ideal is the large, very complex consumer-facing company that handles 20 to 40 million calls per year; anything that is very transaction heavy: fixed-line and mobile phone carriers, and consumer-based banking, airline and hospitality companies. The typical buyer is VP of customer care or the business owner. And increasingly we're seeing the marketing person involved because they want to come up with ways to grow the business by 10 to 20 percent.

Pricing is a function of the volume. For large customers, doing a million calls per day, we're saving you $3 to $5 per call and we cost 30 to 40 cents per call.

Q: What is this savings compared to?

We're helping companies save money by providing automated phone systems that reduce the need for live call center agents. The cost of a live-agent call into a call center is astronomical. We automate that call and provide a superior experience so consumers don't view it as a painful process, just as people now frequent Amazon more than making trips to the bookstore.

Q: We're behind much of Europe and Asia in mobile services. What's the potential interest in the U.S.?

The U.S. is poised for a real change in how customer care and consumer care is handled, and it's being driven by the mobile generation. I think it's time for an evolution in how consumer service over the phone is handled. The automated phone system worked well for a long time, then limped along but now it's at the edge of collapse.

Q: What kind of phones do you work with?

That's the beauty of our technology; we handle literally hundreds of phones, from the very old to the latest. It's like the Web -- write it once and you can literally deploy to any phone from our phone application server. Companies don't want to have to write applications for every new phone that comes out.