Technical support for customers can be an expensive line item for many businesses, and there's little that can be done to get around the need for a call center staffed with human agents. Or at least that's the way it used to be.
A small Mountain View, Calif.-based start-up called TuVox Inc., founded by two alums of Apple Computer, is aiming to change that by helping firms automate level one technical support calls with a combination of artificial intelligence and speech recognition utilizing the emerging Voice XML (VXML) standard.
Dubbed the TuVox Customer Assistance System (CAS), TuVox's customer relationship management (CRM) solution is a software platform that enables the design, content management, testing, audio production, deployment and monitoring of automated support systems using standard VXML, allowing it to work with speech technology from many vendors, including Nuance, Speechworks and IBM.
The system does not need to be managed by speech experts. TuVox said answers and conversation flow can be easily added or changed.
"This is a milestone for creating economic value and improving customer service with speech recognition," said Steven S. Pollock, co-founder and chief executive officer of TuVox. "With the TuVox CAS, customers are able to cost-effectively create speech applications which automate level one technical support calls and can answer thousands of customer questions."
And TuVox's CAS isn't vaporware. Just ask two of its high-profile clients, Handspring and Activision. Handspring has already implemented the system and is using it for its after-hours tech support line.
"We are committed to providing the most advanced support to our customers across all contact points -- phone, Web and email," said John Stanton, Handspring's director of worldwide customer relations. "TuVox's voice recognition system is a part of that commitment."
The initial Handspring system comprises more than 3,000 pages of VXML code and thousands of audio prompts to answer customers' frequently asked troubleshooting questions about Visor handhelds and Treo communicators.
Activision, on the other hand, is in the final phases of implementing the system. It plans to test the CAS on its after-hours tech support line before rolling it out for full-time service.
"We're very optimistic," said Jim Summers, vice president of quality assurance and customer support at Activision. "My customer support guys have actually turned from being fairly pessimistic when I first proposed it to them to believing now that it's going to be a winner for us."
Voice recognition is not new. In July 2000, TuVox's neighbor, Tellme Networks Inc., launched a service using voice recognition technology that allows callers to find restaurants, movie theaters and times, get stock quotes, book airline tickets, etc. The service was intended to showcase Tellme's technology, which allows businesses to replace touchtone Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems (you know -- "For billing information, press 1. To check your balance, press 2...") with more customer-friendly speech recognition systems. A little more than six months after it launched, Tellme reported that it had sold more than 1 billion voice applications to enterprise customers.
But TuVox is tackling a more ambitious use for the technology.
"The interaction types [Tellme] supports are reasonably fixed," Pollock said. "What we're after modeling here are much larger and more free-form conversations."
That's a challenge. Customers tend to spend a great deal more time on a technical support call, sometimes 20 to 30 minutes or more, and the information itself tends to be very dynamic.
"You've got to have a way that allows a technical writer or technical support person to manage this system," Pollock said.
From the customer perspective, the solution appears to be a success.
"You're automating a conversation, and the more natural you make it feel to the caller, the better," Pollock said. "We've got multiple people now who actually call the system when they talk to it. It seems conversational enough that there is some illusion of interaction."
Summers said that illusion of interaction was an important consideration for Activision.
"The customer doesn't have to listen through a bunch of extraneous stuff," he said. "The customer feels like they're participating in the solution, not just a number pusher listening to a litany of information. We can cut out some of the layers and get them to a solution in the diagnostic tree a lot quicker. More importantly, the customer feels like they're on the way to a solution."
Another important consideration for Activision was the metrics that TuVox's CAS provides. Summers said that Activision previously used a touchtone IVR system that was essentially a simple diagnostic tree customers could use to identify their specific problems before a customer support representative became available. He said that about 60 percent of the contacts to the system were going away in the voice mail tree. Anecdotally, he said, Activision determined that most of those customers had their problems resolved, but there was little in the way of hard data to support that.
"The TuVox system can capture metrics about what levels the customer goes to, tell us when the customer checks out and let us know how many customers are actually getting to a solution page," Summers said.
TuVox is selling its system in two ways: an on-premises solution and a hosted solution. Customers can elect to have TuVox set up the whole thing, or they can license the software, in which case TuVox will train staff and help build the initial system.
In all, Pollock said the average company knowledge base can be automated through its CAS in about three weeks.
TuVox is funded by its founders -- Pollock and Chief Technology Officer Ashok Khosla. The company has 15 employees and expects to be cash positive in March.