IBM, Cisco Target Speech-Enabled Contact Centers

IBM and Cisco plan to launch a joint speech-enabled solution set later this year for contact centers, officials announced Thursday.

The end result, officials hope, are contact center offerings around the world that people will use in place of resource-intensive human intervention.

The two companies plan to provide a joint service using IBM’s WebSphere Voice Server for Multiplatforms middleware and Cisco’s Customer Voice Portal (CVP), which converts PSTN and IP-based telephone calls into VXML events and documents.

“IBM has a long-standing commitment to middleware business built around WebSphere, extending application logic over as many communications methods as possible,” said Dan Miller, a senior analyst at Opus Research. “This joint venture is consistent with that and represents the leading IP infrastructure provider hooking up with both the leading provider of professional services and the provider of a major middleware platform.”

Speech-enabled contact centers open the door to more accessibility for customers at all hours of the day, regardless of the day. By accessing a voice menu in such a product, customers can find out their latest transactions, submit insurance claims or even make car and hotel reservations without speaking once to a human being.

According to IBM officials, as much as 75 percent of a contact center’s work involves payroll, training, retention and turnover. By automating the process and allowing the speech-enabled application to answer calls and access back-office data repositories, officials say companies can save on per-transaction costs associated with the contact center.

“A lot of the customers that we have in common look at us as their trusted adviser for networking technology and application technology and they’re saying, ‘hey you two, we think you should be working together to solve the problems your joint customer, me, is having,'” said Gene Cox, director of IBM’s contact center product and solutions management.

Cox said getting the two products melded won’t pose any challenges as both have multiple technology intersection points: both are implemented on the J2EE platform, so Cisco’s CVP can run on top of IBM’s WebSphere application server and voice server; and they each use open voice standards like VXML and the Media Resource Control Protocol (MRCP), the IETF standard for interaction with the speech engines.

The IBM/Cisco product is expected to show in the second quarter of 2005.

The two companies have been in strengthening ties between their product sets for some time. Last year, IBM and Cisco went on a partnership tear, announcing plans to work together on everything from servers and switches to VoIP to enterprise security.

Miller said the relationship between the two is striking in that IBM’s global services unit has a dedicated staff of 80 individuals who are there only to handle joint Cisco/IBM products.

“It’s unusual to name dedicated reps to the product of a joint venture,” he said. “[It] speaks volumes to the anticipated demand for a combination of Cisco’s product and IBM’s product,” he said.

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