Voice-enabled Websites are growing in popularity. John Cha, an industry analyst for Frost & Sullivan, a research firm in Mountain View, Calif., said this market for products and services that integrate visual and aural media grew 385 percent in 1999. He projects it will grow another 322 percent in 2000.
If you're considering adding live voice to your corporate Web presence, where should you begin?
Many brand-name providers, including WorldCom and AT&T, offer hosted solutions. Regional service providers and community-building sites are also getting in on the act. And emerging technology providers such as HearMe, Lipstream, and Interactive Intelligence can either sell you servers with which you can build your own VoIP portal call center, or host such services.
As the landscape of options explodes, keep a few simple principles in mind.
Start with a big toe
You should start small. Don't put the live voice option on the splash screen of your public Internet site. Try a pilot with a segment of your resellers in a protected area of your portal, for example. This application could make the voice of your sales support professionals (a notoriously friendly bunch) the first one contacted. The person who receives the call can route it to a regular telephone or a PC telephony interface.
Another place to try a pilot program is the employment-inquiry Webpage, where people seeking certain types of jobs, such as call center operators, might click on a button to schedule an interview. This would, in effect, preselect relatively Web-oriented candidates and give them a feel for the job they are applying for.
Explore hosted solutions
Though the technology to voice-enable Websites has existed for more than 3 years, industry players are shifting their business models and actively forming partnerships. This indicates that vendors are focused more on building infrastructure and acquiring customers than on developing applications. The implication for enterprise customers is that mergers and acquisitions could easily mean the end for some promising technologies. Rather than purchase server software or gateways, try a hosted solution for at least 6 months. Before you commit, examine the service agreements to see who allows you to alter the relationship with the lowest penalties.
Understand your applications
Your choice of a hosting or technology provider should depend on what you want to accomplish. Call centers are designed to initiate a two-way session between a caller and a service representative, and expand to include supervisor assistance as needed. If this is your primary application, look at vendors like Interactive Intelligence and e-talk, which have ready-made APIs to leading Automatic Call Distribution and call center platforms.
While one-on-one scenarios are easy to imagine with the current state of telephony, the future will be substantially more fluid. Some people will want to participate in Web-based audioconferences, similar to what you now get with a service bureau or audioconferencing server.
If you are looking for a large-scale community building platform, check out HearMe, Firetalk Communications, and Lipstream. Lipstream, for example, licenses its Live Voice technology, which lets multiple people talk simultaneously to more than 25 sites, including Excite, AltaVista, and MyFamily.com. Sites pay Lipstream based on usage, revenue sharing, or in the case of customer service applications, per seat.
Whatever technology you decide to implement, remember that the human being with the voice is always more important. The person who takes the calls must care deeply about the image he conveys and must know your company and products inside and out.