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BeVocal Café Cuts Time-To-Market

BeVocal Café Cuts Time-To-Market

For service companies, such as eye-care chains and auto maintenance shops, the time spent performing the service is their inventory so lost time means lost money. Customers who call a business and are frustrated by the time spent on hold or wading through a touch-tone system (punch 1 for billing, punch 2 for customer service) often hang up for good. On the other hand, businesses that employ live operators to schedule routine customer appointments aren't making good use of valuable staff resources. Today's slow and cumbersome way of making reservations and appointments is clearly in need of a face-lift, and that's where Xtime comes in.

Founded in 1999, Xtime is a technology solution company whose goal is to change how customers make reservations and appointments. To do this, Xtime created a platform that enables large service-providing companies and national service chains in the enterprise market to schedule appointments over the Internet, in other words, "e-scheduling." Electronic scheduling is an appealing alternative to companies, from automotive maintenance shops that depend on keeping a full roster of service appointments, to corporate sales training departments that need to schedule instructors, courses, and equipment at hundreds of locations.

While online scheduling hit a chord with many businesses and Xtime quickly signed customers such as OneBody, TableQuest, and VitaLink, it knew that some customers required more that just an online interface. Xtime believed the telephone - the most pervasive and natural interface - was the key to greater success. Through voice, Xtime could make its services ever present to the end users, creating a solution that anyone, anywhere, could use. With that in mind, Xtime turned to voice application development and voice scheduling.

Selecting a Platform
Xtime had several choices when selecting a platform on which to develop and host its customers' voice applications. It looked at a number of criteria, including the quality of the interface it could build, the caliber and stability of the technology provider, and the availability of standards-compliant technology (for example, Java, VoiceXML, and SpeechObjects) and, of course, pricing. Xtime learned about BeVocal's developer program, the BeVocal Café (http://cafe.bevocal.com), through employees who previously worked at Nuance Communications. The more Xtime looked into BeVocal Café, the more they liked the approach and the ties to Nuance's speech recognition technology. Xtime also liked the fact that they could develop online through the Café and develop applications locally on their Windows desktop. BeVocal also offers tools for debugging and usability testing that are not available elsewhere. All BeVocal's tools and VoiceXML interpreter are written entirely in Java, which Xtime fully embraces.

When working with BeVocal, Xtime found its infrastructure and platform very flexible, which enabled Xtime to build the richest possible voice-user interface. It was critical for Xtime to use SpeechObjects so that components built using the BeVocal Café could be easily reused. Xtime could also use BeVocal tools to automatically monitor their voice application once it was up and running.

Deploying the Application
Using the BeVocal Café, Xtime quickly built a voice scheduler application, the first one in the industry. Through this solution callers can schedule appointments 24/7 in real time over the phone. The application answers the call on behalf of a service business, guides the caller through the reservation process, searches for alternative openings, and books the appointment. The business and its customers can later access this information online.

This application clearly demonstrates how standards, such as VoiceXML, leverage current Internet infrastructure. VoiceXML describes the interface, or presentation layer, while the back-end business logic is transparent to the VoiceXML developer and, ultimately, the end user. Many businesses have already invested in back-end application infrastructure and can easily leverage VoiceXML to provide a powerful new voice interface.

Xtime built its platform and voice scheduler application to provide a unified user experience. As soon as its customers learned that voice functionality was available, it was in immediate demand. Xtime's e-scheduling platform is used by companies such as OneBody Inc., a provider of news and services related to online complementary and alternative medicine, that now offers voice-scheduling services to its members. Through this service, patients of participating medical practitioners can make health care appointments via the "Voice Web." This brings added convenience to patients and efficiency and cost savings to practitioners, who are now able to automatically update information in their central scheduling system. OneBody Inc. reaches more than seven-million consumers through its contracts with health plans, including Blue Shield of California and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.

Lessons Learned
Xtime had originally contemplated building its entire voice application internally, but it definitely made the right decision to use the BeVocal Café instead. The Café enabled Xtime to create more robust applications faster than the company could have done in-house. Furthermore, Xtime didn't need to use any third-party tools to develop the application. Xtime probably cut its time-to-market by about 50% and dramatically reduced the level of expertise needed in-house to build a high-quality speech application.

Also, from the hosting standpoint, it's great to be able to write VoiceXML code and not worry about installation issues. To host a speech-enabled application you must acquire telephony channels, hardware, and software; configure switches; build redundant systems; face debugging audio provider issues; tune and build grammars; and more. If you're a small shop or only want to roll out a trial deployment, this can become a significant capital expense and it demands a lot of hard work to find the requisite expertise. On top of that, you still need to build the application and debug infrastructure and operations issues. BeVocal does much of this for you and provides robust service-level agreements (SLAs), required by Xtime's customers.

Finally, it's critical to be able to do usability testing while creating voice applications to ensure ease-of-use for your customers. BeVocal provides a unique tool called the Vocal Player that enables a developer to scan through different user interactions and identify problem areas in dialog design. It also has a new tool called the Vocal Scripter that decouples speech recognition testing and application flow testing, enabling developers to interact with their application in a text mode. This dramatically speeds application development time for getting them to flow and behave correctly. Once the application flows correctly, developers can concentrate on grammar tuning and other speech recognition related issues to ensure that the speech recognition is accurate.

Looking to the Future
Xtime plans to build additional voice applications to provide reservations management and other functionality for business users. It feels that adding voice to its applications has already given it a compelling differentiator and a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace.

More Stories By Nate Boyd

Nate Boyd is the
application manager for Xtime, leading up
development of both Web and IVR interfaces to the Xtime TIMEngine platform. He started his career building some of the first e-commerce and content
management solutions at Banta Integrated Media. Nate holds a BS and MS in computer
science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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