A virtual revolution

By Siàƒ¢n Green

As customer communication becomes more complex, CRM applications must keep pace. Edify Corp. has taken CRM one step further with the Virtual Customer Service Representative – a tool that can communicate with customers without human intervention.

For more than 30 years, the economic viability of customer sales and service has depended upon the telephone and the human customer service representative or agent,” said Joseph, G. Brown, CEO of Edify Corporation. “In the next few years, however, the combined forces of e-mail, sophisticated targeting, global business, and wireless computing will snap the old, desktop-centric CRM model like a twig.”

Brown’s comments reflect the fact that customer communication is becoming more complex. Call centres are becoming ‘contact centres’ as customers use a wider variety of communication channels, including telephone, e-mail, fax, the web and even mobile communications to handle everything from their personal finance to their utilities.

In response to this change, Edify has introduced Edify Enterprise, a CRM (customer relationship management) system that can communicate with customers through any channel without human intervention. The system will, says Edify, revolutionize CRM economics as up to half of all customer interaction can be managed automatically, leaving customer service agents to focus on ‘high value’ tasks, such as up-selling and cross-selling.

To support high value tasks, Edify Enterprise is also designed to support customer service agents by providing them with the information they need to make decisions. Like other CRM systems on the market, it integrates the disparate front and back office systems and databases to help utilities manage customer data more effectively.

Edify Enterprise can handle basic enquiries, enabling call centre operators to deal with more challenging tasks
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At the heart of Edify Enterprise is the ‘Virtual Customer Service Representative’ (VCSR), a tool that uses natural language technology and speech recognition technology to interpret customer enquiries.

High value

According to Paul Holley, sales director for Edify EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), Edify’s traditional background is in developing and marketing interactive voice response (IVR) technology. The company soon realized the potential for this technology in customer service applications, and began to develop CRM solutions with built-in IVR technology.

The result is Edify Enterprise, which consists of Edify’s VCSR tool and the Edify Interaction Centre. These work from Edify’s Electronic Workforce platform to allow companies to manage customer communications through web, voice, wireless and e-mail communications.

By using Edify Enterprise, companies can accept incoming customer enquiries through any communication channel. Using natural language technology, customer enquiries are interpreted and routed to the VCSR for a response and the relevant customer information is recalled from back-end databases. If the enquiry cannot be reliably interpreted, then it is routed to a human representative and the VCSR provides assistance to the representative. At any point during a customer interaction, the VCSR can connect the customer with a live agent anywhere within the enterprise and simultaneously provide assistance to the agent.

The VCSR uses natural language technology and speech recognition technology to interpret customer enquires
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The Electronic Workforce platform integrates the system with existing legacy systems and back office applications to ensure seamless operation.

The greatest benefit of this system, says Holley, is the opportunity for cost savings through the automation of a large part of the customer communication process. This means that fewer customer service agents are required, or that existing agents can be re-deployed to other areas of the business where their skills can be used more effectively.

Call centre agents will spend a certain amount of their time taking meter readings or handling bill payments, for example. Such calls can be dealt with accurately by the Edify Enterprise system leaving the agents to deal with more challenging tasks where opportunities for sales may exist.

“Most of the time, call centre agents are dealing with people about low value items,” said Holley. “The idea we are promoting is that [these low value items] should be dealt with by a virtual application so that the high value items can be dealt with by skilled operators. That is a key benefit for a lot of our users.”

The entire system also offers flexibility, both for the utility and the customer. The utility is able to dictate how Edify Enterprise fits into its existing systems, on what business rules it operates, and to what degree customer enquiry responses are automated, according to Andy Cowhig, Edify EMEA sales engineer.

“This isn’t a tool that people have to bend their business into,” said Cowhig. “What we offer is a framework product that allows companies to customize what the product does based on their own practices.

“We’re not about insisting on everything being automated, because that isn’t realistic, nor are we saying that people must change their business to suit our technology. And if a company has existing systems that provide part of the puzzle, for example back-end systems, then that’s fine.”

In addition, because Edify Enterprise is ‘channel-irrelevant’, customers can choose how they want to communicate with a utility, and how the utility communicates with them. For example, a customer can call the call centre and request that a statement is e-mailed to them. “Any way in which [customers] want to talk to the organization, or in which the organization wants to talk to them, we give them the ability to do that,” said Holley.

The accuracy of Edify Enterprise and the VCSR, and the fact that it operates in real time helps to ensure that the system can improve a utility’s customer service standards – a key factor in competitive electricity markets.

A unified system

In many utilities, the various aspects of a customer profile, for example contact details, customer history, billing and accounts history and so on, are usually split between a number of different databases and systems. The task of a CRM system is to pull these aspects together for the customer, and present them to a customer services representative so that customers’ questions can be answered, and where appropriate, products sold.

A call centre agent is therefore an interface between the customer and the back-end systems, and unlike most CRM systems, Edify Enterprise allows much of this interface to be automated.

The high level of automation in Edify Enterprise is made possible by the VCSR, a suite of applications operating from the Electronic Workforce platform.

The VCSR is capable of speech recognition in 21 languages and advanced text to speech in 11 languages with an accuracy of 99.9 per cent. It captures relevant information and history on a customer to help it to act on incoming messages, and where it cannot respond to a request, it passes this information on to a live agent.

It is a component-based system and can be installed one piece at a time depending on a utility’s needs. The components are: Edify Voice, Web, E-mail, Desktop Assistant and Wireless.

The natural language technology that Edify has built into its system was developed by Edinburgh university in the UK and Stanford university in California, USA. Edify has collaborated closely with both of these academic centres, and has a corporate office close to Stanford in the USA, while its main linguistics research and development facility is in Edinburgh. The company has also recruited linguists from Edinburgh to help it in the development of this technology.

The natural language technology is able to interpret the meaning of text-based messages, i.e. those that come in via e-mail, SMS, WAP, or via the web. Similar systems on the market today use ‘wordspotting’ and statistical techniques to work out the meaning of sentences. Wordspotting systems look for key words in sentences, while statistical systems work out the probability of what an incoming message means.

According to Cowhig, the Edify system is more accurate as it breaks down each sentence into nouns, verbs, objects and so on in order to understand the complete meaning of the message. The VCSR can then act upon the request depending on how it has been configured: it can respond to the customer through any channel, pass the request to a live agent to action, or activate a back office application or system to take action. This takes place in real time.

Natural language technology will, however, only support text-based channels. Requests and enquiries coming in by telephone therefore require the use of speech recognition technology, which outputs speech into text and sends it to the natural language engine for interpretation.

According to Cowhig, speech recognition technology works by understanding the basic sounds – phonemes – of individual words. Roughly 21 phonemes make up the English language. The system ‘listens’ to a caller and determines individual phonemes one by one to make up words. When it picks up a phoneme, it eliminates phonemes that cannot follow, and listens out for ones that can.

The speech recognition technology is remarkably accurate, says Cowhig. One of Edify’s clients in the USA is Sears, a national chain of department stores. Sears measured its live agent response in its call centre as being 85 per cent, meaning that 85 per cent of agents understood customer requests first time. After installing Edify technology, this rose to 98 per cent, according to Cowhig.

The reason for this accuracy is that the system listens to what is said, rather than attempting to guess what will be said next, and it is more accurate than humans at hearing sounds that can be easily mixed up, for example ‘m’ and ‘n’.

The speech recognition engine outputs text to the natural language tool, which interprets the customer’s request. The speech engine can then interact with the customer to obtain further details or respond to the enquiry.

Interaction centre

Another component of Edify Enterprise is the Interaction Center, which works in conjunction with the VCSR to support live agents when interacting with customers. Interaction Center is a set of software components that prioritises and routes requests. Its components include:

  • CSR Desktop Framework: accesses and manages information and customer insight through the creation of a flexible agent desktop.
  • Customer Context Object Display: displays relevant and selected customer information collected from current interaction sessions, historical databases and real-time host transactions.
  • Universal Queue and Routing Manager: takes information from the Customer Context Object and enterprise-defined business rules with natural language analysis to route the customer to either a live or a virtual agent while providing the necessary customer information. A unified report server provides real-time monitoring and reporting on all media queues.
  • Internet Contact Center: helps live agents interact with customers over the internet via chat and co-browsing.
  • Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) Server: implements a telephony abstraction layer that connects the switch/ACD platform to the interaction framework making application behaviour almost independent from the telephony system.

EWF: platform & software

Both the Interaction Center and the VCSR work from the Electronic Workforce platform, which integrates with existing legacy systems and back office applications and combines all communication channels into a single platform. It presents operators with a unified single-screen view of an organization’s system, allowing varied customer information to be brought together quickly.

The platform supports multiple front office channels while building virtual data models of customer information, natural language technology, legacy connectivity and integration. The Edify applications can then be used over a wide range of communication media.

Electronic Workforce is designed for rapid application development and includes an object-oriented development environment that is 100 per cent visual. No low-level coding is needed to create or adapt applications.

According to Cowhig, the system is optimized for Windows NT or Windows 2000, allowing developers to use existing internal skills and systems. The platform is integrated with the operating system, bringing several advantages such as native access to the operating system features. Most IVR systems are proprietary, notes Cowhig. It is also designed to work with industry-standard hardware.

The use of Windows also means that integration with existing systems and applications is easy, and no additional security is required as the Edify systems can use existing security systems.


Edify’s CRM systems have already been deployed in a number of industries around the world, including retail, banking and travel. The company is now targeting energy utilities, especially in Europe, where it sees plenty of opportunity in the deregulating markets.

One of the first utilities to use voice recognition technology in North America is Nova Scotia Power, which deployed Edify IVR technology in 1999 as part of a wider customer service project led by VOCI Corporation.

Nova Scotia’s customers can now obtain bill balances and payment locations over the telephone through the use of a speech application, and call centre agents can see the exact phrase spoken by a caller through a pop-screen on their computer screen.

“Using Edify’s flexible, software-only Interactive Voice Response solution, VOCI brings voice-enabled e-commerce to Nova Scotia Power,” said Brown. “Natural language speech recognition delivers tremendous benefits to call centre operations.”

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