You dial the number, and the automated voice answers. "Our menu has changed," the voice says. And you are thinking, Yes, it's going to be even worse than before. Customer experiences like those thrill Karl-Heinz Land, whose VoiceObjects program threatens to make us actually enjoy automated-voice systems.
In the same way that Apple's Macintosh created a graphic user interface, GUI (pronounced goo-ey), that made it easy for ordinary mortals to use personal computers, Land has laid claim to what he unabashedly calls a VUI (voo-ey), or vocal user interface. The idea is that companies need an idiot-proof building-block system to assemble easy-to-use services with which customers feel comfortable. "All business is vocal," Land likes to say.
VoiceObjects' claim to fame is not that it has reinvented voice-recognition applications but that the company has found a way to make voice applications easy to construct and easy to use. "We're like Henry Ford," says Land. "Ford didn't invent the automobile. He developed the assembly line, and that made the automobile affordable and accessible to a mass market."
Land, who is 43 and plays classical guitar, founded the company with six partners in 2001. One subsequent investor turned customer is SAP, the global leader in enterprise software. Its systems run such processes as internal accounting, customer management and manufacturing. The company's Netweaver integrates them using Internet technology through point-and-click commands on a computer screen.
VoiceObjects has taken the same concept and made its services available through voice commands over a telephone. At chocolate maker Hershey, for example, employees can input their travel expenses by voice over the telephone. Deutsche Telekom has improved its self-service offerings for telephone customers by enhancing phone-in services with VoiceObjects technology. Postbank, which has some 3 million telephone-banking customers, says improved telephone-based self-service has freed agents to spend more time with customers needing advice on investments. "Our self-service quota has risen 10% since installing VoiceObjects," says Werner Wessinghage, 50, director of Postbank's call centers, online and telephone banking. "It's not so much about cutting costs as it is about spending more time with customers."
Technology-research group Datamonitor says the industries most likely to adopt voice-applications technology are financial services, entertainment, gaming, telecommunications, travel and tourism, utilities and local government services.
Having established itself as the market leader in voice-driven applications, VoiceObjects is set for growth in the U.S. market. The company is moving its headquarters from Germany to California's Silicon Valley. Land predicts sales will rise from some $24 million this year to around $200 million by 2008, when the company could go public. Call in for details.