INTERVIEW: John C. Mears, voice response expert

Call center technology touches all data




John C. Mears


John C. Mears became president and chief executive officer of Microlog Corp. in November, having been co-president of the Germantown, Md., company along with Steve Delmar since last February.

The government is a primary customer for Microlog's interactive voice response and other call center technology.

Mears is the third president since June 1999. The changes at the top reflect the company's financial troubles; Microlog reported losses of $321,000 for the nine months ended in July.

Microlog faces problems in its Old Dominion Systems division, which has provided support services for the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, a Navy contractor.

Mears began his career with IBM Corp.'s federal systems division in programs for the Defense and Energy departments. He also worked on development of IBM call management and computer telephony products.

He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Florida.

GCN senior editor William Jackson interviewed Mears by telephone.


GCN: How important is federal business to Microlog?

MEARS: It's very important. I would say that as we make our transition into new technology, the government has not been as quick to take it up as some commercial customers. In the interim, the commercial customers are more significant to us. As government customers adopt the technology, they will again become a more important fraction of our business. So it has varied with time.

GCN: Who are your largest federal users?

MEARS: The IRS, State Department, Veterans Affairs Department and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which wants to enhance the scheduling of patient appointments.

They all have to deal with the public, either for repetitive or for personalized types of information, such as 'Where is my benefits check?' or 'Give me some basic tax information on a particular topic.'

Microlog's self-help interactive voice response [IVR] technology facilitates contacts, makes them more efficient and lets them be more personal.

It is sometimes more difficult to get commercial customers to understand that it's important to go through requirements analysis to make sure they get what they need at the end of the day. This is fundamental to what we're trying to do at Microlog, and I credit my early experience with giving me that mind-set.

GCN: Despite the success of your technology at government installations, Microlog has been struggling financially. Why?

MEARS: Market transitions are both a challenge and an opportunity. Microlog's IVR systems have been the front ends for some of the country's largest call centers, including some of the largest government call centers.

It was this up-front experience that led Microlog to the conclusion that there was and is a great opportunity to bring new technologies and services to the marketplace. We had to develop a product that could leverage the emergence of all the Internet media types, in addition to accommodating the older types such as telephone calls.
The product we developed is called uniQue [pronounced uni-Q]. We began R&D on Web-based technology about three years ago to serve as a basis for the modern contact types.

We developed uniQue and ultimately got approval from our board to invest in a family of products under the uniQue brand name.

When you make an investment in new product development, there is a lag before the revenue comes. So we had that expense during a time when we were refocusing our business to take advantage of the new marketplace.

We've seen evolution in some of the markets we were addressing. Our European marketplace was not what we thought it was going to be for our products, and so we chose to divest that operation in September 1999.





WHAT'S MORE




  • Age: 47

  • Family: Wife and two children

  • Last book read: Reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to his children

  • Worst job: "Integrating a messy off-the-shelf system called WISCUC."

  • Best job: "Toss-up between engineering and tracking station deployment for the Global Positioning System ground segment and a two-year assignment in Winchester, England, in voice processing and call control product development."



Our Old Dominion Systems division, which is very government-focused, does fairly esoteric performance analysis services for the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

The Applied Physics Lab has announced that as a result of a removal of head-count restrictions for many government agencies, the lab is going to hire people directly and decrease the dependence on outside contractors. That's led to a decline in our business.

It turns out that shifting to the product development and associated systems integration work is more profitable for us, so we've been able to move the company from a loss on a much higher revenue base to approximately breaking even on much lower revenue rates.

GCN: The government has a mandate to put services online. How will this affect the demand for call centers and IVR?

MEARS: It will not decrease the demand. About 80 percent of the time, when people order a uniQue system, they also order an IVR system.

People are using phone calls, they are using faxes, they are using e-mail, they are hitting Web sites'these are all contact types that have to be accommodated. What uniQue does is let you hook into all those different contact servers and manage them, prioritize them, get the contacts to the right agents with the right skills, and then report statistics to manage more efficiently.

It was designed to interoperate with any existing infrastructure you may have, so integration is simplified and you can gain advantages without losing legacy investments.

Every customer contact that comes in has characteristics that can be used to make decisions about handling it. These characteristics let you market effectively to an individual, or simply provide a more efficient and personalized service.

UniQue can pick up Caller ID on a telephone call, it can pick up a Social Security number'that's the case at Walter Reed'and it can pick up the fact that the contact came through a particular route. It might be a question that requires a particular expertise on the part of the call center agent. You can extract the contact information to make it a more efficient interaction.

In the case of e-mail, uniQue tries to figure out who is contacting you, and it looks at the subject and body of the text to understand what the contact is about. You get that e-mail routed to the right call center agent.

GCN: How well has the uniQue middleware product lived up to expectations technologically and in the marketplace?

MEARS: Technologically, I am pleased with how it has developed. All we're doing in development is adding features. It scales well, and we have not had to do any structural rewrites. The architecture is sound.

With respect to the marketplace, it has not developed as rapidly as we thought it would. That has been true in some commercial endeavors as well as in the government.

GCN: Is speech recognition going to be the future of the IVR industry?

MEARS: I think it has been an important feature for some time. I don't know if in the near term it is going to revolutionize the IVR industry. We can do continuous speech recognition, and we can do speech synthesis for customers who have constantly changing information that is not possible to record beforehand. Certainly speech recognition is more important to have than speech synthesis.

One of the most revolutionary developments is the development of voice Extensible Markup Language, or VXML, so that you can get information from a Web site and a voice site. I think VXML adoption will be significant in driving how IVR is presented in the future.

GCN: How is the growth in wireless technology affecting your business?

MEARS: Although it will present us with more opportunity as it drives an increase in transaction volume, it probably won't change what we are doing to a great extent. Voice paths will still have to be accommodated. We are positioned to support voice over IP and traditional circuit-switched voice.

I don't think voice as a contact medium is going to decline in importance. Data traffic has overtaken voice in network traffic, but that does not mean voice traffic is in decline. The absolute amount is increasing.

On the data side, with the Wireless Access Protocol and other data protocols for accessing the Web from mobile devices, we're going to have to accommodate an increasing amount of traffic accessing voice, Web and e-mail media.



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