In its March 2002 newsletter, research firm GartnerGroup noted that “for 10 years, e-mail has led all other applications on the Internet.” Forrester Research projected in 1999 that the number of e-mail users would grow to 130 million in 2001, with the number of e-mail messages soaring to 500 million a day. AMR Research predicted this past January that e-mail traffic would increase from 14% of total transactions in call centers to 18% by next year.
One bright spot: These increases in e-mail volume are bound to be accompanied by a reduction in phone calls or faxes. Nonetheless, contact center managers need to develop processes for dealing with this ever-growing communications channel.
Customer contact centers can distribute and respond to e-mail using inhouse systems or application service providers (ASPs). The two main approaches to inhouse e-mail distribution are stand-alone systems and integrated systems. Players in the stand-alone application world include eGain and Kana. But most of the major automated call distributor (ACD) vendors have developed integrated approaches — sometimes in partnership with stand-alone solutions.
Deciding whether you need an integrated vs. stand-alone system depends on several factors, but a primary consideration is the skill set of your customer service reps (CSRs). For example, if the skills you require to meet your preferred level of e-mail service differ from the capabilities of your telephone CSRs, there’s little value in an integrated system. But if the people now handling your telephones could also handle e-mail service to your satisfaction, an integrated system would make sense.
As to whether you should opt for an inhouse system vs. an ASP, there are no real rules. But small and midsize companies (those with fewer than 200 seats) typically find it more cost-effective to outsource the function, while larger firms prefer to buy and house their own systems.
Functions and functionality
All e-mail distribution systems share a remarkably similar architecture. The key component is a server that contains the specific routing instructions for the enterprise. This server communicates with the enterprise post office protocol (POP) server across the local area network (LAN). Companies that handle large volumes of e-mail may need a separate database server to store transaction information.
Among the most common features of e-mail distribution systems:
- time/date stamping of receipt.
- automatic acknowledgment to sender of receipt of message.
- distribution based on keywords. For instance, e-mails with the word “delivery” would be routed to the shipping department.
- automatic escalation of messages that exceed service-level agreement thresholds. If your site promises to respond to e-mails within 24 hours, for example, the system would alert you when messages are becoming past that point.
- ability to use canned responses, such as “our standard return policy is….”
- tracking of message metrics. The software solutions you select should include the ability to accurately measure the e-mail traffic in the same manner in which you measure incoming calls. For most companies, this means tracking by the half-hour, looking at the number of incoming calls, the number of calls answered, the speed of answer, and amount of hold time, among other metrics. Measuring e-mail traffic in this manner enables you to create more-accurate forecasts and staffing plans.
Several packages include advanced capabilities such as automatic responses based on message content and suggestions for agent responses.
Becoming a savvy shopper
When shopping for an e-mail distribution system, you must begin with a baseline assessment of your current technology, call load, e-mail load, and work flow processes. Use your existing data on growth patterns, market intelligence, and forecasts to build a model for your future load. This enables you to assess your requirements by performing a gap analysis of where you are now and where you want your e-mail service levels to be.
Also, be sure to involve representatives from every division of your company that will be affected: call center management, the telecommunications team, the IS team, and of course, vendor representatives for the systems you are considering. And any purchasing decision must include the same type of evaluation process as that of an ACD procurement, especially the criteria surrounding the management-reporting functionality.
Once the team reaches a consensus, put together an implementation plan that leaves plenty of time for testing, training, and a phased approach to implementation. The time spent in the planning process will bear fruit in the efficiencies gained by these applications. This process will take at least a month on average, though for larger companies it’s more likely to last several months.
Selecting an e-mail distribution system isn’t easy, as there are numerous providers of this functionality. But “A Smattering of Systems” (left) provides examples of solutions as well as some features and functionalities of systems from some prominent industry vendors.
The bottom line on e-mail distribution systems, as in any technology, is to remember that these applications are simply tools that call center management will use to gain efficiency and control. Any evaluation of these applications must be based on a thorough understanding of the process improvement to be gained by deploying such a system. This will yield the return on investment evaluation critical to deciding to implement an e-mail distribution solution.
David M. Peterson, president of Bedford, NH-based PowerHouse Consulting, has more than 30 years of expertise in telecommunications technologies, with a focus on PBX technology and call center design.
A SMATTERING OF SYSTEMS
eGain Mail is a fifth-generation Web-native product that complies with J2EE standards. Scalable and flexible for the growth inherent to e-business, eGain Mail is a delivery, response management, and personalization solution. It offers sophisticated work flow, issue tracking, and intelligent response tools. Additional modules to eGain Mail include artificial intelligence and secure messaging. Artificial intelligence provides companies with a system for higher accuracy in categorization, routing, auto-suggestions, and auto-responses. The module improves on eGain Mail’s standard rules-based system by enabling a three-layer statistical approach. Secure messaging ensures that only authorized viewers read confidential customer or company information.
Avaya E-mail Management allows you to efficiently handle high volumes of e-mail transactions. An intelligent message-processing engine analyzes each incoming message and automatically composes an applicable response. This appears with the customer’s transaction history on your call center agent’s computer screen. The agent can then decide to modify and personalize the prepared reply or send it as is. When a customer message arrives, Avaya E-mail Management can send an acknowledgment automatically, setting the appropriate level of expectation for your follow-up. In addition, the system’s auto-response feature can handle the response content based on rules you have set so that agents do not need to handle every contact personally. When the situation requires live oversight, auto-suggest can create suggested responses based on the content of the customer’s message.
Cisco‘s call center e-mail software is bundled in the Customer Interaction Suite (CIS) of modules, which combines Web collaboration capabilities with a flexible, scalable e-mail response management system. This product suite came into Cisco through its acquisition of Webline. The CIS software routes real-time requests from the Web and e-mail using the business rules applied to voice calls. Each request, with accompanying customer profile data collected over the Web, is routed to the most appropriate agent in the enterprise. The suite includes E-mail Manager, a comprehensive e-mail management solution; Collaboration Server, enabling two-way visual real-time collaboration for text chat, simultaneous browsing, and sharing of Web pages, forms, and applications; and Media Blender, the tool that integrates the telephony infrastructure with the Collaboration Server to provide automated, blended delivery of inbound Web inquiries.
Interactive Intelligence has incorporated e-mail routing functionality into its Customer Interaction Center (CIC) suite. CIC implements multimedia queuing, in which a variety of interaction types are queued and distributed to agents. E-mails, phone calls, and Web chat requests all use the same mechanism for skills-based routing. A new e-mail response interface also lets agents efficiently respond to e-mails. As a result, organizations can easily configure CIC to handle different interactions in different ways. You can add new buttons to your Website to let customers and inquirers e-mail questions or request callbacks. CIC also gives call center agents and other users the ability to queue and intelligently route incoming e-mails, text chats, Web callback requests, and voice-over-Internet calls. For customer/agent Web collaboration, CIC fully supports Web page push and Web tours, along with full application collaboration using Microsoft NetMeeting.
Nortel has expanded its offerings for Web-based customer interaction solutions with its Symposium Web Center Portal of modular solutions for routing, tracking, and reporting on electronic inquiries from a company’s Website. The portfolio includes a full e-mail management solution with conditional and skills-based routing integration, as well as additional modules for automatic response to electronic queries, simultaneous voice and browser collaboration, and a click-to-call button for callbacks or text chat. The product, running on a Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 server, enables call centers to interface with a Microsoft Exchange E-mail system and blended e-mail transactions along with voice calls to agents. This approach, called dynamic transaction handler (DTH), allows skills to be assigned in the Symposium software that specify the agent’s capabilities in either type of transaction. The messages are “pushed” to the agent using a browser-based graphical user interface.
Siemens has added e-mail distribution capability to its ProCenter Resume Router suite of applications. This package, MX E-mail, is available today as a stand-alone e-mail distribution system or as a component of the Resume Router skills-based routing application. The product was developed in partnership with Mustang.com (which was sold to Quintus, which was sold to Avaya) and allows metrics to be integrated into a unified reporting format under Resume Router. In addition, Siemens has the tools in place to allow “hooks” into customer relationship management packages such as Siebel or Remedy. This functionality enhances the call center agent’s ability to respond to e-mail inquiries by viewing the history of the customer.
APPLICATION SERVICE PROVIDERS
FaceTime‘s IM Call Center solution is an instant messaging (IM) network-independent application for customer interaction and internal agent/expert interaction. It provides a robust escalation management solution for multilevel call center operators and improves productivity and service level performance, reduces operational costs, and provides sophisticated metrics for business intelligence. IM Call Center provides a full suite of multichannel customer interaction options, including IM gateways to enterprise, private, or public networks; secure Web text messaging; and e-mail management. All interactions are managed using a unified Agent Workstation client application with advanced features for call center escalation management. Level-one telephone agents leverage the powerful presence and availability features of IM networks from AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo! to escalate time-sensitive support calls to experts.