The Buzz in Call Center Tech

Jun 01, 2004 9:30 PM  By

Internet protocol (IP) telephony has come into its own during the past 12-18 months. For several years now, smaller catalogers have been able to use the technology, in which phone service is operated through the Internet via servers based at the company rather than through telephone lines. But in its earlier incarnations, explains David Peterson, president of Bedford, NH-based call center consultancy PowerHouse Consulting, no more than 600 end points — extensions or users — could be connected. Today up to 17,000 end points can gain access to the same system. “It started out at the smaller end but has come full term and is now able to accommodate large companies with a server capacity that rivals anything out there,” says Peterson, who estimates that just 0.5% use IP telephony. But among businesses at large, IP penetration is expected to soar. IP Telephony accounts for 30%-40% of the products shipped by telecommunication manufacturers such as Avaya, NorTel, and Siemens, says Peterson, and these companies anticipate their IP sales to surge to 50% of all the products they ship by the end of 2004. Since it appears that IP technology is here to stay, Peterson says, it’s time for catalogers to get on board.

Because IP operates through the Internet rather than through phone lines, customer service representatives can field calls from any place with a computer. The traditional call center housing hundreds of reps in rows of side-by-side stations could become a thing of the past. And for companies with overseas call centers, use of IP vs. analog technology means saying goodbye to pricy long-distance bills.

IP technology also enables catalogers to offer customers the ability to click on an icon on the company Website and have it dial a CSR without the customer ever having to pick up a phone. The customer would then talk to the CSR through the speakers on his computer.

Similarly, a cataloger can tap into the lucrative Hispanic consumer segment by creating buttons on the Website that Spanish-speaking customers can click to be taken to a bilingual CSR, says Oscar Alban, principal market consultant for Roswell, GA-based call center monitoring and technology company Witness Systems. “It’s a perfect opportunity to serve that customer base consistently regardless of language and regardless of channel,” he says.

Dialing for dollars

For most catalogers, implementing IP technology shouldn’t be a multimillion-dollar investment. Most catalogers use the TDM legacy analog system, Peterson says, and converting it to an IP platform isn’t difficult. “Many manufacturers have put upgrade paths in place to move from a TDM platform to an IP platform, and many manufacturers are offering to buy back the older equipment,” he explains.

Catalogers seeking to upgrade should be wary of vendors advising a wholesale change of their call center phone/computer system. “Replace agent telephones almost on an as-needed basis,” Peterson says. If you’re planning to buy new call center software or are adding seats to your center, that would be a prime time to purchase additional IP equipment.

Costs, naturally, vary depending on the number of seats and the sophistication of the system. By way of example, Peterson says that a cataloger with 200 seats could expect to pay $100,000 to upgrade its system from TDM platform to IP. If the company couldn’t upgrade but instead needed to buy an entirely new call center telephone/computer system, including new software, it would cost $3,000-$4,000 per seat, or around $800,000 altogether.

Made to measure

Call centers can measure the impact implementing technology such as IP telephony makes on their overall business with analytic software that provides information on the company as a whole but was created with the call center in mind.

“Combining traditional call center metrics with nontraditional call center metrics gives the company a better picture of performance,” says John Kaiser, vice president of marketing for Stratford, CT-based call center technology manufacturer Dictaphone. Traditional metrics, such as average talk time per CSR and how long each caller has to wait before the call is taken, don’t necessarily show how the numbers affect sales.

Analytic software that correlates the links between call center performance and overall company sales is beginning to catch on. Such software could help determine, for instance, if a greater number of short calls mean more sales or if longer calls allow agents to upsell or cross-sell, leading to increased revenue. The software provides information on correlations, such as when X number of calls are handled in Y amount of time, company sales rise Z percent.

Dictaphone, Kaiser says, is developing analytic software that should be available in the next couple of years. He estimates that it will cost $300-$500 per CSR, like most other analytic software used in the call center. The software would require its own server and typically be accessed by call center supervisors, with CSRs able to access it on a limited basis. For instance, every quarter call center reps might be allowed to see their performance scores and how they compare with those of their peers.

“We’re basically focusing on analytics surrounding the assessment of call center agents’ performance, about maximizing the return on the investment on people,” explains Kaiser. “About 70% of a call center’s budget goes to paying the agents,” he notes. “It’s a massive investment, so you have to do as good a job as you can managing it.”

The Buddy System

The Hipath ProCenter Agile software from Boca Raton, FL-based Siemens Information and Communication Network uses IP telephony to connect CSR to CSR, as well as to operations and marketing supervisors. This enables phone reps to answer customer inquiries almost immediately, so that they can avoid putting callers on hold or transferring them into voicemail.

In addition to helping reps find information quickly, the system tracks call volume and aids in training, says Susan de Jong, Siemen’s global marketing manager. Perhaps its most distinctive feature, though, is its “team list,” a window that pops up on all CSRs’ computer screens. The team list, which de Jong likens to the Buddy List offered by America Online, provides a listing of other CSRs in the call handling group, supervisors, and fulfillment managers. Each individual listed has an icon by his name. The list shows what department or call handling group each person listed is in. The icons change color depending on whether the person is available.

Installing and programming the software, as well as training the CSRs, typically takes a day or a day and a half, says de Jong. “We did a field trial with more than 100 agents, who were trained in one afternoon, and by the next day, taking calls on the system,” she says. Scheduled to be released in mid-May, the software can accommodate up to 500 users simultaneously. “Starter packages” will be available for catalogers with as few as 10 phone reps.
Margery Weinstein

Call Center Tech Cheat Sheet

Perhaps no aspect of a cataloger’s business is buried under as many acronyms as the contact center. Here’s a guide to some of the terms you may need to know:

ACS — automatic call sequencer a less sophisticated version of ACD (see below), without the flexibility and the ability to track call activity

ACD — automatic call distribution a programmable device that queues or routes incoming calls to contact center agents, plays prerecorded announcements, and provides real-time and historical reports on call activity

ASR — automatic speech recognition technology that enables a customer to respond to recorded prompts vocally rather than by using a telephone dial pad

CDN — control directory number a telephone number or line not associated with a physical phone or equipment

CTI — computer telephony integration the software, hardware, and programming needed to integrate computers and telephones to provide contact center agents with immediate access to data such as customer order histories; two major CTI protocols are TAPI (telephony applications programming interface), developed by Microsoft and Intel, and TSAPI (telephony services application programming interface), developed by Novell and AT&T

ICP — intelligent call processing a feature of ACDs that enables them to route calls based on information from callers or retrieved from your database

IVR — interactive voice response software that enables call routing based on the callers’ responses to recorded prompts (e.g., “To place an order, select 1. For product information, select 2.”); IVR facilitates CCR, or custom call routing

IXC — interexchange carrier a long-distance service provider

PBX — private branch exchange a telephone system located at a contact center’s site that handles incoming and outgoing calls; also called PABX (private automatic branch exchange)

UCD — uniform call distributor like ACS, a less sophisticated precursor of ACD

VUI — voice user interface voice recognition software

Sources: Incoming Calls Management Institute; Telecorp. Products