Beyond the Hype: What Technologies Should You Really Be Looking At?

Walking through the trade show floor at any major call/contact center conference reminds me of the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” in which Dorothy and her companions come to the Great Hall of the Wizard with its flashing lights, spouting flames, and booming voices. But as in Oz, it is always good to peek behind the curtains to get a dose of reality and begin to consider what technologies are really going to have an impact on your organization and to understand what it will take to deploy them.

Today we’ll focus on some of these technologies and the management systems that support their deployment. We will also discuss the industry evolution to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and how this underlying infrastructure is enabling new technologies in the contact center.

It seems that in the past, technology has been ahead of the curve, bringing functionality to the market and then trying to develop a need among customers. The emerging trend is that consumers are now driving technology – enabling them to do what they need in the way most comfortable to them. And technology has to catch up to that demand. A good example of this is instant messaging. As we look at the next generation of consumers coming into the marketplace, we see people who are much more comfortable with the instant message/text message approach to communication, even in lieu of a voice call. Current surveys show that in cell phone usage for the 18 to 25 age group, text message exceeds voice calls by a magnitude of 10 to 1. A recent Internet study shows some amazing trends related to Internet usage by 12- to 17-year-olds.

  • 24% growth in the past four years – 90% go online and use e-mail
  • 51% go online on a daily basis
  • 9% have created their own Bblog or online journal
  • 7.8 hours/week are spent communicating with friends via computers or cell phones

It is obvious then that contact centers must prepare their environments to accommodate this changing and emerging evolution of customer contact preferences. There are several advancements and ACD enhancements worth mentioning.

Multimedia routing

Contact centers continue to feature voice calls as the overwhelming contact medium and all switching technologies need to feature voice switching as the core technology requirement. Advances in voice call switching are mainly in the realm of skills-based routing, the ability to get contacts to the agent most able to resolve the customer issue and maintain customer satisfaction at the lowest cost of service.

Skills-routing algorithms need to take into account multiple elements of information to assemble a snapshot of the caller’s requirements. Conversely, the systems must be able to categorize the agent’s abilities into skill expressions that can match to caller requirements in the most effective way. The more granular the skill expressions can be defined, the better the match. We believe that skill expressions that allow multiple skill levels, as well as preference levels, give the best capability in this regard. It is important to pay close attention to the administration interface that managers and supervisors use to configure and change these skills as the ease of use in doing this is as important as the routing capabilities.

The inclusion of non-phone contacts into the routing algorithms have been available for some time, but usually as costly “bolt on” applications. Many vendors are now featuring applications that include enhanced capabilities; and contact centers can elect to turn on additional features via licensing. Siemens ProCenter is a good example of this approach – the base license includes voice call processing and outbound dialing and e-mail/fax are add-on features. This enables management to convert whatever percentage of the workforce is needed to handle non-phone transactions while not having to pay for it across the board.

“Soft phones”

Another enhancement in ACD systems is the availability of desktop “soft phones” that allow agents to use telephony features such as hold, conference, transfer, log-in/out, and change work states from their desktop. These applications typically enable traditional work codes that were keyed into the telephone to be replaced by “drop down” menus that allow agents to select from a list of work/reason codes. This functionality gives managers the ability to track/report on the various work states that agents spend their time in on a daily basis. Soft phones also facilitate the ability to create icons for single button transfer to second-tier support, assist/escalate queues, or other frequent destinations. And many systems include a “banner bar” which allows agents to see queue status information that is traditionally relegated to reader boards, right on their desktop. Finally, many of these systems enable agents and supervisors to engage in “chat” sessions.

Client/server architecture

At the core of these enhancements is an operating system that more closely resembles traditional data system architecture. This client/server architecture allows easier integration into traditional database applications and customer interaction systems. What in the past was considered computer telephony integration” (CTI) has evolved into simply computer telephony due to the fact that these systems all share a common programming language. Applications that used to take months of integration (and hundreds of thousands of dollars) can now be completed inexpensively in just weeks. Most systems have off-the-shelf “connectors” and “APIs” for many of the most common applications, and offer “software development kits” (SDK) for customers to able to create their own applications.

As clients transition to these multi-media routing applications, it is important to keep in mind the key fundamentals of contact center management and planning, and insure that these systems will be able to interface with your current workforce management system as well as your quality management program. Many systems may require upgrades to these platforms due to architectural differences, so make sure that this has been determined prior to implementing. It may be a good opportunity to review enhancements made to these applications and their ability to feed into advanced analytical routines.

Now for a few words about VoIP. Much has been written about this subject over the past few years, but there are some important concepts to keep in mind. First, VoIP is a transport mechanism; it does not bring about any inherent feature functionality in and of itself. It typically does not involve the public Internet (services like Vonage use VoIP) but rather speaks to the way voice calls are transported within the confines of your company. It does make some functionality easier, such as the ability to locate various pieces of your systems across your data network, thus providing much greater resilience and disaster recovery /business continuity options. VoIP also has enabled manufacturers to create virtual systems that are location independent. So you can have a single system that crosses building, city, state, and country confines.

In the latest evolution of VoIP, session initiated protocol (SIP), devices are becoming interchangeable. You can now hang a Cisco phone on an Avaya system, and vice versa. Also, SIP has enabled various manufacturers to now be able to communicate “presence” status to each other, allowing greater flexibility in distributing and collaborating on work.

Every manufacturer of telephony systems has now embraced VoIP technology and the majority of new systems shipped are now VoIP systems. All research and development efforts of these companies are being focused on the VoIP products and traditional time division multiplexing (TDM) products are all being retired. So it is the wave of the future – no longer on the cutting edge, but rather becoming the mainstream technology available today.

So the next time you wander out on the trade show floor of your favorite call/contact center conference, try to examine the functionality that will support the processes that you have created around improving the experience of the caller. For while the vendors will hype the productivity improvements and tout the efficiency of their products, it’s all really about getting the caller the answers they need in a manner that is most effective for them. And technology that supports your well thought out, well planned and executed strategy will give you the best return on your investment.

David M. Peterson is president of Bedford, NH-based contact center consultancy PowerHouse Consulting.

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