Get a bucket, shake, and pour. Blending your choice of new technologies can create a customized solution for your contact center

If you like exotic, you’ll revel in the wide array of new contact center technologies. No more shopping for mundane ACDs, PBXs, or call routers. Go for something rich and strange: Web enablement, multimedia access, customer personalization software, automatic speech recognition (ASR), or customer relationship management (CRM) — the stuff of many a sea change in contact centers. But you don’t have to grind the pigment yourself to mix these technologies into exactly the hue you need to meet the challenges of running an efficient, savvy contact center.

Mix it up

“Companies are realizing that it is no longer sufficient to offer customers just one way to communicate with them,” says Shailesh Rao, product manager for San Francisco-based Siebel Call Center. In fact, a few companies have offered customers a choice of channels for some time. For example, Lands’ End, the direct merchandiser of casual apparel headquartered in Dodgeville, WI, provides its customers with two real-time, interactive contact options under its “Lands’ End Live” feature, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The first option allows shoppers with a phone line or cell phone, in addition to their Internet connection, to request a call back from a CSR. Reps at the 1,100-seat Dodgeville center and the 840-seat Cross Plains, WI, center are connected simultaneously with the customer by phone and Internet browser so the two can talk while viewing the same Web pages together.

The second option, for customers using a single phone line for an Internet connection, allows two people to use text-based chat to communicate while both view the same Web page simultaneously.

Lands’ End uses Cisco’s Intelligent Contact Management (ICM) technology to route and deliver incoming calls. Multimedia contacts are sorted and delivered by a Cisco Systems Media Blender, while a Cisco Collaboration server adds Web collaboration capabilities to the ensuing voice or text-chat interaction. The company also uses the same technology for its “Shop with a Friend” feature, which allows two people in different parts of the country, or the world, to shop the Lands’ End site together from different computers.

“We want to provide customers the opportunity to do business with us through whatever means they choose,’ says Jean Ballweg, Lands’ Ends’ business Internet analyst.

Pricing for this type of blended collaboration (Cisco Collaboration Server and Cisco Media Blender) starts at $2,500 per agent seat. Cisco ICM starts at $60,000.

Stir to blend

As call centers evolve into multimedia contact centers, it is critical for them to be able to view every interaction as part of a common queue. One business currently considering the advantages of such a system is Draper’s & Damon’s, a women’s’ fashion company headquartered in Irvine, CA, that just celebrated its 74th anniversary.

“From the initial six employees handling a small number of calls, we have grown to our current size, handling approximately 90,000 calls per month,” explains Linda D’Amato, director of the company’s customer contact center. When the company moves into a new 200-seat facility later this year, CSRs will handle customer contacts by phone, mail, fax, and the Internet, requiring a blending of contacts so customers can be routed to the appropriate rep.

Draper’s and Damon’s positive experience with Aspect’s ACD call routing system and workforce management software led the company to choose Aspect’s Portal Multimedia application as an upgrade. Portal Multimedia is an integrated software solution for blending telephone, e-mail, Web, and fax traffic. The core of the application is a blending engine that monitors both incoming traffic and agent availability across all media. The media servers — telephony, Web interaction, and an e-mail response management system — signal the blending engine as contacts arrive. At the same time, the blending engine is constantly aware of agent status. The new system means Draper’s & Damon’s can hire fewer new agents while providing better customer service.

The average package deal from Aspect costs $800,000 and decreases or increases depending on the customer’s requirements.

Get personal

Calyx & Corolla (C&C), a wholesale florist based in San Francisco, has been running a highly personalized delivery business for the last 13 years. The company works hand-in-hand with FedEx to deliver fresh-cut floral arrangements from a network of top growers around the country directly to its 1.5 million customers.

To deliver flowers in as fresh a condition as possible, C&C needs fast delivery, accurate information, and the ability to store and retrieve pertinent customer data. When its legacy system slowed down in 1999 — under a volume of 300,000 annual orders — to the degree that it compromised sales, C&C chose Englewood, CO-based Page Digital Inc.’s application software suite, Synaro Advantage Plus, to replace it. The new system allows extensive customization to fit the C&C environment. Advantage Plus also allows Calyx & Corolla to store multiple phone numbers and critical information about customers — anniversary dates, birthdays, and demographic data. This ability, along with the structure of the transaction database, provides instant response time and accurate customer identification.

“You can tell the system when you want the flowers delivered, and the system accommodates that delivery date,” says Bob Tuttle, vice president of e-commerce for Calyx & Corolla. C&C can now effectively handle its seasonal order rates, identify catalog callers, maintain a longer customer history, and provide a reminder service to customers for anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays. Most important, the system allows tightly integrated cooperation between the growers and FedEx.

Costs for Synaro Advantage Plus range from $800 to $1,525 per agent seat, depending on the functionality of the system.

IVP Care of Carrollton, TX, is a provider of specialty pharmaceutical delivery and disease management services. When it came time to upgrade its customer service, the firm, which focuses on high-end injectibles, determined that it had to invest in technology rather than in more workers. “In the specialty pharmacy business, these are hard-to-find products, and providing a high level of service is key,” said DeWayne Manning, vice president of client operations. The 22 CSRs at the company’s contact center spend an average of five minutes on each of the 600-700 daily incoming calls.

Last year IVP Care purchased Siebel’s Call Center version 99.5 and Sales Force Automation modules for a total of 85 seats, 60 allocated to the call center and 25 to sales force automation. A single desktop application sorts through incoming information and personalizes it. When patients, nurses, or doctors call in, the application provides agents access to all critical customer information and enables the creation of a closed-loop data flow among sales, marketing, and customer service operations. The system also helps agents do their job more efficiently by providing functionality like out-of-the-box computer telephony integration (CTI), a complete customer service and problem resolution system, and support for telesales functions.

Although IVP Care continues to use an older ACD system to route calls and a legacy mail order system for its pharmacy, the Siebel installation has given it a base to build on. “We’re continuing to grow revenue without having to grow head counts,” which translates into a return on investment, says Manning.

The Siebel Call Center system starts at $1,000 per agent seat for Siebel mid-market products, which include anything up to 200 users or companies with up to $250 million in revenues.

Help yourself

Companies today often miss the biggest piece of information when it comes to new technologies, according to Dave Brown, president of Service Management International, a management training, consulting, and research company in Boulder, CO. “Just jumping on the e-mail and chat bandwagon and getting people to contact you doesn’t increase your business,” says Brown, who advocates the use of knowledge-base systems to help customers serve their own needs.

“Self-service and assisted service are very big drivers these days, because if you can eliminate the need for a person to help, you’ve also eliminated the need to pay that person,” agrees Gary Lemke, president of RealMarket Research, a consulting firm based in Carmel, IN. According to Lemke, studies show that live help may cost $10-$50 per incident, whereas self-help may cost less than a dollar.

In 1999, clothing and home furnishings retailer Eddie Bauer chose Broadbase Services’ applications with particular interest in its intelligent Web self-service. “We’ve had an e-commerce business online since ’96,” says Susan Knight, vice president of customer service. “By early ’98 we recognized we had to do something to manage e-mail and to help our customers with some type of self-service.”

Prior to the installation of the Broadbase system, customers experienced long delays in response to their e-mail inquiries. Today customer questions are handled by Eddie Bauer’s self-service application “Ask Eddie” and, according to Knight, whether it’s sending e-mails to a queue, an auto reply, or an auto acknowledgment, all customer e-mails receive a response in under five minutes. Moreover, 60% to 70% of customers have no further questions after they use this service. The remaining 40% are quickly escalated to service assisted by a CSR.

“We measure our business in percent to sales and percent to orders,” explains Knight. “Our sales have gone up, but we’re handling more volume at the same productivity level.”

A typical installation of the Broad base E-Service Suite software costs approximately $350,000.

Lands’ End also offers its customers several innovative self-service applications. One is an online virtual model powered with technology developed by My Virtual Model, Inc. of Montreal. “Customers can build a detailed three-dimensional model of themselves and utilize the model to ‘try on’ hundreds of products,” says Jean Ballweg. The model is fully integrated into the Lands’ End Web site and can remain in the background while a customer shops, popping forward when the customers elects to “try on” a product. My Virtual Model is a performance-based model with both standard and customized versions; prices are not available.

My Personal Shopper is a personal recommendation engine that provides shoppers with product suggestions based on personal preferences rather than past purchases. The feature, originally developed by Lands’ End and now marketed by San Francisco-based QuickDog, has a high level of personalization that makes it possible for customers to quickly view a customized lineup of merchandise that appeals to their tastes.

Susan W. Capparelle is a freelance writer based in Greenwich, CT. A columnist for Laundry Today in New York City, she spent four years in Africa working as a writer, editor, researcher, and illustrator for several international development organizations. She can be reached at


Automatic speech recognition (ASR) rescues beleaguered CSRs. “Speech-enabled applications can take away the routine and the mundane from agents, leaving them with more interesting and, hopefully, more satisfying calls,” says Minesh Patel, director of development at Vocalis, an international speech technologies group. Instead of automating with touch-tone commands or having to wait for a human agent, using speech technology allows a caller to complete transactions like paying a bill by using spoken commands, saving valuable agent talk time.

Speech recognition gives customers the convenience of accessing a knowledge base without having to sit in front of a screen. London-based Vocalis’ own product is Speechware, a telephony speech recognition technology that can be used to automate a contact center partially or fully. It is designed to integrate easily with an existing infrastructure through its open application programming interfaces (APIs.)

The advanced Speechware development kit with unlimited channels of recognition costs $4,547, while the standard kit with a single channel is $367.

WAPs Nest

By the year 2005, almost 70% of cellular mobile subscriptions will be compatible with wireless application protocols (WAPs), according to the latest report from research firm Datamonitor. The report estimates that in five years’ time more than 186 million cellular devices with direct Internet access will be in use.

Despite such positive predictions, real-time wireless usage in contact centers remains minimal at present. “The input and output devices are not sophisticated enough,” says Don van Doren, president of Vanguard Communications Corp., an independent consulting firm in Morris Plains, NJ. “The kinds of things you can get are driving directions or stock quotes, but imagine trying to browse the Web for some piece of info or doing research with a Palm Pilot.”

Even Datamonitor, which views the trend to WAP-enabled phones as a great opportunity for companies to upgrade technology for their mobile users, or to sell products to mobile users on Web sites, warns that companies need to be wary of WAP hype.

Bill Carey, senior marketing manager at Cisco Systems, sees the call center market moving away from the vertically driven, hardware-operated facility toward a low-end, distributed, and virtual operation. The Datamonitor report supports this view, estimating that 27% of agents in the year 2005 will be employed in call centers with fewer than ten positions, compared to 24% today.

“Rather than have 1,000 agents in Wichita, KS, a business might have 20 highly skilled agents in New York City who know the stock market and another 20 in London who know another specialized field, and have it all handled like one virtual call center,” says Carey. In such a scenario, CSRs’ roles change as their value becomes based less on transactions and revenue and more on the value they bring to the job through specialized skills and their ability to multi-task.

The Outsourcer’s Apprentice

Outsource service providers can offer valuable assistance to businesses that want to Web-enable their customer service operations. Investors Business Daily (Sept. 24, 1999) estimates that billing and customer care outsourcing will grow from $4.4 billion in 1998 to $16.5 billion by 2002, increasing its share of the total billing and customer-care market from 35% to 81%.

Alta Resources, located in Neenah, WI, offers customized assistance in setting up customer service programs. Rates include program development, a one-time charge encompassing planning time, custom software costs, any custom reports, training costs, and more. Prices range from $2,500 to $50,000, depending on the number and complexity of activities. Once the program begins, customers pay unit charges.

Just 15 months old and already boasting two Fortune 500 firms and a number of technology companies as clients, FirstRing is an outsourcing pioneer. The unique aspect of this Sterling, VA-based outfit is its reliance on a workforce in Bangalore, India, where 95% of the company’s employees are located.

“When someone at home picks up the phone and dials an 800 number, it connects to our office in Sterling, which has a large data center with a voice-switch PDX,” says Guru Amrit Singh Khalsa, vice president. “The voice switch has the intelligence to look across the water and see if there’s an available agent in India — it all takes milliseconds.”

Access to a highly skilled workforce that earns far lower salaries than U.S. agents receive, and experiences extremely low turnover, means that FirstRing can charge its American clients 40% less than U.S.-based competitors’ rates, according to Sat Want Khalsa, vice president of sales. FirstRing offers inbound and outbound calling services, sales, and technical support. The company also supplies e-mail processing and interactive chat services.


Consumers like the idea of technology, but they have mixed feelings about using it, according to a study conducted by Indiana University and consulting firm KPMG. Although 40% of the 2,413 respondents like to use computers to do business, 36% believe that new technology is often too complicated to be useful, and only about half believe that it would benefit brick-and-mortar retailers to sell online using a typical electronic catalog format.

The study tests eleven technologies, eight used in stores and three online. In-store shopping technologies include POS signage, hand-held shopping devices, body scanning, self-scanning, self-checkout, virtual display cases, and product information/ordering and frequent shopper kiosks. The three online technologies are conventional shopping sites with product descriptions, prices, and electronic shopping baskets; 3-D virtual stores with realistic product displays and animation; and information sites from which consumers can’t shop but can view merchandise and get directions to stores where it is available.

Respondents favor all three Web technologies, with 57% rating them as an advantage and 63% saying they would use the technologies at least some of the time while shopping. However, consumers prefer online features that link directly to in-store shopping: 56% would like to see 3-D images of products and store aisles, and 61% want information about local stores.

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