TECHNOLOGY UPDATE

Feb 01, 2006 10:30 PM  By

It’s not just headsets and automatic call distributors (ACDs) any more. Contact center technology has evolved into a sophisticated world of its own, with ever more complex “solutions” to ever more complex issues.

But Jay Minnucci, vice president of consulting for Annapolis, MD-based Incoming Calls Management Institute (ICMI), a training and consulting firm, says that the moving force behind recent developments in contact center solutions “is not new ‘wow’ technology. It’s been a reversion back to what’s already purchased and trying to get the most out of it.”

Put another way, companies using contact center technology are placing renewed emphasis on integrating disparate systems rather than investing in new, all-inclusive solutions. “One of the big directions is that we’re less hardware-centric, more software-based, open platforms,” says Lori Bocklund, president of Beaverton, OR-based call center consultancy Strategic Contact. This shift in direction can be seen in all aspects of the contact center, from training and monitoring to knowledge management.

VOIP GAINS A STRONGER VOICE

Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology continues to be a major area of interest in the contact center. The technology allows speech to be transmitted in the form of digital data via the Internet instead of over a dedicated telephone line. VoIP allows voice data, in other words, to be manipulated like any other Internet-based data application.

This means that implementing VoIP can cut your telephone carrying costs and enable multimedia entry points to be routed the same way into an organization. What’s more, its structural simplicity makes using home agents a more viable option, and its speed can shave seconds off call times.

It’s impossible to quantify the savings in general terms, however, Minnucci says, because they involve myriad factors including the size of the system and whether it’s on or off site. At the same time, the expenses associated with implementing VoIP make it difficult to justify adopting the technology merely to update systems. Adding VoIP functionality to an existing contact center can run as much as $50,000 for a small or midsize business.

“Off-the-shelf tools that sit on a local server can cost less than $10,000,” Minnucci says, “but then the user has to organize and enter the information, including identifying keywords, themselves.” A customized, vendor-designed system, on the other hand, might cost as much as $500,000. “If you want the vendor to do the organization, map the information, integrate the latest visual design concepts, enter all the information, etc…. well, sky’s the limit,” he says.

That said, Minnucci points out that if a company handles 10 million calls a year and a VoIP system reduces the average call time by just 10 seconds, “you’ll get back $500,000 in less than a year.”

HOSTS WITH THE MOST

The boom in hosted services is a prime example of how contact centers are using existing technology in new ways. Increasingly sophisticated software and Web-based tools have enabled vendors to provide a much greater array of products, enabling clients the ability to pick and choose from extensive service menus.

Bocklund points out that hosted solutions aren’t exactly new. “Five or six years ago it was called an ASP,” she says. “Now you’ve got a different set of vendors — it’s a different game in terms of who’s delivering it.”

One example of this new generation of hosted solutions vendors is Salesforce.com, which acts as a central brokerage and runs such contact center tools as InStranet’s CRM and knowledge management software on its AppExchange on-demand application-sharing service.

Other hosted solutions are provided by vendors themselves. Pleasanton, CA-based Five9, for example, offers inbound ACD, VoIP, a predictive dialer, customer service and support, an inbound sales program, and — just to illustrate that it’s a small world — “plug-and-play integration to Salesforce.com” to handle CRM needs.

San Mateo, CA-based Contactual offers contact center customers computer telephony integration (CTI), real-time monitoring, interactive voice response (IVR) or VoIP, and preintegrated CRM packages. Contactual’s hosted contact center services fees, which include agent log-in, multimedia support (telephony, e-mail, chat, cobrowse), one voice channel, 250MB of data storage, and five personalized greetings, range from $150 a month for each log-in up to nine to $90 per log-in each month for 200-249 logins, and possible discounts for larger numbers of agents.

KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT IS POWER

The ability to collect in one place all the information that agents need to answer calls, knowledge management is one of the more active fields of contact center technology these days. “It’s about how to get more information out to the desktops,” says Bocklund.

Minnucci estimates that 20%-30% of contact centers have adopted knowledge management technology. “All that information that in the past was in an e-mail here, posted up on an office wall there,” he says, is now stored in an easily accessible database that is keyword searchable and includes lists of frequently asked questions.

The advantages of knowledge management systems include reduced training time, increased speed of responses, and overall increased efficiency. “This really speaks to contact-by-contact, moment-to-moment interaction and provides a better level of service,” Minnucci says.

And it’s an area that isn’t dominated by one or two big players; in fact, some companies develop their own systems. “Some companies put their information into a Word document and stick it on the network and call that knowledge management,” Minnucci says. More-advanced applications are offered by vendors such as ATG, eGain, InStranet, iPhrase Technologies (now owned by IBM), KANA, Knova Software, LivePerson, RightNow Technologies, and TheBrain Technologies Corp.

RECOGNIZING SPEECH RECOGNITION

How many times does a customer have to press a button on his telephone to work through the menu that will finally allow him to ask a contact center agent a question? Fewer all the time, says ICMI’s Minnucci, as speech recognition technology becomes more sophisticated. Newer programs, for instance, allow users to employ common, conversational language in a dialog format. Customers are no longer limited to answering “yes” and “no” to questions from a highly structured voice menu. Contact centers that can use speech recognition effectively “have unloaded a tremendous amount of call volume,” Minnucci points out.

Speech recognition might be overkill for a smaller company that needs to rout questions to just two or three options, Minnucci says. But companies with long-list applications are prime candidates for the newest speech recognition technology, such as Basking Ridge, NJ-based Avaya’s Voice Portal, which can operate with either VoIP or circuit-switched telephony networks, and Redmond, WA-based Microsoft’s Speech Server, which serves as a platform for both IVR and speech applications for automated contact center customer service. The Conversation Engine from Santa Clara, CA-based Voxify provides clients with automated agent services that, according to the company, can save 50% of costs for its clients on every call compared with calls handled by live customer service reps.

As for speech recognition technology in development, Jean Bave-Kerwin, president of Slingerlands, NY-based JBK Consulting and a certified associate of ICMI, predicts that something like the “jerk-o-meter” recently developed by an MIT undergraduate will be available for commercial use in the next two or three years. The technology detects levels of stress in the human voice. “That could give call center agents a heads-up that they are dealing with someone who’s being stressed and give them the clues to bring down the stress level before it gets out of hand,” Bave-Kerwin says.

COACHING AIDS COME OFF THE BENCH

Pamela Trickey, senior partner at the Nashville, TN-based Call Center School, singles out the ability of a supervisor or a coach to “capture” a contact center rep’s screen as well as voice as an example of the renewed emphasis on existing technology. “Say a new rep is speaking with a customer and using good customer service skills, but then when the rep is getting ready to search for information, you can see her searching furiously in one database and then another,” she says. The ability to quickly find the correct data as well as to communicate properly with the customer is important, and in recognition of this, more contact centers are spending money on this sort of dual-function monitoring technology.

For example, the Impact 360 Suite from Roswell, GA-based Witness Systems uses a single reporting engine to monitor and evaluate agents’ training scores, schedules, and call quality. Other vendors of coaching software that monitors and captures agents’ voice and data interactions include Envision Telephony, Etalk Corp., and NICE Systems. Implementation costs change frequently in this competitive market, Trickey says, and although $5,000 per seat falls within an average price range, volume purchases and other factors can reduce prices.

Bave-Kerwin sees advances in job assessment tools as another important trend. Job simulation technology, which can look at the skill sets of a company’s best reps and then translate them into selection criteria for any new agents the company may need to hire, “is absolutely critical, because one of the most enduring issues that call centers cope with is finding the right people,” she says. “Finding a good job fit is really key to reducing turnover.” FurstHire Hiring System Version 3.1 from Chicago-based FurstPerson features CC Audition 2.0, a test that provides a simulated work environment for call center agent candidates.

MANAGING WORKFORCE TECH

Beyond hiring, training, and monitoring agents, there’s the issue of managing them efficiently, which is where workforce management technology comes in.

“It’s been around a long time,” Bocklund says. “But what’s happened in that market is some consolidation and additional capabilities to make it more attractive.”

Trickey lists several features a good workforce management program should provide, including the ability to forecast call volume, optimize schedules to fit the forecasts, and identify areas where agents could stand improvement and to automatically send them appropriate training modules.

Trickey adds that such features are ideally combined with putting more tools in the hands of the reps themselves. “We’re seeing more of those desktop-related tools for the rep,” she says, “whether it’s training schedules or vacation requests, which is more important because that frees up the reps and gives them more empowerment.”

Seattle-based Envision Telephony offers workforce management functions as a stand-alone option, which can range in cost from $350 to $600 per licensed user, depending on the number of agents and a variety of possible discounts. The workforce management solution provides scheduling, real-time adherence information, forecast editing capability, and metrics that address service and staffing levels. Envision’s Performance Suite includes workforce management with Envision Business Intelligence and Envision’s Click2Coach coaching solution.

Richardson, TX-based IEX Corp. has just introduced the TotalView InSight Performance Manager feature for its workforce management system for contact centers. The solution, which handles standard functions such as getting the right number of agents to the right place at the right time, can also send training modules to agents identified by coaches. The initial TotalView license fee for a 500-agent call center would be $150 per agent, for a total cost of $75,000, with an expected ROI within six to nine months.

Minnucci believes that contact center programs should pay more attention to what he terms “visibility technology. I’d want to be able to have calls recorded, an application that shows me what’s the service level, how many calls are in queue.”

In fact, those requirements seem fairly tame when compared with the definition of performance management offered by Gartner principal analyst Jim Davies: “Contact center management can integrate all contact center data sources from ACD to CRM to provide a consolidated view of contact center performance.” Technology at this level of complexity tends to be more about internal company efficiencies than improving customer service, says Davies, who names AIM Technology, HardMetrics, Merced Systems, Opus Group (now owned by Verint Systems), and Performix Technologies as the current top five players in the performance management arena.

Mark Gally, Merced Systems’ director of marketing, defines performance management as a tool that is “driving behavior you want in the contact center. The focus is on service, sales, productivity, customer satisfaction-collecting data, then distributing it to show, for instance, how an agent is doing on sales metrics. It’s really a management tool.” Used properly, Gally says, the solution can “move the middle agent pool to a higher performance/skill level across the board.” The latest refinements to performance management solutions can optimize such functions as multiple preconfigured systems, forms tasks alerts, and granular role definition.

LOOKING BEYOND THE HORIZON

How probable is it that a revolutionary new technology will push contact centers in directions they don’t now anticipate? Bave-Kerwin believes that a technology under development that would allow you to use reliably beamed/wireless communication methods could “turn the world of hard-wired communication upside down.”

For the moment, however, while the world is still right side up, contact centers considering new technology should, as always, carefully research the available offerings before making any decisions. Given the wide variety of products and vendors, no one is claiming that’s an easy task, but Bocklund warns against succumbing to the lure of a single-vendor solution just because the technology choices seem overwhelming.

There are many reasons to buy an entire suite from one vendor, Bocklund admits, but she feels that it is important to retain as much choice as possible. “I kept getting in conversations that made me think, ‘We’re giving up,’” she says. “Buy a suite for good reasons, not because you’ve thrown up your hands.”


Barbara Arnn is a freelance writer based in Port Townsend, WA.

Sourcebook

AIM Technology www.aimtechnology.com
ATG www.atg.com
Avaya www.avaya.com
Contactual www.contactual.com
eGain www.egain.com
Envision Telephony www.envisiontelephony.com
Etalk Corp. www.etalk.com
Five9 www.five9.com
FurstPerson www.furstperson.com
HardMetrics www.hardmetrics.com
IEX Corp. www.iex.com
InStranet www.instranet.com
iPhrase Technologies www.iphrase.com
KANA www.kana.com
Knova Software www.knova.com
LivePerson www.liveperson.com
Microsoft www.microsoft.com
Merced Systems www.mercedsystems.com
NICE Systems www.nice.com
Opus Group www.verint.com
Performix Technologies www.performixtechnologies.com
RightNow Technologies www.rightnow.com
Salesforce.com www.salesforce.com
TheBrain Technologies Corp. www.thebrain.com
Voxify www.voxify.com
Witness Systems www.witness.com