The 3-D Customer

Oct 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

Everything is going digital. Just think of all the little computer chips that surround us — in our phones, TVs, CD players, watches, appliances, cash registers, even thermometers and blood pressure cuffs! Computerized “whatever” is standard in the United States today. In addition, the Internet has become an increasingly significant force in our everyday lives. Some people theorize that one day every device and appliance we own will somehow be connected to this enormous, global computer network.

Businesses that have relied exclusively on telephone communications in the past must now adjust to the fact that their customers may prefer to contact them in other ways. “What’s your e-mail address?” is no longer an afterthought in business conversations. And statements such as, “Our Web site is under construction,” or “We’ll have e-mail sometime after the first of the year,” only portray your business as sadly behind the times.

Call center technology, of course, revolves around the telephone call. Call center management spends a good part of its resources on developing protocols and systems designed to deliver high-quality experiences for customers. There are protocols for how interactions take place between agents and customers and protocols for how long a caller may hold or when a voice mail message must be returned. These rules are built right into the phone system. Other protocols help resolve management issues, such as how many agents to staff for certain times of the day.

When call center managers want to accommodate other types of communications, they face some special challenges. For example, it seems like a simple thing to assign e-mail addresses to all the agents in a call center. However, problems arise when the protocols mentioned above are applied to communication methods that exist on two different platforms.

CRM for short

Technology has come up with a solution, however, in the form of a new type of call center system called either a multimedia call center or a customer relationship management server. Indeed, the term “customer relationship management” (CRM) recognizes the importance of achieving the best possible interaction with a customer at every opportunity.

CRM systems utilize specially developed, highly customized servers that are capable of providing IVR for callers, ACD functionality, and voice messaging. The same ports concept seen in voice mail is used here, but the voice connections are provided by the ports inside the PC server. In essence, manufacturers have layered various call center technologies one on top of the other and then packaged them all together in one box.

So, what exactly happens when your customers call into a CRM server? First of all, an automated attendant answers the call and offers the caller a self-routing option. If customers choose this option, they are connected to the IVR to access the information they need.

If callers choose to speak to an agent, however, all the stacking and queuing rules of ACD come into play. The system will play recordings asking them to hold, reminder recordings, and, of course, music or advertisements while they wait. Just as with ACD, calls will also be distributed evenly among the group of logged-in agents.

Call center agents interface with the CRM server via a window on their PC screens. It shows them all incoming calls, pending e-mails and faxes, and voice mails for future follow-up. These multimedia queues should be programmed to prioritize the events the agent needs to handle.

For example, voice calls on hold should be at the top of the queue in the order received, or perhaps sorted so that preferred customers are given priority. Ordinarily, e-mail is queued after phone calls. However, if protocol states that e-mail must be answered within four hours, the queue must adjust itself so that unanswered e-mail approaching its time limit is prioritized above voice calls.

Lastly, as soon as an agent takes a call, the CRM system loads the customer’s database record so that it appears simultaneously on the agent’s PC screen. This is the screen pop feature, and it saves loads of time for a call center’s agents. Most important, though, it instantly provides the agent with all the information needed to assist the caller.

In the meantime, supervisors require the ability to reassign agents to different queues. They must also be able to check the status of all pending events, whether voice calls, callbacks, outbound calls, or any other type of call, and reports detailing the interactions between your agents and your customers must be readily available. A CRM system gives supervisors all these capabilities directly from their PC desktop displays.

A multimedia call center system includes other features you’ll need, too, such as a voice mail messaging system as robust as any standalone version. Or perhaps you’d like your agents to dial a list of prospects and customers when incoming calls are slow. Whether new sales calls or follow-up calls, the system can be programmed to present outbound calls to your agents whenever they are free. After dialing each call automatically, the system records the outcome of the call for reporting purposes.

Prior to the advent of multimedia call center servers, agents had to attend to e-mail, voice mail, and faxes separately — e-mail on the PC, voice mail via the telephone, and a fax machine somewhere in the building. Management had no control over how agents were balancing their workloads. No doubt some agents did very well and others fell apart, but the call center manager wasn’t able to determine who did well and who didn’t.

In contrast, a CRM system funnels each agent’s workload through one real-time interface located on the computer screen in front of him or her. By using a common set of rules for communicating with customers, all agents are thus able to manage their time and performance in a consistent, measurable way.

What’s more, when your business has questions about how to meet its various obligations, specific answers can be derived from a reporting system that reaches across all the communications platforms used in your call center.

Price tag

Do you think the call center design I’ve just outlined is too good to be true? Not so. There are several packages and servers that can provide all the features I’ve just described, but can small businesses afford them?

First of all, you must realize that multimedia call center packages require extensive integration into your existing business systems. For example, for your customers to utilize IVR or to provide screen pops for your agents, your databases must be linked to the CRM system. In addition, it may be necessary to link your network to the multimedia call center so that e-mail, fax messages, and phone calls can be passed between various servers to each agent’s desktop. It comes as no surprise that this kind of customized design can get to be quite expensive.

Like ACD and IVR, the price of a multimedia call center is measured in terms of cost per agent or seat, because savings in labor expense is the area where you’ll find the dollars to pay for this technology. The actual cost per agent will depend on how many you employ, because the design and installation of a CRM system will be the same whether you have two or 200 agents. In my experience, the cost of such systems can range from $10,000 to $50,000 per agent.

Remember, though, that huge savings in labor resources can be realized if callers have the option to help themselves via an IVR system. Then, factor in the time each agent saves on a call if screen pops are used, not to mention the labor saved by stacking calls during high-volume peaks (rather than putting on extra staff). Also, agents save more time per call by using only one communications program for all customer interactions. Even your management staff will save time by having only one place to go for reporting and system programming.

It’s reasonable to expect that implementing such a system could cut your labor expenses by 25%. Therefore, if you pay your average employee $25,000 per year, wouldn’t the system pay for itself in one or two years? Most businesses would consider that kind of return a very good investment.

The fact that these multimedia systems exist indicates to me that modern customers expect call centers to be able to communicate in a variety of ways. While your business may not be able to install a full-fledged CRM system, be sure to handle all communications media the same way you would a phone call.

Determine what your customers expect from you in the way of response and turnaround times, and then automate the process if possible. By using tools and techniques from the voice world, you can still deliver a high-quality customer experience that will position your business ahead of your competitors.

Internet inside

Millions of subscribers to America Online are familiar with a handy feature known as Instant Messenger. Though other versions of this technology are certainly available, it has long been a standard for those who connect to the Internet via America Online. Do you use it yourself? If not, let me give you an example of how it works.

A friend of mine living in Phoenix takes advantage of AOL’s Instant Messenger to keep in touch with out-of-town family members. Her mother lives in Cleveland and her oldest son is in Washington, D.C., but whenever any of the three happen to be online, they can check to see if the others are available to chat with.

If so, a special window appears on each of their computer screens where they can take turns writing short messages to one another. Because the messages are displayed almost immediately, they can actually converse back and forth, much like a two-way radio.

Unfortunately, to chat this way on the Internet, you and your friends, family, or acquaintances must all have access to the same instant messaging platform, such as that provided by America Online. As a matter of fact, this very problem was the subject of a story I heard on the radio recently.

It seems that at least three different manufacturers of instant messaging software have taken up the challenge of developing a common standard for their products. They estimate that some 20 million computers are already programmed with their software, so a joint standard for instant messaging would allow users on any of these devices to chat with one another in real time. Just think of all those people messaging on the Internet instead of talking on their telephones.

This radio story really got me thinking about the Internet in general. I thought of the dozens of times I have witnessed one or both of my teenage daughters typing away on some teen chat line about who knows what, perfectly at ease with this powerful technology. And I thought about all the software manufacturers vying to turn your Internet-connected PC into a telephone. And then I thought about the data network I routinely use to check on the PGA Tour’s latest standings or to find out what time the Diamondbacks’ next game airs on TV. And, finally, because I am writing this book, I thought, “How will call centers be affected by these increasingly popular ways to communicate over the Internet?”

It’s interesting to note that we’re not talking about totally new technologies. When I worked as a call center agent back in the ’80s, I could use my operator terminal at work to modem to my IBM 8088AT PC clone at home. Then, once connected, I would have a nice two-way chat with my wife even while taking telephone calls.

What is new is the proliferation of these technologies. Nowadays, instead of consulting a phone book or a reference manual at the public library, I’ll turn to the Internet first. Likewise, when I need information from particular business or government offices, I’ll check their Web sites before calling one on the phone. I know I’m not alone in using the Internet this way.

We expect a lot from the Internet — we use it to bank, trade stock, stay in touch with our relatives, search for a car, buy a new house, and even look for a better job. Furthermore, those of us who run small branch offices for large corporations know that the Internet has virtually replaced the telephone and traditional mail as the means of connecting to the resources of our parent companies.

So to return to my question, how are call centers being affected by Internet communications? Clearly, the same individuals who shop online will want to communicate with you online, too. Customers may want to use instant messaging to chat with your agents about a service issue. Or, perhaps they are using their only telephone line to connect to your Web site, and now they need to ask a question. Internet-based telephony may be the best option for these customers, but can your center handle the incoming call? Probably not.

This deficiency won’t put you out of business any time soon, however. Chances are that only one to five percent of your customers are ready to communicate with you over the Internet in real time, and they can still reach you by telephone if they really want to. Nonetheless, in large call centers handling 10,000 calls per day, one to five percent of the day’s calls can add up to a substantial number of lost business opportunities. It’s obvious that these call centers need to make sure they can handle Internet communications now. The rapid pace of technological development today is such that I could never hope to identify all the ways to bring live Internet communications to your call center. No sooner is a product on the market than a competitor comes out with something entirely new and better. So, I am reduced to describing the technology you’ll need in the most general terms.

That said, let’s take a look at what’s out there.

Outside tools

First of all, there is off-the-shelf software that enables communications between people using the same technology. If you have a limited number of clients who want to use the Internet, you have several options. You could utilize instant messaging, schedule time in an Internet chat room, or purchase Internet telephony software. Whichever option you and your clients choose, you must both agree on the specific system to be used.

Secondly, you could hire a service provider to act as a common clearing house for your communications. For example, a company based in Phoenix will set up your business with both a telephone number and the necessary software to connect you to its server. From there, you can make unlimited telephone calls from its Internet-connected PC to anyone else connected to the same network. As a member of this network, you could point your customers to this service as well. Then, once they download the free software, they’ll be able to contact your business online whenever they want to.

Internal options

Think back to the multimedia call centers described earlier in this chapter. Remember how all communications methods were represented and queued on each agent’s desktop? Within this environment, I have seen three Internet options evolve for customers.

The first option allows the customer to establish a two-way chat session (via computer keyboard) with a call center agent. While browsing your company’s Web site, he or she could select a button labeled along the lines of “chat with a customer service rep.” Once an agent is available and the chat session is initiated, the customer and agent can communicate in real time.

In addition to chatting, agents usually have the ability to “push” a Web site location. This is accomplished by software on the call center’s end that automatically links the customer’s Web browser to the page being pushed. For example, if a customer is confused about how to find a specific page within the company’s Web site, the agent simply selects the appropriate page, hits the “push” feature, and the page comes up on the customer’s screen.

One of the drawbacks associated with text-based Web chats is that they take up more time than voice calls. Obviously, it takes longer to type a question than to ask it, and it takes longer for an agent to formulate a written response than it does to just say it. In the end, many call centers may determine that Web chats are an inefficient use of their staff’s time.

I have actually dealt with several call centers that implemented Web chat capability only to disable it a few months later because of its drain on their agents’ time. Nevertheless, if a majority of your customers have only one telephone line, then allowing them to contact you via the Internet in real time may prove to be a huge advantage over your competitors.

But what about options two and three? Yes, there are alternatives to Web chats that a call center can employ.

Option two is the instant callback, which allows a customer browsing your Web site to request a callback at another phone number to which he has access. These requests are queued on an agent’s desktop as priority voice calls, and the call center server dials them automatically as soon as an agent is free. In a moment or two, the designated phone rings and your agent is able to help your customer. Also, if the customer’s Internet session is still active, the agent has the ability to push Web sites to the customer’s PC as needed.

Option three is a simpler version of option two. In this case, callbacks can be requested at a specific time. Let’s say your customer is browsing your Web site at 11:00 at night. He might request a callback on his cell phone between 8:00 and 8:45 the next morning when he knows he’ll be sitting in traffic on his way to work.

The price tag of implementing Web communications tools specific to call centers varies wildly. Generally, they are integrated software components of a large, multimedia call center design rather than small, individual software packages. Therefore, almost every application would require manufacturers or developers to customize their products to your company’s existing system, all at significant cost.

If integrated into your total call center design, Web-enabled communication becomes yet another path for your customers to reach you. Quite possibly, it’s a way to capture business that other companies are not prepared to take advantage of, but the only real way to justify such an expense would be substantial demand from your customers.

CTI and history

In 1994, I had just moved to Seattle to work for Tri-Tec Communications (a great interconnect, in my opinion). During my second or third week there, the sales rep for one of the telephone systems we represented stopped by on a training mission. For about an hour, he shared his thoughts and theories on the state of our business and described the newest products his company was offering.

Midway through his presentation (I distinctly remember the moment), he became quite serious. A new wave of technology, known as computer telephony integration (CTI), was rapidly reshaping our industry, he told us. All the telephones we had been installing for the past 15 years would soon be connected to computers, making handsets and push buttons obsolete. Our familiar telephones would be reduced to images on our computer screens.

Therefore, you must become a computer company, he warned us. Soon you will be selling computers instead of telephones, and you will be installing software instead of phone systems. On top of that, this messiah of CTI actually predicted that any company unable to adapt would find itself out of business in less than two years.

It is true that the integration of computers and telephones has significantly affected those companies that provide telephone and call center technologies. Many of the more sophisticated technologies described in this chapter are a direct result of CTI’s development and would not be available if the computer/software world had not joined hands with telecommunications.

However, it is safe to say that our telephones are still with us in the year 2001, and as far as I know, CTI has not been directly responsible for the ruin of any telephone system manufacturer. The entire technological trend has evolved more slowly than our enthusiastic rep predicted because there was never a tremendous need for this type of sophistication. In the end, it seems customers are more interested in service than revolution.

Traditionally, telephone systems have always been closed proprietary systems. For example, if you want to add features, lines, or telephones to your Toshiba telephone system, only Toshiba can help you. Computers are just the opposite, though. A PC’s hardware might be fabricated by any of a long list of manufacturers. In fact, of the 10 or 20 components that make up an entire computer system, it is feasible that no two have been made by the same manufacturer.

Due to these open standards in the computer world, anyone who wants to try his hand at building a computer can do so by gathering the various parts from whichever vendor he chooses. Standards for PC software are also open. Though it wasn’t always this way, today most software is written to work with the operating system loaded on your PC. This means that whenever you want to add or change something, nearly any vendor can supply you with what you need.

However, to integrate telephone systems (using proprietary standards) and computers (using open standards), there had to be some sort of interface for them to exchange commands and information. Technology enabling such communication was subsequently developed in two flavors.

  1. Telephone to computer

    This technology, flavor number one, links a single computer and a single telephone through a cable connection supplied by the telephone maker. Typically, the phone is connected to the computer via a serial port on the PC, and software is installed to control the telephone.

    The software usually depicts some sort of stylized telephone on the computer screen, but in some cases, a more accurate representation appears, complete with buttons to click on for dialing or for access to other features of the phone system. When users want to dial a number, the computer sends its commands to the telephone via a Microsoft-developed standard language called telephony applications programming interface (TAPI). This open standard applications interface has allowed software developers to write programs that can work with any telephone system that is TAPI-compliant.

    More sophisticated applications were also developed, such as the personal information manager software available with ACT! When you click on a contact in your ACT! address book, this program will automatically dial the phone number of the selected contact. In addition, if caller ID is available, the computer can read the number of an incoming call, check it against your personal address book, and bring up your entry for that contact as the call is ringing to your desk. How handy is that?

    The telecom industry went wild for a while over such great tools, and some users really bought into the concept. Nevertheless, not enough sales momentum was generated by these desktop productivity enhancements to create a revolution. So, CTI developers were forced to rethink the application of this technology from a different perspective.

  2. Computer network/telephone system

    The second incarnation of computer telephony integration was pioneered by Novell with a standard called telephony services application programming interface (TSAPI). Instead of linking an individual PC to an individual telephone, this standard utilizes a physical connection between your telephone system’s base cabinet and the Novell computer network server. To dial a number from this environment, you bring up the address book entry you want on your computer screen and click on it. The server then tells the phone system to have your extension dial the selected number. In the same way, all commands from a CTI software application are sent directly from the server to the phone system’s base controller.

    Perhaps the main advantage to connecting devices at the network level is the more sophisticated level of programming that can be employed. Such programming enables your CTI application to accommodate multiple extensions and multiple lines of traffic simultaneously.

    Similarly, management gains the ability to view the phone system’s activity as a whole rather than monitor individual telephone-to-PC interactions one at a time. And, when making routing decisions or selecting features to program, developers can tap the entire network for resources in addition to the databases and programs accessible from each individual PC.

PC-based telephone systems

At the beginning of the computer telephony age, industry visionaries foresaw that telephone systems would soon be replaced by computers, forcing phone system manufacturers out of the market altogether. Their thinking was that standard, off-the-shelf PCs could provide telephone line connections, effectively taking the place of a phone system.

Such an arrangement would not only be cheaper than installing a phone system; it would also speed the development of new features due to the rapid evolutionary pace of the PC world. Seven years later, however, two major problems still exist that prevent PCs from becoming phone systems.

The first problem, probably the biggest, is the physical makeup of a personal computer. A standard PC consists of several base components, one of which is the processor — an Intel 386, 486, Pentium, Pentium Pro, Celeron, and so on. Telephone systems also have processors, but they typically run at much slower clock speeds than the chips housed in our PCs. Plus, there are several of them. In most phone systems, the base processor provides the horsepower for the system. Then there may be a smaller processor, or switching matrix, to handle connections between incoming lines and stations, as well as another, separate processor that handles the load of a T1 line card. A station card running eight telephones may have its own processor, and even a digital telephone set may have its own.

To efficiently process all the traffic a phone system is required to handle, telephone system manufacturers had become skilled at building customized computers. Just think for a moment about your own company’s business phone system. What is your tolerance for the timely processing of telephone calls? What would be your reaction if you picked up a receiver and heard dead air instead of a dial tone? Totally unacceptable, right?

Unfortunately, it was quickly found that a standard PC’s single processor totally bogged down under heavy phone traffic, resulting in delayed dial tone, hesitations or pauses as line connections were made, and in two- to three-second delayed responses when a caller punched the buttons on a digital phone. While PCs were certainly well suited to handle five or ten tasks at a time, they simply couldn’t keep up with 40 simultaneous telephone conversations — an event the most basic phone system can handle with ease.

Problem number two involves the design of PC hardware. Mid-range telephone systems can provide expansion capacity for anywhere from 40 to 500 or more attached telephones and lines. In contrast, the tower PC clone living under my desk for the past four years has only six expansion slots. After adding three peripheral devices — modem, video card, and sound card — three are free to support device cards. Even if I could fit several telephone lines on one card, there’s still not enough real estate on my PC to use it as a viable phone system.

This unhappy situation brings us to the subject of phone system software. When PBX and telephone system manufacturers sell you a telephone system, they are not only providing all the necessary physical equipment for connecting telephones to telephone lines; as we’ve discussed, they are also building a custom computer for your business. The ability to place a call on hold, buttons that flash when a phone rings, and the dozens of other features you may have selected — all are provided via the vendor’s proprietary software.

On the other hand, a PC telephone system’s hardware is composed entirely of a standard, right-out-of-the-box PC. All the physical connections between your telephone lines and telephones are provided by this PC. However, PCs require an operating system, such as a Windows platform, before they can run any software or perform any task. In effect, then, a PC phone system is only a software program running under Windows NT, for example, or some other operating system.

How reliable is Windows NT? That’s debatable, but I do know that it is not acceptable for a telephone system to wait to pull dial tone on your phone while it “thinks” about something. And it is never OK for a phone system to reboot in the middle of the day so that callers have no way to reach your business until the reboot is complete. And it is always totally unacceptable to have your phone system “freeze up” on you in the middle of a phone call.

If any of the above ever occurred at your business, wouldn’t you be screaming at your phone system vendor to fix it? Or maybe you’d just rip it off the wall and toss it into the parking lot. The fact is, due to its hardware construction and the reliability of today’s operating systems, the pure PC-based phone system is not quite ready for widespread implementation. It is getting closer, though.

In the mid-’90s, a company called DASH put out a respectable telephone system that resembled a tower PC, which, I believe, used standard PC architecture. Though I mostly saw it in smaller offices, I did spy one that supported about 50 phones in a construction and development company located in Phoenix.

Still, I don’t think the proprietary phone system manufacturers face any imminent threat from their PC-based phone system competitors. The Windows NT phone systems offered by many manufacturers seem quite unable to find a market. They are still more expensive than traditional phone systems line by line, and they do not yet offer the types of telephone-based features business users have grown to depend upon. Also, as I have mentioned earlier, the expansion capacity of these systems is severely limited.

What has evolved is the PC-based phone server. These add-on servers are peripheral boxes that attach to the standard proprietary systems to provide a variety of call center applications. They also function as database integration links between phone systems and local area networks, or as voice processing servers for IVRs and unified messaging platforms.

Router-based systems

I am an optimist. If the market is patient, I believe the PC-based phone system’s limitations can be worked out, and I feel sure these types of systems will be successfully adopted in the business world. In the meantime, however, there’s a chance that the traditional, proprietary phone system may yet be doomed. Is it possible that my manufacturer’s rep had the right idea, but made a mistake choosing the type of device that would replace the traditional phone system?

There is a piece of hardware routinely found in many businesses that have computer networks up and running. Similar to a telephone system, this equipment was designed and built to accommodate physical connections between stations (PCs) and lines (network segments). Because it has the processing power to run software, it’s easy to add a variety of features to its core responsibilities. What could this fabulous piece of equipment be? It’s your network router.

Think about it — a router-based telephone system. Cisco manufactures one, and so does Bay Networks. Each company has enhanced its products to the level where voice calls can be integrated into traffic between network points. At the moment, Cisco has the advantage over its competitors. It is the first company to bring a good solution to the market, and its product is way ahead of anything the PC-based phone system manufacturers have.

The reason for this is that Cisco’s base platform is built for the kind of processing and expansion necessary for telephony applications. Clearly, Cisco is already in a position to leverage standard PC architecture. A router is a switch, right? And so is a telephone system. By combining the computer and telephony worlds, Cisco has devised a product that could conceivably replace traditional phone systems on a large scale. So, it appears that my sales rep friend might be right after all — just five or ten years later than he thought.

CTI today

While historical background and future speculation are both fun topics to write about, I know you are reading this book to help you with your business needs today. That said, I can tell you that Microsoft’s server-level, network-based telephony API has become a standard platform for CTI servers. Because it is based on the Windows NT operating system, it is especially appropriate for those businesses already working in a Windows NT environment.

Microsoft offers quite a few call center applications and programs, such as the IVR mentioned earlier. In addition, many multimedia call center applications, reporting tools, and monitoring systems can be run on Windows NT servers. While we might like to have a little choice in the matter, the truth is that Microsoft’s operating system is by far the one most written-to for CTI applications.

The difference between proprietary and open computer telephony solutions is an important distinction for you to make. To determine whether the server you want to buy operates on an open or proprietary platform, be sure to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will it work with phone systems other than the one I currently own?
  • Can the server’s hardware be purchased through a standard PC hardware channel?
  • Is it capable of running more than one application? (For example, you may need to run your voice messaging program as well as your IVR platform.)

Also, consider that ease of administration is another huge benefit of open systems. Because of the nature of Windows NT, developed CTI applications are traditionally administered in the same way as a Windows-based program running on NT. All the same organization and application tools that you are familiar with in other server-based applications still apply, such as adding users in directory services or using properties tabs and profiles.

By learning how the CTI server and server-based applications have evolved, I hope you’ll have a better understanding of what to look for when it’s time to make a purchase. Knowledge is power, so they say, and when it comes to spending your hard-earned dollars or running a successful business, there’s no such thing as too much information.

Stephen Medcroft has been working in and around call centers for more than twelve years, going from agent to shift supervisor to call center MIS, PBX, and operations manager. He offers consulting services and sells call center systems and technology to small and medium-sized businesses in the Phoenix area. He can be reached by telephone at (602) 881-9319 or by e-mail at stevemedcroft@mcleodusa.net.

This article is an excerpt from Call Centers Made Easy (Aegis Publishing Group, $24.95) by Stephen Medcroft. The book may be purchased from retail booksellers or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 828-6961 or visiting www.aegisbooks.com. Inquiries about wholesale discounts and purchases for educational purposes should be directed to the publisher at (401) 849-4200.