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May 1999

Distributed Call Centers Move Into The Decade Of Intimacy


With the new millennium will begin the decade of intimacy, according to GartnerGroup, a Connecticut-based research firm, which states that today's traditional call center will be turned into a dynamic customer contact center focused on the individual requirements of the customer. Under this new model, the call center will serve as a kind of customer intelligence center, breaking down any barriers between customer and company, fostering a sense of customer intimacy.

For many companies, the trend toward customer intimacy is mandating a "one-and-done" call-handling strategy to displace the "more-is-better" philosophy of call center management. In fact, success for companies in the future will rest upon their ability to fulfill the particular information needs of each customer when and how the customer wants it. As part of the one-and-done evolution, companies are closely evaluating the customer's interaction experience. For instance, does the customer prefer to contact the company via the phone using automated self-service prompts? Is the customer more interested in accessing account information via the Web or through e-mail? What is a customer's expectation for real-time, personalized attention after a transaction on the Web is complete? What happens in a voice response system when a customer calls a mortgage hot line but then wants information on a checking account?

In all of these scenarios, there are several fundamental questions that companies need to answer to support their customer intimacy strategy. How do you ensure that every process and every customer interaction is properly executed from the customer's point of view? How does an existing technology infrastructure need to be modified to accommodate new services and meet the expectations of customers? This article will address these questions and discuss the technology underpinning a company's ability to enhance its customer service.

The Beginning Of The Network-Level Call Center Environment
In the future, most of the technology and infrastructure spending between now and the beginning of the next millennium will focus on ensuring that customer profile and transaction data are available to agents. The need for real-time information at the point of customer contact is contributing to a move away from the ACD silo model that is currently in place in most call centers. Rather, companies are eager to deploy event-driven, network-based computer-telephony integration (CTI) solutions that effectively gather, normalize and deliver data to the agent's desktop to personalized transactions. To do so, they are upgrading existing technology, creating enterprise networks of distributed call centers, data mining their customer information databases for use in call-routing and screen-pop applications and linking legacy systems with newer enabling technologies to provide appropriate service for every caller.

CTI, coupled with open telephony architectures, is creating applications that deliver new functionality that enables customer intimacy in the call center. This includes automated processing of inbound calls, intelligent routing of calls based on the caller's telephone number or other unique identifier and customer database lookups to automatically flag a call's importance to the company. These elements are just some of the techniques essential in deploying a customer intimacy program.

The New Era Of Distributed Call Centers
With a network-level distributed call center model, a company ceases to treat each call center as an individual silo of customer contact. Instead, the focus is on determining a caller's needs and relationship to the business and selecting the most appropriate resource in the enterprise to service the request, thereby enhancing customer intimacy. In this model, all agents, voice response systems and electronic access systems are viewed as a single pool.

Since a distributed call center system resides at the network level, it can execute critical call and data routing decisions before the call terminates at an individual call center or agent location. Calls can be routed based on a multitude of dynamic variables or rules which are defined by the company and based on number dialed, ANI, location of the caller, caller-entered digits, customer database lookup, agent availability or skill, time of day or week or even the cost of the telephone call. The intelligent call routing application, using information about the caller collected by the network, improves call handling by automatically identifying the caller, the reason for the call and the value the caller represents to the company.

Through the deployment of network-level interactive voice response (IVR) technology and CTI, companies can efficiently segment calls within a distributed call center environment. Depending upon the specific parameters of the implementation, a company can use information gathered in the call routing process to initiate special treatment based on caller attributes, learn more about customer expectations and requirements and maximize the use of information at the desktop in support of business goals. The company enjoys the ability to better track, deliver and make business decisions about the call, while meeting its strategic goal of delivering value to the caller.

A sophisticated strategy can establish a prompt at the network level, enabling the caller to enter an account number, social security number or some other customized identifier. That call can then be directed to the correct skill group. In addition, information about the caller (along with the call) is delivered to the skilled agent at the same time. The screen pop can be delivered to the serving agent, regardless of where the call entered the network and where the serving agent may be located.

Sometimes, additional information about a call is also transmitted. For example, using the account number entered into the network IVR, a database lookup allows more detailed profile information to be sent to the agent's screen. In this way, the routing system enables personalized service to each customer. The benefits to the company are more productive answering resources, lower network transmission costs, shorter call length and, ultimately, more satisfied customers. The benefit to the customer is a customized, accurate and timely transaction offered in a highly personalized way.

This approach ensures that companies have total control over the entire enterprise of networks, disparate equipment and resources. Companies control everything from the network to the desktop in the distributed call center. The desktop is "enterprise-enabled," allowing the entire enterprise to be aligned in support of strategic and operational business objectives at the point of customer contact through CTI. This shift marks a fundamental change in the way a company uses its enterprise-level view of events and data in conjunction with IVR and CTI initiatives to impact customer service.

Technology Supports Caller Segmentation And Caller Attributes
Here is an example. The caller is prompted by a network-level IVR for an account number, frequent flyer number or other customized identifier. The intelligent call routing software includes the data from the prompt in a pre-route request along with information from a customer database lookup if applicable, and instructs the network where to send the call.

At the same time, a message is sent to the terminating location indicating caller identity and/or other significant information stored on the caller. When the call arrives at the terminating ACD, a server process has already obtained the data about the customer and is ready to deliver the information to the agent in the form of a screen pop. Call and data delivery are synchronized once the ACD selects the appropriate agent.

Driving this process is intelligent call processing software that monitors the call center, knows the status of every agent and keeps track of each incoming customer contact. It "sees" the status of every connected peripheral device and every connected network so caller-prompted data can be used to send the call to the best destination and a screen is popped with the corresponding data when an agent receives the call. Regardless of the call's starting point and final destination, call detail and data are routed along with the call. Working dynamically from the network to the desktop dramatically improves record-retrieval time, leverages existing technology investments, improves customer service and directly maps call handling to business objectives.

In addition, when call center reporting is handled at an enterprise level, real-time and historical data can be mixed, matched and analyzed. Information on skill group, trunk group, service, etc., can be combined with data from different parts of the call center enterprise to give real-time and historical "snapshot" views and free the business from the constraints normally associated with automatic call distributor (ACD) and network data aggregation. Since data are "normalized," an organization is able to more accurately measure the effectiveness of tactical call handling processes across centers and get a better "fix" on the service being provided to callers.

By using sophisticated features of today's technology, a company can take full advantage of all its answering resources and improve the overall quality of customer service. Because companies can provide, control and manage agent skill groups as a single, unified virtual team, there is no longer a need to proliferate skills at all centers or to resort to switched overflow to find an appropriate agent.

Resource fragmentation is minimized through the ability to identify calls and appropriate agents as soon as possible at the network level. There is a greater population of primary agents from which to choose, rather than having to direct the call to the agents once it reaches a switch, where the population of primary agents is smaller. This benefits both caller and company because:

  • The call is answered the first time, and the call length is shortened,
  • The call is handled by a primary agent trained specifically for the skill,
  • Fewer secondary or tertiary agents are handling calls requiring skills they do not possess, and
  • Tie lines and switch ports are no longer wasted in a search for agents elsewhere.

In addition, a company's existing hardware and networking investment is extended to accommodate growth and technology evolution. Using standard CTI network technology and advanced intelligent network (AIN) capabilities to transform the public network into an applications platform, intelligent call routing extends software control of toll-free call routing to the network level.

Improved System Management And Reporting
The real-time statistics now available to a company with this new model are also used to achieve a new level of system management enterprisewide. With a truly distributed call center, a company receives control and real-time knowledge of the status of its agents, centers and trunks throughout the enterprise. That information, when used in conjunction with consolidated historical reporting for all calls across all attached ACDs, PBXs and IVRs, enables an organization to develop long-range customer contact strategies for tactical objectives, while reinforcing strategic business goals.

For the company as well as the caller, this means that the call centers have grown to serve the business as a whole. This model takes the next step beyond traditional ACD-based-only skills routing by extending public and private network solutions with enterprisewide, intelligent call processing. This approach enables an organization to blend the logic of both the network and premises (call center) system, as well as customer contact software.

By integrating these technologies to unite call center sites, companies can deploy a proactive rather than reactive strategy to the handling and management of calls. As a result, calls are handled more effectively and, for the first time, enterprise level data are available to provide a comprehensive view of the call from the caller's perspective -- a benefit to the company and the caller.

Lou Volpe is senior vice president of sales and marketing for GeoTel Communications Corporation. Mr. Volpe has more than 25 years of experience in the high-technology industry. GeoTel Communications Corporation provides customer-interaction software solutions for mission-critical call center applications. The company's network-to-desktop CTI products unify voice/data distribution systems, creating a single platform for customer-interaction management.

Building The Virtual Call Center


As the globalization and decentralization of business becomes more prevalent, companies are adopting new networking and customer service models. One of the first systems to change is the corporate call center. Thanks to the Internet, remotely located call center agents are no longer a networking challenge. The days of dependence on the centrally located corporate call center are over. Welcome to the age of the virtual call center.

Today, a typical Fortune 500 company has multiple call centers located throughout the world, serving specific geographical regions, working on specific services. Within the traditional circuit-switched environment, the technical challenges and costs associated with remotely located call center agents are well understood, but quite large. To build a virtual public switched telephone network (PSTN) call center, a company must invest in proprietary equipment such as ACD agent extenders -- expensive pieces of gear that require two phone lines per agent. This can become particularly cumbersome and expensive when agents are outside the local calling area, or LATA.

With the new Internet protocol (IP) packet-switching technology, remotely located agents need only a standard PC and ISP connection to send and receive IP calls via the Internet, and therefore no longer need to be physically attached to the traditional automatic call distributor (ACD). Instead, the virtual call center is built around a switch-based Internet ACD which, using an Internet or Intranet connection, allows call center agents to be located anywhere in the world.

An Internet ACD delivers circuit-switching functions using IP telephony switching technology. As with any ACD, the Internet ACD queues the call and delivers it to the appropriate service agent. For instance, a customer may initiate a call to the virtual call center by clicking a "connect me" button on a Web page, calling directly from an IP telephony appliance or calling from a plain old telephony services (POTS) phone to a gateway to the call center. For a POTS call, the gateway converts the call from POTS to IP telephony packets. The agent then employs audio, and optionally, any combination of video or data sharing utilities, to resolve the customer's issue.

The Internet ACD performs Internet call processing within the standard call center environment. It provides call queuing and distribution, MIS, agent and group management, computer-telephony integration (CTI) and all other functions normally expected from a traditional ACD. The fact that it relies on IP for call transport enables a truly distributed or "virtual" call center, and eliminates the need for expensive networking packages or remote agent equipment.

Since the Internet ACD employs Internet telephony switching and call processing, it allows for external influence of call control, reporting and management through CTI interfaces. With CTI, an Internet ACD network can be integrated into the existing audio-only call center operations, leveraging existing investments in CTI applications, training and staffing. With the addition of a gateway, audio and multimedia calls can be overflowed and routed between the audio ACD domain and the Internet domain, allowing for increased efficiency of agent utilization.

The Internet ACD model is H.323 compliant. Because H.323 is a low bandwidth solution using advanced compression techniques, sufficient bandwidth for audio or audio/data calls over the Internet is not an issue. Many virtual call centers will reside on an Intranet that is designed to accommodate audio-only or multimedia Internet telephone calls. Anyone who purchased a new PC within the last two years has the necessary equipment to participate in a multimedia call with a virtual call center agent. The caller can connect to the agent through a company Web site using a single Internet connection. The call will then enter the virtual call center switching system and the next available agent, who may be located anywhere in the world, will answer the call. This virtual call center model is viable for any business today.

Security of the call center is a primary concern. In the traditional circuit-switched model, callers dial the call center pilot directory number (DN) of the ACD or group, not the phone number of individual agents. The call is connected to the network side of the telephone switch. As an agent becomes available, the ACD application determines which agent should receive the call and the telephone switch connects the call to the appropriate agent, not revealing the DN of the agent. The telephone switch permits only valid telephone calls; that is, calls that follow the correct signaling, to enter the call center. All other external attempts to enter the call center are not permitted.

A switch-based Internet ACD has integrated firewall functions that protect corporate resources, including agents. Following the PSTN model, an Internet ACD is required to accept calls destined to its "Internet DN," the IP address of the switch. The Internet ACD determines that incoming Internet calls are protocol-compliant and re-maps the IP call packets (audio, video or data) to the address of the agent who has been selected to handle that particular call. By re-mapping the addresses and only allowing valid IP telephone calls to go through, the Internet ACD isolates virtual call center agents from the external IP domain. All agents, supervisors and administrators are required to log-in to the virtual call center. Instead of capturing the extension of the agent's phone, the Internet ACD records the IP address of the agent.

As with any call center, agents are the most valuable resource. As companies update their call center models to accommodate Internet customer support, they will want to maintain similar levels of agent supervision and training. The Internet ACD must provide the required call center management and administrative tools such as the ability to transfer a call to a supervisor or conference in an expert, when necessary. Call control and management must support not only the audio portion of the call, but also video and data interaction. Supervisors must be able to silently monitor and barge in to Internet multimedia calls just as they would a traditional audio-only call. An Internet ACD provides these features and captures the life of the call, call history and multimedia information. All administrative information is comparable to that of the PSTN-based call center.

Productivity Enhancements
Current CTI enhancement technologies also apply for the virtual call center model, including the ability to direct the incoming call to the appropriate agent and generate a "screen pop." The Internet ACD provides necessary call processing and switching support to implement these technologies. The move toward standards such as H.323 enables not only stereo and high-fidelity audio, but also video (one-and two-way) and data collaboration. The addition of video is seamless when an Internet ACD switch is used. Data collaboration simply requires an Internet ACD that is T.120-compliant. T.120 enables sharing of applications and data. This is especially helpful for technical support applications that use visual collaboration to identify and resolve issues.

According to the Yankee Group, data transmission will overtake voice transmission by the year 2000. Sprint reports that today, 73 percent of traffic carried over its network is voice, but by mid-2000, it expects to transmit more data than voice over its new packet-switched network. The virtual call center represents the next logical step in the evolution of call center processes and customer support.

An Internet ACD is necessary to create a true virtual call center where agents and switches have no physical distance constraints. Robust administrative and security features are built into the Internet ACD which can be integrated with a company's legacy call center and CTI systems. New Internet ACD technology makes the virtual call center an affordable, efficient solution that is viable today. Any business that wants to take the lead in providing reliable, convenient customer service and support via the Internet can Internet-enable its call center within a few hours using an Internet ACD.

Christopher Botting is the vice president of marketing and co-founder of PakNetX and is responsible for all marketing and customer service activities within the company. Previously, he was marketing manager of multimedia call centers for MultiLink. Prior to MultiLink, he was a national marketing manager for L.M. Ericsson and a senior product marketing manager for Northern Telecom.

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