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cc.GIF (6428 bytes)
June 1999


Tom Keating

To: CTI Readers
Cc: Amazon, Ballisoft, CosmoCom, E-Fusion, Etrade, Interactive Intelligence, Lucent, NetSpeak, Nortel Networks, Paknetx, VocalTec
Subject: The Thrill Is Gone

BY Tom Keating


The Internet is revolutionizing the way we do business. For instance, I can go to Amazon.com and this Web site will not only remember who I am, but also what books I have ordered in the past, as well as provide book recommendations based on other customers which have similar reading habits. The Internet gives me the ability to find products and order them online without having to pick up the phone. What does this have to do with CTI? Plenty! I will tell you why very shortly.

While it is true that online commerce, known as e-commerce is booming, the technology still has a ways to go. For instance, while surfing Amazon.com, I needed to know some information before I would actually make the purchase. Unfortunately, there was no click-to-chat button or even an email button that I could see to ask my question. It was such a quick and simple question, it was quite frustrating that I couldn't contact Amazon.com. My impulsive buying mood just was not being met to my satisfaction, so I gave up and went down to the local bookstore, got the answer to my question, and bought the book there.

Now granted, Amazon.com is meant to be a self-service Web site, so maybe I shouldn't have expected as much. After all, if I pull into a self-service gas station, should I expect the gas attendant to pump my gas? Of course not! But on the other hand, perhaps I should expect more from Amazon? Perhaps Amazon is "missing the boat" when it comes to providing its customers "live" interaction for better customer service? Obviously, there are quite a bit of costs associated with providing "live help" in the form of a call center, if Amazon ever decided to go that route. Amazon has a huge daily volume of sales, so perhaps if some sort of "live interaction" was enabled on their site, they would require such a huge call center to take the calls, that profitability would be reduced.

But in my opinion, e-commerce is heading down the path of live customer interaction with multimedia agents very soon. The penalty for not providing customers with the ability to reach a live person is just too great. For example, suppose another "startup" comes along and offers virtually the same thing that Amazon does (books, movies, tapes, etc) but with one added caveat - live customer interaction in the event the Web visitor/potential customer has a question. A potential customer can simply click on a Web button, which initiates a text-based chat session, or even initiates an Internet telephony phone call (VoIP), which is routed into the company's ACD queue. I for one would prefer the startup, since I know I will be helped by a live agent in the event I just can't find the information I am looking for on the Web site. So my prior statement about Amazon requiring a huge call center is not necessarily a detriment to their profitability. If anything, Amazon would sell more products from customers making inquiries to their "hypothetical" agents, especially since the agents can "up-sell" the customer. Then, perhaps instead of my Amazon stock doubling in value every other month, they would triple instead!

CTI - The Glue That Binds
CTI will be the great enabler of this next-generation of e-commerce. In the coming months we are going to see more and more companies providing solutions which "integrate" e-commerce with CTI technologies. This includes the ability to press a button on a Web page to initiate a Web call-back, push Web pages to the customer's browser, and perform Internet telephony calls. CTI will also be used to take any customer interaction requests, whether it's an Internet telephony call request, chat request, email request, or Web call-back request and integrate these requests into an advanced ACD. These advanced ACDs can treat all of these customer interaction types will varying response times, with the added advantage that all of these varying customer interactions are all tracked in a centralized database, resulting in very useful reports. One company that I am aware of has an advanced ACD which covers at least two of these customer interaction types - Interactive Intelligence's EIC product treats chat requests, and incoming calls the same, by putting them into the same ACD. Look for more companies to follow this model in the near future.

Computer telephony integration or the "marriage" of computer technologies with telephony technologies is becoming more important in a world which is becoming increasingly more communication-centric. Customers will soon expect companies to provide not such self-service Web sites, IVR and 800 numbers, but also email which is responded to in a reasonable timeframe (email routing software), Web-based callbacks, Internet telephony calls, live chat capabilities, and more. CTI is the technology by which these new innovative communication methods can not only be implemented, but also managed in an effective manner. These new communication methods are going to have to work with legacy telephony equipment such as ACDs and predictive dialers, as well as the legacy reporting mechanisms, such as call accounting systems. It is not enough that these new technologies "integrate" with existing telephony hardware, but that they integrate in such a manner as to provide effective reports. For example, how many Web callbacks for Customer A did we receive for the month of January versus the number of regular calls Customer A made? Did an email request solve the problem for Customer A on the first try, or did it result in an incoming call to resolve the issue? These are some sample queries, that an administrator will need to be able to make to manage and gauge the effectiveness of any CTI solution.

There are several companies, which provide a solution to manage at least one of these new advanced customer interaction types (Web callback, IP telephony calls, text-based chat). For instance, E-Fusion handles text-based chat requests, Lucent's CentreVu product handles Internet telephony calls and routes them directly to an agent's telephone, and Paknetx handles Internet telephony calls, text-based chat, and Web call-back. Other companies in this space include CosmoCom, Ballisoft, NetSpeak, VocalTec, Nortel Networks, and more.

Companies are starting to realize that their Web-site is a valuable resource not only for increasing revenue but also retaining customers. If a Web site is difficult to navigate or to find the information needed, this will leave a bad taste in customers' mouths, which will undoubtedly adversely affect any present or future business transactions. But even the best organized or best managed Web site will never be perfect. Thus, the ability to have human interaction accessible via the Internet will still be a key differentiator in providing better customer service to your customers than your competitors. Thus, e-commerce sites as we know them today are dead! They will have to evolve to survive.

On a more pessimistic note, I wouldn't look for the major e-commerce Web sites, such as e-Bay, Amazon, or Dell to provide live interaction on their Web site in the near future. Unfortunately, these companies are interested more in showing their latest and greatest revenue numbers to stock analysts to make their stock shoot through the roof. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but eventually, revenue will be more directly tied to customer service and customer loyalty. Self-service web sites are not known for their customer service, although they do often have a loyal following, including Amazon. Problem is, that if a startup comes along that provides the same service but includes the ability to reach a live agent, then customers will turn away from these well known sites and come to a much more "user-friendly" Web site. As such, the major e-commerce companies are going to have to take a hit on their stock and invest in CTI-enabling their Web site with call center agents in the foreseeable future.

But keep your eye on Web sites from medium to large call centers, financial institutions, outsourcing agencies, smaller e-commerce sites, and help desks to be the first ones to institute these advanced CTI technologies. CTI combined with the Internet is going to happen, it's just a matter of when. Until then, I'm headed over to E-trade.com to research some Yahoo stock I keep hearing about. Now if only I could click on "call a stock broker" to ask an E-trade agent if Yahoo is a good stock to invest in!

Tom Keating is chief technical officer and executive technology editor for TMC. He welcomes your feedback. To contact him, send your e-mail to Tom Keating


What's HOT!

FlowPoint Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cabletron Systems announced a voice-over-DSL Integrated Access Device called the FlowPoint 2200V. Fully compliant with Jetstream Communications' multi-service access network architecture using AAL2 voice-over-ATM, this product provides small businesses with easy, cost effective access to integrated voice and data services. The FlowPoint 2200V resides at a subscriber's premises, connects to an SDSL circuit, and provides four standard telephone lines as well as continuous, high-speed Internet and remote LAN services over a single pair of copper. The Ethernet-to-SDSL router subsystem includes a full suite of bridging and routing software, supports NAT, and DHCP, includes an easy configuration and management, an optional firewall and virtual private network (VPN) software. Also included is a built-in four-port 10BaseT Ethernet to be shared by an entire office.

The voice subsystem features four analog ports for connecting analog telephones fax machines, and modems. FlowPoint has developed two versions. One version which is available in June 1999, priced at $995 is aimed at SOHO users and telecommuters. Th other version, available later this year scales up to 12 analog POTS aimed at small business users.


Tom,

As the only "phone-guy" in our company, I've often mentioned the difference between analog and digital technology to our users, only to get blank stares in return. Last year, I selected a digital switch from Lucent Technologies as the phone system of choice. My reasons: time and money. Our site in Cleveland has about 300 users, 30 of which are in the call-center. Of those 30, they've had 4 different styles of digital phones, no less than two dozen different call flow and button layout configurations (and counting), let alone the troubleshooting issues that usually follow. By that account, I needed the service level, resources and customer service of Lucent and Bell Laboratories. As far as money, it is more expensive on the digital side, but our sales and call-center are revenue generating; therefore, the digital solution was more easily justified.

Jay Frameli, Telecom Analyst,
ERICO, Inc.

Tom Keating's Reply:
Certainly no one said supporting digital phones was easy! As for justifying more expensive digital phones just because call centers are a revenue stream, that argument may start to fade away as feature-rich PC-PBXs utilizing analog phones and CTI PC-phone software start to "win over" call center managers and decision-makers. Then the "justification" won't be based merely on the functionality of the phone itself, but rather the third party applications that support it.


Tom,

I am a certified Picazo VS1 technician. I no longer work for the company. I used to install and program these systems, but I wanted to clarify something for you. The reason, you could not put a VGA card in the server to run a color monitor is that the programmers have borrowed video memory to help provide an extension to the DOS limitation of the 640k barrier. Also, you should look more closely at the ACD functions of the system. It really has a very robust software package for a low price point. Additional functionality I'd like to see added to the system are fax detection for routing fax calls, and busy lamps on the PEUs. It would be nice to look at the PEU ports and determine if the port is in use.

Duane A. Longhofer, Systems Engineer
Convergent Communications, Inc.

Tom's Reply:

Thanks for your thoughts on the Picazo review. We've encountered similar "shared memory" conflicts with other products we've tested. For instance, I remember installing an ATI PCI video card which required a lot of consecutive "shared memory". Unfortunately, the video card's extensive utilization of "shared memory" interfered with a Brooktrout board I was trying to install on Windows NT. Thus, DOS isn't the only operating system with memory limitations. The only way I figured out a "shared memory conflict" was that the Brooktrout manual specified that it needed a certain range of "shared memory" in order to function.

A Windows NT memory diagnostic utility showed that the ATI video card was chewing up several blocks of shared memory. Although "shared memory" is a different issue than DOS's 640K conventional memory limit you mentioned, I thought you (as well as our readers) would find this story interesting if not helpful in the future when troubleshooting hardware installs.


Tom,

Intercom/overhead paging is a current advantage for digital phones, although the only real future limitation of analog is that its signal is susceptible to interference, unlike the clean digital phone signal. Separate intercom systems have been available in homes for at least 30 years. I wonder if there are any small footprint business-class intercom systems to run along side the analog phone system? They could even use the second pair on the cable. Although analog's advantage is not having proprietary phones, it's still just a matter of time before these intercom systems also get integrated into proprietary analog phones, and may even already exist in some for the KSU-less analog phones. I believe the markets that companies like Altigen and Artisoft have created have so greatly increased the demand for better featured analog phone sets that it's just a matter of time before better products are available. It's easier to revamp telephone technology than to revamp the key PBX system itself, which is why I'm buying into the analog PC/PBX market.

Tom DeReggi

Tom's reply:

You're right about Altigen and Artisoft helping to drive better analog phones in both features and in matching digital sound quality (although it might be tough to match digital sound quality). I've used both analog and digital phones, and can't tell the difference, unless I'm using a cheap analog phone or if I'm getting crosstalk from poor wiring in the ceiling or on the punchblock. If the wiring is done properly, analog sound quality isn't that bad. Also, good point about it being easier to redesign a phone rather than the phone system.


Tom,

Your article was a nice summary of options when it comes to phones. I wanted to point out that in addition to message waiting and backlit displays, Nortel's analog portfolio includes the Venture KSUless series. This analog solution is a 3x8 communication system that can stand alone or sit in front of a CT/PBX server to provide a 3 line desktop presence with DSS/BLF capability to 8 extensions. In addition to a full duplex speakerphone, the Venture has intercom capability for overhead paging to other Venture extensions. You can also plug in a box called the Enhanced Feature Adapter for interface to an external paging system. There is a Venture DTAD unit that can also answer two calls simultaneously.

Pete Fernald, National Account Executive Enterprise Solutions
Nortel Networks

Tom's reply:
I'm glad to hear Nortel is working with the PC-PBX vendors in providing Nortel analog phones which have many of the advanced capabilities that are traditionally known only on digital sets. P.S. You might want to take a peek at the TMC Labs review of the Nortel Meridian USB phone in this issue!







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