Decentering The Contact Center
LOUNSBURY, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The Second Coming
William Butler Yeats
Yeats metaphor might be looked upon as apt for the old-style call
center. Data came flowing in, were stored in silos, and were unobtainable
for anyone unconnected to that system (the falcon cannot hear the
falconer: how many times have you been asked to repeat an account number
when transferred between agents?). Instead of loosing anarchy upon the
world, the advent of IP (Internet Protocol) networks has stimulated a
rethinking of how call centers operate, transforming them into contact
centers that can take advantage of various media that can be used
simultaneously to collaborate with the customer. Using IP networks has
opened up the free flow of information throughout the enterprise, so that
now contacts can be distributed to whomsoever is best able to handle the
contact; in effect, decentering the contact center. I recently posed a
series of questions on this topic to Brett Shockley, vice president and
general manager for the Customer Contact Business Unit in Cisco Systems,
Inc.s Business Communications Software Group (BCG). With more than 20
years of experience in the telecommunications and call center markets,
Shockley brings a unique perspective to the changes that have transformed
the call center industry into the contact center industry. Prior to
joining Cisco, Shockley was co-founder and CEO of Spanlink Communications,
a leading developer of CTI, IVR and Web-based software solutions for call
centers and a company that pioneered the concept of Web-enabled call
centers. Spanlink released the industrys first product, WebCall, in
1995. He has also held senior-level management positions at ADC
Telecommunications, a manufacturer of telecommunications equipment.
EL: What will
be the impact of decentralizing the management of data? What new
opportunities will open?
BS: Decentralizing data in a contact center will have significant
impact on the timeliness, responsiveness and accuracy of information that
is not only provided to the customer support person, but most important,
to the end customer. The ability to disseminate data in real-time
will greatly reduce the hierarchy and, therefore, bottlenecks associated
with access to data that have been centralized in traditional
Another important trend will be the means by which customers will be
able to access these decentralized data. Not only will more self-service
voice-enabled applications be made more intelligent, but access over
the Web and other mobile technologies (e.g., WAP-enabled phones) will
provide new channels of access to data. The adoption of the PC,
Internet/Web and cell phones as standard communications vehicles has
driven the shift away from centralized repositories of data to
decentralized servers that can be distributed and replicated worldwide.
The infrastructure to support this decentralization has been the
standardization and penetration of the Internet Protocol (IP) networks
that can support not only data, but also voice, video and next-generation
technologies that are being developed for Web-based solutions.
By eliminating these bottlenecks and distributing data in real-time,
customers will now have direct access to their personalized data anytime
and anywhere. Automating more applications with real-time access to the
most current data that customers can access to self-administer their own
needs will greatly reduce the need to talk to live agents. At the
same time, agents will now be able to spend more time improving the value
they provide by having real-time access to content that requires an expert
EL: What do you think are the most significant changes to have taken
place in the past few years in contact centers? How have they improved not
only the efficiency of the agent, but also the quality of the interaction?
BS: There have been a number of significant changes to the call center
industry as it moves toward contact centers, ultimately improving
customer satisfaction and loyalty. The most pronounced change has been the
introduction of the Internet and all the new technologies, opportunities
and challenges associated with integrating the Internet into traditional
The Internet introduces not only a new set of channels of
communications (e.g., e-mail, chat/instant messaging and collaboration),
but also an opportunity to integrate all communications over a single
converged infrastructure; an Internet Protocol-based network that can
seamlessly integrate voice, video and data. The opportunity this presents
means there is no longer a need to spend significant capital and
development costs to attempt to integrate two disparate networks; a
datacom and a telecom network, as is the case with computer-telephony
integration (CTI) applications that form the backbone of traditional call
centers today. A converged IP-based network allows companies to use their
existing or new data networking infrastructures to integrate voice and
data applications seamlessly over a worldwide standard known as the
This evolution to a converged network will allow two key improvements
in agent and customer efficiencies:
Agents will be able to interact seamlessly with customers whether they
are using a traditional voice/phone interaction or are communicating over
the Internet/Web using chat, e-mail or collaboration applications. Agents
will now be able to provide better support to more customers regardless of
the medium they choose.
Customers will now be able to choose the interaction medium they are
most comfortable with and is most convenient for them. A voice interaction
can now be held over a traditional phone medium, but also over the
Internet as part of a live e-mail and voice interaction or over a
mobile phone medium where a voice conversation can be annotated with a
WAP-enabled Web interaction.
The end result is that call centers will truly be able to evolve to contact
centers that can support any medium that customers choose, thus
improving the service and support necessary to maintain a satisfied
EL: How have networks given organizations new options for providing
BS: The beauty of a distributed networking solution is that information
resources such as agents, voice response systems or Web-based response
services have no geographical boundaries. For example, a customer
service representative (human or automated) can be distributed anywhere
in the world and the fact that a response came from somewhere around the
globe is transparent to the customer.
Another key point is that in a distributed network environment,
applications can be distributed that provide for the timeliest historical
information in response to a customer request. In this case, an agent or
resource can provide information to a query and that resource may then go
off-duty, but the new agent assigned the query at a later time, and
possibly in the same time zone as the customer, will be able to pick up
the issues and respond to the customer with the most relevant information
and at the time that most suits the customers needs.
The net result is that this worldwide distribution of real-time data
and applications will allow companies to deploy true follow-the-sun,
7x24x365 levels of support to their customers.
EL: We all have to live by rules. How has the freedom of the new
technologies allowed businesses to change the rules by which they operate?
BS: Adoptions of new technologies such as integrated voice, data and
video with new media (phone, chat, e-mail, VoIP, cell, etc.) are providing
customers with more freedom of access to information. This newfound
freedom of information is setting new expectations in customers minds
as to what adequate customer support and service means. This new demand by
customers is requiring companies to keep up with the adoption of new
technologies or risk losing their established customers to more innovative
These new technologies, specifically IP converged networks that support
voice, voice over the Internet, chat, e-mail and collaboration, are
allowing companies to re-evaluate their operational opportunities.
Companies now have an opportunity to integrate customer service and care
solutions into more innovative applications that can take advantage of
converged services such as data, voice and video on one infrastructure.
These technologies provide for more integrated applications that customer
representatives can use to improve their efficiencies by having a single
cockpit for all interaction -- data, voice and video -- rather
than having separate applications for CTI voice-based applications, Web,
chat and e-mail applications.
So, the rules by which both companies and their customers operate are
changing due to the adoption of these new technologies.
EL: How are better analytics affecting both customer segmentation and
BS: Analytics are helping companies in a number of ways when it comes
to segmenting their existing and new customers as well as defining and
adopting new rules for better supporting their customers.
From an historical basis, analytical tools that can track customer
buying behavior, trends and preferences will allow companies to more
accurately predict customers future buying behaviors as well as support
requirements. This is a somewhat static view of using histograms to help
segment existing customers buying and support trends by demographics
and other market segmentation rules.
When companies can combine historical with real-time analytical tools,
they can more accurately and efficiently predict what customer segment is
going to require specific real-time responses to buying or support
queries. Using this combination of historical and real-time analytics,
combined with an intelligent and distributed contact routing, queuing and
reporting engine, companies will be able to realize significant
optimization of their network, agent and service resources.
By mapping incoming interactions from customers via the Web, voice,
e-mail or chat with historical and real-time, personalized data, companies
will be able to more efficiently route contacts to the specific resource
that is most knowledgeable on the specific customers request. This
optimization has a number of obvious benefits.
The first and foremost is being able to accurately predict the use of
specific network resources and, more important, human resources so the use
of both can be managed in a manner that results in low to no delay in
responding to customers immediately. As the information on each customer
becomes more accurate and customized, associating queries between like
trends can be mapped to marketing and sales campaigns that are targeted to
the needs of that specific customer. The result is a much more predictable
response rate to promotional campaigns, which will result in much more
predictable order pipelines for goods and services.
So, integrating historical and real-time analytical tools with an
intelligent network routing, queuing and reporting engine will allow
companies to more accurately segment customers according to a number of
new rules while at the same time allow companies to reassess and review
their existing business rules for providing improved support and service
to customers on all communication channels.
EL: How has the implementation of multimedia affected the jobs of the
agents? How has it affected management metrics (such as measuring agent
performance) and business operations?
BS: Today, most companies have not deployed truly integrated,
multimedia, multichannel interactions to agents to any great extent. In
most companies, voice call centers are separate from Web or e-mail contact
centers. For this reason, agent skill-sets are also separate and distinct.
For these reasons, the management metrics and business operations of a
truly integrated multimedia, multichannel contact center are still being
evaluated. The availability of quantifiable metrics for managing the
operations and allocation of agents in a contact center are only now being
defined so that the true operational management and ROI benefits of an
integrated, multimedia contact center can be realized.
The business need for both a Web-based and voice-based support and
service center are clearly understood, but the true benefits of
integrating the two into a single integrated network are not.
Part of the reason for this lies in the underlying ease of
implementation and integration of these two disparate technologies. In a
traditional voice-based network, adding Web, e-mail, chat and
collaboration sessions is extremely difficult and in most cases
technically not feasible. Attempting to integrate these networks at the
call flow and applications synchronization level is too costly to justify.
It has only been within the past year that new technologies have been
introduced and the migration of traditional voice applications to a new
world infrastructure have made possible the integration of Web, chat,
e-mail, collaboration and voice. This new world infrastructure, the
Internet and the underlying Internet Protocols allow for ease of
deployment of applications and the integration of media types so agents
can be presented with a unified desktop.
Operational managers can now apply tools and metrics to a unified
queuing and routing architecture as well as review unified reports that
will allow them to better understand the operational and business benefits
of deploying multimedia, multichannel contact center solutions. This is
the underlying value proposition and business benefits that Ciscos IP
Contact Center (IPCC) solution provides to companies as they migrate from
a proprietary, voice-only architecture to an Internet-based, open
EL: How has the increase in data-sharing capabilities and the resulting
ability to introduce other media into the conversation changed
BS: The primary benefit that data sharing has added to
interdepartmental operations is in the real-time dissemination and
maintenance of customer data. This is especially relevant as customer
interactions that may originate through Web, e-mail, chat or voice
sessions are transferred between support organizations. Rather than having
each department query their unique database of information and require a
customer to re-enter I.D. and passwords, data and application sharing will
allow the customers information to travel with the customer and agent(s)
EL: Do you foresee a day when all departments will have specialists
(the person best able to handle a particular problem) who deal directly
with customer interactions? In other words, will there be contact centers
in 10 years?
BS: With the evolution of the networking capabilities from voice-only
to multimedia and multichannel architectures, the ability to finally
provide companies with a platform to create new and unique applications
that are customer- and business-driven will drive unique opportunities for
specialization. For example, allowing a customer to interact in real-time
or non-real-time with a company over the Web will create new
specializations that are driven by customer demand.
A traditional voice agent who occasionally supports chat or e-mail
interactions can now proactively request to speak live to the
customer, or conversely, the customer can ask to speak live with an
agent. This ability to zero out of a Web site in the same manner
that you can zero out of a voice response system will drive new
specializations in organizations that require both Web and voice skills.
As the ability to seamlessly traverse Web, chat, e-mail and voice
interactions becomes more ubiquitous, the requirement for agents to become
more expert in managing new media and multimedia applications will
In parallel, new business applications will emerge based on customer
demand for integrating intelligent routing and queuing logic with the
device the customer most prefers. For example, a customer may wish to
check a balance over his or her cell phone by accessing a voice response
system using speech recognition. The customer may then wish to purchase a
product and request that his or her specific agent, stock broker, doctor
or sales specialist, etc., be contacted in order to review the options in
real-time. Finally, the customer may wish that confirmation of his or her
order be sent to a cell phone or PC via e-mail. All the while, the system
manages the customers routing requests and knows the queues for
specific resources and, most important, knows how to contact a specific
There are a number of facts, intangible as well as quantifiable, that
support the idea that individual specialization of agents is rapidly
evolving to the need for more rounded business knowledge specialists. The
idea of individually defined skill-sets for agents is already changing
dramatically to support more than one or two basic services. The cost of
increasing the number of agents with single threaded skills is becoming
more and more prohibitive.
There is a market shift away from large, dedicated call centers to
smaller, informal support centers that are required in small to
medium-sized businesses where customer support is only one of many skills
an employee answering the phone will need to support. In addition, the
agent retention period for single threaded, sweat shop applications
can be reversed by providing more complex, multimedia, multichannel
interaction applications which will make the workload more challenging,
rewarding and ultimately more fulfilling for agents who become experts in
a variety of disciplines.
The idea of dedicated call centers is evolving rapidly toward more
business solution-centric support organizations that can provide a variety
of services to customers. This trend, along with the mobilization of the
workforce, is driving the need for an infrastructure that can support the
distributed nature of the applications, the data and the skills of the
personnel needed to respond to customers requirements.
The seamless integration of all of these components will create new
business rules and operational opportunities for organizations to redefine
customer service and support in a more efficient manner than in the past.
To support this evolution, the skills and specializations of the
traditional agents will also need to evolve so that every employee may be
considered a support resource for any specific customer request.
It is this dynamic nature of an Internet-based solution that will
enable the evolution of the call center to a contact center and eventually
to a knowledge broker solution for organizations to provide improved
sales, support and services to their customers.
The author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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