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January 25, 2008

The Predictive Dialer: The 'Unsung Hero' of the Call Center Software Ecosystem

By Patrick Barnard, Senior Web Editor, TMCnet


It often seems that the predictive dialer is the “unsung hero” of all the pieces of equipment that make up the contact center hardware ecosystem. The dialer just sits back there, in the server room, doing its thing, and no one ever seems to really pay much attention to it -- that is until it comes time to load it up with a new set of numbers for another outbound campaign.

A lot of people don’t realize it, but the efficacy with which a predictive dialer is used can actually make or break a business – especially one which is reliant on outbound campaigns to stay alive. A dialer which is “overloaded” can end up connecting too many calls and overwhelm a call center, leading to high abandonment rates – while a dialer which is used too conservatively might not connect enough calls to keep all agents in the center busy (and there’s nothing worse for a company than having a bunch of agents sitting around, on the clock, doing nothing). If a company has a direct competitor which is making better use of its dialer system for automating outbound campaigns, chances are it will only be a matter of time before the difference in approach shows up on the bottom line. So, it is not only a matter of reaching your target customers faster, and more accurately, than your competitor, but also how effectively the dialer is used within the framework of your organization

These powerful dialing systems save call centers tons of labor, as agents no longer need to manually dial numbers on the telephone keypad or computer keyboard. The advantage, in terms of sheer volume, is self-evident: a predictive dialer can dial thousands of numbers in literally minutes, whereas this could potentially take all day with a contact center with a few dozen agents.

This also equates to an inherent advantage in terms of simple attrition: Out of all the calls made, typically about 25-35 percent connect to a live person. Of the rest, a large percentage (roughly 40-60 percent) won't be answered at all, around 10 percent might be answering machines, faxes, modems or other electronic devices; another 5 percent would be busy; and the rest would fall under the “other” category. For call centers that need to make large numbers of outbound calls, the advantage is obvious: It enables the agents to spend the majority of their time talking to customers, as opposed to dialing and dialing. In fact, in most manual dialing environments, a given agent will spend around 80 percent of his or her time dialing, and about 20 percent of the time talking to customers. Using advanced algorithms, these workhorses are used to predict both the availability of agents and called party answers, adjusting the calling process to the number of agents it anticipates (or predicts) will be available when the calls it places are expected to be answered. In this sense, the predictive dialer serves as the “load balancer” for the call center.

Today’s predictive dialers have become sophisticated to the point where they can actually detect how each call is answered. If the line is busy, the dialer moves on to the next call, but it keeps a record of that busy signal so that it can call that number back in a specified period of time. Similarly, if an answering machine or fax machine picks up the line, the dialer detects this, makes a record of it, and tries connecting the call again later. Interestingly, some of today’s dialers include a speech recognition component which can detect whether the person answering the call is male or female. If the campaign involved specifies targeting only females, then the dialer will disconnect if a male voice answers the call and move on to the next number (some will argue that this is unethical, because it creates an annoyance for the called parties -- and for the most part it is undocumented how many organizations engage in this questionable practice).

Today’s predictive dialers “balance” the load for the call center through the use of dialing algorithms. The key is to find the perfect balance between the number of attempts and calls connected with the number of available agents. Today’s dialers base the number of attempts on how many agents are “on line” at any given time and take into account the average time it takes for an agent to complete a call. The dialer dials ahead of the agent, so that another call is waiting for the agent each time they wrap up their current interaction. That way, as soon as the agent becomes available, there is another call waiting for them. In essence, the dialer works to maximize agent productivity. Considering the labor is the biggest piece of any contact center budget pie, it’s easy to see how dialers have assumed an important role in keep call centers “profitable.”

Today’s dialers also have the amazing ability to alter dialing rates based on various outcomes. For example, if there aren’t enough agents available to keep up with the connection rate, the dialer will automatically “slow down” so that there are fewer “nuisance” calls. Similarly, if agent talk time (call duration) increases, the dialer can adjust its connection rate accordingly. The dialer can also be used to put connected parties on hold or play deliver recorded messages in the event that it connects to more live parties than there are agents available. This functionality is critical because in some countries, particularly the U.S. and the UK, there are laws which require companies to keep the number of nuisance (or “silent”) calls below a certain rate (for example, in the UK call centers can have no more than a 3 percent of all calls result in nuisance calls). Companies which violate these guidelines can be subject to fines.

“Smart” predictive dialers tend to be more expensive but they deliver advanced capabilities, such as voice broadcasting combined with attendant phone agents. These predictive dialers can play an automated message upon connecting the call, and if the call recipient opts to progress through the call, a speech enabled “automated agent” (i.e. IVR) can get on the line and allow the call recipient to “self serve” through natural interaction with the system. With this type of system, the entire call can be automated – in other words, the connection, the “sales pitch” and the transaction are all handled automatically, without an agent ever being involved, through integration with a speech enabled self service system.

Thanks to major advancements in Web technology in recent years, hosted predictive dialers – where the dialer is provided by a third party as a managed service – is also becoming increasingly popular. These dialers, also called “Virtual Predictive Dialers,” “Web-Enabled Predictive Dialers” and “VoIP Predictive Dialers,” use the Software as a Service (SaaS (News - Alert)) model to deliver dialer capability via the Internet. With today’s call centers opening and closing (and also rapidly changing their purpose) on a continuous basis, this type of dialer has become increasingly attractive. First, there is no hardware to invest in, nor is there any need to shell out hefty licensing fees up front. All you really need is a broadband connection and a computer. With this type of dialer, all the configuration and programming of the system can be handled via a simple to use and intuitive Web interface, making it far easier for call center managers and supervisors, who typically have little IT background, to use the system effectively. Furthermore, because the dialer is delivered as a “managed service” by a third party, organizations don’t need to concern themselves with the maintenance and troubleshooting of the system. The other beauty of the hosted model is the fact that, now, the dialer becomes a service which can be represented as a simple line item in an organization’s monthly budget report – there are no “surprises” resulting from system failure or costs associated with the IT department configuring, maintaining or troubleshooting the system. And when it comes time for the call center to pack up and move to another location, the dialer can go with it, no matter where it moves to, and companies can avoid the installation and set up costs associated with an on-premise system.

TouchStar (News - Alert) is a leading provider of predictive dialer solutions. The company offers an impressive portfolio of dialers, including models which can blend inbound, outbound, and voice messaging campaigns, as well as run multiple simultaneous campaigns to maximize productivity. With a powerful dialer, an organization can reduce call drop rates and control dialing speed by campaign.

TouchStar also offers a Progressive/Automated/Preview Dialer, which lets agents preview and select the next number before it is dialed when that is required.

TouchStar also offers “Automated Voice Messaging with IVR.” With this system, which is often used for event notification, appointment reminders, fundraising, and customer self service, customized voice messages can be broadcast to each connected party and an “automated agent” can be used to handle portions of the call.

TouchStar also offers “Blended Voice Messaging,” where an outbound message offers an option for the called party to speak with an employee, and the connection is made as a prioritized inbound call. In addition the company offers a “Click to Callback” feature, which lets companies include inquiry forms on their websites enabling an agent to enter a code to initiate an outbound call to the inquiring prospect or client.

TouchStar's Predictive Dialer can be deployed either on premise, or as a hosted solution.

For more information about TouchStar’s predictive dialer solutions, click here, or just visit www.touchstar.com.

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Patrick Barnard is Assignment Editor for TMCnet and Associate Editor for Customer Interaction Solutions magazine. To see more of his articles, please visit Patrick Barnard’s columnist page.



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