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Customer Relationship Management
August 2001


The Effective Integration Of Voice, Data, E-mail And Fax


Most organizations view the ideal contact center as a place where you provide complete customer satisfaction with minimal expense without sacrificing the human touch. An important facet of this ideal vision of the contact center is the integration of voice, data, e-mail, fax and other relevant contact media. Blending contact channels and cross-channel contact histories allows agents to gain greater insight into their customers, and thus provide a higher level of service than is otherwise possible. There are different, sometimes conflicting, claims by CRM (customer relationship management) vendors that they have a completely integrated contact center solution. However, a fully integrated contact center does not mean the same thing to everyone. Reaching this ideal can vary significantly from company to company.

We won't outline the merits of individual point solutions (an application that does one job well; for instance, automatic call distributors or ACDs) and will instead focus on the effective integration of these solutions. This discussion is based on the assumption that the contact center already has point solutions to manage voice calls, e-mail and faxes and is simply looking for a means to integrate those channels in a cost-effective and low-risk manner.

There are two approaches to achieving the integration of voice, data, e-mail and fax. A company may choose to replace multiple solutions with a single product suite, or leverage past investments by integrating existing point solutions.

Integrated Product Suites
The CRM space is still maturing, as evidenced by myriad point solutions in the market. Although point solutions are robust and feature-rich, there are no CRM solutions that deliver true integration of all contact channels without a significant consulting and systems integration investment. The market is now going through a period of consolidation (witness recent acquisitions) and a number of solutions that may be considered a closer match to this integrated ideal in an "out of the box" form are likely to be available in the future.

Choosing the right product may be made easier by classifying the products into two categories of systems, defined below based on product history.

Integrated delivery systems. This theory assumes that agents handle all types of contacts in the contact center. The motto for such a call center is "the next contact delivered to an agent can be an e-mail message, a voice call or a Web session based on the skills required to handle the contact and the agent's skills." Traditional ACD vendors have, in the past, been the leading providers of offerings in this space. ACD vendors have developed such technologies in-house, acquired the technology through mergers or acquisitions or have developed relationships with other contact channel providers to ensure easier integration. The core assumption of this type of approach is that the model of the contact center can be replicated across all supported contact channels by building around the ACD. For example, e-mail is routed using the same technology as voice calls, and the most common fax integration is to use fax servers to convert faxes to e-mail.

This solution is well-suited for contact centers where intimate agent/customer interaction is a primary goal, such as in sales-oriented contact centers. A typical requirement for this type of solution is a high degree of agent flexibility and a willingness on the part of agents to move seamlessly from channel to channel. However, there are some practical challenges that make this kind of solution suboptimal. Longer training periods are required for these multichannel agents, and these training costs can become cost-prohibitive given the high agent turnover faced by many companies. Another undesirable impact of this approach is the longer implementation time and higher costs due to complicated routing, data integration requirements (to support things like multichannel screen-pop) and inevitable customizations to the back-end systems being integrated.

Integrated data systems. The vision for these systems is that "the agent needs only one application to get an enterprisewide picture of the customer." CRM front-office vendors have primarily dominated this space. To accomplish the implementation of this vision, CRM application vendors have developed in-house or bought technologies for e-mail management and Web contacts (as well as for other emerging media). Voice applications are usually integrated using well-understood CTI (computer-telephony integration) technologies. Fax is either integrated through an e-mail response management system (ERMS) or through the document management capabilities offered by the CRM application. The strength of these integrated application suites is a single view of the customer. Since there is just a single application, agent training time is typically low and application management is significantly easier. Agents using suite solutions enjoy easier access to customer information. However, queuing, routing and agent efficiency tools are not as sophisticated as pure-play e-mail management and Web chat applications.

Some e-mail management application vendors have also made forays into the CRM front-office space. These applications offer certain core strengths in contact management, but are not as feature-rich as the CRM applications.

Integrating Existing Applications
Many call centers that are making a transition to an integrated contact center do not have the luxury of replacing their entire infrastructure with one of the integrated product solutions. Some common reasons are richer functionality available in point solutions and the size and scope of their existing CRM investments. Large investments in point or custom solutions force many call centers to recognize that a move to a new CRM solution would involve resources that are simply not available. When replacing the applications is not feasible, the existing applications need to be integrated in the following functional areas:

Integrated routing. The applications must be able to find the best agent for the inbound contact and need to maximize agent use. However, most contact centers do not have agents handling all types of contacts. In mid- to large-sized contact centers (over 50 agents), having dedicated agents for e-mail and voice contacts is often more efficient and manageable. Integrated routing is applicable or required in certain situations. Integrated queuing for Web collaboration sessions and voice calls, for instance, may increase agent productivity in the initial stages of implementation of Web chat when there are no historic data for the number of agents required to handle Web sessions. Fax and e-mail contacts can also be easily blended, since they are treated in the same manner (since both are noninteractive media and require similar skills). Blending can also be based on exceptional volume conditions. Virtually all voice ACDs provide ways to route overflow calls to e-mail agents during call bursts. Third-shift agents can likewise be assigned low priority e-mail to be handled during low call volume periods.

Integrated view of the customer. Agents need real-time consolidated data about a customer's interaction history across all supported channels if they are to serve the customer better. For instance, knowledge of open issues submitted by the customer through other contact channels may allow that agent to address more than one customer issue at a time, saving the customer time and the organization money. This knowledge also provides the agent valuable insight for cross-selling and upselling. One option used to achieve this deep customer view is to "cross-populate" data. All of the data (or a useful subset of the data) are moved into the applications under the cross-population model. For any application the agent opens, he or she will have all the required information, since it has been replicated in each component application. A more manageable option is to define a "master" application for the agent (for instance, the contact management tool) and use this application as a hub for cross-channel interaction content. Data from the other applications, like the ERMS and Web collaboration tools, can be formatted and sent to the master application, which is then configured to display these data in the appropriate screens. Using this approach, agents servicing any of the supported contact channels are in effect "blended" by their shared use of this master application.

Integrated agent UI. This option involves the use of a "meta" user interface (UI) that may consolidate data from multiple systems. If the data are consolidated into one single UI, this may decrease the time required by the agent to handle the contact and also reduces the occurrence of errors. An integrated UI should ultimately enable single log-in to all the applications on the agent desktop (assuming these applications are still required in addition to the meta UI). A valuable function of this type of UI can be the cross-referencing of application data. For example, if an agent is looking at an e-mail in the e-mail management system, he or she should be able to click on a button and go to the unified view of the customer in the "master" application defined above. This can greatly reduce or eliminate the need to replicate data across back-end systems.

Real-time reporting. Finding out the current state of contact center performance in real-time becomes complicated with the additional dimension of different channels. Issues such as the agent state when an agent is working on an e-mail but is also available to take calls need to be considered. Most of the real-time reporting tools available in contact centers are tailored for voice calls, but have API that can be used to integrate other channels.

Historical reporting. Most point solutions are packaged along with their own reporting piece. For many organizations running multichannel contact centers, a major part of the management effort is aimed at reconciling data across these reports. The most common response to this need is to generate these reconciled reports manually. This is a time-consuming and error-prone process. Creating reports across applications can reduce the manual process, but this might involve creating a datamart.

Business process automation (BPA). A business typically relies on a certain set of processes for handling customer requests. For instance, a contact center may require agents to create a "case" record in a trouble ticket system whenever a new e-mail arrives. In multiple systems, this is done by copying and pasting information from one system to the other, but these processes are usually available out-of-the-box for suite solutions. Automating the processes on the back-end can reduce manual effort.

Unified administration. Administration of agents in multiple systems in a contact center is a tedious, manually driven process that is often prone to errors. This, too, can be automated by writing a central application that administers agents in all the systems. Most of the CRM applications (with the exception of an ACD) have API that can be used toward this end. Even systems lacking an API often expose user databases in a way that allows user creation, update or removal to occur by simple modification to the database, which can in turn be facilitated through this unified administration interface.

Building An Integrated Center
While the ultimate goal is to have a fully integrated contact center, it is often difficult and expensive to get there in one stroke. It is possible, and often times highly desirable, to make incremental progress toward that goal with reduced cost and risk. An obvious approach is to solve burning issues first and then attend to the less immediate issues.

An important prerequisite to the integration project would be to implement the point solutions in a stand-alone mode. Without having the solutions in place, or a plan for effectively using them, integration projects can be very expensive and do not produce the anticipated results. A typical example is e-mail. Quite a few enterprises still use Exchange or Notes for managing their e-mail interactions. These applications require extensive customization and involve cumbersome manual processes to function as effectively as an ERMS system. Organizations failing to get their ERMS "house" in order often learn this lesson after going through a painful process of integrating this ill-suited system. An integration project can only extend the application functionality within limits.

Experience with implementing integrated contact center solutions has shown that there is a recurring theme for successful implementations. The sequence of development for highest results usually is unified customer view, historical reporting, real-time reporting, followed by integrated agent UI. The integrated agent UI yields high results, but can be difficult to implement and support.

The unique needs of the contact center often define whether BPA, unified administration or integrated routing will provide the next biggest "bang for the buck." Unified routing is an interesting requirement in the sense that it can have a high impact on providing a better agent for the customer and therefore a more satisfying experience. However, the results from this integration cannot be realized unless the complete contact center business process supports such an experience for the customer. Partial results of the integration can be achieved from alternate solutions without having a completely integrated contact routing.

While the maze of available technologies and integration options may at times feel overwhelming, it is ultimately through an understanding of the functional requirements driving the desire for integration that the best path for that integration is revealed. There are numerous products that can be used to achieve the same results, though the cost, risk and timeframes associated with these results may vary widely depending on the constraints outlined above. The end goals of improving customer satisfaction and contact center efficiency and reducing costs should be the driving factors in making any technology integration/replacement decisions.

Bipin Paracha is senior application architect at eConvergent and specializes in designing mixed-media contact center solutions that improve business processes, agent efficiency and customer experience. He has experience in CRM implementations with multiple applications focusing on ACD, CTI, e-mail management, Web communication channels and service applications. Anupama Bulusu is a data architect at eConvergent, Inc. She specializes in the design and implementation of datamarts and associated information delivery systems. eConvergent is in the business of delivering a complete eCRM business strategy as a single solution.

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