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February 1999

Managing Multimedia Interactions Demands Attention to Routing


While the call center is the traditional mainstay for customer service, the benefits of Web-based customer interaction are encouraging companies to examine the Internet as an additional service channel. Companies that began early to make inroads into Web-based customer care are realizing that there are vast differences between the call center and the Web center.

The telephone is a proven and ubiquitous part of our society. However, in the realm of customer service, not only are telephony call centers expensive, they are unable to capitalize on the Web's inherent multimedia communication strengths. With the rise of the Internet, many of today's customers are turning to Web sites to do research, compare products and make purchases. Many of these consumers would prefer to get service in the same Web-based medium. This trend is good for both customers and companies. The Web not only delivers the easy access that customers demand, it is also a cost-effective way for companies to share information.

Workflow Maintenance
While using the Web site as a customer interaction channel is strategically astute, many companies have struggled with the actual implementation. The leading cause of problems is often workflow. Traditional call centers typically depend on computer-telephony integration (CTI) combined with an automatic call distributor (ACD) to handle routing and work distribution. Lacking this, Web-originating work items can clog inboxes and hold queues, causing frustration for customers and driving them to disconnect from the Internet and pick up the phone. Even worse, they may leave the site, never to return.

Companies need a mechanism for not only managing online communications between agents and customers (just as telephone switches manage public switched telephone network (PTSN) calls in today's typical call center), but also routing inbound "calls" to appropriate agents. This function is analogous to telephony ACD systems, which manage incoming and outgoing calls, queues, agent groups and the distribution of inbound calls to available agents.

The answer lies in a Web-based ACD. End-to-end Web-based customer interaction must be designed to provide the base functionality a call center manager would expect from a traditional telephony ACD, but transfer that capability to the online environment. Handling requests from the Internet is different than handling telephone calls and requires a different system architecture and routing mechanism.

One-to-One Bottleneck
The greatest difference between telephony-based and Internet-based calls lies in the multimedia nature of the Internet. In telephone support centers, agents frequently spend large amounts of time waiting for customers to complete tasks. This produces an inherent inefficiency within the ACD environment. Since there is only one communication channel open during a support session, all of the routing mechanisms in traditional ACDs work under the assumption that an agent can help only one customer at a time. Changing the environment to allow agents to multitask would be nearly impossible in a traditional, telephony-based switch.

A Web-based ACD, however, needs to be able to route multiple calls to individual agents. Because agents can both "show and tell" information with customers, agents can easily handle concurrent customer requests. While one customer reviews information (a Web page, a document, a slide presentation, etc.), the agent can help another customer or answer queued e-mail. This capability greatly increases efficiency and breaks the traditional one-to-one/agent-to-customer bottleneck. Without the ability to route multiple calls to agents, companies miss out on one of the most beneficial aspects of Web-based customer interaction.

Multimedia Routing
The multimedia capabilities of the Web also change the way calls need to be routed. A traditional ACD routes telephone calls only, but unfortunately for these systems, all media types are not like a telephone call. For example, an agent handling a text conferencing session can handle another text conference request, but if he is communicating via voice over IP, the agent can handle only one call at a time. Likewise, the priority for e-mail is usually lower than other types of media, but an e-mail from a very important customer might take precedence over a live connection with a general support question. Because a Web-based ACD is designed to handle multiple media types from the outset, it can provide multimedia queuing on the same server, using business rules to make Web-based routing very precise.

Because a Web-based service center handles multiple types of customer requests, routing procedures must be clearly defined. A Web-based ACD should incorporate all the rules-based routing capabilities of a traditional ACD, but go a step further by ensuring that media types are also considered in routing procedures.

Virtual Call Centers
The fact that companies must implement multiple call centers throughout the world is an artifact of the requirement that agents be physically located near a traditional ACD. Expensive telephony solutions are available to allow agents to work at home, but for most practical implementations, the agent telephone must be connected to the ACD. On the Internet, this restriction disappears.

As long as agents are connected to the Internet and have access to the Web-based ACD server, they can help customers. Agents may be in the same room with the Web-based ACD or halfway around the world. Creating a global Internet service center is simple when compared to the difficulties of transferring calls between international carriers and the complications of implementing prerouting solutions, which may cost millions of dollars.

Many large call centers implement "follow the sun" service, placing call centers throughout the world so they can provide 24-hour service, although their agents work only during normal business hours. In a traditional ACD, this requires a routing scheme that will direct calls to different ACDs based on the time of day. In a Web-based customer service environment, all agents may be placed in one team, which is staffed by different agents in different parts of the world throughout the day. All customer calls are routed and queued by the Web-based ACD and an agent anywhere in the world could pick up the task.

The Grocery Store And The Airport
Treating all agents as if they are in one ACD provides another important advantage: It allows the ACD to serve each customer as quickly as possible. The grocery store and the airport provide two good examples of why this is true. In the grocery store, there are many cashiers, each with a line. To check out, a customer picks a line, probably based on which one he or she thinks will provide the shortest wait. However, as the customer waits, the situation could change: The customer ahead of him or her may require a price check, the cashier might run out of tape, etc. It is highly likely that a customer who arrived later, but waited in a different line, would be serviced first. This is analogous to queuing provided by a network prerouter. Based on statistics from multiple ACDs, the network prerouter chooses an ACD where the customer will wait-without a guarantee that customers will actually be serviced in the order they arrived.

By contrast, the airport ticket counter has many agents, but just one line. Each waiting customer is assisted by the next available agent. If one customer requires an agent's help for a long period of time, customers are still serviced in the order they got in line. With a Web-based ACD, there is just one line of customers waiting for a pool of agents. In high-demand periods, companies simply ask their agents to log on and they instantly become part of the agent pool, with no complex routing changes.

The Web Center Web ACD
Without a Web-based ACD, customer service on the Internet can become a nightmare, with inboxes full of e-mail and queues backed up with requests for live help. A well-planned workflow and a detailed routing scheme are vital components of a Web-based customer service solution.

When considering shifting a portion of customer service requests to the Internet, companies need to place great emphasis on workflow. When looking to implement a Web-based call center solution, it is important to find one that provides a powerful Web ACD, which routes calls based on customer attributes, agent skill sets and availability and media type. This ensures a company's priority customers get the best service available.

Additionally, Web-based customer interaction solutions should include an automated e-mail response mechanism, which provides instant answers to recognized questions and routes others for agent review. The automated e-mail response helps manage a substantial portion of e-mail queries, further decreasing the demand on the call center. Customers are much more likely to use e-mail for questions if they receive either an immediate answer or a note indicating that their request has been forwarded and will be answered within a fixed amount of time.

There's no doubt that Web-based service is a service best practice. According to Forrester Research, between now and the year 2000, companies that implement Internet-based service will slash their call center labor costs by 43%. Without Internet solutions, the same labor costs would likely rise by 3 percent. With proper planning and best practices, companies can be assured impressive results.

Mark Saul is president and CEO of Acuity Corporation. Prior to Acuity, he served as vice president of marketing for Network Appliance, where he guided the company's entry into the Windows NT marketplace and participated in its IPO. Before Network Appliance, Mark managed worldwide field operations as vice president of Minerva Systems. Founded in August 1995 and headquartered in Austin, Texas, Acuity has become an industry standard for real-time Web-based customer communication and support. Acuity was the first to market with a new generation of community building and online interaction tools and continues to lead the market with cutting-edge Web-enabling technologies.

Campaign-Based Teleservices: Picking Up Where Agent-Centric Predictive Dialing Leaves Off


When predictive dialers first appeared on the market, they were an ideal solution for companies searching for ways to increase agent productivity. By keeping call center agents on the telephone as much as possible, operational overhead was reduced. Call center managers reasoned that because agents were making more calls per hour, they could also make more sales, more appointments, more of everything they were supposed to achieve.

As the teleservices industry and associated technology have matured, however, it has become apparent in the final analysis that this agent-centric approach -- while highly effective up to a point -- is lacking. The reason is that with a focus on agent productivity, actual business results take a back seat because companies are forced to view agents in a vacuum, isolated from the rest of the enterprise and its objectives.

It has also become evident, in a world where teleservices have become increasingly critical, that what is needed is a fresh approach based on a set of business goals, defined as a campaign. As a solution to a business problem, a campaign may, for example, detail sales, marketing or survey objectives -- and ways of meeting those objectives -- for a targeted group of customers.

Integral to this paradigm shift is the understanding that campaigns are not restricted to any one medium, but may include outbound calls as well as direct mail, advertising, public relations, and the inbound calls that result. In other words, to optimize overall bottom-line results, the campaign-based teleservices model places call center agents and predictive dialing as individual elements in a much larger context. As a result, where the agent-centric teleservices approach focuses on calls per hour, the campaign-centric model emphasizes the agent's productivity in terms of hourly sales, profits, appointments, donations, etc.

The challenge in implementing teleservices programs that focus on a comprehensive campaign rather than agent performance alone is in creating and implementing the umbrella application that integrates the agent and dialer with all other front- and back-end systems associated with the campaign. This tight integration is essential to effectively manage the flow of all campaign processes across all activities associated with the campaign.

The list development process is a good example. Obtaining a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers for the target market is typically the starting point for any campaign. This list is then "cleaned" by comparing it against other data sources to increase the probability of successful transactions.

While these activities represent the first steps in launching a campaign, list development can also be an ongoing process in the campaign-centric teleservices model, as data garnered during the campaign empowers the company to better target its market. With this approach, list cleaning is a dynamic process that continues throughout the campaign, so a campaign management application should not only facilitate list cleaning at the outset, but throughout the campaign, as well. In this way, a teleservices campaign manager can be empowered to update lists on-the-fly without affecting ongoing operations of the campaign.

Similarly, while the scripts used by call center agents need to be developed before a campaign is launched, they may also need modification throughout the campaign. The same holds true for the business rules that govern how calls are handled.

Consider, for example, the scenario where customers call to order a hypothetical alphanumeric pager service from XYZ telephone company in response to a direct mail piece offering. After several days of responses, back-end reports from the campaign management application may indicate that most callers are from specific Zip codes in the larger geographic region that had been targeted with the original mailing. As a result, the company decides to target these Zip codes with a follow-up telemarketing effort that offers the same alphanumeric pager service.

Then, in the course of conversations with prospective customers, it becomes apparent that many of them already have pager service through a competitor. The script is quickly modified to offer a discount to prospects who replace their existing service with service from XYZ.

In other words, to optimize the success of a teleservices campaign and its components, it should never be a considered a static process. Rather, each campaign and each element in each campaign is dynamic, evolving throughout the campaign process as new data are acquired and integrated.

As a result, the essential key to a successful teleservices campaign is an infrastructure that supports automated on-the-fly integration of data and applications throughout call campaign processes so that updates and modifications can be made to any facet of the campaign without bringing down that campaign.

Integration provides other key benefits, as well. In the campaign-centric teleservices model, for instance, a telemarketer who receives an order from a customer can enter that order directly into the script and the application will then send that order, automatically, to the customer information system that creates a new record for the customer. All information in the record can then be immediately verified online with the customer. If an appointment must be scheduled for a service installation, then the back-end system checks schedules and presents the agent with a list of available installation dates, which is then confirmed with the customer -- all within the context of the script. Or, if a merchandise order is placed, that order can be automatically forwarded to the manufacturer, who confirms, online, the availability of merchandise and a shipping date so the agent can ask the customer if the terms are acceptable.

In addition to automating the back-end processing of the customer contact, a campaign-centric teleservices approach can also track results for the campaign and use the results to modify the calling parameters. For example, in a campaign where appointments are scheduled for installation of cable TV service, the system can be configured to book installation within a given time period only. Once the installation calendar is full for this time period, the system will automatically stop placing calls in that area until new appointment times are available. In this way, customers are not frustrated with long installation delays and are less likely to cancel orders.

Throughout the process, as appointments are scheduled, the campaign management application can also automatically schedule agent recalls to the customer five days after the installation appointment to track customer satisfaction. On the back-end, the system can then generate reports detailing the entire process for each install, along with statistics evaluating the success of the campaign as measured by the total number of installations and the satisfaction scorings reported by customers during the callbacks.

By comparison, an agent-centric approach applied to this same scenario would have had agents continuing to dial numbers and make appointments with no regard to schedules. As a result, appointments would get slotted further and further out, and as lead times until installation increased, so too would customer dissatisfaction and the probability that appointments would be canceled. In addition to integrating all campaign processes, a campaign-centric approach does so intelligently, so that automated processes are executed according to a predetermined set of business rules. These rules define what kind of data need to be gathered, what actions need to be taken with the data and what action agents need to take in response to the script presentation during the customer interaction. If a sale is made, for example, the business rule may dictate that a new database record is created. At the same time, the rule may direct another application to track that sale and all associated variables such as cost, item color or quantity in an entirely different database.

The result is that with a campaign-centric teleservices model, all elements of the campaign are interwoven, creating a web of interactions that mutually support the successful fulfillment of the objectives for that campaign. With automated processing directed through business rules, the campaign is focused only on results.

In short, the campaign-centric teleservices model picks up where agent-centric predictive dialing leaves off because it empowers companies to effectively define their objectives, the steps required for meeting those objectives, and the means for ensuring that those objectives are attained.

Allen Taibl is senior vice president and the chief technology officer at TeleDirect International, Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona. He joined the company in 1996 after serving as an executive director at AT&T Bell Laboratories. Mr. Taibl has over 35 years of experience in the data and telephony industries.

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