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April 2000


A Panoramic View Of What's High-Tech In Florida


Way down South, down Florida way, the land is fecund, the air is ripe with growth. But there is more growing in South Florida than citrus and mouse ears; indeed, in this lush land one of the flowering fruits is the call center industry. In July 1999, Deloitte & Touche Fantus Consulting released a report stating that for the second year in a row, Florida led the nation in the creation of new call center jobs, with more than 14,000 potential call center positions in 1998. In addition, Florida is also becoming rich in the call center technology area. South Florida has become a crucible for new and better technologies and services for the call center market. It was with this in mind that I accompanied a couple of my colleagues down South for a closer look.

SunDial Technologies
The first stop on our tour was SunDial Technologies in Fort Lauderdale. There we met with SunDial's President and CEO Scott Snyder. Mr. Snyder explained that SunDial began selling its SunDial Windows Predictive Dialer in 1993 and has enhanced the product since that time to keep with up with current technology. Aimed at small to medium-sized businesses that want the productivity increases brought by a dialer, the SunDial Windows Predictive Dialer is designed to run from four to unlimited agent stations, but Mr. Snyder said the SunDial installations average from 16 to 32 stations.

SunDial Technologies has over 300 systems installed worldwide in a wide array of industries, however, Mr. Snyder commented that the SunDial Windows Predictive Dialer has been particularly effective in the mortgage industry (as around two thirds of SunDial's installations are in mortgage companies).

The call center solution has features like: DHTML scripting, the ability to leave messages on answering machines, digital recording, appointment scheduling, remote third-party verification, inbound call blending capability, agent-specific and pooled callbacks. The Dialer also supports multiple campaigns, provides the call center manager with real-time statistics such as line status and agent queues as well as agent and campaign dispositions, and maintains a "do not call" list. The SunDial Script Editor creates nonproprietary DHTML scripts that can be customized for each campaign with custom disposition and also allows the insertion of links to other Web pages (hosting VBScript or Java scripts), Web sites and/or e-commerce catalogs. Overall, the system is very user friendly, effective and easy to manage. The SunDial Windows Predictive Dialer is built on a Dell/Dialogic (an Intel company) platform, both industry leaders in their respective fields, which adds to the reliability and robust nature of the SunDial Technologies' call center solution.

Mr. Snyder explained, "The dialing system is designed around the call center manager, giving him or her total control over the call center from a single console." Mr. Synder added, "The SunDial Technologies Windows Predictive Dialer can double or triple the productivity of a call center for about the equivalent cost of hiring one or two additional agents."

Interactive Software Systems
Also located in Fort Lauderdale is Interactive Software Systems. We met with Interactive Software's President, Harry Peisach, who explained Interactive Software's workforce management offering, e-FORCE.

e-FORCE is designed to meet the workforce forecasting and scheduling needs of the enterprise and extended contact center, allowing users to respond to diverse customer demand sources, including inbound and outbound call center activity, e-mail, fax, Web inquiries or any other demand across the enterprise. e-FORCE models the workflow of an enterprise to create schedules relating to activities that can be deferred to a later time. The system is Internet architected to allow increased access to information, total scalability and the ability to create forecasts, schedules and reports from varied sources in multiple locations. In addition, the system connects to both Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle databases.

e-FORCE Enterprise Administration is designed to help model the infrastructure of the complete enterprise by describing the basic components of demand and resources, and the rules that govern their behavior. By establishing relationships between workforce and workflow, e-FORCE can schedule the enterprise beyond the call center; for example, when an inbound call or a Web-site visit generates the need for an outbound response, fax-back, credit card transaction or product order or warehouse fulfillment.

e-FORCE Enterprise Planning provides the planning functions required to most effectively deploy the resources of the enterprise to meet the expected demand. Demand Analysis Forecasting provides the capability to forecast the demand expected for up to 5 years in advance by week, day and 15-minute increments. Demand Analysis Staffing provides the techniques to translate the demand for a specific service into resource requirements. Various methods of translating demand are available to meet the specific characteristics of the demand source, from sophisticated multiskill queuing models to throughput calculations to user-created table look-up methods. e-FORCE Right-Force is a skills-based forecasting and scheduling tool that allows users to manage a multiskilled workforce. It uses advanced mathematical technologies to arrive at the proper number of employees needed to handle specific work demands such as those requiring multilingual or technically proficient personnel.

e-FORCE also features Agent@ccess, which allows agents to log into the system through either the Internet or an Intranet to update their availability and preferences, bid for schedules based on company parameters, view their schedules, trade schedules with other employees and bid for vacations. Mess@gent is a module that allows supervisors to communicate real-time information to their employees and get immediate tabulated responses to questions such as, "Are you available to work overtime today?"

The e-FORCE solution can be purchased as software or it can be used on a subscription basis with Interactive Software Systems hosting the application for clients over the Internet.

Willow CSN
At the corporate offices of Willow CSN Incorporated in downtown Miami, Willow's Chairman Richard Cherry explained the unique operation that is the Willow CyberCenter Network. What is now customer care that brings together home-based teleservices agents and corporations that need third-party inbound teleservices assistance, Willow started out as a call center for home delivery of groceries. In 1989, they created their own off-premise switch. The company then split into two groups, one still selling home delivery of groceries, the other selling switches. Eventually, the company stopped making switches and progressed into the field of human resources. As part of its new venture, Willow teamed with The State of Florida, which was looking for a program to reach untapped labor markets such as persons with disabilities and offering training for such a program.

The technical infrastructure of the Willow CyberCenter Network staffing service is provided by a consortium of entities, including Internet facilities provided by MIT and a hub for data in Atlanta that is managed by BellSouth. Agents and clients connect to the hub in Atlanta, which is also the hub for voice. Other members of the consortium include Nortel, Miami-Dade County Schools, Miami-Dade Community College, National Telecommuting Institute and ADP. The Network's private telephone system provides seamless access to the CyberAgent Pool through high-resolution voice and secured data links.

Since the first call was placed on the CyberCenter Network in June 1997, the CyberAgent Network has grown to around 1,400 agents. This number is likely to continue to grow, as Cherry reported that Willow receives 15 to 20 calls per week from people wanting to become CyberAgent CSRs. When a client needs to add more agents to their workforce, they set the pay scale for the jobs and list them on an automated posting program. CyberAgents then select which companies they want to work for. Corporations pay Willow on a per-call basis, and the agents, because they are independent contractors, are paid by Willow's clients, also on a per-call basis. The network also requires the client to pay taxes for the agents. Willow is the first company in America to require clients to deduct taxes for independent contractors. CyberAgents earn on average from 10 to 14 dollars per hour.

Companies looking to extend their labor pool find numerous advantages in using CyberAgents, such as the ability to add agents when needed and free recruitment and training of the agents. In addition, paid company benefits are not required for CyberAgents, they don't get premiums or overtime and the agents provide their own equipment and office.

Those who are employed as Cyber-Agent CSRs have an initial cost of around $2,500 or less if they already have a computer and pay a monthly access fee to Willow. Before becoming CyberAgent CSRs, candidates participate in and complete 80 hours of basic training courses, and are then certified and ranked by Willow. Before starting work for a client, agents go to applied training for that client. Willow develops the classroom training for clients. Agent training is funded partly by the state and partly by the agents themselves, so the client doesn't pay for training. A side benefit to having the agents pay for part of the training is that it acts as additional motivation for the agents to stick with the Network. I spoke with several CyberAgent CSRs at one training class and all were quite enthusiastic about the opportunity the Willow CyberCenter Network presents them. Comments from these agents included, "This is the future and I want to get a head start on the future," "I appreciate the flexibility the job allows me," and, "I'm a single mother and I love working at home."

To see a CyberAgent CSR in action, my colleagues and I were taken to the home of Debra Jay, who started working as a CyberAgent CSR in December 1997. CyberAgents work for five clients on average, and work for two-hour blocks. With a television set tuned to the Home Shopping Network in her cheery and tidy home office, Ms. Jay was pleasantly and efficiently handling calls for the Home Shopping Network when we arrived. (Since Home Shopping Network began using the CyberAgent Network, they have been able to reduce their number of low-productivity in-house agents, allowing them to provide their mid- and high-level agents more extensive training and support.) Between calls, Ms. Jay related that the CyberAgent Network is "almost every working mother's dream." She said that the flexibility to be able to choose for whom she works adds variety to her job and "keeps it interesting."

The Willow CyberCenter Network has allowed such companies as AAA, SkyMall, 1-800-Flowers, Alamo, Ticketmaster and LensExpress to redirect resources to other areas of their business that would have otherwise gone to hiring and training additional permanent staff members, enlarging their facilities and further building out the telecommunications infrastructure.

After our visit to Willow, our group moved onto the new Miami corporate offices of CellIT. To those of you who have attended one of our CTI EXPOs (now Communications Solutions EXPO) in the past couple of years, you should be familiar with the live, multimedia call center demonstrations put on by CellIT (which will again be featured at Communications Solutions EXPO this April 27-28 at the Washington D.C. Convention Center). At CellIT we sat down with CellIT's director of sales and marketing, Joe Velasco, and its CTO, Jose Villena, for a brief rundown on CellIT's call-center-in-a-box solution, CCPRO.

Jose explained that they started out building a CTI solution, but after eight months of work, realized that ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) was a better solution. Using the ATM model, there is no trunking between different systems, the data is carried in the cell, and it allowed them to get to the core of different services. A PBX has limits on blocking, so only three PBXs can be put together while an unlimited number of lines can be added through an ATM switch. The CellIT ATM system allows universal ports, so that there will always be a resource available whenever a call comes in, and it also provides DSP (digital signal processing) for every port.

The basic features of CCPRO include: inbound automatic contact distribution (ACD), including rules-based and skills-based routing; blended inbound and outbound operation that dynamically adjusts based on many factors; predictive dialing; Web chat; e-mail; monitoring and coaching; interactive voice response (IVR); fax-on-demand and fax service; voice and fax messaging; call recording and recorded announcements; IP (Internet Protocol) telephony; Web callback; integrated management reporting; and On-line Analytical Processing (OLAP).

The CenterDirector is CCPRO's configuration tool that can provide more than 45 ad hoc reports. The CenterDirector is used for the configuration of users and services as well as the management and monitoring of system, agent and service performance. It has three monitoring features (ACD, AOD and call table) and can store monitoring records on any node on the network. The CenterDirector allows call center managers to control recording and archiving, perform various modes of agent monitoring, schedule agents and set up rules- and skills-based routing options.

TeleVisor is CCPRO's visual IVR script designer, which is used to add in links to various scripts. TeleVisor allows users to drag-and-drop executables to include pre-recorded options, fax options and call routing in IVR scripts.

CCPRO's NTSwitch is a multimedia communications server that provides PBX-independent support of independent narrowband agents, LAN telephony support of broadband agents, IVR integration, integrated service voice mail, integrated recording and call logging, ratio of DSP resources to network interfaces, ATM broadband trunking support, mutiswitch and multisite support and remote agent and supervisor support. The NTSwitch Configuration Utility is used to allocate telecommunication resources made available to CCPRO and configure all properties related to the performance of the NTSwitch in real-time. It also provides built-in circuit diagnostics and monitoring.

The engine of CCPRO is CenterCord, an object-oriented system coordinator and database engine. It stores all business rules and provides real-time communications access. Features of CenterCord include blended predictive algorithms; queuing; outbound dialing based on predictive algorithm and preview and power dialing; blended support (ACD, IVR, external, DID and outbound); interservice call queue prioritization; rules- and skills-based routing; real-time repository of agent, service and call table statistics; full support of agents in multiple services and multiple switch support. CenterCord also passes real-time data to the SQL database, which stores the history of any call detail, service and agent activity, and all service/agent details.

AMP, or the Agent Management Platform, is the agent component of the CCPRO Product Suite. On the agent screen is the telephony bar, which provides all the standard features of a telephone and helps guide agents through dialing calls, placing calls on hold and disconnecting calls. Everything on the agent's telephony bar is exposed to any application, any media. Features of AMP include three-way conferencing, blind and warm transfer capabilities, call recording and playback, access to voice mail service, speed dial memory, last number redial and special integration OCX control for communication with users' business applications. All of the AMP features can be customized for individual users and protected by unique user identification and passwords.

CellIT offers two versions of its CCPRO: narrowband (N-CCPRO), which can leverage existing ACD or PBX installations, and broadband (B-CCPRO), for new installations or total upgrades.

Protocol Communications
Across the Everglades on the west coast of Florida lies Sarasota and the last stop on our Florida tour, Protocol Communications. Protocol has shown steady growth in recent "Top 50" and "Rising Stars" rankings in this magazine (and has also been a 1998 and 1999 winner of our "MVP Quality Award") and so I was interested in seeing this growing teleservices agency in person. Having spoken many times to Protocol's marketing manager, Kosh Das, I was glad to finally meet him and take a quick look around their Sarasota offices. From its founding in Leominster, Massachusetts in 1957 through its formal incorporation in 1998, Protocol has grown to 23 call centers nationwide and now also includes the former MediaExpress agency in Canada.

Kosh said Protocol's goal is to offer customers as much of a full-service operation as possible, and for clients Protocol can provide Internet and e-mail services; e-commerce; inbound and outbound teleservices and telesales; blended teleservices and telesales; help desk services and customer service; loyalty and retention programs; data mining and warehousing; market research and intelligence programs; customer satisfaction studies; list processing; customer profiling and other modeling systems; lifetime customer calculations and strategies; and fulfillment and order processing.

Supporting its integrated marketing programs, Protocol has in place a high-quality telecommunications infrastructure that includes Aspect, Lucent and Nortel digital switches; Aspect Agility and Edify IVRs; UNIX, Novell and Windows NT servers; Amcat predictive dialers; Microsoft and Informix databases; AT&T, MCI WorldCom, Sprint and Quest voice and IP networks; and, for forward-looking clients, they have also installed Web/call center integration products from WebLine (now part of Cisco Systems).

Nationwide, Protocol has around 1,500 seats and 3,600 agents in its 23 call centers. Protocol agents are trained to perform on both inbound and outbound campaigns, and at the two Web-enabled centers (Aurora, Illinois and Sarasota), agents are also trained on handling both e-mail response and Web-based calls. With Bob Bosser (one of the founders of Prodigy) in place as CTO, Protocol should prove to become a leading provider of e-sales and e-services that businesses will need to survive in the competitive marketplace of the 21st Century.

The author may be contacted at elounsbury@tmcnet.com.

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