From Automatic Call Distributor To Automatic Interaction
Distributor: Is Your Call Routing System Ready For The Electronic Age?
BY CHRISTINE HOLLEY, INTERACTIVE INTELLIGENCE, INC.
There's no question that the automatic call distributor (ACD) market is in full swing.
According to analyst group Pelorus, from 1998 through 2002 the CO (central office) ACD
market alone is estimated to grow at a cumulative annual rate of 36.4 percent.
Additionally, Datamonitor estimates the call center software market, of which ACD
technology is a large part, to grow from $3.284 billion in 1998 to $8.921 billion in 2003.
As the market becomes more competitive, call centers are scrutinizing how to re-architect
their call routing infrastructures to improve business processes.
For call centers, the challenge is to minimize the number of transactions needed to
meet a caller's objectives (referred to as "one and done" call processing),
while dealing with an increasing number of calls and new interaction types. These new
interaction types include e-mail, Web chat, Web callback, voice-over net (VON), voice-over
IP (VoIP) and others. While many call centers today are not yet taking the electronic
plunge, statistics show that this will not be the case for long. A 1998 Aberdeen study
indicates that one-fifth of customer contact within the call center will shift from the
phone to the Internet by 2000, and Gartner- Group estimates that by 2002, two-thirds of
all enterprises using call centers will expand their systems? capabilities to accommodate
electronic access. Anticipating this shift, many call centers are turning to initiatives
such as computer-telephony integration (CTI) to enhance call routing processes.
But do call routing enhancements such as CTI really prepare call centers to handle new
communication media such as e-mail, the Web, and the increasing demand by customers for
self-service options? Is CTI a cost effective initiative as more communication media are
added to the mix?
To answer these questions it is critical to understand how CTI is applied to call
center technology. In its simplest form, CTI ties together a call center's communication
system, including legacy devices such as PBXs, ACDs, IVRs and voice mail systems, with its
IT system. Hallmarks of CTI are the "softphone," screen pops and unified
messaging. More advanced applications of CTI include skills-based routing and predictive
dialing. All of this is accomplished through the use of some sort of middleware to
integrate what are essentially separate components.
While CTI works well to enhance ACD technology in a single-medium call center
environment, what happens when new communication channels are introduced? Based on the
"silo" architecture of CTI, call center agents must either be distributed across
separate interaction channels, or call center managers must implement sophisticated
CTI-based routing and queuing technology that is extremely pricey. This proprietary
technology, designed to act as a broker across communications media, further exacerbates
the problem by adding yet another layer of complexity. Most call centers with fewer than
300 agents simply do not have the kind of money required to build such a complex system.
Even if they did, there's the consideration of implementation costs. Studies show that
companies spend 20 percent of their IT budgets on implementation of customer care
solutions. Together, implementation, consulting and training account for more than 50
percent of costs. If driving down cost, in addition to enhancing customer service, is a
primary objective for call centers looking to deploy new technologies, expensive,
time-intensive routing implementations will be tough to justify.
The proposition that CTI is an effective model on which to base call routing technology
is even less compelling when call centers turn to issues of reporting. ACD reporting tools
are relatively simple when used in a single- medium call center environment. An ACD
captures vital statistics such as hold times and the number of agents available to answer
a call. But what if you also want to know how long it took for your agent to respond to a
Web callback or an e-mail request? Are these interactions any less important when
reviewing agent productivity and customer satisfaction? If a call center's infrastructure
is based on CTI, true end-to-end reporting across communication types is not feasible.
Additionally, paying for a great interaction channel that might not be delivering warrants
more than a little concern.
If CTI does not provide the foundation required to propel call routing into the future,
what's the alternative? First, call center managers must look beyond the integration
paradigm. There is another architectural paradigm that addresses the call routing problem
from the ground up. This paradigm is based on a totally unified architecture called
"all-in-one" communications server (comm server) technology. Although relatively
new, comm server technology is already garnering recognition as a viable alternative to
CTI solutions. In a 1998 report, Giga Information Group predicted that within five years
the majority of new call center product purchases would be for comm servers based on
distributed, open architectures.
The software-based comm server provides a single platform from which any interaction
type can be processed. The comm server functions not only as an ACD, but a PBX, IVR, voice
mail system, fax server, Web gateway and CTI middleware system. This platform actually
leverages new communication media because it unifies the distribution of interactions such
as calls, Web chats, faxes and e-mail. It also offers increased maintainability and
flexibility because it allows full control of the configuration and handling required by
the distribution process. Finally, the comm server platform provides the mechanism for an
effective queue management system, while providing end-to-end reporting so vital to the
improvement of interaction throughput and handling.
Within this new paradigm, an "automatic call distributor" becomes an
"automatic interaction distributor" (AID). Instead of building mini
communication silos, each requiring its own routing logic, a comm server processes all
interactions via a single Java-based "event-handling" engine. This architecture
provides a common AID access point to various knowledge bases such as CRM (customer
relationship management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, greatly
facilitating the flow of information across corporate boundaries. This is particularly
important as call centers consolidate, leaving single call centers to serve multiple
business purposes. A unified platform also permits routing logic to be applied not only to
calls, but to any interaction type. The consolidation and reuse of business logic improves
reliability and maintainability, while permitting call centers to rapidly provide current
services via new communication media.
The comm server platform offers additional flexibility because AID Web chat and
collaboration have unlimited scalability, and there is no limit to the number or size of
queues. As a software-based system, configuration options are virtually unlimited, as
well. The AID can be configured to intelligently route interactions based on any number of
criteria including agent skills, agent cost, time an agent has been available, interaction
skill requirement, interaction priority level or time an interaction has been in the
queue. Since comm server technology provides the tools to configure an AID, control of the
various criteria is left in the hands of the call center - not the vendor. As a
result, adapting to customer needs is made easier, and fewer service calls result in
As Web services are introduced, the AID is especially adept at managing queues. If you
think of traditional communication devices applied to the Web, your Web site is the
equivalent of your IVR, and your e-mail server is equivalent to your voice mail system.
But whats your ACD? If built on a comm server platform, your ACD (now your AID) is
really the same mechanism that manages your queuing system, including Web chat, VoIP,
e-mail and Web collaboration. A unified platform means you dont have to purchase a
separate Web component in order to route and queue Web interactions.
The comm server paradigm also addresses reporting issues. Whether a call center routes
interactions via the phone or the Internet, the comm server uses the same reporting tools
to measure both. True end-to-end reporting is accomplished and with these data, call
centers can make what will be increasingly important adjustments to increasingly complex
Nowhere are interactions more complex today or potentially more cost-effective
than over the Web. A recent Forrester report projected that by the year 2000, labor
costs for call centers without Internet-based service would increase by 3 percent, while
labor costs for call centers with Internet-based service would decrease by 43 percent.
From a customer service perspective, the argument for an infrastructure that
effectively handles Web interactions is even more compelling. This is because sales
transactions are far more complex than support services. If people are going to spend
money on the Web, call centers must provide customer service characterized by intuitive,
interactive exchanges. Routing plays a major role in these exchanges. This is because
integral to a successful sales transaction is a call centers ability to offer some
sort of intervention that allows a customer to stay in the same interaction channel, or to
pick up where they left off in another interaction channel, should they have a question.
Currently, most call centers are not offering this intervention, as illustrated in a 1998
Forrester report showing that only 33 percent of people who started an online purchase
actually finished the transaction. To minimize these abandoned shopping carts,
call centers must implement a technology infrastructure that supports routing across
communication media so that customers arent forced to take a step back (both
physically and psychologically) in the sales process.
As the electronic age matures, the power of an AID based on comm server architecture
will be more fully realized. Call centers must ask if their routing technologies today
will leverage tomorrows communication media, or only serve to compound the problem.
If the answer is the latter, then implementing enhancements is akin to rearranging the
deck chairs on the Titanic a losing battle with major long-term repercussions.
Christine Holley is market communications specialist for Interactive Intelligence. She is responsible for
the companys media relations throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. Interactive
Intelligence provides interaction management solutions for call centers, enterprises and
service providers around the globe.