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August 1999

From Automatic Call Distributor To Automatic Interaction Distributor:  Is Your Call Routing System Ready For The Electronic Age?


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 reduced costs.

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 what’s 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 don’t 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 interactions.

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 center’s 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 aren’t 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 tomorrow’s 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 company’s 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.

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