Do You Need A Multimedia Call Center?
BY HUGH GOLDSTEIN, VOCALTEC COMMUNICATIONS
Today, the Internet gives consumers, through their PCs, a vastly more powerful
communications tool than the traditional phone. In addition, the Web not only offers a
better medium for consumers to interact with databases, manipulate accounts and complete
transactions, it is a more sophisticated medium for audio communication than the public
switched telephone network (PSTN).
As consumers become increasingly accustomed to using the broad array of communications
devices beyond the traditional black phone, it's not surprising that some organizations
are renaming call centers "contact centers." Now, inbound inquiries can arrive
via Internet telephony, e-mail, fax, or even video over Internet Protocol (IP). What's
more, call centers are now evolving to handle all of these media consistently � a true
sign of the rapid maturation of this new customer care technology.
As the following examples show, a multimedia call center is a worthwhile venture for an
organization on a multitude of levels.
Enhanced Services Through IP Communications
There are inherent advantages to new customer service technology. For instance,
Internet telephony is ideal for residential consumers who have only one telephone line.
They can surf the Internet and shop on their favorite sites while having an Internet phone
conversation for personal assistance with call center staff.
Lets look at how a major financial institution processes a mortgage inquiry
traditionally versus using a multimedia call center.
In the past, a consumer would call a toll-free number for information on a mortgage.
Basic details about the banks products would be disseminated, the consumer would be
recorded as a lead and the lead would be sent to a fulfillment center and sales division.
The consumer would then receive paper collateral in a few days, and soon after, a
follow-up call from a sales agent. The consumer would then make an appointment to visit a
branch, interview with the mortgage agent, and fill out an application form for credit
Now, lets examine the bank with a multimedia call center. A consumer reads online
collateral about a banks mortgage services and has a specific question. The consumer
can click on an icon and be connected to an agent via IP telephony without disconnecting
from the Internet. The agent quickly sets up a data collaboration session and surfs with
the consumer to charts which might compare 15-year versus 30-year interest rates. Both
agent and consumer would then proceed to an online application form, which the agent is
able to help the consumer complete and submit electronically.
As you can see, multimedia capabilities and the Web offer a far more sophisticated and
flexible front-end for customer service than the traditional telephone. And this does not
even factor in stronger sales potential, better use of personnel and lower operating
Global Interface, Day Or Night
The Web can serve the customer anywhere, at any time. In the old call center
environment, corporations had to maintain dozens of national toll-free numbers to cover
international markets. While international carriers responded to this problem two years
ago with Universal International toll-free number, the Web handles global access
Furthermore, Web content can be translated into multiple languages, serving diverse
national and ethnic markets without the cost of maintaining armies of multilingual agents.
While these specialized agents are still necessary for advanced requests, the Web can also
help to prescreen customer inquiries. In addition, Internet telephony will allow calls to
be distributed geographically. As a result, multilingual agents can be sourced from their
home countries, as opposed to hiring specialists in high-priced markets. The Web as a
customer service front-end gives multinational corporations a uniform, cost-effective,
easy-to-manage business face across market lines.
Self-Service To Save Money
Web self-service can reduce overhead. Bank transactions in a branch office can
cost as much as $25.00. In a call center, the cost is much less, an estimated $2.50, while
on the Web it could be as low as 25 cents. Though various industry analysts peg these
costs a little higher or lower, there is no arguing the dramatic savings that enterprises
can realize by offering consumers the choice of self-service.
Web self-service can increase satisfaction, allowing customers to accomplish business
without wasting minutes in an ACD queue. Web self-service also need not mean a compromise
on personal service. Fuzzy-logic-based knowledge engines can analyze the consumers
Web behavior and serve up helpful information specific to the consumers needs.
Furthermore, Internet telephony offers a constant option, allowing the consumer to
escalate the level of interaction to a live call center agent whenever desired.
Reducing Expense Without Sacrificing Quality
Internet telephony offers service providers and enterprises many opportunities to
reduce telecommunications expenses. While deregulation and competition have lowered such
costs considerably in recent years, telecommunications is still a major expense. Even at
five cents a minute for domestic toll-free service in the United States, the incredible
volume of minutes generated by a call center can quickly lead to hundreds of thousands of
dollars per year. Enterprises can turn these high variable costs into fixed ones by
investing in telephony gateways and providing Web customers with customized Internet
For carriers, this means the ability to offer new services that enterprise customers
will be looking for increasingly in the future. Many will prefer to source these Internet
telephony services from a carrier that can guarantee quality of service with service level
Positioning For Success
Using the Web for the customer front-end positions a firm for greater success. In
all business segments, a gold-rush for mindshare is occurring on the Internet. The
corporate vanity sites that proliferated in the mid-nineties are today being upgraded into
profit-oriented Web business tools. Companies shifting their customer front-end to the Web
are not only saving considerable money and providing more benefits to their customers,
they are demonstrating that they are prepared to meet and exceed their customers
needs and the markets demands in the digital future.
Choosing A Multimedia Call Center Strategy
Once an organization has accepted the arguments for the necessity of a multimedia
call center strategy, there comes the important discussion of how to accomplish this
mission-critical business goal. The options are diverse.
E-mail is perhaps the simplest way to begin, however, this is not a real-time response
and may not solve the needs of customers making purchasing decisions on a Web site. E-mail
messages are without question the most popular form of Web communication and have been
integrated into many sites. Still, a weakness has been that e-mail is not always treated
with the same rigorous oversight that PSTN calls receive in a call center. Hence, for many
applications, e-mail lacks customer service and efficiency elements.
Even so, new products are emerging to better manage the flow of e-mail. Fuzzy logic can
be used to create auto-responses. ACD functionality is now used to route the e-mail to the
correct agents based on content. New middleware applications that manage the inbound media
as if it were a voice call can allow for monitoring and quality assurance.
Web callback is another option, offering customers the ability to enter vital
information into a form, with a call center representative ringing back later via PSTN.
Sophisticated versions of this type can even integrate the ACD and predictive dialer
queue, so that the numbers are auto-dialed and delivered to the call center agent through
a screen pop.
The Right Components
There are a number of components to a multimedia call center solution. The
following details the necessary elements of a typical solution.
Software Clients. All solutions must include a mechanism for allowing PC users
to communicate with a call center operator. As PC software VoIP clients
appeared on the market in 1995, organizations began experimenting with tools to connect
customers and agents. Today, users of such PC-to-PC solutions should be aware of several
- Consumers must have software preloaded on their PCs compatible with the call center
agent. Due to immature standards, not all clients that claim be
H.323-compliant can work together;
- Many standard general use VoIP clients are large and cumbersome applications
offering nonessential functions that may actually lead a consumer away from a site;
- Many PC client applications that connect peer-to-peer offer file-transfer
functions a serious security risk for both the consumer and host business; and
- PC-to-PC solutions generally offer less voice clarity than PC-to-telephone applications
that use a gateway for IP-to-PSTN translation. IP gateways generally deliver less delay
than PC-based clients.
Plug-in VoIP clients solve many of these issues. They create a simple button which,
when mouse-clicked, will directly speed dial the number of the call center. Additional
benefits to look for are smaller download size, customization options of the
button to reflect a brand/identity and optimal voice quality through the use
of clients with the most advanced compression/decompression algorithms (the
engines behind this type of software).
Gateways. Gateways are the bridge connecting the PSTN with the Internet. They
are typically software applications running on Windows NT and using voice processing
hardware. Standard gateways on the market generally scale up to four T1/E1 per PC box.
Functionality is beginning to spread to many other communications devices such as routers
and telephone switches.
Call centers can use gateways to take calls from the Internet originating on software
clients and terminate them on the regular phone system of a customer service agent. The
resulting advantages include full blending of regular and Web calls in the ACD, continuity
of established work, quality assurance and metrics-gathering procedures.
Collaboration Servers. Collaboration servers offer call centers the ability to foster
communication between agents and customers in order to close business. These
can supplement or replace VoIP in a multimedia call center strategy. Basic services to
look for in collaboration servers include the ability for:
- Consumers and agents to share/ push Web page content to one another;
- A consumers location on the Web to be sent to the agent via screen pop;
- Consumers and agents to complete online forms in unison; and
- Consumers and agents to engage in chat sessions.
Early PC-to-PC solutions relied on rather antiquated and slow methods of sharing data
such as T.120 and therefore should be avoided. Instead, Java-based server solutions should
be deployed, offering faster collaborative sessions and better security of shared data.
Standards. Early consumer software versions were forced to keep the pace with
ever-evolving and fluctuating standards. Until recent industry efforts, users of VoIP
products termed H.323-compatible were not necessarily able to communicate with
each other. Therefore, components should work together in a tightly integrated fashion.
Interoperability has been announced between leading vendors, with several offering
end-to-end solution sets to alleviate such concerns.
The Right Services
Once a decision has been made to implement a multimedia call center strategy,
many companies will turn to their telecommunications or Web provider for a solution. New
businesses are emerging to take advantage of this opportunity. Start-up network service
providers, Internet service providers, existing telcos, telemarketing service agencies and
others are taking the lead in providing the tools and services necessary for linking
consumers and the businesses they patronize.
The call center has evolved and is playing a greater role in business. No longer is it
a question of if a business needs this functionality; its a matter of
how soon can a solution be implemented to allow the organization to
effectively compete and grow.
Hugh Goldstein is director of marketing for VocalTec Communications
Surf&Call Center solutions and is a frequent speaker at call center industry events.