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August 1999

Do You Need A Multimedia Call Center?


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.

Let’s 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 bank’s 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 approval.

Now, let’s examine the bank with a multimedia call center. A consumer reads online collateral about a bank’s 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 costs.

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 naturally.

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 consumer’s Web behavior and serve up helpful information specific to the consumer’s 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 software.

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 agreements.

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 market’s 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 key issues:

  • 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 consumer’s 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; it’s 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.

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