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September 1998

Beyond Unified Messaging: Welcome To Unified Customer Service


Unified messaging technology is the launch pad for a new concept in the call center: unified customer service. It's a concept that must be adopted and embraced in order to meet the new and diverse ways customers are interacting with business, in addition to meeting the daily challenges inherent in the call center business. It's not unusual for an agent to come in contact with a customer from any number of communication vehicles: voice, e-mail, the World Wide Web or fax. Short of a customer walking into a call center, sitting down with the agent, flipping through a catalog and ordering that new designer cat carrier, we can expect to see virtually every other means of technological contact.
Not only do call center personnel have to respond to the increasingly complex means of customer communication, they must also deal with day-to-day issues. For the most part, call center managers have the same key concerns. These include effective ways to measure customer service performance, agent productivity, and burnout and turnover, all while maximizing return on investment in plants, equipment and personnel.

Juggler Or Productive Agent?
Until recently, call center agents had to manage customer inquiries from multiple devices, such as telephones, fax machines and all the information from the PC. It's not hard to imagine the time and productivity lost in chasing down and responding to all these forms of communication.

Time per fax with a machine (includes time to walk to machine, make cover sheet, send fax, receive confirmation and return to desk) 5 minutes
Time per fax with messenger 1 minute
Working days per year 250
Cost of fax machines
<20 faxes per day $700.00
21-40 faxes per day $1,500.00
>50 faxes per day $2,500.00

Paper costs with fax machine
(based on machine receiving 30 faxes per day average length 4 pages)

Paper costs with messenger
(based on fact that not all faxes will be printed)
25% less than with machine
Repair costs
(industry average)
10% of (number of machines X purchase price)

The call center agent's focus has zeroed in on one device: the desktop computer. The call center agent acts on incoming and outgoing voice calls, e-mails, faxes, voice mails and Internet communication. He or she must prioritize these points of contact, effectively respond and continue to meet performance criteria.

As most call center managers know, customer service representatives may be the one and only point of customers' contact with the company. That single point of contact sets the tone and leaves customers with a first and lasting impression of the organization. With a company's reputation at stake, it's important that agents have as much information about each caller as possible, and have the technology at their fingertips to respond - unified customer service.
Unified messaging technology, when coupled with other call center solutions such as skills-based routing, performance tracking and real-time information, provides a complete customer service solution. By unifying all these beneficial technologies, the customer gets better service, the agent increases productivity, and management gets instant access to any and all information about the entire operation at a moment's notice. The result of all these satisfied people can be increased profitability and a call center that maximizes return on investment.

For unified messaging applications to truly shine in the call center, the center must be capable of providing the following components:

  • Call Center Integration
    Call centers feature several types of technology, from proprietary to standards-based client-server ACD systems. Call centers also utilize multiple operating environments, Windows, Unix and Macintosh, and diverse e-mail systems, such as Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes. A unified messaging system should be able to integrate easily into the call center's existing systems, building on the call center's current investment in technology.
  • Ease Of Use
    Training in the call center is one of the most important issues for supervisors and managers. To retrain agents on new e-mail, fax or voice mail systems means both time and money to the call center. Making use of the existing systems that agents are already familiar with cuts down on the time needed for training, leaving more time to handle customer inquiries.
  • Reporting Function
    To understand the dynamics of the call center, supervisors need to be able to determine several things about the inquiries that come to the agent. Was it a phone call, a fax, an e-mail or did the caller leave a voice mail? Reporting functions from IVR systems, ACDs and unified messaging systems are important because they allow you to better understand customers so that every function in the call center is optimized for unified customer service.

Benefits To Unifying The Call Center?
The basic foundation of a call center has been identified, and amazingly, it was built with the future of unified messaging in mind. Now, you may ask, how exactly will a unified messaging application fit into my call center environment and what are the benefits?

In short, unified messaging brings voice mail, fax, e-mail and Internet communications to desktop PCs. Right now, this capability is available for users of Microsoft Exchange/Outlook and Lotus Notes. Agents use their e-mail to view faxes, e-mail and voice mail on their computer screen. And if the call center has home-based agents, those agent can use the unified messaging system to check their voice mail via the Internet, allowing access to messages from nearly anywhere in the world.

By supplementing existing e-mail and voice mail systems with unified messaging's server-based fax technology, call center agents can still have access to voice mail if the e-mail server goes down and vice versa. This approach also enables call centers to build on their investments in voice and e-mail servers instead of replacing the entire system.
When considering a unified messaging application for the call center, look for these functions to fully gain the benefit of the technology:

  • Fax Capability Within The Client In-Box
    Customers can fax directly to the agent's in-box, where it can be prioritized or sorted. Faxes also can be sent to a "general delivery" mailbox, which will deliver the message in a "screen pop" fashion to the first available agent with the appropriate skill set. The fax can then be viewed, archived, forwarded or sent to a printer or a fax machine. Agents can also compose and send fax messages back to the customer directly from the PC or a common document library, saving time printing out the fax, walking to the fax machine and then sending.
  • Voice Mail Access Via The Internet
    With new Java-based Web clients, the capability exists to access voice mail and faxes, using Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, from anywhere in the world, giving call center managers the flexibility to hire home-based agents or have agents in various parts of the world. With simple commands on the PC, any agent is able to record and change their own voice mail greeting.
  • The Ability To Grow And Expand
    Today's call centers range from very small (possibly a couple of home-based agents) to medium (about 20 agents taking orders from a catalog) to the very large call center (a room the size of a football field with agents doing both inbound and outbound calling). A good unified messaging product should support any number of agents in the call center, whether it is one agent or two thousand agents.

What Does The Future Hold?
It took the sometimes painful growth of industry standards such as MAPI and TAPI to bring unified messaging as far as it has come. But the future holds even more - streaming audio, text-to-speech, speech recognition and more Java-based plug-ins on the horizon. All these hot new functions will make for an exciting time in call center management.

Mark Cope and Tim Henchen are based in Richardson, Texas with Nortel. Cope is a marketing manager for Multimedia Messaging and Henchen is a marketing manager for Symposium Call Center.


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