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September 1999

Integrating And Selecting Outbound Call Center Technologies


If you are still using call center technology to make the traditional dinner-hour sales calls, your customers may soon be talking to your competition. Today, companies need to go beyond cold calls, get to know their prospects and customers, and learn to approach them with information they want via the communications channel of their choice.

Call centers can be effective in gaining customers? loyalty and respect, but only if those doing the customer interfacing are wired with the right information. Call-center-focused customer relationship management (CRM) solutions are proving to be the optimal way to provide this capability, and are fast becoming the most critical dependency for deal closing, customer retention and customer value enhancement. But having a best-of-breed call center/ CRM solution is just part of the story. Having the right technologies to connect your call center capabilities to customers is the other critical piece of the puzzle.

Call Center Technologies
Statistics show that about 25 percent of outbound calls will not reach live prospects. If agents are paid $10.00 per hour, that adds up to tens of thousands of dollars in operational expenses for large call centers. Without immediate results, this can be a costly exercise in futility.

New computer-telephony integration (CTI) technologies enable CRM solutions to be optimized for the call center and can provide the means to effective lead generation and qualification, and simplified cross-selling and upselling to existing clients. Call center agents can hone in on solutions and offers that are personalized to their customers’ individual needs.

Using well-known call center connectivity devices such as private branch exchanges (PBXs), automatic call distributors (ACDs), predictive dialers, auto-dialers, CTI middleware and agent desktops in a well-designed and integrated system allows the following series of events to occur transparently:

  • The ACD responds to a predictive dialer or auto-dialer and presents an agent with a connected caller.
  • The agent desktop software launches a script containing customer name and information, and an appropriate prompt for the agent.
  • The employee navigates the script, capturing appropriate information and responses, presenting customized offers based on the client profile.
  • The desktop software saves customer responses and call resolution to the database for future analysis and notifies the telephony environment that the agent is ready for another call.

The Selection Process
Technology expenses may be as small as 10 percent of the entire outbound call center cost. Making the right decision about how to spend that sum can mean more than a 10 percent difference in your bottom line, in customer loyalty, customer value enhancement and even in employee retention. But how do you make the right technology choices?

Start the technology selection process by making sure you have someone with experience to guide the process. Usually, this requires an outside consultant. Integrators bring unique and broad-ranging experience that facilitates the task. To go beyond mere power dialing to a proactive call center, consult a systems integrator.

With an integrator’s help, you can take these general steps:

  • Assess your needs: evaluate your requirements with an eye to the future.
  • Know where your organization is going: growth targets, planned technology changes and new products in the pipeline.
  • Develop specifications for the tools you think will address your requirements.
  • Determine measurable targets for both hard and soft results. It is relatively easy to calculate ROI once you have audited your business processes. Establish baseline numbers before you start. You also want to measure the soft results. How will this investment affect the customer’s experience, build loyalty and increase the customer’s value to the company?
  • Define functional and operation integration requirements. Automation will affect not only your technical environment, but your labor structure and possibly your physical requirements as well.

General Guidelines
Beware of proprietary technology that allows only a particular vendor’s products to work together. An open architecture and a published application programming interface (API) make the various devices fit together smoothly. This allows you to build a best-of-breed technology infrastructure, without mammoth integration effort. The resulting seamless integration brings synergies that profoundly impact your bottom line.

Also beware of vendors who claim to provide the total solution. Often, they construct their product lines by acquiring or reselling other products, building on different architectures and with different tool sets. For you, this means sacrificing the benefits of best-of-breed without realizing any gains in implementation.

Out-Of-The-Box Functionality And Customization
Customizing your call center technology to your specific business processes enables you to optimize ROI. However, a strong customization tool set is not enough. The more functionality you start with, the more time you save during implementation and subsequent enhancements. Look for a particularly strong feature set in your desktop application, and consider the benefits that CTI middleware products can bring.

With an open standard product, you could, on a very basic level, install the software, write a script, set up an outbound campaign, import your list and begin making calls within two weeks. More elaborate integration efforts will link telephony, load the database with historical information, then analyze and incorporate business processes. Tying in back-end and front-office functions further complicates the process, but offers distinctive results.

The following example illustrates the benefits that a refined system integration can bring. An energy company in a recently deregulated market relies on a CRM interface to retrieve data, prices and market information from the back-end system. The CRM application interprets the data, manipulates it and presents it to the agent. The system generates mailings for prospects and provides follow-up scripts. It incorporates deal modules and negotiates parameters into the agent script for the caller and transfers the information to the fax system for transmission to clients. This company has been able to close deals and fax back documents within an hour of the initial contact, while competitors were taking two weeks to sort through their files.

Agent Desktop
Giving your staff optimum tools will help assure optimum results. The agent desktop is the tool that drives the customer experience. The benefits of an “intelligent” agent desktop can dramatically impact your operation, affecting your workforce and your customers.

The phone representative sees only the screen. Having rapid-fire information for persuasion, rebuttal or answers to questions is mission-critical in an outbound call center. All that depends on tight integration with the desktop. In fact, the desktop application is so important that many successful call center projects begin there, and then build the system to integrate with it, bringing the true value of the system to light.

Once you’ve made your decisions, a systems integrator continues to be invaluable in helping with installation, integration of components and a test deployment. No matter how much functionality a package offers, we recommend that an integrator guide you in refining the system after the first trial run, and then take you through full-scale implementation for as many as three large-scale campaigns. As you progress through these campaigns, capture the data points that will enable measurement.

Maximizing Outbound Call Center Opportunities
You can calculate ROI and determine the gains in productivity, sales and efficiencies. But you can also do much more. If you have taken your outbound call center to a CRM level, you can use your customer information to offer the kind of attention that reduces turnover, improves targeting and helps provide personalization that only modern technology allows.

The last time you made a claim with your insurance company, did someone phone you to inquire about the quality of the service? Would you find yourself pleasantly surprised if someone asked? This kind of call precipitates loyalty. You can combine it with an opportunity to upsell or cross-sell. Use customer information to alert clients to special features or programs that might appeal to them. Make the most of your outbound call center by making the most of your customer information.

The New World Of Outbound Call Centers
Why limit outbound call center opportunities? With effective CRM technologies, you can integrate with your database, your billing, even your fax. Why not integrate your outbound call center with e-commerce?

If you are doing business on the Web, or even if you just have an informational Web site, you hold the future of outbound call centers within reach. Right now you can implement CRM Web applications that allow self-service for support and gather data for company use. Your outbound call center can use those data to follow-up with a personal phone call to the customer or prospect, and turn the follow-up into an opportunity to advise the customer of other products or services.

Additionally, new technologies are emerging as we speak, such as applications that enable you to interact with site visitors in real-time. Sophisticated processes will let you open an Internet chat in response to customer actions (with appropriate screen popping to relevant scripts). Or you might initiate a real-time conversation using voice over Internet protocol (VoIP).

With these developments currently appearing in the marketplace, you need to invest in technology that will enable you to manage the future of your business. Go beyond the obvious. Make your outbound call center part of your customer relationship management initiative, and make it part of the future.

Erik Haagensen is director of marketing for POINT Information Systems, Inc. (http://www.pointinfo.com), an international supplier of enterprise, Web-enabled customer relationship management solutions that help companies link their sales, marketing, customer care and back-office functions to form an enterprisewide customer interaction platform.

Mitch Pierce is director of solutions, Center of Excellence, for Logica. Logica is a provider of business engineered solutions primarily for the energy and utilities, telecommunications, financial services and automotive markets.

An IP Call Center? Not So Fast!  Riding The IP Wave Without Wiping Out


The buzz is getting louder and louder. Telephony based on Internet Protocol (IP) is coming. Convergent applications — mixing voice, video and data, transmitted on the same network infrastructure and forward-scalable to accommodate new users and technologies — are here. A new era of superior customer service, ease of system administration and lower cost of operation will redefine the competitive landscape.

And the buzz is right on. IP telephony, or convergence, is imminent and it will just as surely revolutionize the call center — opening the door for virtual, Web-enabled advanced customer interaction centers. But for call center managers, many of whom are just now implementing a costly and time-consuming year 2000 compliance program, the excitement and potential of this new technology have to be weighed against practical here-and-now considerations. These are:

  • Will my IP call center system be reliable and resilient?
  • Will it provide voice quality that meets current standards?
  • Will it be as functional and as rich in features as my current environment?
  • Will it connect to my “legacy” systems and data?

The answers, inevitably, will be yes — after key practical challenges, largely to do with technology, are overcome. In the meantime, interim strategies and migration paths exist that will provide a lower-risk route to the benefits of convergence and IP telephony.

The Challenge: Preserving Reliability And Performance
The most-discussed means of integrating voice with an IP local area network (LAN) is the combination of Ethernet phones with LAN-based call servers, replacing existing PBXs and directly wired telephone sets. These solutions are usually called IP-PBXs or LAN-PBXs.

Many vendors — including established and start-up companies — have begun to introduce IP-PBX products. However, early products may not measure up to the standards set by today’s telephone systems. Real practical challenges can be encountered when implementing a voice communications system based on voice over LAN today.

Issues must be addressed before these new technology alternatives will meet user expectations without compromising the voice quality and functionality that have been delivered by PBX solutions during the past decade.

Issue 1: Reliability, Resiliency, Redundancy
Telephony is the original mission-critical application. When power fails and PCs shut down, users immediately reach for the phone to report the outage and ask for help. Loss of phone service due to a LAN or hardware failure makes a bad problem worse. Plus, businesses regularly reboot applications, data and Internet servers, but many have never reset their PBXs. Therefore, call center managers need to ensure the call server’s optimum availability before implementation of an IP-PBX system.

One solution is redundant and fault-tolerant system components. These capabilities are standard equipment in today’s PBXs, but they are not necessarily included in PC servers, including any PC-based server that runs call server software in an IP-PBX environment. While many of the server’s components can be made redundant, this reliability comes at a cost that many small- and medium-sized businesses may not be able to afford.

Often, PC servers are called on to run multiple applications as well as IP-PBX call server software. This exposes them to failures caused by the misbehavior of other applications. As a result, it’s usually recommended that call server software be run on dedicated hardware — at least for the near term.

Finally, power loss can cause hardware failure. UPS (uninterruptible power supply) systems keep PC servers running for a limited amount of time. But most are not designed for high availability in the event of a significant power failure. Administrators will need battery backup systems for all IP-PBX components to maintain power to the call server, network connectivity devices (such as Ethernet switches and routers) and Ethernet phones. All of this adds to the cost and complexity of the IP-PBX solution.

Issue 2: Voice Quality
Several challenges face LAN-based systems in attaining the level of voice quality that PBX and circuit-switched systems currently provide.

Bandwidth. LANs usually have enough excess capacity to handle traffic generated by voice applications. But only specialized, sophisticated bandwidth allocation techniques can guarantee the necessary bandwidth at all times. Network administrators need prioritization capabilities in routers and switches to give voice packets the guaranteed bandwidth and services they require. They also may resort to quality-affecting compression technologies to squeeze voice transmissions through low-bandwidth WAN (wide area network) connections.

Delay. Once a packet takes longer than 100 milliseconds to reach its location, voice quality starts to degrade. Several factors can cause delay in an IP or other packet network, including message serialization delay; the time needed to process, compress and decompress voice samples; network delays and the need to accommodate delay variation. All these must be minimized to keep end-to-end delays below 100 milliseconds. The round-trip delay of a voice-over-packet network is almost always greater than 50 milliseconds, crossing the threshold of user perception. IP-PBX systems must therefore provide echo control and some means of echo cancellation may need to be implemented.

Compression. The voice signal must be sampled and converted to a digital bitstream before it can be transmitted over the network. Often compression is also employed to reduce the amount of bandwidth required. Use of more compression generally results in problems such as poor voice fidelity and adds more delay due to the additional processing required.

Packet Loss. Lost or dropped packets can significantly degrade voice quality, although they are more likely on bandwidth-constrained wide-area links than on LANs. IP networks do not guarantee packet delivery, and during peak congestion, voice frames can be dropped just like data frames.

Issue 3: Functionality
Currently, most IP-PBX vendors are implementing only basic features, such as call transfer and conferencing. This may work well for a new call center, but most existing centers are accustomed to using sophisticated feature sets provided by their PBX systems. It understandably causes some managers to wonder why they would want to invest more money in return for diminished functionality.

Reduced functionality applies to telephone sets as well. Some IP-PBX vendors today support only analog phones, posing usability issues and representing a giant step backwards from display feature phones. Existing Ethernet phones today typically do not provide the customer with many choices and costs for features can be extremely high. Ideally, voice vendors need to offer both traditional and IP variants of their telephone sets.

Issue 4: Protecting Investment In Applications, Data
In addition to no-compromise migration of voice applications to IP, call centers must also move applications from three major call-center functional areas to the new converged platform. This is another important exercise in legacy investment protection. These areas include:

  • Call distribution, including integrated voice response, advanced call distribution and caller ID,
  • Call management and reporting, including voice/fax/e-mail messaging, and
  • Agent desktop, including desktop computer telephony/screen pops.

Companies also have a significant “soft investment” in training users and administrators to use and administer the PBX. The thought of training users on a new system with new desktop interfaces, new ways of implementing features, or even doing without they key functionality to which they’ve become accustomed is not particularly appealing.

How Do I Get There From Here?
Every organization needs to consider asset protection for its preexisting systems — and people. Ideally, IP-PBX solutions should interoperate with existing legacy systems to protect both hard and soft voice investments. Hybrid implementations must deliver benefits such as seamless integration, feature and functionality transparency between the IP and traditional systems, and common telephone set interfaces. Also, vendors need to demonstrate a clear migration path between legacy voice equipment and next generation platforms. This should define the product roadmap, what products will migrate forward and how legacy systems will interoperate with new platforms.

Resolving all these technology issues may take 24 months or more. In the meantime, migration paths exist for call center managers wanting to deploy a converged environment. For example, you can already add LAN-controlled IP telephones to existing PBX environments.

Overall, call center managers considering moving to a voice-over-IP environment should rigorously seek answers to questions such as:

  • What compromises in voice system functionality, feature sets, quality and/or reliability will be required? Will the proposed IP-PBX solution meet the expectations of my users today?
  • How will my legacy voice investments be protected through migration, familiarity and legacy support?
  • Who is a credible, experienced supplier and channel for IP-PBX systems? What are their credentials and what are their competencies and skill bases?
  • How will this investment contribute to a reduction in the total communications system cost of ownership and how will it add value to my organization or business?

When IP telephony does not compromise reliability, functionality, quality and value, these questions will be very easy to answer. In fact, they will wither away entirely. But until then, it is prudent to have a realistic view of the challenges that lie ahead.

Bruce Tsuji is director, call center marketing, for Mitel business applications. Based in Kanata, Ontario, Canada, Mitel is a designer, manufacturer and marketer of semiconductors, sub-systems and systems for the communications industries.

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