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Building The Perfect Call Center (2256 bytes)
October 2000


Has The Internet Killed The Call Center Star?


Has the call center been overshadowed by the Internet? Yes and no. The Internet has opened a vast and ever-widening new window through which companies can interact and transact with their customers -- territory which, in the pre-Internet era, had often been the exclusive preserve of call center operations. The Web has meant many former help desk callers now get all the help they need online instead of over the phone. It can handle many outbound and inbound marketing efforts formerly handled by live agents. It's even starting to flex its capabilities as an alternative to telephone-based public opinion and marketing surveys. So the Internet has indeed usurped some of the call center's former standing.

But Voice Still Rules
Yet, at the same time, we increasingly realize that in the Internet economy, one old rule applies: when the going gets tough, people still get on the phone. The simple fact is, voice is the most natural and powerful human interface, real-time or otherwise. That isn't going to change any time soon.

So, as customer relationship management (CRM) becomes the new mantra and companies implement and integrate new ways of fostering one-to-one relationships with their customers, live voice communication is not about to disappear. Instead, thanks to new voice and multimedia technologies that are largely available for deployment today, the call center and voice communications are rapidly evolving into key, integrated components of the new customer interaction equation. At the same time, many of the customer interaction lessons learned in the call center and new technologies developed to respond to them are now finding application in other parts of the extended enterprise.

Let's take a look at some of the enabling technologies and applications that are transforming call centers while reasserting the importance of voice in the way companies interact with customers today.

Taking Control Of Myriad Media
Certainly the most dramatic adjustment faced by call centers over the past decade is the increasing number and variety of media that companies are now using to interact with customers. Traditionally, call centers only had to worry about routing, queuing, tracking and reporting on real-time voice communications -- and many proven solutions have and continue to help centers do a great job of it.

Now, smart call centers are looking to apply that same level of control and management to all contact types -- inbound and outbound voice, voice mail, e-mail, Web chats, Web callback and fax. Building on their strengths in call control and ACD, a number of manufacturers have responded with new multimedia contact management platforms and solutions. Though now just starting to gain market recognition, these new solutions will play a central role in transforming the traditional call center into a fully integrated customer interaction operation.

Recognizing The Potential Of Speech Recognition
Significant advances in natural speech recognition technology over the past several years mean the days of talking to a computer "� la Star Trek" are probably much closer than once thought. For their initial speech-enabled offerings, some telecom manufacturers have concentrated primarily on auto-attendant applications. These products can now reliably handle and route calls based solely on the caller's spoken word...no more pressing keys to navigate corporate directories or dialing by name. Additionally, most offerings also support dial-by-voice for those within the enterprise making outbound calls.

But auto-attendant and personal dialer applications only hint at the potential speech recognition holds for customer interaction. How about intelligent call routing that recognizes a customer's speech patterns and puts them directly through to their own personal agent at the sound of their voice? With its speaker authentication capabilities (even the best mimic can't fool today's state-of-the-art systems), speech recognition can provide secure agent access to call center network and application resources. More significantly, authentication capabilities can be used to provide callers with secure, voice-based access to interactive applications and services.

Another term for this type of technology is "v-business." For example, you are in your car and hear a report on the radio that suggests you might want to sell some stock immediately. But you can't access your online account in the car and you don't want to play telephone tag with your broker. The solution? Pick up your phone, dial into your personal account, identify yourself by speaking your name, then make your sale simply by telling the system what you want: "Sell all shares of XYZ Corporation today." The entire transaction is initiated and completed by your voice commands. There is no fumbling with a keyboard, mouse or dial pad, and no need for live agent intervention at any time during the transaction. Is speech recognition technology that is available now currently being used in this way ? Probably not. Could it be? Absolutely. Thanks to speech recognition technology, v-business will rapidly take an equally important place beside e-business -- and no virtual operation will be complete without it.

Voice-Enabled Web Sites, Agent-Assisted Web Sessions
The fact is, people find it easier to say what they want than to type or dial it. So, speech-enabled Web sites with "look and say" instead of "point and click" navigation will likely be the norm in the not-too-distant future. Won't it be nice to visit your favorite e-tailer or supplier, log-in to your secure account by speaking your name, then fill all the fields of your order simply by saying what you want? Saying what you want...isn't that what shopping should be all about?

Of course, even when we are shopping at a real brick-and-mortar retailer, we often need a salesperson to help us find what we want. The online shopping experience needn't be any different. Today, converged IP telephony solutions are taking over where traditional call center CTI solutions left off, allowing Web site visitors to speak with a live agent, who can actually join and share their Web session in real-time, help them navigate the site, find what they want, complete their transaction and even upsell them in the process.

Keeping Talented Agents On The Line
So instead of replacing live agents, the Web, once integrated with real-time voice, could increase the demand for highly skilled agents. Attracting and retaining good agents has always been a challenge for call center operations and is often a key determining factor in the locations chosen for new centers. Now, location need not be as much of a factor. Thanks to converged remote access technology available today, agents can now work out of their homes with the same level of access to voice and computing services as agents physically located in the call center. This incredible flexibility means a call center can retain the services of a key agent, even if he or she moves three time zones away.

Let's face it; supplying a computer, telephone and high-speed line to a remote agent represents a far smaller overhead investment than building a physical center to house both equipment and agents.

Customer Interaction Beyond The Call Center
While remote access technologies are making it possible to take the call center to the agent, new, converged wireless IP platforms and technologies like wireless application protocol (WAP), wireless markup language (WML) and Bluetooth are beginning to put call-center-like resources and applications into the hands of people far beyond the call center.

Retail applications are a good example. On any given day, a local franchise operation of a national hardware chain can often receive scores of calls about product availability and pricing. Today, those calls can be routed directly to a sales representative at the store. The rep's wireless phone doubles as a bar code reader, allowing him or her to perform instant inventory database lookups to provide the caller with the information he or she needs. Here, and in many other sectors as diverse as health care and hospitality, converged wireless technologies are providing people across the extended enterprise access to customer interaction tools whose pedigree and practice owe much to the traditional call center.

The Call Center Is Dead, Long Live The Call Center
The days of the standalone call center operation that is expected to put through a maximum number of calls in as little time as possible are, at best, numbered. Today, companies want to learn more about customers, they want to use the philosophies of CRM to focus on high-value customers, and they want to provide customers with as many convenient ways to access their products and services as possible.

The new technologies touched upon here are just some of the solutions that are allowing call centers to meet new challenges by integrating and applying proven call center techniques to new interaction media like the Web, by reasserting the importance and use of voice in customer interaction and by providing flexible access to voice and data resources that push fully supported customer interaction well beyond the boundaries of the traditional call center environment.

Call centers and companies that recognize the potential and embrace the value that some of these new and emerging technologies enable will be well positioned to provide better, more competitive service in the years to come.

Bruce Tsuji is the Director of the Call Centers and Enabling Technologies group within the Business Communications Systems Division at Mitel. He is responsible for defining the positioning and North American market direction for Mitel's portfolio of Call Center Solutions. Mitel Corporation is a designer, manufacturer and marketer of semiconductors, sub-systems and systems for the communications industries.

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