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Second Quarter 1998

Call Connection Technologies And Internet ACDs


Through browser technology and the Web, customer access to information from computers has never been greater. As information is presented in both an audio and visual fashion, customers can see more information, make more accurate choices, and complete more transactions. The Web is, in a sense, a media-rich IVR. Users of well-designed IVR systems know that they can almost always "Press ‘0’ to reach a live agent" when they need additional information or if their transaction does not follow the pre-conceived and pre-programmed call flow. Users of the Web demand the same ability to "Click to reach a live agent" either by clicking a Web page button or by calling on their Internet phone. There is a single implied premise for handling calls: The call center must respect the demands of the caller, including the timing and media type that they choose for their connection.

The basis for telephony communications over the Internet is H.323, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) specification for audio, video, and data telephony over IP — it is a packet-oriented protocol. An integral component to H.323 is T.120, the ITU standard for audiographics (otherwise known as data collaboration). The H.323 Recommendation has been approved and implemented for several years. Endpoints that are H.323-enabled have been widely distributed. For example, the NetMeeting product from Microsoft has been shipped with every Microsoft Windows 95 software license for the past year. The H.323 standards are important because they facilitate peer-to-peer communications and peer-server-peer communications in a non-proprietary fashion, enabling audio (and optionally video and/or data collaboration) communications, using the Internet.

There are three broad categories of techniques to connect caller and agent together for audio, audio/data, and audio/video/data calls using the Internet. They are call back, call through, and switched connection. Call back places an audio call back to the customer. Call through places a point-to-point H.323 call, calling around any switch. An H.323 call in the switched connection configuration calls through the H.323 switch.

Call back techniques allow a customer who is browsing a particular Web site to click a button on the Web site and request an audio call back, usually on a second line. Figure 1 depicts the high-level architecture of a same line or second line call back arrangement.

How It Works
By clicking the "call me back" button, the browser sends a Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) message to the Web server, which typically reacts by directing the browser to point to a URL containing a form requesting the customer’s name and telephone number, and asking, "What is the best time to call?" Next, the Web server creates an e-mail to send to an agent, or invokes an outbound dialer, generating an outbound call from the call center’s ACD. From this point, two scenarios can unfold.

If the customer has two lines (an ISP connection plus a line for an audio call that call be reached by direct dial), the call center may call on the second line, while the customer is still on the Web site. Some companies have developed technologies that enable the customer and agent to view the same Web page, even permitting the agent to change the Web page the caller is viewing. Usually, in order to perform this browser sharing, an applet must be down-loaded to the customer’s PC. Browser sharing technologies typically perform a bit image copy: Periodically (e.g., once a second), the Web server application that provides the browser sharing function "reads" the image on the agent’s screen (or the customer’s screen) and then paints the image on the screen of the other party. If the customer only has one connection, he or she disconnects from the ISP and stays off the phone, waiting for the call center to make an audio call back to that line. In this model, no browser sharing occurs.

From the caller’s perspective, call back solutions present certain problems. For example, the customer must have two phone lines in order for this solution to really be usable. Also, customers have become conditioned to expect immediate connections to agents with solutions delivered during a single call. Hanging up and waiting for a specific call does not provide the level of service that customers expect. The customer may view Web-initiated telephone calls as new technology and, for a short while, be willing to tolerate the scheduled or immediate call back. However, there is a privacy issue to be considered. Customers, especially those in a business environment sitting behind a PBX, don’t necessarily want to give out their phone numbers. There is a perceived anonymity about the Web that customers enjoy. From the call center’s perspective, call back is a quick fix for Internet-enabling the call center with little incremental investment, beyond that of a blended (inbound and outbound) call center. For the inbound-only call center, call back requires the development of costly out-bound calling practices, equipment, and management skills.

Browser sharing solutions are fine for solving certain problems. For example, if the customer was not able to find the correct Web page for the information he or she required, browser sharing works well. The agent can "move" the customer’s browser to a different page. Some implementations allow the agent to fill in some browser based forms and allow the customer to see those forms. However, browser sharing is typically accomplished through proprietary bit-copying techniques. Because browser sharing is not real-time, interactive collaboration, simultaneous changes to the browsers of the customer and the agent result in one person losing their changes — only one browser is "in charge," and the other follows. Since this technology relies on bit copying, if the page being shared extends beyond the size of the browser window, only part of the browser is viewed by the customer (e.g., the caller and the agent may not be seeing the same information), causing confusion. If the agent scrolls the browser to see the bottom of the window, the customer does not see the scrolling effect. To avoid this problem, the webmaster must restrict the amount of information to be viewed on any page. The ITU Study Group 8 addressed these issues early in the 1990s, creating an interactive WYSI-WYG data collaboration standard, T.120.

However, browser sharing does not support the capabilities of H.323/T.120 standards-based data collaboration. (Data collaboration includes: application sharing, remote application control, file transfer, text chat, and white-boarding — all in a real-time, interactive fashion.) One example of data collaboration is an agent sharing a chart set or a spreadsheet with the customer in order to make a presentation.

From a call flow perspective, "call around" would be a more accurate description of this type of connection, since the customer directly calls an appropriate agent. However, the call does not go through a switch — it avoids the switch, choosing to go around it. The customer, interacting with the Web server, clicks a "connect me" button and is connected to an agent. They then communicate using products such as NetMeeting that enable audio, video, and data collaboration.

How It Works
When a customer is browsing a Web site, the browser exchanges HTTP messages with the Web server. When the customer clicks the "connect me" button, the Web server executes a script, which sends a CGI message to an ACD application. The ACD application monitors agent availability and, at some point in time, detects an available agent. When the agent becomes available, the ACD application provides the agent’s IP address to the Web server, which, in turn, provides the agent’s IP address to a pre-installed applet on the customer’s PC. The applet starts the H.323 phone, instructing the H.323 phone to call the agent’s IP address.

The connection type is a function of the customer and the agent capabilities and is determined at call setup. H.323 call setup includes "capabilities exchange," a dialog between the end-points used to establish the call. Capabilities information includes protocol identifiers (e.g., G.723.1 audio encoding), video capabilities (none, one-way, two-way), and data session establishment. Once this point-to-point call is established, customers and agents can speak to each other and potentially see each other. Most importantly, they can perform data collaboration. Data collaboration in this context includes white-boarding, file transfer, text chat, and remote application control. Remote application control enables the agent to perform actions on the customer’s PC. An example might be an agent performing remote diagnostics on the customer’s PC in order to solve a problem with a software driver. Using file transfer, a software patch can be downloaded and installed. Of course, the customer must agree to these actions and can easily be provided with the ability to click on a "Panic Button" to stop these activities. Also, when the call is established, a standard browser sharing application can be used to push and share Web pages.

Note that in order to make a connection from a caller to an agent with the call around architecture, the IP address of the agent must be publicly accessible.If the agent’s IP address was not publicly visible (i.e., required re-mapping), the point-to-point call could not be placed, since one function of the firewall is to re-map real IP addresses into virtual IP addresses. The function provided by the ACD is to broker the availability of the agents and then tell the customer’s application when to make the call. Because the IP addresses of the agents are public, anyone, including hackers, may attempt to connect or perform any TCP/IP-based application, at any time.

The customer call experience in the call around model matches the audio experience that they understand. The customer asks for a connection and a connection is made.

From the call center’s perspective, there is a rather large problem: security. As can be seen from Figure 2, the agents are directly accessible from the Internet; otherwise the point-to-point H.323/T.120 call cannot be connected. This means that the call center agent is not protected by a firewall. Call center technology managers need to ask some questions about call around: What risk is there by exposing agents to the Internet? If my agents are CTI-enabled, how do they reach the CTI server? Do my agents have to sit on multiple LAN segments? How is that accomplished? Initially, Internet-based, multimedia applications will be rolled out to informal workgroups, where security may not be as much of an issue. However, they will eventually integrate with the existing call center operations, requiring airtight security.

The model for switched connection is essentially that of an audio ACD. That is, in the audio model, the pilot Directory Number (DN) of the group is published, not the DNs of the individual agents. Through various directory services methods (411, telephone book, advertising), the call center’s pilot DN becomes known. In the switched connection model, the IP address of the ACD group, not the address of the agents, is published and publicly accessible.

How It Works
The customer may start by browsing the Web site or going through an Internet directory service to make a direct Internet telephone call (Figure 3). When the customer initiates the call, the ACD with integrated H.323/T.120 firewall proxy is called. H.323 call set-up occurs between the customer’s H.323 phone and the ACD. When an agent is available, the call is connected between the customer and the agent. All of the H.323 (including T.120) packets go through the ACD. The agent is provided call context information upon call arrival. Call context information could include the customer’s name, currently viewed URL, subscriber service level, etc. If a browser collaboration session is valuable for this call, the agent can use the call context information to synchronize with the customer, through the Web server.

As each call is connected through the ACD, packets pass through an integrated H.323/T.120 firewall proxy, ensuring the security of the connection . During transmission through the firewall, each packet address is re-mapped to route it to the appropriate agent. This process allows agents to be hidden from direct public access, easing LAN topology management issues and resolving security concerns.

Since all of the H.323/T.120 protocol packets pass through it, the switched connection model can provide standard audio call center agent and supervisor features. It is mandatory to process these protocols to implement basic call center features, such as transfer and conference.

From the customer’s perspective, he or she places a call. Respecting the media choices of the customer, the call center accepts the call, connects to an agent and resolves the customer inquiry.

From the call center’s perspective, inbound agents are still inbound agents. The switched connection performs as a stand-alone Internet ACD, providing basic call center features and functions, including call routing, agent and supervisor features, and management information. Integration with existing call center components, using CTI, is supported, but is beyond the scope of this paper. From the call center security perspective, the agents and the call center’s systems are safely behind the integrated firewall. The Internet ACD only permits passage of legitimate H.323/T.120 protocol messages.

Internet-based person-to-person communication delivers significant value for certain applications. The Internet is not ready to compete head- to-head with the PSTN for audio-only calls. However, for calls that benefit from audio combined with data collaboration or video, the Internet is a powerful medium. As with call centers in the audio world, the ACD is the key enabling technology.

Christopher Botting, vice president of marketing at PakNetX, previously served as marketing manager of Multimedia Call Centers for MultiLink. He performed sales, marketing, and product management functions for the Multimedia Call Center product, securing key channel partnerships for MultiLink and establishing the company as an industry leader. Prior to MultiLink, Mr. Botting was national marketing manager for L.M. Ericsson and senior product marketing manager for Northern Telecom. Headquartered in Salem, New Hampshire, PakNetX is a leading developer of technology that enables a true Internet call center. The company’s standards-based solution, providing voice, data, and video over packet networks, changes the way that companies conduct business over the Internet and how they inter act with their customers. For more information, contact the company at 888-273-8625 or visit their Web site at www.paknetx.com.

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