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The Next Step In The Evolution Of Customer Care:
The Customer Interaction Network
By Don Proctor Cisco Systems

Businesses have for years understood that providing their customers with a superior customer contact experience means connecting customers to the right person with the right information as quickly as possible. Comprehensive customer information must be available to customer service agents both instantly and from any location around the globe. As a result, phone, Web and other communications channels can now be fully integrated with business and customer relationship management (CRM) applications, creating a true “customer interaction network” that goes far beyond the traditional call center.

Although many businesses have embraced this concept and have been moving steadily toward a more intelligent, multichannel customer interaction model, consumers who call contact centers will likely tell you that most companies still have a long way to go. According to a recent study by Purdue University’s Center for Customer-Driven Quality, 92 percent of U.S. consumers base their opinion of a company on their experience with its contact center, and 63 percent will stop using a product or service if they have a negative experience.
Clearly, businesses understand the importance of improving the contact center, and the technology to accomplish this is available. As companies embrace Internet Protocol (IP) as the foundation of their business networks, they’ve already laid the groundwork for supporting integrated communication channels and greater customer visibility. So what is behind the delay in implementing these improvements?
To make the vision of the intelligent, fully integrated customer interaction network a reality, businesses need to rethink the way their contact center technologies support and define their business capabilities.

Ideally, technology should be an enabler for an organization’s larger business goals, but much of the problem lies within contact centers themselves, and the time-division multiplexing (TDM) voice systems that support them. Unfortunately, the limitations of TDM-based contact centers dictate the way organizations handle customer contacts and manage customer service resources.

Overcoming The Barriers To Better Customer Service
The technology at the core of traditional contact centers, including TDM-based automatic call distributors (ACDs), interactive voice response (IVR) systems and private branch exchange (PBX) phone systems, can severely limit the way companies manage customer interactions. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: the technology was designed to serve the large, self-contained call centers of the past. These solutions are adequate for companies that house all of their customer service resources at one location, where there is little need to distribute functionality over large geographic regions or to incorporate enterprisewide call-routing intelligence. But few companies operate that way today.

Thanks to the Internet and modern networking technologies, today’s enterprises typically have multiple contact centers spread out across a country or across the world. They use several different channels to serve their customers, including telephone, Web sites, e-mail, Web-based chat and even video. But despite these advances, decades-old call center technology makes many contact centers inflexible, inefficient and difficult to integrate into a modern, distributed business operation.

Some of the limitations of traditional call center technology include the following.
Call routing in TDM-based contact centers is inherently inefficient. Traditional contact centers use a circuit-switched transport model to handle incoming calls, with each contact center housing its own ACD and IVR system. Effectively sharing resources or applying call-routing intelligence across the enterprise is impossible. Any incoming call must be queued to one contact center location before any information can be gathered from the customer, before any routing rules can be applied, or before any action can be taken by CRM applications.

Once a call is queued and the information is gathered, the customer may still need to be transferred to another location to get to the right resource. Rerouting a call over the public switched telephone network (PSTN) means additional take-back-and-transfer (T&T) toll costs and longer customer wait times. Even more frustrating for customers, the lack of communication between contact centers means having to wade through multiple IVR systems and having to provide the same information several times.

TDM-based technologies isolate contact centers and customer service staff. When a company has what amounts to separate, independently operating contact centers, there can be no enterprisewide visibility or real-time resource sharing. As a result, many companies simply separate business processes by location, with each contact center specializing in a specific product or service line. These self-contained, inward-looking contact centers cannot effectively or dynamically distribute resources to respond to changing customer demands. If a product is recalled, for example, customers may inundate one contact center and face 20-minute hold times, while representatives at another contact center are idle.

Isolated contact centers carry high administrative costs. To manage the separate ACD, IVR and telephony systems at each location, enterprises must staff each contact center with skilled (and costly) IT employees. Further, any changes or upgrades to ACD/IVR software must be duplicated at each location.

Traditional contact center technologies impede true multichannel integration. During the past several years, many companies invested in solutions to provide service over Web, e-mail and other channels, as well as in CRM systems, to support more personalized, profitable customer interactions. But unlike Internet and CRM solutions that use the IP standard, TDM-based voice systems rely on proprietary programming languages and technologies. Even when multichannel services are available, they are difficult to integrate with voice systems into a unified customer service approach.

Customer sessions beginning in one channel generally must end in that channel, and service representatives have little ability to offer multiple types of assistance within a single session. Many companies even staff separate contact center locations to manage each communication channel. In this scenario, if a customer makes an initial contact with a service center via chat but later decides he or she would like to speak with the representative by phone, the customer will likely end up speaking with a completely different contact center, having to explain his or her problem all over again.

What’s the alternative? Is there a way to shape customer contact technologies around business objectives, to fully integrate multiple communication channels, and to streamline call-routing processes?

The answer is yes. By moving from TDM-based technologies to a system built entirely on IP, companies can shift from a simple contact center model to an intelligent, enterprisewide customer interaction network, allowing to take a more responsive, cost-effective approach to customer contacts.

Unleashing The Flexibility Of IP
A modern customer interaction network is built on a distributed, IP-based architecture, and the network supports a continuously evolving suite of multichannel services that streamline customer exchanges and enhance the customer experience. Voice, e-mail, Web and other channels are unified under a single customer service umbrella and are fully integrated with enterprise applications, databases, directories and CRM systems. This comprehensive approach extends visibility and capabilities across an entire organization, providing a more collaborative, coordinated strategy for delivering customer care.
A core component of the modern customer interaction network is the convergence of voice and data services, referred to as IP telephony or voice over IP (VoIP). When telephony services can be distributed across an enterprise in the same manner as any other network service, businesses gain more flexibility, efficiency and control over customer interactions.
Once disparate voice and data services are converged over a single IP network, organizations can use a single, universal ACD system and a universal queue for all incoming customer calls. Enterprisewide routing intelligence and CRM policies can be applied at the network edge, and calls can be immediately directed to the right location, eliminating most T&T costs and reducing customer wait times.

Having a single, universal ACD system also gives companies true global visibility into customer contact operations. Instead of trying to assimilate statistics from each ACD system at each contact center, a unified customer interaction network provides comprehensive, real-time reporting and analysis for the entire enterprise, allowing businesses to act on the information they receive. For example, consider a hypothetical product-recall scenario: Even if a single contact center is still handling the recall, a customer interaction network with IP intelligence can assess call volume across the enterprise, recognize that one contact center is being inundated, and dynamically reroute all non-recall-related calls to less busy locations.

That type of flexibility also offers built-in protection against network outages or natural disasters. Emergency call-routing rules can be automatically or manually activated from any location in the enterprise, and callers can be redirected to alternate locations almost instantly, without even realizing there is a problem.

Of course, for many enterprises, the greatest draw of a distributed IP customer interaction network is the potential for substantial savings. With a single, unified ACD system, enterprises can manage the entire customer contact environment from a single location, with little or no on-site IT staff at individual contact centers. Unlike a TDM-based model, updates to ACD and IVR systems need only be made once, and every contact center across the enterprise immediately reflects the changes. And for many enterprises, the toll savings from moving site-to-site calls to the data network alone pays for the entire solution within the first few years after deployment.

Making The Most Of Employee Resources
A modern customer interaction network also provides greater flexibility to attract, retain and connect customer service employees. In a traditional contact center, service representatives must be physically located close to the contact center’s ACD system. In a distributed IP environment, employees can field calls from anywhere as long as they are connected to the company’s network.

Some enterprises use this flexibility to support home-based employees. A full- or part-time home-based workforce can substantially reduce overall contact center costs, especially in areas with high real-estate costs. In an industry within which the cost of recruiting and training skilled staff typically makes up more than two-thirds of total contact center costs, the ability to allow employees to work at home also presents a great incentive for attracting and retaining the best staff.

Many enterprises are going a step further, using distributed IP contact centers to bring branch office employees into the customer contact environment. For example, an employee at a bank branch can take customer calls during hours when foot traffic is slow, or serve as an expert resource for calls that require escalation. Branch office workers can also be temporarily brought into the contact center environment to help with a new product launch or any other event that creates a spike in call volume.

The integration of branch office and contact center employees also creates opportunities for more personalized, localized service. For example, if a customer calls an insurance company’s national call center to ask about purchasing a policy, the remote contact center agent has limited options for following up on the call. But if that customer’s call was automatically routed to an employee at a nearby local branch, the agent can offer to personally stop by the customer’s home or office to continue the conversation.

Delivering A Better Customer Experience
In addition to the business advantages, customer contact environments that harness IP intelligence can have a profound impact on the way customers interact with the company. More streamlined, enterprisewide call routing means that customers get the information they need quicker and more easily. An IP customer interaction network also accommodates full integration among all customer communication channels, because all voice, Web and other services are delivered over IP. Contact center employees can use phone, e-mail, text chat and other services within a single customer session, serving customers in the way (or ways) most convenient to them.

A unified customer interaction network also unlocks the full potential of enterprise CRM systems by providing global visibility and full integration across all channels and business applications. Enterprises can better identify and track customers entering the environment — no matter which channel they may be using — and use all of the tools at their disposal to cross-sell and upsell, enhance customer loyalty and ensure a consistent customer experience.

Moving Toward The IP Customer Interaction Network
Many enterprises have already made the leap to distributed, fully integrated IP customer contact systems, already reaping the benefits. But companies considering this approach should recognize that a successful customer interaction network requires more than simply deploying a new technology. Enterprises need to re-examine the way in which customer communications systems fit within the framework of their business; they must ask the important questions about how those systems have reshaped business objectives.
Some technologies on the market offer incremental steps toward a distributed contact center model by “IP-enabling” traditional TDM systems and creating hybrid solutions.

Certainly, businesses with major investments in legacy ACDs and PBXs have good reason to consider these solutions. But while a hybrid approach may provide some of the benefits of IP intelligence, organizations relying on TDM technologies will in the long run still be locked into an inherently rigid, inefficient model for communicating with their customers. To take full advantage of the intelligence, efficiency, cost savings and enhanced customer care offered by a unified customer interaction network, organizations should consider a more fundamental shift toward embracing IP. CIS

Don Proctor is the vice president and general manager of the Voice Technology Group at Cisco Systems. He is responsible for the business units that develop Cisco’s enterprise and service provider voice products, including IP-PBX systems, IP phones, voice mail and unified messaging products, rich media conferencing and collaboration platforms, call center solutions, carrier soft switches and broadband application infrastructure for service providers.

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