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Customer Relationship Management
August 2002

Integrating  Contact Center Channels

By Michael Carothers, eOn Communications

Customer call centers throughout the world are in a state of revolution as the technologies they employ rapidly change. According to GartnerGroup, by 2003, more than 45 percent of all contact center traffic will be initiated by means other than a telephone. By 2005, 70 percent of call centers will support integrated live Web contacts and/or e-mail response management systems for their telephone-based agents.

The traditional call center's voice-only capability has expanded to include alternative, multimedia channels, such as e-mail management and real-time Web agents, to meet customers' ever-growing communication needs. These new 'contact' centers are increasing in demand as customers insist on increased flexibility to conduct business ' from ordering gardening equipment, subscribing to satellite television service to checking a bank balance ' any time, anywhere, through whatever medium is most convenient.

While there is an industry consensus of where the future of contact centers is going, and many companies have even begun implementing the new technologies, there are new challenges as they integrate media. This article will discuss steps to best integrating multimedia channels, as well as issues every company must address before talking to a multimedia contact center solution vendor.

Three Phases Of Automatic Contact Distribution
Going into a new era of contact center technology, companies recognize the need to accommodate customer preference while meeting increasingly higher expectations for rapid response. These organizations have discovered that the implementation of comprehensive and unified customer interaction applications provides the solution needed to support these new customer requirements. Despite the rapid pace of technological change, many companies are challenged with knowing how best to integrate their channels.

From a contact center perspective, successful implementations start with understanding three things: contacts, treatment and information. When considering multichannel integration, a company must consider how it wants customers to contact them, how it wants to treat its customers once they have made contact and how the company plans to use the information compiled from each agent's contact with a customer to improve its customer service and ROI. This three-phase process constantly revolves, with each stage along the way impacting the other two.

To answer the above three questions, companies should begin by first determining what type of long- and short-term results they are looking for from their contact centers and evaluate how effective their current contact center technologies are and what type of configuration, in an ideal world, would most effectively fit future needs.

To ensure results are met, it's best to identify checkpoints ' business rules ' along the way to gauge your success. A few examples of business rules include determining what percentage of the company's overall revenue goal should be tied to agent performance and productivity and how, as a company, should you measure a customer's loyalty, satisfaction and retention numbers. To be profitable, how many contacts per channel need to flow through the contact center each day, week, month and year? How much time does each agent have to spend on a phone call, e-mail or Web chat?

The type of technology your contact center already has in place is also important to consider. How compatible is it to other systems? Many times, voice, e-mail and chat have different interfaces, which can be difficult to manage. It's also important to visualize your company's future contact center needs and what new technologies must be implemented in order to most effectively integrate the channels, as well as how much such an overhaul might cost.

Improving contact center operations is a daunting challenge as companies wrestle with disparate technologies, information integration and increasing labor costs, which, if not managed successfully, can lead to customer dissatisfaction, operational inefficiencies and higher costs. But the goal is clear ' to remain focused on those applications and systems that provide seamless customer experiences, independent of the customer's chosen communication channel, while delivering a meaningful and measurable return on investment (ROI) for the company.

With customers having greater access to different means of communications, why should a company's contact center system be limited to one type of contact? With the majority of the population having access to e-mail and the Internet, companies must consider expanding the way in which customers contact them.

With this expansion, however, difficulties arise. In almost all cases, voice, e-mail and chat come into a system on different interfaces and, as a result, it is challenging to manage three disparate systems. To solve this, a company could install a computer-telephony integration (CTI) interface in order to integrate all channels. However, because all CTI systems are different, the difficulty inherent in seamlessly integrating the technology is compounded. As a result, companies quickly face an installation with insurmountable problems, which could eventually lead to an incomplete project.

To counteract the problem of multiple disparate systems, companies have another option -- creating a single, open system. The Linux operating system allows companies to use the applications on one platform to deliver integrated voice, e-mail and chat media types. As a result, contact centers are better managed because all channels share the same database, which allows supervisors to look ahead in the queue to gauge conditions and better manage the company's agents.

At this point in the cycle, you have the contacts into the center ' whether via voice, e-mail or chat ' and now you need to treat the contact. The next phase is ensuring all contact with your customers is equal across all channels. For instance, to gauge the success of this business rule, you want to be able to tell a customer his status in queue and how long delays are expected to be, no matter what type of contact medium he has used. In an ideal integrated center, the contact center professional should be able to look ahead and determine, based on the day and time, whether a special message should go out to contacts. However, problems arise if the channels aren't integrated because contact centers then won't be able to send the same message to a voice, e-mail and Web chat contact.

Take, for example, the approaching Labor Day holiday. Regardless of channel, your company will want to send out a message to all contacts that the office is closed. To accomplish this, a company needs to use the same writing engine the voice uses to send customers messages for e-mail and chat contacts. However, most of today's contact centers are able only to send a recorded message to the voice contacts, and e-mail and Web customers do not receive the same treatment. To overcome this challenge and meet your company's business rules, a contact center can use the unified solution's single routing engine to send the same message using the appropriate medium to all voice, e-mail and chat contacts.

Once your company decides to receive customer contacts from multiple channels, the center's supervisor will be tasked with managing the media types across all agents. To ensure that one media type is not being overworked or overrun, the contact center supervisor must have the ability to look across all channels and agents. The supervisor also needs to be able to adjust how he is communicating with his customers regardless of what the media type is and be able to look at all media types in order to know what to say.

For example, if both voice and e-mail queues increase, you need to be able to use a Web agent who is experiencing down time to respond to customer queries. That way, you adhere to your business rule of reassigning inactive agents to a channel seeing greater activity and needing more support to appropriately staff your contact center. However, if your contact center uses separate agents for each medium, then you really aren't taking full advantage of an integrated contact center.

For quality assurance purposes, supervisors also need the ability to determine what type of contact the agents are on and whether they are being effective in those media. For example, during a voice contact, the supervisor can discern whether her agents are being effective because, according to the business rules set in the beginning, they are averaging about two minutes per voice call. Therefore, they are managing the volume of contacts appropriately. If, on the other hand, agents are spending more time than expected with contacts, the supervisor could increase the agents' threshold in order to bring them up to the appropriate levels of performance. To be most effective, supervisors should apply these rules across all channels.

Regardless of your implementation, you need to install a knowledge base. The most effective knowledge base uses information systems that already exist so information can easily be imported and organized in the company's e-mail and chat knowledge base. While implementing a knowledge base isn't overly difficult, it is time-consuming. However, in the end, it is a worthwhile project for every company.

The next phase when integrating channels is information. At this point, all contacts have been brought in and integrated on one platform, they are being treated the same, and now supervisors need to recover information to determine whether all business rules and goals have been accomplished. After analyzing the data, if a company isn't reaching its baseline, it will need to determine which phase of the contact-treatment-information process needs to be adjusted.

From the beginning to the end of every contact, each customer carries a contact record, which details everything the customer experienced in her travels through a company's contact center. Because this is valuable information to any company, it's important the CRM package integrate with every channel. Key things to look for when integrating these systems include ensuring the media types be in the same language, and the data are available in a SQL environment so information can be plugged into a central report database. When this occurs, the contact center supervisor will be able to generate reports in a concise format that allows for high-level comparisons and trend queries between media types.

For example, if voice contacts went up, e-mail contacts went down and Web chat contacts held steady, the contact center supervisor must be able to analyze why this happened and determine if the staff appropriately prepared for the shift in volume. In order to run this analysis, it's very important to have channels interfaced to one platform and have a data bank or data repository to store information. While not an overly technical topic to address, the data repository is a key element for every business to structure into its architecture.

Not only must your agents complete a contact with a customer, but you must also ensure they are completing the contacts in a timely manner and disseminating the right information to the customers. Analyzing contact data, which not only tell when a contact starts and ends but also what the agent said or wrote, will help your company ensure its agents are appropriately trained for all channels and are maintaining a high level of quality assurance. By randomly conducting customer surveys, companies will have another way to determine if the agent is meeting your company's business rules and what your customers thought of his or her contact with your agent.

Once your company has determined how many channels it will integrate, how customers will be treated and how information from each contact will be used, there are a few technical things to be aware of when implementing voice, e-mail and chat channels.

When implementing voice, the contact center gathers all customer data from the public network. However, most contact centers haven't updated their delivery mechanism from the public network, and they aren't able to get the data they need to operate most efficiently. To alleviate this situation, the public network needs to switch to an ISDN network. Not only is the ISDN network more cost-effective to implement, but it also allows the contact center to receive all the caller demographics the public network knows about the call, such as where the caller is calling from and the caller ID (ANI).

Having access to ANI is very valuable to a contact center because once it is translated into the CRM language, the contact center can query its database before the call is delivered to the integrated voice response (IVR) system to determine if the caller is a customer. By knowing who is calling in, the contact center will know how to best treat the customer ' whether to send him a customized message or route him to a specific agent for assistance. This extra care from a contact center will show customers the company values them, which will result in a stronger merchant/customer relationship.

When implementing e-mail and chat, the e-mail address, or unique identifier, is its ANI. While it's quite easy to collect and store a customer's e-mail address from an e-mail, it becomes much more difficult to solicit these data in the chat environment. For measurement and tracking purposes, contact centers must create a business rule that requires chatters to enter their e-mail addresses in order to continue the dialog with the agent.

Future Challenges For Integrated Channels
As any contact center supervisor will tell you, making the decision to integrate media channels is fairly simple. The challenges arise, however, when you begin to map out how to integrate voice, e-mail and chat.

The primary question to ask before beginning is: does my company need all three channels at one time? My initial recommendation is probably not. Voice contact is a necessity for any company with a significant customer base. However, voice is not, and will not be, the only channel in the future. As GartnerGroup predicts, the contact center of the future may be here sooner than we think. The technology currently in your center needs to be able to grow with your needs.

In addition, more industry standards for gathering and logging data are needed as channel integration becomes more commonplace. For instance, the data that are readily available with every voice call, such as how many calls came into a contact center in one day and how long each call lasted, are data that are not currently available for e-mail and chat contacts. In addition, being able to log and identify how many times a customer contacted a company via e-mail before he called or how many e-mails it took to secure a sale, versus a phone call, will help companies more accurately project revenue and staffing needs.

Are you ready for the future? Where does your company stand in the three phases of automatic contact distribution? Once you are able to answer three questions: how you want customers to contact you, how you want to treat them once they contact you, and what you will do with the information you acquire from each contact, then you are ready to take the next steps toward discovering the technology options available to your company.

Michael Carothers is the director of Professional Services for eOn Communications (www.eoncc.com) and is in charge of custom application development and implementation.

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