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February 2009 | Volume 27 / Number 9
CALL CENTER Technology

Presence: The Next Generation of Customer Interactions

By Brendan B. Read (News - Alert)
Senior Contributing Editor, Customer Interaction Solutions

When you walk into a business with a sales counter, like an auto parts dealer or an electrical or plumbing supply house, the counter person will attempt to answer your inquiries and/or find the products you want. If they cannot assist you, they will yell, page, text, or call the most best available expert for the answers or if need be to assist you directly.

That is the notion behind presence management, or presence: to replicate this same positive customer experience in contact centers. If the agents cannot provide the answers, resolve the issues, or complete the sales they can reach out to others in the enterprise that are available to assist. The agents get the information and get back to the persons with it or they can hot-transfer the calls or texts, or they can conference in the experts.

Presence is different from escalation, long used in tech support/help desk and in complex sales. Escalation entails transferring contacts and any supporting documentation such as trouble tickets to ever-higher formal teams until resolution. Presence cuts through these rigid layers by reaching out to on-hand professionals, who do not have to speak with customers directly or see the information unless they wish.

Presence then is arguably the next generation of customer interaction. Implemented correctly, it can boost sales, customer satisfaction and retention and loyalty, and lower costs. Even more importantly, presence can unite and focus your entire organization, and your resources, on meeting the needs of the most important entity there is: your customers.

Presence evolution
Presence has been around and has been practiced informally in contact centers for at least 10 years. Agents who could not answer inquiries would call, e-mail, or IM the questions to someone in their organizations who had helped them in the past or would get their name from colleagues or supervisors, then get back to callers.

Yet this informal presence created inconsistent and slower assistance to customers. Agents would not know who was available and would be forced to return calls when they had the answers.

These failings created the need for formalized presence where agents could reach out to experts systematically; they would know their availability. It was first attempted in the later 1990s, using CTI according to Ross Daniels, Director, Unified Communications Solutions Marketing at Cisco (News - Alert). With these applications experts were required to sign on to a slightly modified agent desktop, as this was the only way to track presence or availability at the time.

“The problem was that experts had refused to sign into the applications because this was outside of their normal manner of conducting their daily work,” recounts Daniels.

Thanks to an evolution in communications technology, and to new software and methods, formal presence has become practical. It relies on IP-enabled unified communications (UC) applications. UC allows experts, or anyone else in the organization, to let others know of their availability and how they like to be contacted: voice, IM, SMS, or e-mail without having to log into an ACD or CTI (News - Alert) or have their client apps. Specialized applications clusters experts, agents then pick the group they need, the solutions finds one that can take the inquiry and supplies them with their channel choice, and the agents then pose the customers’ issues, questions, and needs. ACDs and routers have becoming integrated with UC applications. These developments have minimized though not eliminated the issues with informal and with formal CTI-based presence.

SMS has one of the strongest potential both externally and internally as both a presence and communications tool thanks to widespread use via smartphones and by Gen-Yers who are entering the workplace and becoming adult consumers, and buying decisionmakers. For these reasons Interactive Intelligence (News - Alert) recently introduced SMS on its CIC router.

“We use SMS in our system to control a user's presence,” explains Joe Staples, Senior Vice President, Worldwide Marketing, Interactive Intelligence. “As an example, if I'm out of the office and want to change my status from ‘in a meeting’ to ‘available, follow-me’ I can do that with a simple SMS message to our CIC system.”

Presence benefits and drivers
The key benefit of presence is that it can significantly prune or in some cases axe escalated and followup calls which may increase higher first contact resolution (FCR) rates and result in greater customer satisfaction and retention and at the same time reduce costs. Maintaining and increasing FCR is becoming challenging as customer have become more demanding thanks to having gone through self-service and because they feel more empowered; it is a buyers’ not a sellers’ market.

“Calls that are getting to agents are by nature more complex, requiring greater levels of expertise,” explains Daniels. “Yet it is not realistic to train agents to become experts at every topic or have the skills to handle complicated problems or sales.” Lawrence Byrd, Director, Communications-Enabled Business Processes, Avaya (News - Alert) sees presence as being key to present a consistent attractive brand image through delivering uniformly high quality customer experience via their branches as well as through contact centers.

“Enterprises need to adjust their viewpoints from unified communications to unified organization, of serving the customer regardless where they are in those firms,” says Byrd. “Presence enables this through their employees via their branch desktops.” Presence can also be used to manage call and contact spikes and sags, with informal agents filling in the gaps. This application permits excellent service by knowledgeable people while avoiding the costs of outsourcing contact handling to handle the responses.

Ultimately presence enables your entire enterprise to be the contact center, enabling to shift the focus back from treating customer service as a department, which has happened in too many organizations, to looking at it as your core. For without customers you do not have an enterprise.

“Presence allows over time the enterprise to become part of your customer service operation,” points out Bern Elliot, Vice President and distinguished analyst, Gartner (News - Alert). “Instead of presence as an add-on go to for subject matter experts it becomes the core routing and with it you can have anyone in the enterprise support to contact center.”

The benefits of presence can add up. One of Aspect (News - Alert)’s customers, a major airline receives 45,000 contacts per day, mostly voice, has been looking into Aspect’s new presence/UC solution (see box). The air carrier estimated that over 10 percent of their inquiries require further calls. With studies showing that the typical voice interaction costs $6 that adds up to over $25,000 per day.

“If this airline can drive down the amount of followup calls by five percent that means huge cost savings, better customer service and retention for them in a highly competitive market that is under major cost constraints,” explains Michael Kropidlowski, product marketing manager, Aspect.

These benefits are becoming felt at the enterprise level. Forrester Research (News - Alert) found an increased adoption of UC solutions, with 83 percent of enterprise respondents to a recent study evaluating, piloting, and implementing these applications. “Most UC decision-makers are aware of the value these solutions bring to their business operations and understand how to justify their business case,” explains Forrester Senior Analyst Natalie Petouhoff. “We found that 86 percent of enterprises indicate they can make a good business case for UC.”

Small/midsized enterprises (SMEs) can also benefit from presence/UC because it permits more effective tapping of employee expertise that can help them survive and grow against often bigger competition. SMEs are arguably a natural fit for presence because they are entrepreneurial, flexible, accustomed to multi-tasking and customer-focused.

SME-oriented suppliers are now seeing more inquiries from their clients on these solutions. For example inContact (formerly UCN (News - Alert)) has begun to roll them out on its hosted contact center platform. inContact provides both voice/data networks and hosted solutions aimed at smaller (under-100 seat) contact centers.

“You can argue that SMEs don’t really need presence by definition but sometimes their contact center agents do not have the breadth of knowledge and training as those in larger firms,” says Aspect’s Kropidlowski. “Presence gives them that edge by connecting customers to those who do in their firms by giving them the ability to leverage everyone.”

Presence challenges The biggest challenge to formal presence remains obtaining and keeping expert buy-in. Though the UC technology is less intrusive than the CTI applications of the past, there are still cultural barriers that have to be overcome before experts sign on to presence.

The expert pool, made up of highly skilled and experienced individuals such as accountants, engineers, logistics specialists, and senior IT personnel usually do not mind helping out on occasion. Yet they can also very busy and at times they can be abrupt and occasionally gruff.

“The technology side of presence is the easy part,” explains Daniels. “Then there is HR and management side: educating employees on the importance of customer satisfaction to the enterprise and to their careers to get their buy-in, compensation changes, and people-skills training. Also, calls need to be distributed equitably among experts to ensure fairness.”

Another challenge is integrating different UC applications used by others in the expert pool such as consultants and partners to ensure interoperability. There are various UC solutions widely used including Cisco’s Unified Personal Communicator, IBM SameTime, and Microsoft (News - Alert) Office Communicator. Yet common standards for presence and IM are still emerging, so tying together presence and IM solutions from different vendors requires some due diligence.

There are also potential integration challenges to be aware of when deploying presence/UC solutions in contact centers with existing routing solutions, reports Roberta Mackintosh, who is executive director, Verizon (News - Alert) Business’s Global Voice unit. These arise because contact centers and enterprises traditionally use a different set of products. The contact center's need for sophisticated call routing solutions and integration of telephony with back office systems through the CRM layer creates a different set of requirements than the enterprise.

“Delivering a common presence solution across these varied contact center and enterprise systems is challenging, but possible, though no single vendor seems to have the ultimate solution yet,” says Mackintosh. “Those systems that enable integration to external solutions with open APIs for clean integrations will be able to successfully bridge the gap between the enterprise and the contact center.”

Setting Up Presence To make presence work experts need to get credit whether in compensation or in job description. Means must be found to find ways to allocate calls fairly, such as using random order within a particular skillset to avoid overloading and turning off experts.

The presence tools must be set up to allow experts define how their specific knowledge skills, how they want to be communicated and when. Expert groups must be set up in a similar fashion to agent skillset groups on ACDs, with defaults to voicemails or the agents.

“If you do not take people who are not contact center people and utilize them in a controlled fashion you end up abusing and misusing your resources,” Gartner’s Elliott points out.

Aspect’s Kropidlowsky recommends meeting and working with other business units and departments to ensure their buy-in and that the tools work the way they were intended.

“If you have so many people available from different departments they need to understand that they will be called on, which means coming to agreements that they are going to assist with ask the expert capability,” he says.

Tight cooperation with presence/UC and routing vendors is a must to ensure that the solutions work well together. Be prepared to spend some IT time to make this happen.

“It’s important to check with the technology providers that will make up the solution within the enterprise,” says Daniels. “Also make sure that you understand the interoperability capabilities available as you do your due diligence on vendors.”

Presence performance must also be measured right, to gauge how effectively the application is being used. Daniels says that calls or e-mails that end up in experts’ mailboxes should not count as FCR because the issues are still open.

“Accurately measuring FCR and customer satisfaction has been fairly elusive because the reporting systems in contact centers have been focused on agent performance only, “says Daniels. “Tying in presence-based routing to ensure that calls are being answered and addressed by the right person inside or outside the contact center—and implementing a system that has been designed to measure expert performance as well—gets us much closer to accurate measurements for FCR.”

Presence Solutions Sampler

There are a growing number of highly capable presence/UC solutions both standalone and partnered:

• Aspect ‘s Aspect® Unified IP™ 6.6 offers a new Ask-an-Expert feature that utilizes the instant messaging and presence technology available in Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007. Ask-an-Expert functionality, combined with routing and prioritization capabilities, enables contact center agents to engage any appropriate and available expert to assist with the customer inquiry

• Avaya’s Intelligent Presence solves the challenge of integrating diverse sources of presence information from different vendor platforms using multiple protocols. It does so by aggregating telephony, desktop and application presence information from Avaya and from other firms such as IBM and Microsoft. It bridges industry standard protocols including SIP/SIMPLE and XMPP

• Cisco Unified Communications (News - Alert) System Release 7.0 extends unified communications features such as dial via office, presence, and corporate directory look-up to mobile workers. It also has new time-of-day rules that enable mobile workers to easily adjust single-number-reach settings when they are traveling or do not wish to be disturbed

• Nortel Converged Office integrates Nortel's CS 1000 IP-PBX (News - Alert) or CS 2100 IP-PBX and Nortel Application Center with Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and Microsoft Office Communicator. The Nortel solutions provide voice, messaging, IVR, and web integration. The Microsoft applications powers presence, uniting employee contact information stored in the Active Directory with the ways they communicate. They manage all real-time communications and provide the user interface

• Toshiba (News - Alert)’s Strata ACD IP Call Center Suite can be combined with its Net Phone 6.0 to provide presence. These include an IM or chat feature that enables agents to instantly text message other users, and which can be applied throughout the organization or limited as defined by the enterprise. It also shows real-time status of other users, including by phone i.e. idle, busy, or do not disturb, status message such as ‘in meeting’ as well as text entered by the user, and chat /IM status: if the application has been launched and the agent is online to accept chat requests

Presence/UC Security There are security risks entailed when using presence/unified communications (UC) tools. For example attackers can create spoofed Caller ID or IM identities to fool employees and systems into giving up passwords, setting the stage for future assaults. Denial of service attacks could disrupt the UC infrastructure by swamping or crashing devices, networks or applications. In response, Siemens (News - Alert) Enterprise Communications has enhanced its OpenScale Services and solutions portfolio with several new products and services. These include:

• Compliance Services, including audits, health checks and policy creation such as Instant Messaging policy, tracking and control with a UC environment

• Identity and Privacy Services, which provide business processes, policies and technologies that enable organizations to facilitate and control user access to critical online applications and resources. These cost-effectively protect confidential personal and business information from unauthorized users

• Threat Mitigation and Data Security Services including secure design, implementation and testing of infrastructure and applications which are extended to cover UC solutions. Siemens can provide data encryption and VPN solutions to prevent interception plus provide perimeter and content security applications to protect against threats inherent to real-time applications

The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:




Interactive Intelligence


Nortel (News - Alert)


Siemens Enterprise Networks




Verizon Business (News - Alert)




Frost & Sullivan (News - Alert)


Intervoice (News - Alert)


Loquendo (News - Alert)

Nuance (News - Alert)


Voxeo (News - Alert)


West Interactive

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