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April 2001

Rich Tehrani

A Virtual Investigation Of Global Contact Center Technologies


Go Right To:
Communications Solutions EXPO Goes Stellar
> A Portrait Of Change

My friends often tell me they wish they had my job, as I get to travel regularly. On the surface, it may seem glamorous, but the boring part of my travel schedule is that it usually takes me to the same U.S. cities, month after month and year after year.

What I need is a change; perhaps some travel abroad. Europe comes to mind as a place that is full of interesting technology I have yet to explore. It's not that I haven't had many opportunities to leave U.S. borders...I've just had my hands full with trips to very familiar cities.

As a result of my limited international travel, I haven't been covering companies located outside the U.S. as well as I should and as much as I would like. So I have decided to make up for my oversight by discussing my recent visits with three companies that have European headquarters. What better way to whet our appetites for technologies that aren't "home grown?"

I have decided the best way to start my "International tour" is in order of proximity to the U.S., just as if I were flying from company to company (I wish!) My first virtual stop is in Ireland. I recently met with Performix Technologies (www.performixtechnologies.com), an Irish company with is roots in CRM consulting. The truth be told, I actually met with them in their Massachusetts-based office...a two-and-a half-hour drive from TMC's Connecticut headquarters.

CRM Falls Flat?
Performix's business philosophy is that without trained employees, CRM will fall flat. For this reason, they have developed Emvolve Performance Manager, which they tell me is a unique software solution that improves bottom-line performance in the contact center by increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of employees working at the customer contact level.

It can be argued that the effectiveness of a contact center is difficult to measure and as such, you can't tell whether it is increasing or decreasing. As a result, Performix's philosophy is, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." By not only measuring agent performance, but also charting it, they are able to bring the ends of the bell curve more toward the center. Furthermore, performance data are made available to the agents themselves so they can measure their own progress and set goals for themselves.

Performix Technologies told me their software increases both morale and productivity, and the company points to an install in a phone company in which their system is said to have improved morale and reduced average talk time by 17 percent.

In case your contact center is smaller than the average phone company, you may be inclined to ask just how big a contact center needs to be before such a software system can be of use. The company said 50 agents is a good starting point and that they see service agencies, banks, travel companies and service providers as some of their future growth areas. They stress, however, there is no reason why their solutions would not work for any sufficiently large contact center, regardless of its business.

To give you an idea of how the system works, we need to delve into what it is being measured. One such area is human resources assets such as empathy, technical skills and trouble-shooting. They can also break down business goals into achievable objectives -- anything that can be measured, such as wait time, hold time, satisfaction, sales, team contribution, sickness or absence. Users can even rank agents in their team meetings by tracking the number of interactions in which they are involved.

Performix's product also measures things such as the amount of Web collaboration conducted, the number of contacts made or the percentage of closed business on the first contact or even by the number of products sold per call. The goal is obviously to improve these percentages.

Discouraging absences. Another interesting feature of this solution is its ability to set up sickness and absence bonuses by team. In this way, team peer pressure encourages workers to show up for work. Performix assures me this type of system does not victimize workers and does indeed drive performance, as the team is able to receive award values based upon an array of performance metrics.
You may be wondering how to assign objectives to individual workers. The easiest way is to set up teams in which each team has various sets of objectives. What do you want the team to do? You can ask them to improve their level of quality, their conversion rate, team initiative, the number of leaflets sent out, their schedule adherence, etc.

Managing agents and managers. It is important to point out that you can now not only accurately measure agent performance, you can manage the performance of the managers as well. Another important point is that you can evaluate the effect of a training class on all agents instantaneously. Finally, the busy work and difficulty is mostly removed from the monthly and quarterly review process as the criteria for these reviews is now collected and graded electronically. Think of the time and pain saved with a feature such as that!

Compatibility. As you can imagine, the need for integration with other systems is crucial to the success of this company. As a result, Emvolve integrates with most every ACD and workforce management system (such as Blue Pumpkin and IEX), as well as software from Vantive, Siebel, Clarify and Remedy. Performix's goal is to eventually work with SAP HR and PeopleSoft so they can feed awards directly into paychecks.

Wheel of Fortune. Perhaps the most fun part of the entire system is that agents are able to shop with the points they have earned in true "Wheel of Fortune" fashion. Mr. Sajak, I'll take the two tickets to Ireland and take the rest as a gift certificate to the Guinness factory store.

On To Austria
My next stop was the call center show in Dallas. Although quite a hike from Europe, it is where I met the Vienna-based company Philips Speech Processing (www.speech.philips.com) and was made aware of the latest additions to the company's line of products. In case you aren't aware, Philips has been in the speech recognition business since 1972!

SpeechPearl 2000. It's amazing what 30 years of speech recognition has yielded. SpeechPearl 2000 is the latest version of the Philip's core engine for host-based, large vocabulary natural language recognition, which allows users to develop applications with true grammars. This allows end users to interact with the speech recognition system as if it were a live person.

In practical terms, this allows a customer to say, for example, "I want to move $5,000 from my checking account to my savings account number 12345." Employees of Philips tell me their use of open grammar technology allows users to develop applications more quickly, as speech recognition and natural language understanding can actually be done in two different steps. This is in contrast to closed grammars in which each utterance must be previously matched.

This type of flexibility allows users to organize grammars for things such as location, useful in an application such as directory assistance, or even the cost and type of food for a restaurant application. As a frequent cellular phone user, I asked them if their engine could handle the background noise of a cell phone call. As it turns out, they are able to load a wireless acoustic model if a user calls in from a mobile phone.

Building grammars. So what does it take to build a grammar? As you might expect, you must enter into the system all the words and utterances (more than one word combined) to be recognized. The directory assistance application I mentioned above would need individual cities and states entered. Once a grammar is built, a caller can say "I would like to go to Chicago, Illinois on Friday, from Los Angeles, for $300." This could be a great sample application for Priceline.com. Employees of Philips told me the syntax and order of these words does not matter. Once the phrase is spoken, the first step is recognition and the second step is understanding. The system determines departure city, arrival city, date and cost.
If you are looking for a development environment that allows you to take advantage of all these features, look no further than the latest version of SpeechMania, which features a GUI-based application generator with drag-and-drop icons, allowing you to design full call flow. The system then outputs the equivalent code needed to run your application. This component features something called mixed initiative dialog, which allows the system to determine which variable is missing and ask for it, allowing true simulation of natural human speech.

Next Stop: Germany
My next virtual stop was Germany, when I had the chance to meet with ASC (www.asctelecom.com), a company that makes a quality assurance monitoring solution called Inspiration. As soon as I had a chance to demo the product, the company representatives pointed out that their system is browser-based and not proprietary like many of the other solutions on the market.

Some of the interesting features of ASC's solution are the attractive interface with complete tooltip-based help and color-coded modules that follow workflow. The screen is organized with a split-screen, master-detail hierarchy that ASC told me reduces the agent learning curve. The desire to adhere to open standards is evident in the ability of Inspiration to establish SQL links to existing corporate databases instead of duplicating them. The one exception, of course, is the initial importing (and potential exporting) of employee info directly from the human resources database.

As is becoming more common in these types of solutions, Inspiration records voice, instant message, VoIP, e-mail chat and Web collaboration. One example I saw showed that a manager could track the amount of time that elapsed between a phone call request and the time the follow-up e-mail went out.

The obvious ability to listen to phone calls is included in the system, as is the ability to merge different interactions with the same contact into a single record, allowing for much easier management of customer records and relationships. Employees of ASC told me their goal was to build a customer-centric application, as they cited a Harvard Business Review study linking a 5 percent increase in customer retention to a whopping 85 percent increase in profitability!

If you are so inclined or your application demands it, you are able to record all calls or you can set up triggers to selectively record under specific circumstances. You can also record every call and keep only those that escalate.

Monitoring solutions generate huge volumes of information, so getting at the underlying data can be cumbersome without the proper tools. ASC has incorporated an integrated reporting wizard, which allows users to have as much access as they would like to the underlying data through the use of standardized or custom-designed reports.

Home Again
It has certainly been a pleasure traveling through Europe with you. I am looking forward to doing even more international traveling in the future, but I must admit that if you want to travel through Europe, have limited time and loathe jet lag, the virtual technology tour is the way to go!


Rich Tehrani
Group Publisher
Group Editor-In-Chief

[ Return To The April 2001 Table Of Contents ]

Communications Solutions EXPO Goes Stellar

We at TMC are excited about the upcoming Communications Solutions EXPO Spring 2001 in Washington D.C. for many reasons. First and foremost, because its the most cutting-edge show in the industry and the greatest convergence of communications technologies in the known universe. How do you top an experience like that? By offering a speaker of the finest caliber: namely, the Honorable Al Gore, former vice president of the United States and one of the premier champions of the high-technology world. TMC chose Mr. Gore to address our show attendees, technology partners and readers because he remains one of the most active leaders in technology and telecommunications, having helped usher passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was created to encourage private investment and competition in the telecom industry, launching a public and private effort to wire every American classroom and library to the Internet. The Act also called for the creation of a new global information infrastructure: a network that links businesses and homes across the globe at the speed of light, helping expand access to phone service and other communications, increase access to education and health care, and create new and exciting economic opportunities throughout the world. Mr. Gore will address the attendees of Communications Solutions EXPO on Thursday, May 24, 2001, at 10:15 a.m.

As if Mr. Gores presence isnt an exciting enough reason to attend, were offering a new bonus to attendees this year: Meet The Editors And TMC Labs Engineers. Our editorial booth, located right on the show floor, will be continually staffed with the editors of TMCs four print publications (Customer Inter@ction Solutions, Communications Solutions, Internet Telephony and Communications ASP), TMCnet.com and TMC Labs. At any time, attendees can stop in and speak to an editor on specific issues about which they may have questions, or even just to say hello and put a face to those names on the bylines of TMC publications. They may not be as famous as the celebrities strolling down the red carpet at the Academy Awards, but theyre knowledgeable and can help you out of a telecom quandary. (In a way that Harrison Ford or Gwyneth Paltrow would never be able to!)

As always, Communications Solutions EXPO will offer its topnotch conference sessions, workshops, special events and exhibits. So if youre serious about taking your companys telecommunications to the next level, or learning how to get the most out of your existing systems, you shouldnt miss Communications Solutions EXPO at the Washington D.C. Convention Center May 23-25, 2001. Visit www.tmcnet.com/comsolexpo for more information or to register online and save. I look forward to seeing you there!

[ Return To The April 2001 Table Of Contents ]

A Portrait Of Change

If you have been reading the pages of this magazine or attending any of the trade shows put on by TMC, you will, no doubt, be aware of how much the industry has changed in the past few years as the previously separate worlds of voice and data have converged. This convergence has not only produced myriad new and wonderful products, it has also forced solutions providers to change, or go out of business. To give you an insider's view of what this has meant to a company that originated in the traditional voice world, I recently interviewed John Mears, president and CEO of Microlog Corporation (www.mlog.com). I believe Mr. Mears can add specific insight on this issue as he is one of the few CEOs in this field to come from an IT background, having both bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering and having previously held various IT management positions at IBM.

RT: In the past, the bulk of Microlog's products were IVR systems. Why did you undertake the shift in focus that you did?

JM: There were a number of reasons for our shift in focus. The growth in the IVR marketplace, in past years as high as 25 percent per annum, was declining to less than 10 percent per annum: still healthy, but declining. The world's network traffic, once overwhelmingly voice-based, is now dominated by data traffic, largely driven by the growth in media conveyed over the Internet. The tight job market yielded a shift in buying trends for IT and telecom infrastructure from projects pieced together in-house to outsourcing and contracted total solutions. Difficulties in staffing, training and retaining customer service representatives (CSRs) have driven companies to seek more comprehensive options for customer self-service and intelligent contact brokering. The drive to differentiate services and the ready availability of technical solutions for mining and tracking customer preferences have yielded a corporate interest in trying to market to a segment of one -- the individual. Last, but not least, is the recognition that improving the total customer interaction experience can only be efficiently effected by a combination of reliable self-service options through all appropriate media, as well as intelligent brokering of real-time and non-real-time media interactions between CSRs and their customers. This last realization subjectively characterizes a market that is growing, by some analysts' accounts, at 25 percent to 38 percent per annum, a more attractive proposition to us than the IVR market by itself. IVR and the associated telephony skills are still important in this market, and the integration skills the company has built have turned out to ideally suit the customer demand for solutions in this critical space. In summary, this is adjacent market space for us, possessing increased growth potential, allowing more comprehensive solution offerings and an opportunity for Microlog to build long-lasting and mutually satisfying relationships with customers.

RT: What is your strategy to address the marketplace for total customer relationship management?

JM: Microlog's products and services are designed to serve as middleware to integrate those best-of-breed components (e.g., existing legacy apps, database apps, CRM apps, PBX or ACD switches, Web sites, e-mail servers, IVRs, fax servers) in a way that affords consistent operation across diverse systems and contact types while preserving existing investments. Microlog's products are Web-centric, which means major functions are accomplished through a central server suite, and only Java-enabled browsers or network computers (NCs) are required for agent desktop operations. This facilitates lower cost of ownership as well as the ease of implementation and distributed operations afforded by Internet technologies.

RT: I see from your financial history that you have had some challenges. Why?

JM: When I came onboard with the company in late 1996, the company was aware that growth rates in IVR alone were declining, and that offerings must be broadened and diversified to match the industry trends. However, it is a very tough proposition to nurse a declining opportunity while you are trying to determine and invest in a new strategy and product line, divest unprofitable businesses, establish new focus, and do all this versus venture-backed start-ups and larger, more well-funded competitors. We had to be smarter than the competitors, because we are a public company, funded from our own profits and internal resources. TFX Equities funded us with $4 million in late 1999, and we've accomplished all that we have to date with this small amount of investment. The difficulties we've encountered have made us stronger and more prepared for this period of uncertainty because we've had to be disciplined and efficient in our approach.

RT: You were a pioneer in the customer interaction management subset of the total CRM space, and it has taken you about three years to reposition the company to this point. Why was there such a big lag in time between the original vision and the sales today?

JM: We accomplished an amazing amount in those three years. We divested our unprofitable European business, as well as our retail pharmacy business, and have all-but-exited the Old Dominion Systems business. We restructured the company, developed what I think is the best product on the market in this space, and undertaken management changes that have made us much stronger today. In this span of time, we've produced six releases of the product, adding significant enhancements with each release. We were challenged to acquire our first customers and make them successful, but then this is always the challenge of new technology and the early product life cycle.

I know of one company that took over a year to get their first customer up and running. Our initial installations didn't take nearly this long, but customers are proceeding wisely in this regard, implementing contact management systems in a methodical, phased rollout. Sales always lag with the first introduction of a technology by a significant amount, and there is always a significant period of time, the sales cycle, between first exposure to a prospect, and the closure of a contract.

I like to say that the good news about our solutions is that they are strategic, and the bad news about our solutions is that they are strategic. This refers to the fact that these capabilities are important, and the decision process is sometimes longer if the decision is deemed strategic and/or there is a significant ROI or process reengineering at stake.

The other time factor is that we took pains to architect the product properly and to accommodate likely existing customer infrastructure. This actually took more time, and was more difficult to do than, for example, writing a soft PBX to be part of the product to replace existing customer switches. Another area that consumed a lot of our time was the area of open systems and cross-platform network computing. This dictated the use of CORBA and Java-based clients, and we had considerable difficulty making this type of architecture work with Microsoft platforms like Internet Explorer.

RT: What do you think makes Microlog different from other companies?

JM: There are three major reasons we are different. First, we developed our product architecture from scratch and we feel we did it the right way -- not by bolting on components from acquisitions. In fact, we have two patents pending on this technology. Our architectural tenets have resulted in solutions that work today for all media types, and which will accommodate new media and contact types for the foreseeable future. We designed our solutions from the ground up, we didn't grow by bolt-on acquisition or require customers to throw out major portions of existing expensive IT and telecom infrastructure. This allows us to guarantee our solutions, providing a great comfort to our CXO, staff, and line customers. Second, we developed the product to be cross-platform and open. We don't require you to replace large existing components of your business, since we took pains to provide interfaces and accommodations. Third, our products and services work, and we guarantee results, or our customers don't pay.

One thing I'd like to do is clarify what we mean by the terms "architected" vs. "bolt-on". When you architect a solution from the beginning, and provide a clean growth path and rich inter-modular function, it becomes much easier to guarantee function and upgrade paths. As many of us know, acquisitions can be problematic when the resulting required integration of function doesn't go smoothly, which leads to compromises on function.

RT: Going forward, what do you see as your biggest challenges?

JM: Our biggest challenges primarily lie in the sales area, although we have other related operational challenges. In sales, the challenge is to acquire, educate and support an excellent sales staff, while we gradually increase the average revenue per sale by building long-term customer relationships. In operations, the challenge is to deliver the revenue with a small staff until we achieve a significant sales pipeline and backlog of larger contracts.

RT: Why do you think you can effectively address these challenges?

JM: I think we can effectively address these challenges because our market is growing, our customers need what we are supplying, we have an excellent product offering associated with guaranteed services, and our people have the necessary skills and motivation to succeed. Our people are our biggest asset, and they are the reason we are able to make such a strong brand promise.

RT: If people are your biggest assets, how are you able, as a small company, to address the staffing challenges presented in today's market?

JM: It is true that in the past we had significant issues attracting and retaining the best talent, as have many companies. However, with the downsizings occurring in the technology business, we've seen some moderation of the trend. In addition, with our recent recognition as one of the top 50 places in which to work in the Washington, D.C. area, excellent candidates are actually seeking us out, considerably easing our staffing pressures.

RT: What is your investment strategy?

JM: We know we have excellent product, and we know we have a good operations staff, which will deliver the revenue. Our investment focus is, therefore, in the areas we know we need to bolster -- sales and marketing. We are building value for the long term, and we are investing now in acquiring key customers and in sales and marketing staff and infrastructure in anticipation of the future growth. We'll continue to add product features, and we'll offer hosted services as an addition to the product portfolio. However, we are undertaking these enhancements under a program we call "measured investment." This means that we won't spend money foolishly or precipitously. In fact, our spending will be proportionate to revenue, as you might expect. Should we be able to attract additional investment in the company, we are also prepared with an acceleration plan associated with the potential use of proceeds.

RT: What is most important in this marketplace over the next three or four years?

JM: The industry analysts say, and I believe, the most important thing in our marketplace is to provide comprehensive solutions while allowing customers to retain valued infrastructure and take a "best of breed" approach to customer interaction and relationship management.

[ Return To The April 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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