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June 2003

Voice, E-mail And The Web: The Three-Lane Highway To The Latest In Routing Technologies

By Carl Schoeneberger, Nuasis

After more than 15 years, the principal goal of contact centers remains the same ' route the right contact to the right agent at the right time. Recent trends have made that challenge much more difficult as more and more organizations find themselves operating multiple contact centers and allowing customers to reach agents through the medium of their choice: telephone, e-mail or Web. Multisite, multimedia routing, in particular, becomes a complex and costly issue.

Next-generation IP contact centers hold the answer to these routing challenges.
Numerous generations of routing technologies have been deployed to improve customer service while holding the line on costs. Early schemes included FIFO queuing and routing based on trunk groups, followed by intelligent call routing based on network data such as DNIS and touchtone input, and later database information. Subsequent innovations included skills-based routing that led to agent group workflows and the ability to route across multiple, dispersed ACD systems.
To understand where the newer trends are leading, it's helpful to take a look at four areas where routing technologies can have an impact on customer service and cost control. First, the latest-generation systems address the need to route contacts to the best agents across the enterprise using new agent matching engines and to prioritize contact handling based on business values versus media channels.
Second, with the addition of new media types, there is a need to intelligently route e-mail and Web traffic as efficiently as voice, thus solving a host of media routing issues such as contact prioritization and accurate reporting.

Third, the latest generation systems integrate media on a single system based on one IP network, enabling distribution of all contacts across the enterprise.
And fourth, these new systems eliminate computer-telephony integration (CTI), which can have an enormous impact on implementation costs and complexity.

Current Enterprise Routing Technologies
Multisite contact center operations are a reality today for many companies. Reasons for operating multiple centers include the need to place centers close to available workforces, business continuity planning, prior mergers and acquisitions, or as part of a follow-the-sun strategy.

Multiple centers can operate independently, but the benefits of networking centers are too great to ignore. As an example, following Erlang C rules, networking allows multiple smaller groups to share common work and therefore handle the same number of contacts with fewer agents overall. However, networking can be as rudimentary as T1 circuits directing overflow voice calls, or as sophisticated as fully integrated telephony and data networking. The degree to which centers are networked will determine routing efficiencies, the ability to generate consolidated reports and the size of cost savings.

The contact center manager has several options when implementing a multisite architecture. Legacy circuit-based ACD switches can be front-ended with pre-routers or connected together with T1s. The advantage with this hybrid approach is that investment in legacy ACDs can be leveraged. This approach, however, dramatically increases complexity, integration costs and system management requirements while still relying on both the telephony and corporate data networks.

Another hybrid approach is dispersed circuit-based ACDs tied together via IP rather than telephony tie lines. This is not a total IP solution. The IP connections are between the switches only. Telephony lines are still required from each switch to agent sets. This, of course, does not eliminate the two networks, but does reduce telephony charges.

A third option is a centralized, 'pure' IP-based ACD solution. This approach reduces system and network operating costs and telephony service charges and also simplifies the distribution of multimedia contacts. The disadvantages to these first attempts at an IP-based architecture have been centralized processing, constrained scalability (e.g., a practical limit of approximately 75 agents) and no local PSTN access. Additionally, these solutions have been focused primarily on voice.

One variation on the approaches mentioned above seeks to resolve the issues of handling multiple media types through a universal queue (i.e., where all contacts are routed to agents using a single set of business rules regardless of whether they are inbound, outbound, voice or data). This is accomplished with a media router, a routing engine that is separate from the ACD, e-mail system, etc. For companies with an existing technology base of ACDs, IVRs, ERMS and Web collaboration, the media router approach allows them to implement a universal queue. This requires computer-telephony integration (CTI) links that can add significant costs. While companies may leverage their existing investment, they also add new expenses and must continue to maintain multiple systems.

Next-generation IP systems eliminate many of the constraints described above. The latest solutions provide a single, distributed IP-based architecture to manage routing across multiple sites. In the case of phone calls, once a call reaches the voice gateway, the call is handled entirely as voice over IP. Because the architecture uses distributed processing techniques, scalability is no longer an issue.

By networking systems over the corporate data network, routing in a pure IP contact center environment enables visibility to all agents, ensuring that the customer reaches the agent most qualified to help. As a result, the likelihood of first-call resolution is higher, thus increasing cost savings and improving customer service. Management reports are consolidated across multiple sites, simplifying the reporting process and lowering the cost of consolidating reports. And networking more efficiently distributes contacts across all centers based on enterprisewide visibility on call activity and agent availability.

Routing Technologies For Multimedia Contact Handling
Handling multiple media effectively is a high priority for contact center managers. Yet, companies continue to struggle with the implementation and management of multiple, separate systems for voice, e-mail and Web. Separate networks, together with separate workflow engines, separate databases or datamarts needed for consolidated reporting, as well as CTI middleware, are required to integrate discrete voice, e-mail and Web media channels.

Media-centric routing typically results in telephone calls being handled first, because customers are 'live' and on hold. Response times are measured in seconds or minutes. E-mail messages can wait from 2 to 48 hours because these contacts are considered lower priority. Web contacts are not measured in time handled, but in number of transactions completed. However, this traditional customer service model may not always be the correct one. What if, for example, a gold customer sends an e-mail at the same time that a not-so-gold customer places a call to the contact center? Traditional systems do not allow the gold customer's e-mail to be handled before the voice call customer.

With a next-generation IP contact center, multimedia is routed on one IP platform. The three formerly separate media-specific agent group workflows are now integrated into a single workflow. Rather than individual databases, a single database suffices, and expensive CTI can be eliminated.

Now contact centers can prioritize by business logic, or the value of the customer to the business, not by the type of media. Next-generation IP contact centers can
route the contact to the right agent and prioritize handling irrespective of medium, as in the example of a gold versus not-so-gold customer. As an added benefit, agents can also be more productive by handling multimedia content. Just as agents in the past have handled voice messages during low call-volume periods during the day, they can now respond to e-mail messages during those same periods.

Priority Routing And Queuing Based On Agent Skills And Business Logic
The ability to efficiently route all types of media contacts to an available agent is only part of the solution. Just as important is routing to the right agent. Skills-based routing is the current model, which allows the contact center to connect the customer to the agent with the best skill set to satisfy the call.

The most common approach to skills-based routing has been the creation of agent groups and supergroups. Agents, for example, may have been divided into support, sales and customer service channels; then subdivided by language such as English versus Spanish; followed by skills; and then by medium (e.g., voice, e-mail, Web). Further division adds even more layers.

All this information has to be entered manually into agent group tables. One group may include all agents in Product Support/English/Product1/Skill A. Another group might be Product Support/Spanish/Product 1/Skill B, and so on through all the permutations. Any change in traffic patterns, personnel or business practices requires cumbersome updates to each group or subgroup. Administrative complexity increases exponentially with the addition of each new group and subgroup, presenting a practical limit to the granularity into which skill sets are divided. Regardless of the number of hierarchical divisions, queues are structured by groups, not by best agent.

Today, superior customer service demands that routing and queuing be based on skills and business logic. Next-generation IP contact centers replace agent groups and their cumbersome tables with simple workflow routines. Rather than assigning agents to groups with group attributes, the call center manager assigns characteristics or attributes to individual agents, much like records are managed in a relational database.

The next step is to create workflows or profiles for customers. When a customer contacts the center, the system 'profiles' the customer using data from the network or a CRM database. The system looks at the set of available agents and compares the attributes of those agents to determine which best matches the customer profile. Queuing to multiple agent group queues is replaced with essentially one universal queue.

Given this capability to match customers with agents using new, powerful matching engines, contact center managers can now prioritize how contacts should be handled based on weighting mechanisms that reflect business criteria. For example, if a gold customer e-mails the center after four other silver-rated phone callers enter the queue, the center may choose to serve the gold customer first, based on weighting and thresholds. These weighting values and thresholds can be modified in real-time, enabling managers to dynamically re-prioritize customer contacts and respond quickly to changing conditions.

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