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Call Center/CRM Management Scope
June 2004

Don't Ignore Your Other Workforce: The Automated Agent

By Frank Moreno, Empirix


Few would debate the importance of a customer's first impression of a contact center. Not only can that initial interaction impact the result of a particular call; a bad first impression can tarnish your company's brand, drive up costs and drive away customers. But when it comes to quality assurance efforts in the contact center, why is it that the first thing the customer hears is typically ignored?

Most contact centers focus a majority of their quality assurance time and efforts on agents. Workforce management strategies normally consist of traditional call recording and monitoring efforts coupled with training and coaching techniques to ensure agents say the correct things to customers. But if your quality efforts are focused on call recording, you're only monitoring the last part of the process ' and one that only a small percentage of your customers experience.

The Automated Agent

Typically the other workforce in your contact center answers nearly every call, and completes up to 70 percent of total calls coming into the center without ever involving a human agent. This other workforce is the voice applications and telephony systems that make-up the 'automated agent,' which is rapidly evolving into the foundation of a successful customer relationship management (CRM) strategy in the contact center.

The automated agent has more responsibility than ever before and can make or break the goals and objectives of any contact center. The automated agent provides the customer's first impression of a contact center and therefore it also requires an effective quality assurance strategy. Interactive voice response (IVR) systems, speech recognition, call routing ' all of these can drastically reduce costs, improve live agent productivity and increase customer loyalty when they work properly. But when quality is poor, the result is often extremely costly.

Unfortunately, quality assurance for the automated agent is often ignored.
As the automated agent has gained acceptance as a powerful cost-savings solution and become a mission-critical resource for the contact center, new technologies are focused on making them more skilled to deliver increased value to the contact center and the customer. This can be seen with the growth of voice over IP, vXML and CTI-enabled CRM applications. There is also an increase in integrated Web technologies such as SOAP and J2EE-based voice application platforms. However, the result of these new technologies is that now the automated agent has new levels of complexity and additional points of failure, creating an even bigger challenge for ensuring quality service.

Looking At Technology In Silos Ignores The Big Picture

The automated agent in the contact center consists of multiple, integrated voice applications and telephony systems. Yet, typically most contact centers generalize their self-service systems as simply IVR applications. For example, they associate an automated account balance option with an IVR system, which translates into the account balance being an application that is owned and managed by a technology group. This technology perspective of the automated agent is another challenge that can adversely affect the quality assurance efforts of these systems.

For customers to successfully obtain their account balance from the automated agent, there is much more to the call than just an IVR application. From initial carrier-based routing to the integrated ACD, IVR, speech recognition, database and CTI solutions, account balance depends on more than just the IVR. So, how can quality be measured and enforced for account balance?

When performance of the automated agent degrades, simply looking at the IVR is not enough. Unfortunately, most contact centers and their technical teams view the automated agents from a technology perspective with no concept of what other systems are required to successfully complete the account balance call. Additionally, even when these other systems are individually monitored, there's no focus on the interconnected end-to-end environment and no visibility into the customer experience. This often results in frustrated customers complaining about an application's performance, even when all systems appear to be up and running.

The Automated Agent Delivers Services To Customers

Typically in the contact center there is a gap between the IT teams who manage the technology and the contact center teams who are concerned about customer retention and agent productivity. In most cases, each group has different goals they are trying to achieve. Therefore, why should a contact center manager, customer service executive or any business unit want to be involved with managing the performance of voice applications?

To answer this question, consider looking at automated agents as a team delivering customer-facing services. While IT teams may be responsible for the different devices and applications that make up the automated agent, these systems are really just a mechanism to deliver services to the customer. The customer service and contact center managers as well as the various lines of business owners are ultimately responsible for providing services to the customer. Looking at the automated agent from a services perspective will help bridge that gap between IT and the contact center teams.

Once companies embrace the services approach to automated agents, they can manage quality much more effectively, and IT and the contact center can establish common goals and objectives that focus on ensuring a positive customer experience. According to market research firm Forrester Research, Inc., 62 percent of companies state that acquiring and retaining customers is a top priority and 41 percent of these customer-centric firms want more business unit control over IT.

When the automated agent is managed from a technology perspective, monitoring individual silos provides no understanding of the end-user experience. A service-oriented approach to managing quality means looking at things across these silos for each customer-facing service, including all of the components of the automated system. This is the optimal way to ensure that customer experience is the main focus of a contact center's quality assurance strategy.

Traditional Enterprise Management Systems Can't Handle Voice Applications

For years, voice and telephony systems have been managed differently from enterprise systems and applications. While enterprise IT groups and the network operations center (NOC) monitor and manage the servers, applications and network devices for an organization and the phone and voice infrastructures have been the responsibility of completely different groups. Many organizations used individual teams of specialists that manage a specific type of device or application in production. There may be separate IVR production teams, ACD teams and CTI teams, each typically dealing with highly reliable, legacy systems.

As new systems have recently evolved, the telephony environments may now look more like the enterprise (i.e., Web applications, Windows-based platforms, enterprise databases), but they still behave quite differently, and require specific, voice application performance management (APM) solutions. Yet IT teams often attempt to use traditional enterprise systems management tools or vendor-included consoles to monitor each silo of technology individually. Enterprise systems management products are not designed to monitor the performance of today's voice applications. Some tools may have the ability to monitor the availability of an application, identifying a total crash, for example. Managing performance of voice applications requires real-time monitoring of specific voice metrics, such as port utilization, average talk time, total calls taken, abandoned calls and opt-out codes. Additionally, there is a disconnect between the tools used by IT and the ability to understand the end-user experience. Enterprise systems management tools and vendor-provided consoles cannot identify most customer-facing problems.

Gaining An End-To-End View Of The Customer Experience


The most important aspect of managing quality of the automated agent is monitoring what the customer experiences. To do this effectively, IT teams must first understand the technology dependencies that make up each service ' for instance, the account balance inquiry. With multiple self-service applications available to each caller, it is critical to know the specific devices and applications that are used for each service (which IVRs, which servers, which databases, etc., on which each service depends in order to execute properly). IT staff also need to understand how each of these systems is connected to one another ' a critical component of understanding the end-to-end customer experience. Once they know this, IT can identify which services and potentially which customers are affected by a particular alert or problem.


Monitoring And Managing Voice Applications

Understanding the customer experience helps organizations identify performance problems proactively, thus enabling them to address emerging issues before customers or agents are affected. Voice APM products and services generate automated, live calls that emulate real customer behavior, dialing into centers to help immediately identify performance issues outside of the contact center such as a long time to answer, delays in prompts or busy signals and dropped calls. Once the call is on premise, monitoring can identify and alert on issues in the IVR such as misrouted calls, garbled prompts or incorrect prompt responses. Additionally, when a call opts out of the IVR, CTI monitoring will identify if the call got routed to the right agent, with the right data, in the right period of time. Voice APM leveraging live calls coming into the contact center is by far the best way to ensure customer quality and proactively track the customer experience.

For best results, organizations should combine Voice APM with application and system management tools designed specifically for voice environments, and which are capable of monitoring the ACDs, IVRs, CTI systems and speech servers that comprise the automated agent. This combination enables IT or contact center staff to correlate customer-facing problems with underlying system metrics, so they can quickly and easily drill down to determine root causes and fix them.


For more information on monitoring, please visit Making Monitoring Matter.

Three Steps To Achieving Contact Center Service Assurance

Workforce management is critical to ensuring the quality and performance of your live agents, yet it is only one component of a complete CRM quality assurance strategy. Contact centers should also apply a quality strategy to their automated agents. Contact center service assurance is a best- practice approach for ensuring quality of automated systems that can apply to systems already in production or new systems being deployed. A service assurance strategy for contact centers includes three components that, when used together, can maximize system quality and yield immediate, quantifiable results:

Baseline the current environment.

The initial baseline is incredibly valuable for any contact center. Evaluating the current performance of existing automated systems and establishing baseline metrics provides a measurable and objective summary of the performance of current systems. This highlights what both customers and agents are experiencing today, before any changes are made. The data from this baseline provides valuable acceptance criteria for testing new implementations and can also provide the foundation for setting future service level agreements. These data can also be used to benchmark a particular application or system against industry averages for comparison. Baselining will typically identify problem areas to fix as well as cost-savings opportunities, both of which can lead to positive change.

Test to ensure success of new or modified technology systems.

After any change to your systems, regardless of whether it's simply a menu change to an IVR or the addition of a completely new technology, contact centers should design and employ a comprehensive testing strategy for the technologies leveraged within the automated agent. Testing is the most effective means of proactively addressing quality issues by verifying improvements and comparing them to the initial baseline. Before going live, it is important to test every change early and often and to design your tests based on real-world customer behaviors. Therefore, testing should focus on both the anticipated peak call volumes and the various types of caller transactions that each system will experience. It is also important to test the service, not just the devices and applications individually, which requires measuring all of the various integration points and systems collectively to get a true understanding of what the customer will experience.

Monitor on an ongoing basis.

Production monitoring of the automated agent is a critical component of the service assurance lifecycle and one of the best ways to retain customers and maintain agent productivity. Monitoring the voice infrastructure and the customer experience enables contact centers to proactively detect and isolate customer-facing performance issues with the automated agent, diagnose and repair issues quickly and assure that service level results are aligned with business objectives.

A successfully applied service assurance strategy for automated agents in the contact center will have an immediate and significant impact on the bottom line. Today, some of the world's leading contact centers are experiencing sizable financial returns and dramatic increases in customer satisfaction and agent productivity as they adopt a service-oriented approach to technology systems and enforce quality standards that directly impact overall business objectives.

Frank Moreno is a director of Product Marketing for Empirix (www.empirix.com), a provider of integrated test and monitoring solutions for Web, voice and network applications. Frank has more than 12 years of experience in product marketing and product management in the networking and software industries, and has published multiple articles on APM. He currently leads product-marketing efforts for Empirix contact center Voice APM solutions.


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