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IP Contact Center Technology:
Eliminating The Risks (Part VII)

By Eli Borodow of [email protected] and Kevin Hayden, TELUS Communications Inc.
• A special editorial series sponsored by [email protected]


There are a wide variety of routing strategies that contact centers rely on to maximize operational efficiency. The effectiveness of those routing strategies is enhanced when phone calls and multimedia Web communications can be unified into a single universal queue subject to common routing rules.

This month, we focus on the various means by which call center efficiency and customer satisfaction can be enhanced through more efficient routing of customer communications to agents best qualified to help. The best IP contact center solutions incorporate these strategies while adding new tools that advance the objective of optimized transaction processing. Understanding the differences between various routing approaches can empower you to mitigate the risks up front.

So what are these routing strategies? You'll find some of the most common routing strategies listed below, along with emerging new strategies that offer compelling benefits for both multisite and single-site contact centers.

Customer Priority Routing
Which customer should leave the queue first? Intuitively, most people assume that call centers treat all customers equally and therefore, that all calls are routed from the queue on a first-in/first-out basis. In fact, best practices dictate that high-value customers should receive 'better' treatment than the baseline level of service delivered to lower-priority customers. Today companies generally route priority callers from the queue ahead of others who might have been waiting longer. Here, the customer is typically identified either by the telephone number that he or she is calling from or by prompting the customer to enter an I.D. number.

Of course, such an approach begs the question of how long a lower-priority customer can be expected to wait for service as others continue to move ahead of him or her in queue. The answer lies in time-sensitive escalation, where lower-priority customers are gradually escalated in priority as they wait in queue, to ensure that they eventually achieve sufficient priority to be routed to an agent. Typical customer priority approaches offer five degrees of priority. Of course, different queues will have different escalation rules and intervals depending on business needs. (For example, an unknown caller requiring information about a company's top-of-the-line product might be assigned a higher default priority than a known customer calling for information on a low-cost item.)

Regional Prefix Pattern Routing
The next potential decision, once customer priority has been established, is whether to route callers based on the geographic origin of the call. For example, callers from a particular city or state might be routed to agents in that same city or state if local knowledge would facilitate the call. Another example would be to route local inquiries to region-specific account managers. Regional prefix pattern routing enables that to happen. It also enables different routing rules to apply depending on how many digits in the customer's ANI (equivalent to caller I.D.) match particular predefined patterns.

Agent Association Routing
Another potential routing decision is whether to attempt to route a caller to the same agent that caller has spoken with in the past. This can be valuable both from a relationship-building perspective and as a means of avoiding repetition when callers call to follow up on open issues.

Business Event Routing
Given that companies may have different levels of resources available during different seasons, at different times of the day, on weekends, on specific days of the year such as holidays, in the case of emergencies and in a variety of other circumstances, companies may want to leverage different routing logic on those days to maximize efficiency with the resources available. Business event routing, which includes a scheduling function, accomplishes just that.

Overflow Routing
Overflow routing enables different routing logic to apply whenever a call, e-mail, voice mail, fax or live Web communication (collectively referred to as 'interactions') has been in queue for more than a pre-specified period of time. Examples of overflow routing triggers include a change in routing logic whenever the number of queued interactions exceeds a pre-specified limit or a pre-specified ratio of logged-in agents to queued callers. Examples of corresponding changes to routing logic include transfers to different 'overflow' workgroups or to self-help IVRs (in the case of phone calls) or Web pages (in the case of Web transactions). Of course, callers who are transferred to overflow workgroups after excessive time in queue will typically receive a high default customer priority rating in the new queue to which they've been transferred.

Skills-Based Routing
Skills-based routing can dramatically improve service levels, agent productivity and overall contact center efficiency with no additional training or staff. Skills-based routing also helps to improve first-call resolution by dramatically increasing the odds of callers getting to the right agent the first time. Skills-based routing maximizes the probability that a caller will be connected to an agent who can handle his or her call efficiently ' without transfers or long delays to find relevant information.

Skills-based routing allows companies to manage their call centers more effectively by matching the skills of agents with the needs of individual customers on a call-by-call basis. Recognizing the relative strengths of every member of each agent workgroup, and matching those strengths to caller needs, allows companies to route callers to those agents best qualified to help. This matching of caller needs to agent skills is done automatically with skills-based routing technology in combination with IVR and/or speech recognition (or more rarely, by human operators) to identify caller needs. In the case of Web communications, required skills can be identified from the point of origin on the company Web site and/or via analysis of e-mail content that can drive context-based routing to particular skill groups.

Most vendors in the contact center market offer skills-based routing capabilities, but not all provide this capability for all media types. While skills-based routing for telephone calls has been available for decades, it has become increasingly important for companies to provide intelligent routing for all media contacts, including e-mail and Web communications.

Skills-Based Routing Methodologies
The first question that buyers need to ask is whether their proposed IP contact center solution provides 'weighted' or more basic 'binary' skills-based routing.

Binary skills-based routing offers a simple yes/no binary decision-making process for routing decisions; one that assumes equal proficiency for every agent in each group. Differences in relative proficiency between agents in this model are typically addressed via overflow rules, which are leveraged to route calls in descending order to different groups, each with decreasing proficiency.

The problem: This model works effectively only so long as a single skill is required for maximum efficiency in routing (a rare case). The overflow workaround becomes increasingly unmanageable when a routing decision needs to incorporate relative proficiencies across different variables to achieve maximum efficiency (for example: language skills, product knowledge, sales ability, typing ability, and outside variables such as longest idle time).

Weighted Skills-Based Routing
True weighted skills-based routing enables different variables to be considered on a weighted basis to arrive at the optimal algorithm for transaction processing efficiency. A weighted calculation can include percentages of relevance related to foreign language skills, product knowledge, customer service ability, salesmanship and a wide diversity of other company-specific metrics. The best solutions enable agent skills to be weighted against outside variables such as idle time, agent cost and a variety of other external metrics such as those articulated below.

Newer generations of solutions can empower companies to implement and tune their weighted skills-based algorithms in real time (i.e., on-the-fly and without programming, debugging or rebooting) to address strained queue conditions, to reduce transaction processing times and increase productivity. 'Adaptive' IP contact center technology enables companies to easily modify any technology-driven routing rule in real time, at no cost. Companies that have both implemented adaptive technology and embraced a philosophy of change have seen tremendous productivity gains. Larger companies have seen productivity gains of as much as 30 percent, while smaller companies, typically lacking in-house expertise and consulting budgets, have seen even greater gains because they can improve their operational efficiency one decision at a time, at little or no cost.

Dynamic Customer Satisfaction Routing
Dynamic customer satisfaction routing is an emerging routing strategy pioneered by [email protected] It enables callers to define their experiences with individual agents at the end of each call via an IVR survey (or Web survey in the case of Web communications). The results of this survey can be used to automatically and dynamically update the agent's skill rating in the area of customer satisfaction delivery for particular projects. This adds a new dimension to routing. Customer-driven assessments can now be dynamically incorporated into routing decisions on a weighted basis along with the traditional skills-based routing metrics. This approach also adds value to customer priority routing, as best customers can now be routed on a preferential basis to those agents who other customers have identified as 'best.'

A corollary approach is to leverage real-time access to workgroup statistics to drive routing logic. For example, agents with the best first-answer resolution rates can be leveraged in a routing algorithm that favors those who complete transactions without transferring calls to other agents or calling in a supervisor. Of course, the customer feedback delivered by dynamic customer satisfaction routing ensures that the quality of results is also considered.

The key is a weighted approach that enables varying percentages of the routing decision to be based on agent skills, outside variables such as idle time or agent cost, customer satisfaction and other individual or workgroup performance data.

IP Contact Center Benefits
In many virtual call center deployment models, disparate systems are linked together but never actually act as one single system. In those cases, much of the value has been left on the table. IP contact center technology done correctly offers the ability to unify an unlimited number of call centers around the world into a single, seamlessly integrated virtual contact center that can span sites or groups within a subset of sites. In an IP contact center deployment, companies can transcend the geographic boundaries of agent groups and can route calls to best-qualified agents wherever they are. Those agents can be sitting at any desk, anywhere in the world.

Flexible systems can route calls both through the IP backbone and through the public-switched telephone network (PSTN) ' whichever has been defined for the particular agent ' in order to route communication to the best-qualified agent, no matter where they're located. PSTN calls can be synchronized with screen-pops and call control over the PSTN, ensuring universal capabilities across locations. Calls can be held in the network rather than at individual sites, which empowers highly efficient skills-based routing across geography as agents become available. As we've noted in prior columns, the best multitenant solutions will also enable local autonomy over all relevant technology-driven business processes, even when all contact center infrastructure is centralized.

Building the IP contact center offers a compelling opportunity to leverage the best of old and new routing strategies to achieve optimal results. Ensuring that your solution can accommodate these strategies and effectively deliver the newer approaches articulated above is the most assured path toward maximum ROI.

Eli Borodow is the CEO of [email protected], the leading provider of adaptive, multitenant IP contact center technology for contact centers and service providers. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]. Kevin Hayden is the Director of Integrated Contact Center Solutions at TELUS Communications Inc., a tier-1 telecommunications carrier in Canada and the Canadian leader in hosted contact center services. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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