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September 2004

Rich Tehrani A View Of The Industry Through ICCM's Window

By Rich Tehrani
Group Editor-In-Chief, Technology Marketing Corporation

If you were there, you'll know that the recent ICCM in Chicago was smaller than in previous years. It was not, however, lacking in new solutions, and I'd like to offer my impressions of several of them. (Tracey Schelmetic, the Editorial Director of this magazine, wrote a wonderful summation of her own, located at www.tmcnet.com/40.1,  that you should read if you are interested in more details.)

What is still the largest contact center event in the U.S. appears to be shrinking quickly, while the newly announced ACCE show is set to debut in September in Seattle. It will be interesting to see which show does better. The lack of large crowds, such as those that shows in past years boasted, allowed me to speak with a number of vendors without feeling the need to rush through my meetings.
My initial impression, upon my first look at the show floor, was that Aspect Corp. (www.aspect.com) had the best attended booth at the show, and there were a surprising amount and variety (surprising to me, at least) of countries and cities promoting call centers in their respective regions.

Interestingly, last year I wrote about the lack of new products at this annual show. The industry was slow, and R&D spending had been cut to the bone. This year, there were many more announcements and new products in evidence. It's possible that this show was slower than in years past because people were disappointed last year. I can tell you from firsthand experience, however, that the contact center market is picking up, and there are a lot of exciting new products and services to explore.

The first meeting I had was prior to the opening of the show. I received a call a while back from someone I knew who worked for Sphere Communications (www.spherecom.com) nearly a decade ago. (Sphere basically invented the concept of a packet-based PBX, although they used ATM where IP is now fashionable.) I met my contact and some of his colleagues to learn about their relatively new company in the contact center space, Sivox Technologies (www.sivox.com), which supplies products that maximize call center performance.

Sivox recently released its interactive RealCall 4.0 Contact Center Training Suite. RealCall 4.0 is an agent training product that uses speech recognition to determine if what agents are saying on the phone conforms to the company's policies and best practices. This occurs in training exercises, before agents pick up the phone to speak with real customers. For example, if an agent answers the telephone by saying 'Whassuup?' the software will not recognize the greeting as an acceptable option and will query the TSR for an alternative. The system is customized for each contact center and simulates the software in use. This is done by capturing real screen shots and presenting them at appropriate times for the agent to interact with.

Intuitively, learning by doing is the absolute best way to learn. Sivox cites research that shows the retention rates of lectures are as low as 5 percent, retention from reading training materials at 10 percent, discussion at 50 percent and practice at 75 percent. Simulating a real experience can lead to retention levels of 90 percent. The point is, we learn best when we assimilate new information in context.

Theoretical learning put into practice is not a skill that many of us possess. For those of us that do possess it, we don't like to use it. My database professor in college, for example, was obsessed with theory. My eyes glazed over whenever I was in the class. After lectures, he would ask us to write database queries. Essentially, we had to learn coding without the instructor's help. I hated the class but loved database programming. When you learn programming, there is no better way to learn than by working with the actual code. The same can be said of almost all learning processes.

Back to Sivox. If you think about it, contact centers and retail outlets are unique in that they present a front line to your customer that is very difficult to monitor. It is naturally difficult in these environments to provide a uniform customer experience.
This is why 'uniform quality assurance' should be a mantra in every contact center (and anywhere else we touch the customer). Making sure that all agents are up to a certain standard is virtually impossible to do without automated tools. In addition to the above, you can use the Sivox solution as a way to weed out underperformers before they get on the phone with customers. By hiring agents on a one week trial basis, you are able to determine if they measure up to your standards. If they do, keep them.

In case you are wondering, Sivox has some huge customers, such as MCI, SBC and Sprint, and in every case, they have received testimonials from customers who say that Sivox has dramatically improved their business. There are a few important notes to mention. Sivox was initially targeting Fortune-class companies but is now choosing to move down-market and offer a hosted solution as well. The system is 'accent trained' across a pool of 40,000 agents from the U.S., Mexico and, more important recently, India. It has a 96 percent recognition rate across the board.

An Orchestra Of Products At Concerto
If you haven't been focusing on Concerto (www.concerto.com) lately, you have missed a number of acquisitions, as well as the fact that the company has gone from public to private. One of the advantages to this latter move is that the company is now able to plan for the long-term, as opposed to quarter by quarter. This should be a positive happening for Concerto's customers. They recently acquired Melita and tell me they are happy with much of Melita's technology, especially with that related to dialer compliance with recent FTC laws. In fact, Concerto informed me that they now have just under 50 percent of the worldwide dialer market.

CenterForce Technologies was Concerto's most recent acquisition, and with this they are better positioned to focus on business applications such as performance optimization and business process management. This particular acquisition made a great deal of sense, as CenterForce has been working with Concerto and Melita for years, and now mutual customers can have a single point of contact for questions.

It's been a while since I've written about Concerto and their Ensemble Pro products, and I think it's worth pointing out that they are doing some amazing things with technology, such as contextual screen-pop. If a customer is getting billing information via IVR and he or she 'zeros out' out an agent, the system will route the call to an agent who is familiar with billing. The system will also 'pop' the agent's screen with the customer's information, including the bill in question. The reverse can also be achieved, with customers contextually placed back into the automated system. If, for example, a customer calls to change his address and then asks for account balances going back three months, the agent can ask the customer if he minds being switched to the automated system for this information. If you're thinking that this is too impersonal, you may be right (at least for the moment), but many of us thought the same thing when IVR systems and voice mail began to gain acceptance. One case study detailed by Concerto shows Computer Sciences Inc. using this technology today, and they have subsequently increased calls handled by IVR from 30 percent to 70 percent!

What is more important than the specific technology in this case is the fact that by using integrated systems, we are able to allow customers to pick their preferred type of interaction. Without such integration, a customer becomes merely a series of transactions: an IVR transaction, an e-mail transaction, etc.

Getting back to performance optimization, Concerto is able to use this technology to provide truly valuable business intelligence. Data from a variety of environments are rolled up to provide key business metrics and indicators. For example, you are able to determine if your sales have dropped from $100 per agent per hour to $90. By clicking and drilling down, you are better able to determine the root cause of this loss of revenue. Is it a T1 line that went down, a bad board in one of your systems, a revised IVR script that has a problem or an issue with your training? Your analysis might even point to a larger issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

The enhanced integration of having inbound and outbound systems so closely tied together allows a company to do things that can improve business and sales. For example, if a customer is slated to receive an outbound call and subsequently calls in to ask a question, the system can tell the agent what to ask the caller (based on the substance of the planned outbound call). The inbound agent can take the call, answer the question the customer asks and then proceed to upsell the customer in the manner of the planned outbound call. The results of this call can automatically be put into the campaign manager, allowing the system to retain an accurate record of the conversation. The best part about this interaction is that the customer need not be bothered again with another phone call.

The above technology is currently dubbed 'customer interaction data warehouse,' and it works with virtually all ACDs on the market. The goal, Concerto informed me, is not to overwhelm you with data and analytics but to present only the most relevant and important data for analysis.

The New Headset On The Block
Headset technology is getting better and better as more competition enters the market. All headsets are not created equal, and a slight increase in sound quality can increase productivity levels and reduce long-distance phone bills, as TSRs and customers need no longer repeat themselves. In some ways, headset technology needs to improve just to compensate for the quality of consumer voice calls that can be degraded if they are occurring over cellular networks or over VoIP.
Sennheiser (www.sennheiser.com) is a company that has been in the headset business for decades. In fact the founder, Dr. Sennheiser, still runs the company, ensuring the highest standards of quality.

In 2003, the company decided to expand its product portfolio beyond consumer audio and into gaming and contact centers. As German engineered headsets, they are not priced at the low end of the market spectrum, but the company believes it has better quality product than its lower-priced competitors. Sennheiser's CC series is the premium line and features padded headbands, ultra noise-canceling and well engineered comfort in a light form factor. The SH series also has noise-canceling functionality and is more price competitive. The headsets have Kevlar-coated booms and a Teflon-coated ring in the housing to keep the boom from wearing out after extended use.

Other features include dynamic volume control, preset sound level setting and a call quality feature that allows users to hone in on human voice if the call quality is poor (such as a cell phone call). I asked why this feature can't be turned on all the time and was told that it distorts the voice a bit, so it's best used only when needed.

A wireless headset is on the way, and it will differ from similar models from GN Netcom (www.gnnetcom.com) and Plantronics (www.plantronics.com) in that it will have two battery belt packs that will allow one to be charged while the other drains. The new models will use the 2.4 GHz frequency (like GN Netcom) and will, according to Sennheiser, have a farther range than either Plantronics or GN Netcom models. Look for model number DW88 and a list price of $399.
Getting back to the corded headsets, there are 60 different cords that can be used with the headsets to connect with most competitive amplifiers as well as most phones. Sennheiser has people on staff who can help you with any compatibility issues you might have.

One last point: Sennheiser microphones are used by many performers, so if you want to offer incentive to your TSRs to come to work and stay long hours, tell them if they're good enough for Britney, Justin and Christina, they're good enough for them.

Smarter Hiring To Reduce Turnover
Depending on the research you subscribe to, replacing an agent can cost as much as $6,000 when all is said and done. Anything that can reduce agent turnover requires evaluation by contact center decision makers. Dictaphone (www.dictaphone.com) has been on the front lines of making sure contact center quality is at its best, and the addition of a new ContactPoint Recruiter module rounds out the rest of the product suite, which is comprised of products such as Trainer and Assessor.

Potential agents can be directed to use a kiosk or the Web, or they can manually fill out questionnaires to determine competency based on criteria you define for the job, allowing you to manage the applicant through the process. For example, if a prospective employee doesn't have a car and your center isn't near a bus or train station, you may not wish to proceed further with the hiring process for this applicant. Of course, you will want to check with your attorneys to make sure the questions you ask are all legal.

You want to hire people based on competency, and it is important to realize that the person who has the best chemistry with you or other coworkers may not be the most qualified for the position. With so many interviews necessary to hire just one good TSR, it makes sense to prescreen applicants as much as possible before making hiring mistakes. This is exactly where Dictaphone's Recruiter module comes in to play.

New Management At Genesys
Wes Hayden recently became CEO of Genesys (www.genesyslabs.com),  and I took the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss his views on contact centers and how his company fits into the market both today and in the future.
Some of the technologies Wes sees as important in the future are speech, where he is seeing tremendous enthusiasm from his customers. Additionally, the linking of self-service and assisted service will become more and more prevalent in contact centers. Another area of growth is IP, where contact centers are moving to at a rapid clip.

I asked Wes where he sees the company in five years ' his long-term vision, if you will. Wes replied that Genesys is in a fortunate position, as they are a dynamic company. He sees new technologies allowing virtualization in contact centers and more efficient routing of information to knowledge workers.

I asked him how his company differentiates itself from others, to which he replied that Genesys is the only open systems provider in the market (they are OS- and PBX-agnostic), allowing customers to preserve their investments in equipment.
Finally, the Genesys Info Mart platform is able to handle any type of interaction, regardless of whether it's via e-mail, IVR, voice, etc. An integrated platform allows users to manage all of these information types in order to present the corporation with a clear view of what is happening in the center.

Best-Of-Breed Versus All In One
While Concerto is focusing on an integrated all-in-one approach, SER Solutions, Inc. (www.ser.com) is discussing the success they are enjoying with their Enterprise Dialing System, a co-branded product with Aspect. SER has decades of dialer experience (likewise for Aspect on the inbound side), so the combination makes for a strong, integrated package.

SER also recently upgraded its SERTAINTY automated quality assurance platform to 2.2. SERTAINTY is a speech recognition product that I find amazing. It analyzes recorded calls and flags them for problems. In later, non-automated analysis, the product can take you to the questionable portion of a call, eliminating wasted time searching for the problem spot. Version 2.2 uses a business rules engine as well as search grammar notification, which allows it to apply complex business rules while searching for elements in recorded conversations. The next step, SER tells me, is to analyze calls in real-time.

One of SER's customers, Calibrus, a teleservices/BPO company that handles third-party verification of calls, has had success using Sertainty in their operation. Third-party verification companies are employed to confirm that consumers really do want to switch long-distance phone companies, for instance. The assistance of these companies reduces slamming, the process of switching a customer without his or her consent.

This sort of business is a natural for speech recognition because these companies handle many calls and must follow strict FCC regulations. Even slight variations in a script can be a violation of an FCC rule. Prior to using SERTAINTY, Calibrus was monitoring 5 percent of calls. They are now monitoring 25 percent of calls, with no additional staff.

To make the best use of such a system, you must fill it with information to better customize it to your needs. You must set up profiles for customer rudeness, for example. You can also have a profile to ensure that the agent closes correctly. There is a tool that allows you to set a threshold for accuracy by checking how the system is recognizing what agents are saying. The system ranks how accurate it believes it is, and you pick the point below 100 percent at which you still feel the system is analyzing calls effectively.

Aspect Embraces VoIP
Last year I wrote about Aspect's (www.aspect.com) Uniphi Connect solution, which allows IP and PSTN systems to coexist. This year, Aspect is seeing more interest in its VoIP solution, and the company is happy to announce that both NICE Systems (www. nice.com) and Verint Systems, Inc. (www.verint.com)  have completed testing and offer versions of their quality monitoring systems that work with Uniphi in PSTN and IP formats. Many contact centers are using home agents, and quality monitoring solutions are essential in this type of environment.
Choices of telephone consist of either Aspect's rebadged 3COM phones (3COM had one of the first IP-PBX systems, going back over five years) or a SIP-based soft client. One of the advantages of using IP and Aspect is that management of the contact center, no matter how distributed, can be managed centrally.

On a final note, with all the interest in speech and IP contact centers, we are as excited as ever to be launching the world's first-ever speech event that is coupled with an IP contact center conference. We hope to see you at Speech-World from November 30 to December 2 in Dallas. Please visit www.speech-world.com for details.


Rich Tehrani
Group Publisher, Group Editor-in-Chief
[email protected]



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