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November 2001


Decentering The Contact Center


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

The Second Coming
William Butler Yeats

Yeats metaphor might be looked upon as apt for the old-style call center. Data came flowing in, were stored in silos, and were unobtainable for anyone unconnected to that system (the falcon cannot hear the falconer: how many times have you been asked to repeat an account number when transferred between agents?). Instead of loosing anarchy upon the world, the advent of IP (Internet Protocol) networks has stimulated a rethinking of how call centers operate, transforming them into contact centers that can take advantage of various media that can be used simultaneously to collaborate with the customer. Using IP networks has opened up the free flow of information throughout the enterprise, so that now contacts can be distributed to whomsoever is best able to handle the contact; in effect, decentering the contact center. I recently posed a series of questions on this topic to Brett Shockley, vice president and general manager for the Customer Contact Business Unit in Cisco Systems, Inc.s Business Communications Software Group (BCG). With more than 20 years of experience in the telecommunications and call center markets, Shockley brings a unique perspective to the changes that have transformed the call center industry into the contact center industry. Prior to joining Cisco, Shockley was co-founder and CEO of Spanlink Communications, a leading developer of CTI, IVR and Web-based software solutions for call centers and a company that pioneered the concept of Web-enabled call centers. Spanlink released the industrys first product, WebCall, in 1995. He has also held senior-level management positions at ADC Telecommunications, a manufacturer of telecommunications equipment.

EL: What will be the impact of decentralizing the management of data? What new opportunities will open?

BS: Decentralizing data in a contact center will have significant impact on the timeliness, responsiveness and accuracy of information that is not only provided to the customer support person, but most important, to the end customer. The ability to disseminate data in real-time will greatly reduce the hierarchy and, therefore, bottlenecks associated with access to data that have been centralized in traditional applications.

Another important trend will be the means by which customers will be able to access these decentralized data. Not only will more self-service voice-enabled applications be made more intelligent, but access over the Web and other mobile technologies (e.g., WAP-enabled phones) will provide new channels of access to data. The adoption of the PC, Internet/Web and cell phones as standard communications vehicles has driven the shift away from centralized repositories of data to decentralized servers that can be distributed and replicated worldwide. The infrastructure to support this decentralization has been the standardization and penetration of the Internet Protocol (IP) networks that can support not only data, but also voice, video and next-generation technologies that are being developed for Web-based solutions.

By eliminating these bottlenecks and distributing data in real-time, customers will now have direct access to their personalized data anytime and anywhere. Automating more applications with real-time access to the most current data that customers can access to self-administer their own needs will greatly reduce the need to talk to live agents. At the same time, agents will now be able to spend more time improving the value they provide by having real-time access to content that requires an expert to interpret.

EL: What do you think are the most significant changes to have taken place in the past few years in contact centers? How have they improved not only the efficiency of the agent, but also the quality of the interaction?

BS: There have been a number of significant changes to the call center industry as it moves toward contact centers, ultimately improving customer satisfaction and loyalty. The most pronounced change has been the introduction of the Internet and all the new technologies, opportunities and challenges associated with integrating the Internet into traditional call centers.

The Internet introduces not only a new set of channels of communications (e.g., e-mail, chat/instant messaging and collaboration), but also an opportunity to integrate all communications over a single converged infrastructure; an Internet Protocol-based network that can seamlessly integrate voice, video and data. The opportunity this presents means there is no longer a need to spend significant capital and development costs to attempt to integrate two disparate networks; a datacom and a telecom network, as is the case with computer-telephony integration (CTI) applications that form the backbone of traditional call centers today. A converged IP-based network allows companies to use their existing or new data networking infrastructures to integrate voice and data applications seamlessly over a worldwide standard known as the Internet.

This evolution to a converged network will allow two key improvements in agent and customer efficiencies:

Agents will be able to interact seamlessly with customers whether they are using a traditional voice/phone interaction or are communicating over the Internet/Web using chat, e-mail or collaboration applications. Agents will now be able to provide better support to more customers regardless of the medium they choose.

Customers will now be able to choose the interaction medium they are most comfortable with and is most convenient for them. A voice interaction can now be held over a traditional phone medium, but also over the Internet as part of a live e-mail and voice interaction or over a mobile phone medium where a voice conversation can be annotated with a WAP-enabled Web interaction.

The end result is that call centers will truly be able to evolve to contact centers that can support any medium that customers choose, thus improving the service and support necessary to maintain a satisfied customer.

EL: How have networks given organizations new options for providing round-the-clock service?

BS: The beauty of a distributed networking solution is that information resources such as agents, voice response systems or Web-based response services have no geographical boundaries. For example, a customer service representative (human or automated) can be distributed anywhere in the world and the fact that a response came from somewhere around the globe is transparent to the customer.

Another key point is that in a distributed network environment, applications can be distributed that provide for the timeliest historical information in response to a customer request. In this case, an agent or resource can provide information to a query and that resource may then go off-duty, but the new agent assigned the query at a later time, and possibly in the same time zone as the customer, will be able to pick up the issues and respond to the customer with the most relevant information and at the time that most suits the customers needs.

The net result is that this worldwide distribution of real-time data and applications will allow companies to deploy true follow-the-sun, 7x24x365 levels of support to their customers.

EL: We all have to live by rules. How has the freedom of the new technologies allowed businesses to change the rules by which they operate?

BS: Adoptions of new technologies such as integrated voice, data and video with new media (phone, chat, e-mail, VoIP, cell, etc.) are providing customers with more freedom of access to information. This newfound freedom of information is setting new expectations in customers minds as to what adequate customer support and service means. This new demand by customers is requiring companies to keep up with the adoption of new technologies or risk losing their established customers to more innovative competitors.

These new technologies, specifically IP converged networks that support voice, voice over the Internet, chat, e-mail and collaboration, are allowing companies to re-evaluate their operational opportunities. Companies now have an opportunity to integrate customer service and care solutions into more innovative applications that can take advantage of converged services such as data, voice and video on one infrastructure. These technologies provide for more integrated applications that customer representatives can use to improve their efficiencies by having a single cockpit for all interaction -- data, voice and video -- rather than having separate applications for CTI voice-based applications, Web, chat and e-mail applications.

So, the rules by which both companies and their customers operate are changing due to the adoption of these new technologies.

EL: How are better analytics affecting both customer segmentation and business rules?

BS: Analytics are helping companies in a number of ways when it comes to segmenting their existing and new customers as well as defining and adopting new rules for better supporting their customers.

From an historical basis, analytical tools that can track customer buying behavior, trends and preferences will allow companies to more accurately predict customers future buying behaviors as well as support requirements. This is a somewhat static view of using histograms to help segment existing customers buying and support trends by demographics and other market segmentation rules.

When companies can combine historical with real-time analytical tools, they can more accurately and efficiently predict what customer segment is going to require specific real-time responses to buying or support queries. Using this combination of historical and real-time analytics, combined with an intelligent and distributed contact routing, queuing and reporting engine, companies will be able to realize significant optimization of their network, agent and service resources.

By mapping incoming interactions from customers via the Web, voice, e-mail or chat with historical and real-time, personalized data, companies will be able to more efficiently route contacts to the specific resource that is most knowledgeable on the specific customers request. This optimization has a number of obvious benefits.

The first and foremost is being able to accurately predict the use of specific network resources and, more important, human resources so the use of both can be managed in a manner that results in low to no delay in responding to customers immediately. As the information on each customer becomes more accurate and customized, associating queries between like trends can be mapped to marketing and sales campaigns that are targeted to the needs of that specific customer. The result is a much more predictable response rate to promotional campaigns, which will result in much more predictable order pipelines for goods and services.

So, integrating historical and real-time analytical tools with an intelligent network routing, queuing and reporting engine will allow companies to more accurately segment customers according to a number of new rules while at the same time allow companies to reassess and review their existing business rules for providing improved support and service to customers on all communication channels.

EL: How has the implementation of multimedia affected the jobs of the agents? How has it affected management metrics (such as measuring agent performance) and business operations?

BS: Today, most companies have not deployed truly integrated, multimedia, multichannel interactions to agents to any great extent. In most companies, voice call centers are separate from Web or e-mail contact centers. For this reason, agent skill-sets are also separate and distinct.

For these reasons, the management metrics and business operations of a truly integrated multimedia, multichannel contact center are still being evaluated. The availability of quantifiable metrics for managing the operations and allocation of agents in a contact center are only now being defined so that the true operational management and ROI benefits of an integrated, multimedia contact center can be realized.

The business need for both a Web-based and voice-based support and service center are clearly understood, but the true benefits of integrating the two into a single integrated network are not.

Part of the reason for this lies in the underlying ease of implementation and integration of these two disparate technologies. In a traditional voice-based network, adding Web, e-mail, chat and collaboration sessions is extremely difficult and in most cases technically not feasible. Attempting to integrate these networks at the call flow and applications synchronization level is too costly to justify.

It has only been within the past year that new technologies have been introduced and the migration of traditional voice applications to a new world infrastructure have made possible the integration of Web, chat, e-mail, collaboration and voice. This new world infrastructure, the Internet and the underlying Internet Protocols allow for ease of deployment of applications and the integration of media types so agents can be presented with a unified desktop.

Operational managers can now apply tools and metrics to a unified queuing and routing architecture as well as review unified reports that will allow them to better understand the operational and business benefits of deploying multimedia, multichannel contact center solutions. This is the underlying value proposition and business benefits that Ciscos IP Contact Center (IPCC) solution provides to companies as they migrate from a proprietary, voice-only architecture to an Internet-based, open architecture.

EL: How has the increase in data-sharing capabilities and the resulting ability to introduce other media into the conversation changed interdepartmental operations?

BS: The primary benefit that data sharing has added to interdepartmental operations is in the real-time dissemination and maintenance of customer data. This is especially relevant as customer interactions that may originate through Web, e-mail, chat or voice sessions are transferred between support organizations. Rather than having each department query their unique database of information and require a customer to re-enter I.D. and passwords, data and application sharing will allow the customers information to travel with the customer and agent(s) conversations.

EL: Do you foresee a day when all departments will have specialists (the person best able to handle a particular problem) who deal directly with customer interactions? In other words, will there be contact centers in 10 years?

BS: With the evolution of the networking capabilities from voice-only to multimedia and multichannel architectures, the ability to finally provide companies with a platform to create new and unique applications that are customer- and business-driven will drive unique opportunities for specialization. For example, allowing a customer to interact in real-time or non-real-time with a company over the Web will create new specializations that are driven by customer demand.

A traditional voice agent who occasionally supports chat or e-mail interactions can now proactively request to speak live to the customer, or conversely, the customer can ask to speak live with an agent. This ability to zero out of a Web site in the same manner that you can zero out of a voice response system will drive new specializations in organizations that require both Web and voice skills.

As the ability to seamlessly traverse Web, chat, e-mail and voice interactions becomes more ubiquitous, the requirement for agents to become more expert in managing new media and multimedia applications will increase.

In parallel, new business applications will emerge based on customer demand for integrating intelligent routing and queuing logic with the device the customer most prefers. For example, a customer may wish to check a balance over his or her cell phone by accessing a voice response system using speech recognition. The customer may then wish to purchase a product and request that his or her specific agent, stock broker, doctor or sales specialist, etc., be contacted in order to review the options in real-time. Finally, the customer may wish that confirmation of his or her order be sent to a cell phone or PC via e-mail. All the while, the system manages the customers routing requests and knows the queues for specific resources and, most important, knows how to contact a specific individual.

There are a number of facts, intangible as well as quantifiable, that support the idea that individual specialization of agents is rapidly evolving to the need for more rounded business knowledge specialists. The idea of individually defined skill-sets for agents is already changing dramatically to support more than one or two basic services. The cost of increasing the number of agents with single threaded skills is becoming more and more prohibitive.

There is a market shift away from large, dedicated call centers to smaller, informal support centers that are required in small to medium-sized businesses where customer support is only one of many skills an employee answering the phone will need to support. In addition, the agent retention period for single threaded, sweat shop applications can be reversed by providing more complex, multimedia, multichannel interaction applications which will make the workload more challenging, rewarding and ultimately more fulfilling for agents who become experts in a variety of disciplines.

The idea of dedicated call centers is evolving rapidly toward more business solution-centric support organizations that can provide a variety of services to customers. This trend, along with the mobilization of the workforce, is driving the need for an infrastructure that can support the distributed nature of the applications, the data and the skills of the personnel needed to respond to customers requirements.

The seamless integration of all of these components will create new business rules and operational opportunities for organizations to redefine customer service and support in a more efficient manner than in the past. To support this evolution, the skills and specializations of the traditional agents will also need to evolve so that every employee may be considered a support resource for any specific customer request.

It is this dynamic nature of an Internet-based solution that will enable the evolution of the call center to a contact center and eventually to a knowledge broker solution for organizations to provide improved sales, support and services to their customers.

The author may be contacted at elounsbury@tmcnet.com.

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