Meshing the Media, and Channels

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  September 01, 2010

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2010 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

The customer-contact center interaction dialogue is about to become more complex as it expands from supporting multiple channels – voice, e-mail, and chat – to enabling and engaging customers through multiple media: social and a little further down the road, video.

Yet many contact centers are still struggling to make live agent programs and mobile interactions via SMS and the web work function seamlessly with ”traditional” channels. Now they must face putting together inputs from and outputs to social and video.

Contact centers will clearly have to find ways to mesh in these channels and media because customers will insist on it: or else they will go to competitors that offer comparable right-priced goods and services, but who also engage in them via their choice of interaction methods.

“The question is not about the rise of social in the contact center, the question is about the customer communicating with the company and/or the brand,” says Jacob Morgan, principal, Chess Media Group ( a social business consultancy. “The role of the contact center is to make sure they are aware of how many different channels an individual customer is using. They need to be prepared to interact with the customer where they are, when they are ready and on their terms.”

Multichannel, Media Integration Begins at the Top

Before contact centers can think of effectively handling these channels (including in-person retail) and media, and investing in the enabling tools their top management must have strategies in place to use them productively.

This is not happening though in many outfits, reports Eric Tamblyn, vice president, Genesys Product Marketing at Alcatel-Lucent. Too many companies have not yet coordinated their contact center teams, and their mobile customer service programs and other channels, including social media.

For example, he reports that sometimes frequent flier-program-enrolled airline customers who need to change their flights would receive outbound alerts that seats were available and they would say yes or no. Yet, when they show up at the check-in desks, they would be told their carriers had no seats.

Also in mobile banking, customers check their account balances or shift money over on their smartphones. However, even if they call from the very same devices, all too frequently the conversations starts up all over again i.e. they have to repeat the information previously provided.

Yet at the same time most organizations do not permit their contact center staff to be proactive, the Genesys executive points out, unlike say sales reps. Agents are not empowered to reach out to customers by phone or e-mail to see how they are doing, or review and reply to their comments on social media sites. Instead they are diagrammed to be cause-and-effect: making outbound calls or contacts only if prompted by events such as a credit card limit was exceeded or if marketing overhears a complaint on a social site the agents must address.

The root cause of this issue is twofold: First, Tamblyn sees how contact centers are measured and that in turn is embedded in corporate culture. Contact centers are generally cost centers under IT or operations and are budgeted as a cost of doing business. In contrast the other media are getting built and supported by the idea that they can drive business and help promote the brands. Second, many of the technologies that provide some degree of channel integration either do not scale to the needs of large companies or require that existing IT investments be replaced.

“Until we see contact centers needing to have some degree of monetary business impact and customer engagement, until we have measurements of a true multichannel contact center including social media, it will not happen,” says Tamblyn.

The consequences for companies not having the strategy right will be felt in their bottom lines: greatly accentuated by word of mouth or more accurately word of text via social media. The lack of integration at the top, reflected at the bottom with poor or disconnected service delivery will hurt their branding, warns Tamblyn, and with this their reputation, customer loyalty and ability to attract or retain business.

“Until businesses realize that their growth strategy has to be complemented with an integrated service strategy and until they get the message that they could lose out to their competitors--that there is a cause and effect in buyer behavior and customer behavior--they are not going to solve this problem,” Tamblyn points out. “For by the time some companies realize where their brand is really at it may be way too late.”

Integrating the Conversations

Contact center suppliers are helping firms make headway in integrating the conversations between customers and enterprises in voice and text but also with outside experts via unified communications (UC) solutions.

For too long text-based communications such as chat and e-mail have been treated like second class citizens compared to voice, which discourages their use by lengthening reply times. Agents would have had to take separate steps such as opening windows to see who is contacting them over these “alternate” channels.

ShoreTel’s Contact Center 6 solution eliminates the pushing aside by permitting contact center agents to see the names of those wanting to communicate through those channels directly on their desktops when they come in; just as they do with calls. This improvement shortens chat and e-mail interactions, lowers costs and improves customer satisfaction, reports Venky Raman, ShoreTel’s senior product manager for Contact Center Solutions. It also cleans up the agents’ desktops, which can become cluttered, confusing and ultimately lead to lowered productivity.

Chat is being integrated with UC, enabling this method to become an even more an even more useful interaction tool. Zeacom’s (News - Alert) Communications Center (ZCC) UC solution has web chat queuing that permits agents to contact subject matter experts and see their availability via the UC presence functionality and if they can be engaged bring them into conversation by dragging the contact name into the chat. The ZCC also has e-mail queuing that supports social media by enabling RSS feed configuration to deliver all social channel activity mentioning firms via e-mails to agents through skills-based routing.

Enabling Social Interactions

Staring at contact centers is how to mesh in social media through its various forms: blogs, corporate-sponsored communities and third-party sites. The need for having solutions that integrate social media with the other channels are increasing but fortunately so are the solutions both methods and technologies.

Fergus Griffin, vice president of product marketing, Service Cloud, sees some companies who embark on a social media strategy for customer service by opening a Twitter account and responding to any tweet related to their company or products. The problem with that approach is that it is totally disconnected from their core customer service processes, he points out. A customer issue that starts out as a question on Twitter may well be best handled by transitioning to a private e-mail exchange with an agent who resolves it by sending a knowledge article from the multi-channel knowledge base.

The urgency for doing just that is there. Consumers appear to be ahead of the businesses they do business with on social media. A recent Yankee Group study commissioned by Siemens Enterprise Communications (News - Alert), found that 70 percent of consumers and employees would prefer to use the social channel for business communications. Most customers feel that companies should be monitoring social media for customer feedback; nearly 60 percent of customers feel company outreach via it would improve their loyalty to that company. Yet only 30 percent of firms are equipped for social media.

Why the disconnect between consumers and businesses? Ross Sedgewick, Siemens’ senior director of large enterprise solutions marketing explains that most social media is a largely consumer-driven phenomenon that has grown quite rapidly and as with any technology, there is an adoption curve which businesses are just at the early stages of. Also, some companies are skeptical or resistant to using social media while others may not have access to the tools they need to leverage social media or aren’t sure how best to use it. Last, many companies lack awareness and understanding of how social media can benefit them.

In response, Siemens Enterprise Communications has put together the OpenScape Fusion Social Media Integrations solutions. The tools can automate and aggregate social media applications and inbound and outbound social contacts with existing desktop communications, making it simpler for employees to collaborate and monitor customer or partner activities. OpenScape Fusion enables one-click escalation of social media dialogue to richer media such as multi-party audio or video conferencing and to bring in subject matter experts or customer assistance personnel via social networking sites, simplifying and speeding customer response. The new product sets provides streamlined information sharing via blogs, corporate wikis and chat groups to improve team collaboration.

John Kembel, vice president of social solutions at RightNow Technologies reports that companies are looking to handle social interactions in the same stride as the rest of their customer interactions.

Firms are integrating formal knowledge answers via web self-service with social answers and conversations such as through search, widgeting/syndication, with comments on knowledge bases. They are meshing social community profiles (e.g. Facebook-ed.) with formal contact records so that contact center agents have a full view of consumers when they engage with them. They are infusing social media into the processes and workflows they currently run, such as escalating unanswered community posts as incidents for agents and are also building robust linkages between social with the web and contact center experiences.

“Social consumers channel hop during conversations, and companies need to be able to efficiently and effectively follow their conversation and pick up where they left off,” says Kembel.

Remarks made about one’s firm can make or break them in social media. The sooner these are uncovered the quicker they can be acted on, whether ramping up supply of a hot new items or responding to, resolving and performing damage control on complaints.

Yet determining which of the vast universe of comments and conversations are worth listening to, notating and acting on is the challenge. nGenera’s nGen Social Media, which is part of nGen CIM 9 suite can meet it. The software scans multiple social networking outlets using its Listening and Sentiment Analysis Platform. It identifies customer chatter, prioritizes the incidents using sentiment-assessing technology, and routes them to the appropriate agent just like a traditional customer-initiated inquiry. How they are handled can be controlled based on business rules so that the most pressing issues are addressed first, ensuring high-value customers are taken care of and cutting off the broadcast of an issue to a larger audience, ultimately protecting the integrity of one’s brand.

There are tools to route analyzed social media interactions into contact centers. For example, Interactive Intelligence (News - Alert) has partnered with Buzzient that combines multichannel queuing, routing and reporting with social media analysis and integration capabilities (see cover story). The offering enables social media “chatter” monitoring on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other sites for customer-defined keywords. It then routes the content as e-mail messages to the most appropriate individual or department based on business rules and agent skill.

Aspect will in 2011 incorporate social media directly into the agents’ desktop, allowing agents to respond in real time as comments and posts come through, reports Michael Kropidlowsksi, senior product marketing manager. Aspect Unified IP 6.6 can integrate other channels with voice. The solution includes instant message (IM) routing, e-mail, chat, web push and collaboration functionality; it can escalate any IM or chat to a voice conversation.

“Our customers are currently monitoring social media with third-party applications, but through integration we can transpose those messages to agents,” says Kropidlowsksi.

Avaya is taking a different approach. Rather than building in tools to take feeds from social sites directly into the contact centers the firm recommends having this information routed and filtered through Avaya’s Social Media Gateway. This tool, customized by Avaya’s professional services organization based on companies’ offerings and markets looks at the content from all social media channels and parses through them for relevancy.

“While you can feed in this information directly there is so much of it that it can swamp contact centers,” explains Anthony Bartolo (News - Alert), general manager, contact center solutions. “The Social Media Gateway makes this content contact-center ready, and we plan to evolve it further.”

Video Interactions?

Slowly growing as a media in contact centers is video. One such application is as a support tool via increasingly popular broadband (3G/4G) smartphones. Customers can show the problems they are trying to fix, say on the back of their HDTVs to agents who can then talk them over, queue in subject matter experts or zap over videos.

Steve Kaish, CosmoCom vice president, product management and marketing sees video adding value in healthcare, where expert providers interact with patients at their homes, thereby enabling more frequent care and attention given to them, which then improves the overall quality of care and patient satisfaction.  Another area where interactive video can help is enabling the hearing-impaired callers to communicate via sign language.

Similar expertise can be delivered to retail and banking customers via video kiosks that are placed at distributed locations (e.g. branches, retail stores) where customers can engage with remotely located subject matter experts via video links. 

Avaya has developed and delivered a video kiosk solution that enables two-way and/or one-way video collaboration relying solely on a web interface, eliminating the complexity of managing a standalone video client at each end. The Avaya Aura Contact Center, launched this year is also capable of handling video along with voice, e-mail, IM, and web services.

“The demographic and interaction preferences that we are observing across the globe are making video much more acceptable, and in some cases, required,” explains Jorge Blanco, Avaya vice president, product and solutions management for unified communications.

CTI Evolution

To enable a seamless multichannel, multimedia experience with customers Genesys’ Tamblyn sees CTI systems having to change from interaction views i.e., from calls to the entire conversation views including IVR and the web, where conversations increasingly start that if unresolved end up at the live agents’ terminals. The problem he sees with many CTI deployments is that most are not leveraging multimedia. He explains that only with extensive customization can customers’ records with web self-service brought onto agents’ desktops. Instead, many CTI solutions are based on the notion that the calls are the first points of contacts by customers with enterprises.

Yet CTI unlocks the intelligence contained in calls very well. And Tamblyn says Genesys is one of the few businesses that have allowed CTI to be applied in other channels such as: chat, e-mails, SMS, IVR, Web self-service, mobile and social media. There is vital customer service, support, leads, sales opportunities and other insights locked in them that need to be opened looked at and responded to.

To make that happen, Genesys has pushed CTI farther up the evolutionary tree with Genesys Conversation Manager, which sits on top of CTI routing and tracks and pulls in conversations with customers across these channels, and is integrated with Genesys’s iCFD automated voice solution. Companies can track customers from the point where they entered the brands and start a conversation with them, through to when the conversations are completed.

“Organizations need to capture everything that is going on with its customers; no longer do customers pick up the phone for help as a first step,” says Tamblyn. “What you really need is a step above CTI that tracks all interactions customers are having with the brand.”


The following companies participated in the preparation of this article




Genesys (an Alcatel-Lucent company)


Interactive Intelligence


RightNow Technologies


Siemens Enterprise Communications

SpeechCycle (News - Alert)



Cutting The Calls

Self-service solutions are becoming more even more effective at diverting and shortening calls to live agents in more ways and channels than one:

*          Genesys and Voxify have partnered in making speech-based IVR systems more effective and have solidified the links with live agents through personalization via identifying callers, checking their preferences, e.g., for language, examining their last interactions and basing prompts on that, and analyzing their intent through instant speech analysis. Voxify’s Intelligent Enterprise Services uses Genesys’ Intelligent Customer Front Door (iCFD) self-service along with its customer interaction management tools. If callers need to reach live agents the information captured is then relayed at the same time. The payoffs are greater automated call completion and shorter, but richer, agent interactions and higher customer satisfaction. The personalized IVR can also be used for outbound automated calls, achieving the same results

*          SpeechCycle has come out with RPA Express, a new platform for creating and powering what it calls Rich Phone Applications (RPAs). RPAs are high performance, multi-channel applications that it says enables fast, intuitive and personalized self-service and orchestrate voice and visual interactions with enterprise systems. RPA Express includes a set of pre-tested, customizable dialog components to automate common business functions with built-in best practices for voice interaction design.

The RPA Express-powered RPAs are equipped with high definition natural language understanding to pinpoint customer intent that SpeechCycle says significantly reduces misroutes and decreases customer frustration reinforcing an optimized customer experience. With a SpeechCycle RPA if a customer starts in self-service, but a live agent is needed to complete the transaction, they can continue where self-service left off 

*          Customers using social channels will also have less need to reach out to live agents. Lithium Technologies has incorporated IntelliResponse’s AnswerSuite automated answer tool in its social community products. With this solution, consumers in search of knowledge from customer communities can acquire community-driven results powered by Lithium, as well as the official “One Right Answer,” delivered by the IntelliResponse Answer Suite. Popular content promoted by the communities can be promoted into the IntelliResponse answer base and made available to all customer channels and contact center agents

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi