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Feature Article
February 2003

Tony Rybczynski photoMaking Business Realities Work For You!

Part II: Optimizing All Contacts With The Customer


Business Reality: True value is in relationships, not transactions.

Now that customers can leap to the competition with the click of a mouse, organizations need to manage the intrinsic value in relationships -- looking not only at units and transactions but also at the full dynamics of interactions with customers, suppliers, and partners. That requires a technology infrastructure that supports a unified, relationship-based view of these audiences, spanning all touch points and systems. Traditional enterprise systems, however, typically reflect a process- and product-oriented view of the business. They consist of numerous independent systems on different platforms, which share information in a limited way.

Unique new services will engage the enterprise�s customers, making it difficult for them to switch their business to another company. They won�t even think about going to the competition, because their lives have been made so much easier. And they tell other people about their positive experiences. Ultimately the enterprise�s customers become virtual salespeople and evangelists for the enterprise. In this world, customer relationships replace brands as business�s most valuable assets. We call this an �engaged� enterprise, because instead of responding to customer needs, it anticipates and engages the customer with proactive services.

Technology Response: Optimize all contacts with customers, suppliers, and partners.

The Contact Center is the primary point of contact between an enterprise and its customers, partners and suppliers. It is a key technology in the engaged application architecture -- delivering time-critical, media-adaptive capabilities across multiple service delivery channels, including the Web, telephone network, messaging and fax. It converges agent and self-serve applications, supporting notification, transactions, interaction, and collaboration. The contact center interfaces into the enterprise environment (including databases and customer relationship management CRM applications) over a highly reliable, application-optimized network infrastructure, which itself is part of a highly integrated IT application environment. Bottlenecks need to be eliminated, since time is of the essence.

Three technology enablers form the foundation of an engaged application architecture: SIP, Web Applications Middleware, and XML. These tools and protocols leverage IP networking, security and application technologies across the enterprise and into the Internet.

Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)

SIP is medium-agnostic, and acts as communications glue across multiple environments and media. SIP does for person-to-person communications what HTML has done for information access. Unlike traditional VoIP and video conferencing protocols, SIP restricts itself to the control plane, through which it creates, modifies, and terminates sessions that contain two or more participants. These sessions can be multimedia conferences, audio and video streams, multimedia distribution, or simple telephone calls. SIP is independent of the data plane, or �bearer path,� defining how data, voice, image, or video is transmitted across various transport networks including IP, ATM, and TDM, whether wired or wireless.

By separating the control and data planes, SIP enables us to move away from vertically integrated applications. SIP-based communications open the door for an array of new services (e.g., based on name, not address) that enhance personal productivity across all media and all devices through a range of addressing, personalization, presence management, mobility, conferencing, and collaboration. The user interface is via a Web browser, a PC, or PDA application, a Web-enabled wireless handset, or an IP or traditional phone.

In a SIP environment, every endpoint that can be in a session first registers with the network. This registration of an endpoint�s �presence� on the network provides a unique capability to determine if a session can be initiated without first making the call. The concept of presence is demonstrated to millions of Instant Messaging users who create buddy lists of individuals they want to chat with. When one of their �buddies� signs on the network, their presence is shown on their buddy list. SIP extends presence with information about the device that is being used and the willingness of the participant to have his/her presence known. This allows the engaged application to dynamically adapt the session for the device that is currently being used on the network.

Web Applications Middleware

As enterprises started to �Web-enable� their business systems, new business systems were developed that handled the Web side of things but were not linked to their existing systems. As a result, for example, a customer could call customer service on the telephone to change an order created on the Web, only to be told that customer service doesn�t have access to those Web orders.

Web application middleware built on Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) open standards and Microsoft�s .NET make it easier for an enterprise to Web-enable its voice and data applications. Developers can focus their time and energy on applications, without having to reinvent scalability and reliability features. The basic premise is to provide a multi-tier application development framework consisting generally of Presentation, Business Logic, and Data Access tiers. By dividing an application into tiers, one tier can be changed without affecting the others and code written for an application to be reused.

Consider the enterprise that writes an order-tracking application for the Web. The application�s Presentation tier displays the Web pages and captures the required input from the customer. The Business Logic is the code necessary to validate the input and determine the order�s status and the Data Access tier has a standard interface to all the various legacy data sources that contain customer information, inventory data, product orders, reservations, and countless other types of crucial business information. When the enterprise wants to extend the order tracking application to be accessed using speech recognition, only a new presentation tier to handle the voice prompts and speech recognition needs to be written. The rest of the application can be used as is.

eXtensible Markup Language (XML)

XML is the most widely accepted, platform-independent standard for building structured documents for Web applications. XML supports internationalization and localization and is becoming a de facto standard for data exchange between applications. Structured documents include such elements as spreadsheets, address books, configuration parameters, financial transactions, and presentation scripts.

Since XML is the universal format for data exchange, �dialects� have been developed to exchange data with people as well as machines. One of these dialects, VoiceXML, was developed as a standard way to write speech recognition scripts for the Presentation tier. These scripts use a combination of speech and touch-tone commands so that data can be exchanged between people and machines. The introduction of multi-tier architectures and standards such as VoiceXML are radically changing the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) business. In a VoiceXML IVR environment, the complete speech application is written in a language independent of the vendor or vendors� hardware. The enterprise can reuse any of the code for the IVR application in a Web-based application that accomplishes the same task (e.g., self-serve voice and Web banking). An enterprise can tailor voice menus for each customer, instead of playing the same voice menus to every customer. In addition, with VoiceXML, it is possible to easily write applications that provide �last minute� customization and personalization of voice applications.

CCXML (Call Control XML) is another important dialect of XML that was defined as a standard way to provide telephony services to Web-based applications. CCXML is used in conjunction with VXML in the engaged application to provide call redirection, conferencing, and monitoring based on the occurrence of unplanned events.

SOAP (Simple Object Applications Protocol) is an XML-based protocol designed to exchange information between applications in a decentralized, distributed environment. SOAP is standardized and is used in the creation of Web services, which allow different vendors� components running in different companies� data centers to work as part of a single application.

Finally, SALT (Speech Application Language Tags) is also based on XML and makes it possible to build multi-modal applications. It was originally developed to use speech as a method to navigate through Web pages so users can do things like speak to their PocketPC to �get my current itinerary� instead of typing in a URL. Multi-modal applications such as these will become increasingly important as new-generation wireless PDAs and PocketPCs become widely used.

IP-Empowered Contact Centers and Self-Serve Applications

The Web has become an effective pre- and post-sale delivery channel, but the rate of abandoned shopping carts suggests that humans still need to talk to other humans, sometimes. Do you have independent business operations, where your call center is not integrated with your Web-based channels; and interactive voice response (IVR) self-service systems that are not integrated with your customer relationship management (CRM) system? Or have you evolved to a more integrated approach?

IP-empowered contact centers and self-serve applications are the engines for engaging customers across multiple channels and for improving the quality and consistency of those interactions.

Web-enabled contact centers provide the ability to progress naturally from where the customer has been on the enterprise Web site, to invoke screen sharing (such as for filling out forms), and to push pages to send requested information to the customer. E-mail, fax, and chat handling systems further expand the number of ways that the customer can interact with the business, while making optimal use of agent resources.

Self-Service Applications

The acceptance and success of self-service, automated customer contact applications are dependent on the way they�re designed and implemented. If you can make it possible for callers to get what they want faster, then you enrich the user experience, whether or not you provide a live human being as the first point of contact.

In fact, in many cases callers may prefer automation. Who wants to talk to a live human being when paying a long overdue bill by phone? Who really wants to wait for a live human being when checking airline departure times, the latest interest rates, or the date and amount of your last payment?

Enhancements in multi-language speech recognition technology for IVR systems have made this man-machine interaction much more efficient and user friendly -- improving customer acceptance. Instead of tedious menus where the customer uses the buttons on the telephone, the customer can now verbally request the information needed. This saves the multiple menus traditionally associated with dial-tone (dual tone multi-frequency) signaling and results in shorter calls -- a more economic solution for both enterprise and customer.

Together, these technologies enable enterprises to evolve from a model of services-on-demand to a model of proactively engaging with customers -- providing timely, valued services to them, and making it natural, intuitive, and productive for them to engage with you.

Tony Rybczynski is director of strategic enterprise technologies for Nortel Networks with 30 years experience in networking. For more information, visit the company�s Web site at www.nortelnetworks.com.

[ Return To The February 2003 Table Of Contents ]

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