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Arthur M. Rosenberg

[July 19, 2004]


By Art Rosenberg

“Informal” Virtual Contact Centers – “Putting the CC Cart Before the UC Horse”

After starting to write this article, I decided to hold off and sit in on a most pertinent CommWeb webinar discussion, “Beyond ACDs: From Expert Agents to Converged Call Centers,” conducted by industry analyst Blair Pleasant and Joe Fleischer from Call Center Magazine. The actual webinar, which should be commended for judiciously allowing a significant amount of time for interesting Q&A from the audience, highlighted the emergence of enterprise-wide customer contact center operations and the need to converge the traditional “formal call center” functions and the flexibility of “informal,” multi-modal contact centers through IP-based infrastructure. While the speakers addressed a number of practical issues regarding the role of non-dedicated “contact center agents” and how IP (define - news - alert) networking supports enterprise-wide call routing, I was particularly concerned about how these new capabilities would fit into an enterprise migration plan for converged communications.

Customer Contact Routing and Types of “Agents”

Joe Fleischer rightfully emphasized that traditional “call center agents” will still be defined by their dedicated responsibility to take real-time, conversational voice calls, wherever they may be located. VoIP (define - news - alert) and IP Telephony will now allow these agents to be distributed and managed over an IP network, extending to branch offices or individual agent homes. 

“Contact center agents,” on the other hand, will add in responsibilities for communicating with customers in other modalities, which may or may not be real-time, e.g., text chat, e-mail, voice mail, etc. Although their “skill” set may allow an individual agent to handle all types of contacts, I have long held Fleischer’s view that scheduling the various contact modality assignments separately will prove to be most effective for a busy contact center operation. Throwing e-mail, voice mail, instant messaging, and voice calls randomly at a busy agent is not going to provide a comfortable or efficient rhythm for that agent.

Blair Pleasant focused on another class of customer-facing personnel within an enterprise that will not be necessarily dedicated to just handling incoming customer contacts, but, because of particular job responsibilities and expertise, they must be included as a critical resource for the enterprise-wide “virtual” contact center operation. Such “experts” or specialists will still have to make themselves “accessible” to take customer calls or messages that require their expertise, and schedules may be a practical tool for exploiting their availability. Such “experts” fall into the category of traditional “second-level” or “third-level” customer support staff, but now must be able to manage their communication accessibility more flexibly with multi-modal converged communications..

Blair cited financial service advisors and mobile retail sales personnel as examples of customer-facing staff who can selectively handle customer contact assignments when their normal job activity permits. Another general situation involves a salesperson or field service “ownership” of individual prospects or customers, where such mobile individuals need to be the primary point of contact in any form to support their customers’ needs.  

This “virtual” contact center approach expands the availability of enterprise staff resources and can be efficiently implemented within IP-based networks that will converge individual communication accessibility with multi-modal customer contact routing. The key here will be a broader view of “skills based routing” (SBR) (news - alert) that includes all customer-facing staff in the enterprise, not just the “formal” call center agents. This routing technology will work most cost-effectively when coupled with Web or voice self-service applications that can efficiently identify the customer’s needs for selective live assistance. 

This convergence of different types of customer-facing enterprise personnel will present new challenges for contact center management, who must reconcile the differences in policies, training, incentives, performance monitoring, and task scheduling for these various staff resources (“skills”) to support the needs of a common set of customers with a variety of contact channel alternatives. So, its not simply a matter of putting in an IP network infrastructure, installing new application servers or network services, and desktop devices; the “virtual” multi-modal contact “center” is going to require new kinds of operational management for both its customer contact activities and its mix of customer-facing staff.      

Looking at Contact Center Convergence From A Migration Perspective    

The big push for converged communications in the enterprise is touching all forms of IP Telephony application servers, including enterprise IP PBXs, (define - news - alert) unified messaging (alias voice mail), wireless devices, and multi-modal contact center servers. However, the migration strategy for all IP-based communications technologies needs to be carefully and logically planned together, not as separate, unrelated applications, and certainly not continuing the separated silo of incoming telephone calls for customer contacts. As a matter of fact, we see increasingly critical communication dependencies between customer-facing enterprise staff and customer contacts and not just for traditional “formal” call center operations either.

Because simple toll-bypass payoffs have been eroding significantly as carrier offerings competitively exploit the lower costs of VoIP, the main ROI (define  - news - alert) targets for contact center telecommunications convergence are shifting towards functional areas of contact center communication technology, including:

·        Familiar “CTI” (Computer Telephony Integration) (news - alert) functions that have always proved to be extremely difficult and/or expensive to implement for legacy proprietary TDM (define - news - alert) voice systems. These functions primarily involve:

-          Intelligent routing of incoming calls across the enterprise network, based upon staff availability and customer information

-          Synchronized “screen pops” of pertinent customer information

-          Customer contact activity data collection and reporting

·        Consolidation, centralized control, and management of distributed, but consistent, contact center activities, including branch office groups and home agents, across an IP network

·        Multi-modal communications flexibility for both customers and customer-facing enterprise personnel to enable voice calls, instant messaging (text chat), and asynchronous text and voice messaging to be dynamically activated as appropriate for customer needs and available staff resources. (Although non-telephony real-time contacts require similar kinds of routing logic and customer context information, it really is inappropriate to still refer to them as “CTI!”)

·        Exploitation of new presence management technology to determine availability of skills-based, multi-modal customer contact routing assignments.

·        Consolidation of new development tools and languages for consistency, interoperability, and flexibility between visual and speech-based interfaces for self-service applications. These will enable telephone and Web-based customers, as well as multi-modal mobile device users, to be serviced by common, network-based, application servers. More importantly, such effective self-service applications will handle a greater share of simple customer needs, but generating increasing demand for greater multi-modal communication skills from live assistance.  

The enterprise IP Telephony migration for contact center applications will involve VoIP network transport implementations, including new QoS (news - alert) and Security management functions and PSTN (define - news - alert) gateways, as well as PC-based “softphone” implementations at “formal” contact center agent desktops.

Part 2

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