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Unified Communications
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Unified Communications
Richard "Zippy" Grigonis
Executive Editor,

IP Communication Group

Unified Communications in the Call Center

Unified communications (UC) has long been known as something centered on the individual, bringing all forms of media and messaging to a person regardless of their location. UC technology can also help call/contact center environments, however. It gives customers and agents access to more forms of communications, and it enables agents to determine if outside experts are available for consultation and how they can be reached, thus boosting levels of customer first-call resolution. UC helps to bring about the old idea that "the whole business is a call center" and that all resources, both human and otherwise, can be brought to bear to both improve productivity and make the all-important customer happy.


At Verizon Business, Roberta Mackintosh, Executive Director, Global Voice Services, says, "We define UC as a seamless integration of disparate applications. IP has enabled that. But it's now also about taking that into the call center environment, and whether it's a platform that has unified forms of communication, or you do it with integration in the back office, it's that interoperability of those different components to leverage better communications with your clients and customers. The concept of unifying communications has been around for a long time, and some of the capabilities associated with it have been around for a while too, but now they're being looked at and used in different ways. Plus, consumers and business trading partners are starting to see the value of the alternative communications as they interface and look for help in call center-type applications."


"At Verizon Business, we offer a range of advanced solutions that we've had for quite some time, that we've noted are starting to become important components in our dialog with clients," says Mackintosh. "We're also starting to have discussions with them about leveraging some of these value-add capabilities, whether they be in a network-based environment such as our Web Center solution, or a hosted environment, whether we manage it or not, such as our Hosted Intelligent Contact Routing [ICR] capabilities. We can call upon things such as web access to emails, faxes, voicemail, file sharing and presence capabilities so that when the contact center agent is unavailable, it's indicated in the presence status information, and when the person becomes available again in terms of any of the media, the system knows. We even offer such things as remote access to call forwarding, and for a long time you've been able to leverage these capabilities, but today they seem to be taking on a new life under the unified communications banner."


"It's still true that the most popular means of communication is still a voice call over a phone," says Mackintosh, "but these other forms of communication are becoming more and more popular. However, we haven't quite reached a crossover point where the alternative means of communication, such as the web, email, and so forth, have overtaken the traditional method of voice, but that doesn't mean that it won't happen. I can't yet predict that it will occur, because we're still seeing a large delta between traditional and IP-based communications methods as the primary means of communications between contact centers and their clients."


"It's also interesting that these capabilities, found under the UC banner but having existed for awhile, are being leveraged to do different things," says Mackintosh. "For example, clients are looking for the ability to reduce costs by finding different ways of bringing agents into the center, so remote agent capabilities are becoming important. Many of these unified methodologies can be leveraged to bring these remote agents into the environment to support the company's contact center needs. Whether it be to increase their staff in a less costly fashion or to possibly meet 'green' initiatives that corporations are starting to put in place, companies are using these tools within our platform to be able to bring in remote workers. Obviously, these same capabilities over time will be extended to the mobile workforce too. So these are both key trends appearing in the contact center space."


Workforce Optimization


Verint Systems is a software company that helps organizations make sense of the vast information they collect during their daily operations. Their "actionable intelligence solutions" integrate and analyze huge volumes of data - thousands of images captured by cameras, trends buried in millions of calls, threats hidden in billions of interactions, etc.. By identifying critical intelligence that might not otherwise be revealed, they help industry and government take more effective action to achieve performance and security goals.


Ryan Hollenbeck, Senior Vice President of Marketing of the Verint Witness Actionable Solutions Division of Verint Systems, says, "Many organization are attempting to proactively engage other people in the enterprise - call them 'enterprise experts' or 'resident experts' - in more of a real-time scenario, regardless of where they may be or what device they might be using, in order to respond more effectively to a customer. That's really important to our market, workforce optimization, which is adjacent to unified communications, and provides things such as recording, workforce management and scheduling tools, e-learning type capabilities, analytical solutions such as speech analytics, score cards and performance management - all of these tools are used in virtually every traditional call center to schedule, monitor and optimize the agents that are in that call center. And as we see this whole at-home agent trend and the trend of UC, and we're figuring out how to engage with those other experts in the enterprise when needed and then monitor what they're doing so we can use this process, for example, as a best practice. That's a very important trend that we're starting to hear more about from our customers. They think about companies such as Siemens, Avaya and others that provide UC infrastructure tools, but for us it's more a matter of, okay, now that we're deploying this, how are we going to monitor those emails, web chats, multimedia interactions and all of those experts that sit out of the traditional four walls that we call a contact center?"


"We've been talking about things like, 'the whole company is a call center' and 'enhancing first-call resolution by contacting outside experts' for many years," says Hollenbeck. "Unified communications even while it's still in that early phase, is the type of technology that can really help enable these ideas. If several people are experts who can answer a particular question for a customer, but they don't all fit next to each other in a contact center, you can still think of them as different resident experts for certain topics, and those topics are predefined, and we have the technology in place to be able to check their presence and availability to respond to certain types of inquiries. Then, it's just a fact, by virtue of the knowledge they have, that they can be more effective in responding to the customer."


"When we think about the kind of 'down' economy we're in right now," says Hollenbeck, "and companies are trying to find ways to rise above it, and focus more on customer loyalty and protecting their customers, more than ever tools such as Workforce Optimization - that have a very clear ROI - can really help them. And if UC starts to take off, which it very well may, given the employment environment that exists right now, I think Workforce Optimization will be a key part of how you deploy unified communications."


A Call Center without a Center


Contact centers are often the key components of verticals (healthcare, retail, etc.). It would therefore make sense that vendors would be infusing unified communications technology into such centers. Avaya, for example, has just introduced two new solutions, Avaya In-Store Connect and Avaya Video Assist, that can improve customer service experiences and employee productivity in any retail store environment. Interestingly, these solutions turn the whole store into a large, expansive, unified communications environment.


The Avaya In-Store Connect solution provides enhanced voiceand text-based communications customized for workers in "instore" environments. It gives retailers an efficient way for its retail associates to collaborate and address customer needs. Through a combination of IP phones in various locations (i.e., fitting rooms, check-out registers) and mobile devices used by workers, retail employees can communicate quickly via text messages and phone calls. Workers roaming about a store can use the Motorola CA50 to send or receive important text messages customized to a store's needs. This eliminates the need for workers to use headsets, walkie-talkies, separate WiFi phones and pagers in the store - reducing the costs associated with deploying and managing multiple communications devices for employees. It also reduces overhead paging and excess chatter among workers, creating a more pleasant store environment for customers.


Other features help ensure effective employee collaboration during high-traffic times. If a store cashier is overwhelmed by many shoppers at the checkout line, he can press a button on his station's IP desk phone to send a message to on-site co-workers for assistance. An alerted coworker then walks over and acknowledges he has arrived by cancelling the alert. If the request doesn't get cancelled after an interval, special Indyme Solutions software escalates the request to a store manager.


All of these interactions can be compiled in a report, which a supervisor uses to receive data on how well customers are served, as well as information on in-store traffic trends. This helps retailers determine future staffing needs for certain times of the day.


As for Avaya Video Assist, it's an in-store, IP video-based customer service solution that can connect customers to off-site experts using video conferencing, and helps customers get technical assistance on a specific product. This is useful if an off-site specialist is needed to deliver more in-depth product information or support than an on-site retail associate can deliver, or if in-store staff is not available to help a customer.


This solution builds upon prior Avaya innovations in video kiosk technology to enhance customer experiences. Customers visiting a store simply go to the Video Assist kiosk, place their product in a cradle in front of the camera, and then communicate via 2-way video with a live agent. The agent can also push instructions, video clips, photos or diagrams to the customer for reading and printing - and even send a store map to direct a customer to a product's location. Promotional information can be relayed during or after the interaction, based on the product discussed.


The solution is made possible using an Avaya Communication Manager platform and IP Softphone application, along with contact center applications including Avaya Call Center and Call Management System. At this year's NRF show, Avaya will be showing how similar capabilities can be used in a video kiosk developed by HP Labs, which demonstrates the expanded service options possible in a retail kiosk solution.


Quality of Experience


Psytechnics provides software solutions for voice and video performance management, used to manage and support users actual Quality of Experience (QoE) - a term they championed early on - for real-time IP communications applications. Psytechnics technology is used by service providers and enterprises to monitor, manage and improve IP Telephony, video and unified communications in both fixed and mobile environments.


Joe Frost, Vice President of Marketing at Psytechnics, says, "We work with pretty much all of the technology vendors, not just IP telephony but UC and call center technology providers. Many large call centers, and some of the very large bank call centers, still use the traditional non- IP telephony. But the trend is to either use it or to evaluate and pilot IP telephony for the use of more efficient applications and better applications integration. Longer term, there are cost savings. The theory behind UC as a layer on top of IP telephony is about improved efficiency, call handling and improved application integration. We also see that call centers are not just large offices with lots of people sitting with phones. The centers are becoming more distributed environments, with multiple agents that are home-based or remote-based. Certainly one of the issues we see is that in the case of some of the pilot projects of IP telephony to remote-based call center operatives, the organization must deal with call center operative dissatisfaction or frustration when things go wrong concerning call quality."


"Call center operators and managed service providers are almost reevaluating their approach," says Frost. "It's similar to what we see with the bigger IP telephony rollouts in a normal enterprise environment, where they realize that they need to think more about the operational support and diagnostic tools that they have in place. They recognize that your normal network management platform and in particular the network diagnostic tools just don't cut it. They don't understand voice quality and voice application issues. Sadly, what we've seen in most cases is that the recognition of this has come too late, when users or customers complain and the support and operations teams are running around like headless chickens attempting to diagnose voice quality problems such as echo or voice distortion, or where the volume levels are too quiet or ridiculously loud. The user/customer dissatisfaction that results affects revenues. Traditional network management tools just aren't able to understand those application-level issues."


"Having said that, already-deployed IP call centers are now looking at next-generation technologies such as softclients instead of the usual desktop IP phones," says Frost, "thus putting everything onto the PC or laptop. Microsoft has made massive progress in that area with OCS voice in 2007. You'll see other vendors coming out with their enhanced versions soon. Clearly, Cisco, Nortel, and those of their ilk are already there. But again, one trend relating to this next phase of technology evolution involves suppliers as well as call center teams taking a much more serious view of the health and well-being of the call centers and agents. In a banking environment, for example, the focus is absolutely on the banking customer experience. Can voices be heard clearly and intelligently? The call quality must be as high as it can possibly be. We've also seen a trend where there's been a change from outsourcing call centers to foreign countries to now bringing them back in-house to the local country, so the call center agents are local language speakers. Call quality doesn't mean anything if the speaker can't be understood."


We're All Customers Representatives


When first teaching the game of chess, it's traditional to utter the phrase, "We're all pawns, you know". Similarly, with the rise of unified communications functionality, we are, in a sense, all customer service representatives, foot soldiers in the never-ending brinksmanship of competing businesses.


Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC's IP Communications Group.


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