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

IP Communication Group

UC in the Call Center

Unified communications is normally associated with individual users. We forget that for quite a few years now - even before the recent mania of UC - efforts have been underway to make any given organization's contact center capable of reaching out to any employee for a consultation if necessary. Indeed, this involves presence (is the person avaialable?) and must increasingly take into account employee mobility, various modes of commuication, and integration with business processes. Sounds a lot like UC? It is.


Everybody is waking up to the fact that the dividing line between UC and contact centers has been blurred for quite a while, but has now become "official" - meaning that it has become an identifiable marketing tool. In July 2008, for example, one of the oldest and most respected companies in the contact center space, Aspect Software, announced it was the world's largest company solely focused on "Unified Communications for the Contact Center" (they've trademarked it), and that it had acquired the assets of BlueNote Networks. The acquisition furthers Aspect's strategy by adding IT-ready, software-based products that Communications-Enable Business Processes (CEBP). Leveraging the BlueNote Networks technology, Aspect Software customers can now extend Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)-based voice, video and other real-time interactive communication services to enterprise users as an integral part of a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).


Calabrio, Inc. is a combination of the 2007 spin-off of Spanlink Communications' product development group and the acquisition of Calabrio, Inc., of Montreal, Canada. Calabrio develops and markets a unified suite of customer interaction and workforce optimization software for next-gen, IP-based contact centers. Its Unified Desktop tools help streamline the customer interaction process and boost efficiency, making it easier for agents and supervisors to interact with tools, customers, and with each other. Calabrio's Workforce Optimization software tools help contact centers measure quality and performance, and to make continuous improvements in the effectiveness of people and processes to support a business' goals. Calabrio technology makes it easier for businesses to plan and adjust staffing to meet key performance metrics. Built to work together as a suite, the software eliminates solution complexity for any size business.


Calabrio's Jim Kraskey, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, says, "The term 'call center' is something of a misnomer. Many call centers have had UC for a long time, because they've had other capabilities that the rest of the enterprise never had. For example, the contact center has always understood 'state'. One question has been how to bridge the gap from the contact center to the rest of the enterprise, or to the exterior 'federation area'. That's where a lot of work has been going on over the last few years. It started with some standardization efforts, but that's not the endgame - it was just the start. Some of the things we've done in the call center space for quite some time are now emerging into the broader enterprise so that typical agents can communicate with knowledge workers, subject matter experts and the like. We've got a number of things on that front - ourselves as well as with Cisco - that we've been placing into products, which will be released shortly."


"The point is, how much do you let your agents do with this technology? In the past, contact centers were fairly 'locked down' with your people and what they did. How much more do you let them work with this and in this way, because it starts to change all of the metrics that affect how you want to run your business. So you must think through your metrics concerning how you want to run your business before you go and implement all of these new things."


Calabrio's Jon Silverman, CTO, says, "When we talk about 'state', we're talking about classic ACD [Automated Call Distributor] 'states' - who's in the talking state, who's in the after-call work state, who's in a readystate and available to take a call or in a non-ready state, and so forth. If you think about that, those are really natural instances of a 'presence state'. Traditionally we thought of presence as 'my phone is on-hook or offhook' from a knowledge worker perspective. But within the ACD world we know a lot more about this state that people are in and their ability to communicate with others. So we may now know that they're not only in a not-ready state, but that they're in a training session or they're on break and perhaps they really could take some sort of emergency communication."


"Looking at the knowledge workers," says Silverman, "all of the sudden they've got this wonderful thing called presence, and they may have a MOC [Microsoft Office Communicator] client from Microsoft or CUP [Cisco Unified Personal] Communicator client from Cisco or someone else's desktop presence state, and so we now can determine additional things about them where they are, and it becomes a richer and richer world of information. It's fairly typical in both Microsoft and Cisco offers to know the hook state of a knowledge worker's phone. But you may have richer presence information. For example, Microsoft is very good at integrating information from the Exchange calendar. I as an agent or knowledge worker could get a call from a customer who's claiming he should have received some special discount from the original salesperson - wouldn't it be nice if on one call I could talk to the customer, IM with the original salesperson, and not put the customer on hold but keep talking to them, and do first-call resolution. That's an example of how unified communications can help drive first-call resolution, which is obviously one of the primary goals of any contact center."


Silverman adds, "First-call resolution has always been hard to measure. People have been doing traditional measurements such as average 'answer time' - how fast they answer; and average 'talk time'. But first-call resolution gets into a whole gray area because if I've got a customer on the phone and I'm doing proper customer service, I really want to answer the customer's question the first time and keep the customer happy, rather than having them hang up and call back, or not ever getting their question answered. You encounter all sorts of circumstances, such as the simple fact that the system is new and your agents aren't up to speed yet, or your customer service people aren't up to speed as to what the product is, exactly, and so they won't be familiar with every feature, even if they went through training. So if you've got a customer on the phone who could potentially buy something, and you do a good job of first-call resolution, then you're also in the best position to sell something. So you have to start changing your metrics around - do you want to start tracking and measuring new orders when you have somebody on the phone?"


"So being able to bridge from the contact center through to the rest of the enterprise, employees can drive up first-call resolution by not putting customers on hold or transferring them," says Silverman. "Now one interesting thing is IMPM [Instant Messaging Presence Management], which is a two-way street. If I'm an agent and I can reach someone who's not an agent in the contact center, should they be able to reach me via IM? Now we've got all sorts of challenges, because the contact center wants me in my seat answering the phone. Or imagine two people who are in a product group. Person A is always helpful but is also the most productive software coder or product builder. Person B is kind of lazy, doesn't produce much, or is average, and never wants to answer the phone. If both of these people are supposed to be available to help the customer service team at some point in time, who do you think is always going to get the phone calls? Probably Person A, who is your most productive person, but who isn't getting much else done. This situation is one of those 'gotchas' where you've opened up a can of worms with this technology but you've got to figure out a way to not waste all of your most productive people's time always answering calls. The contact center manager may decide to allow all contact center agents to chat with whomever they want, or they have them chat with select people who are grouped into something called 'software product XYX escalation'. Instead of the presence of individuals, the agent sees the presence of a group of people and now someone is available, but they don't know who, and so when the chats are distributed the lazy person gets a fair share of chats that can be measured as a metric outside of the contact center. Many novel things are possible."


First and Foremost?


CosmoCom's flagship software product, CosmoCall Universe, features Unified Customer Communications to help provide better and less expensive customer service to large enterprises, universities, government agencies and other distributed organizations. CosmoCall Universe unifies and consolidates all communication channels and all major contact center functions, revolutionizing the whole range of business/customer interactions, not just in formal call centers, but for all information workers. Its multi-tenancy enables the consolidation of many different call center applications on one platform. Telcos and service providers use CosmoCall Universe to provide contact center solutions to their end user customers using multiple deployment strategies. They can use a hosted, multi-tenant platform model, following CosmoCom's concept of the Contact Center On-Demandâ„¢. They also use the dedicated hosting model, usually for large enterprise call centers, and increasingly in the traditional premise-based resale model as well, because of the economies of scale found using one technology for all deployment methods.


Steve Kowarsky, Executive Vice President and one of the founders of CosmoCom, says, "We talk about unified communications, but what exactly is 'unified' about it? UC is a broad term, but it's generally used to refer to the internal communication within an enterprise or some sort of federation of enterprises. When you look at the call center, you need another 'C' in there, and that's 'Customer' - Unified Customer Communications, which is in one sense a specialty within UC, but in another sense it's a bit of a different discipline. Much of the stuff that's 'new' in UC is really not new at all in the call center. That's really the key to our positioning. We came to the table with this Unified Customer Communications technology and term around 2000, before anybody else. If you google the term Unified Customer Communications, you'll find pages of hits, and nearly all of them are CosmoCom references. We really did invent this and we showed the industry the way, but things have come to the point where every call center vendor is touting unified communications. It's a huge buzzword in the call center industry now. Ironically, we're now trying to move on to the next big thing."


"Much of the stuff that's really 'new' when you look at unified communications relates to ways of doing internal communications. UC is a new generation of gear that replaces at least three things: the PBX, email and the instant messaging [IM] infrastructure. UC wraps it all together as one system so that people in an enterprise have a single address and their presence is advertised throughout the enterprise and that when you want to communicate with someone you don't have to contend with multiple, different systems. You just have to deal with a single system. There's a business case for that that's very clear, based primarily on cost savings. To be honest, in my opinion, that's what UC really means. But it's a fact that many of the elements of UC have been in the call center for a long time. That's why we invented the phrase Unified Customer Communications, long before the phrase unified communications was popular."


"A really core idea of UC is taking the different forms and channels of communication and putting them all into one system," says Kowarsky, "and that's exactly what CosmoCom did when we came on the scene with a new IP-centric call center design back in 1997. It was an ACD for customer communication that could unify telephone calls, Internet contacts and emails. Gartner recognized this very early on, and they called it UQ - Unified Queuing of the different channels. So I think you can say that unified communications really had its debut in the call center, based on pioneers such as CosmoCom that recognized IP as the unifying force that could make it possible to build one system to address not just telephone calls but all different channels. And you may recall that's why the term call center evolved into the term 'contact center'."


Multi-Mode Fetch-the-Expert


The scope of ShoreTel's Unified Communications system is quite remarkable, encompassing a variety of flexible switches, ergonomic phones, and software designed for easy deployment. ShoreTel's ShoreGear voice switches are purpose-built, appliances of high availability with no moving media. Additionally, ShoreTel's ShoreWare Call Manager end-user application suite enables users to communicate with anyone, anywhere, anyway they choose.


Jeff Ridley, ShoreTel's Director of Product Management, says, "There's this idea that in tough economic times everybody pitches in and so it's good to transform a whole company into a call center. This generally takes the form of the 'fetch-the-expert' concept, wherein sometimes you have to bring people outside of a contact center into a customer-agent support interaction. That doesn't mean calling them, leaving them a message and hoping to hear back - you must know who's immediately available. This isn't really a new idea, but the technology is catching up to us now in terms of making it broadly available. In particular, presence, enterprise instant messaging, and those types of things, coming together with the phone system, are enabling contact centers to reach out and include more resources than ever before, including the ability to escalate a customer's question to include a human expert - a contact center agent via presence can determine if the expert is available and can communicate with him or her via IM without having to put the customer on hold."


"When I think of UC I'm thinking of the ability to communicate with different types of media, multi-modal sessions and combining that presence," says Ridley. "These are the core of UC, so you know who you want to talk to and can communicate to them via the media that makes sense to you at that particular moment - if you're already on the phone then you might use IM, for example. Finally, UC involves extensive integration. That's an area that not only touches upon UC, but other interactions among business applications. Of course, if these technologies don't reduce overall cost, then it's unlikely that contact centers will adopt them."


Read What I Say


Over at SpinVox, their technology captures spoken messages and converts them into text, delivering them to whatever destination you choose - inbox, blog, etc. This voice-to-text capability can streamline contact centers and broaden customer service offerings in many ways. For example, customer satisfaction surveys done via a voice application using natural speech, which is then automatically converted into text for analysis, or conversion of conversations for training purposes.


The Strategic Business Development Director of SpinVox, Simon Crowfoot, says, "What we're doing in the call center is a small part of the whole UC story for us. A high level in the unified communications strategy for us is to pursue enabling voice text capability in the UC space. So the core players in that space such as Avaya, Microsoft, and so forth, are enabling voicemail-to-text to operate within the UC communications space in the same way that we do in, the mobile, space. Clearly it's a different market than the one we've been in mobile, and in a very different way. But the customer base that it has is obviously very compelling for us and our service is very compelling for them, because the ability for them to take all their voice traffic to one place - which is what happens in many cases at the moment - but then to have that converted into an email and then delivered not necessarily to their desktop, but to their mobile phone, or wherever they want them to appear - is quite a 'killer' application in the UC space for enterprise businesses."


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


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