June 2009 | Volume 12 / Number 6
IP-Enabled Contact Centers
By: Richard “Zippy” Grigonis
Contact centers (still called “call centers” by many) have always enjoyed technological advantages over ordinary corporate or home phone systems and services. Unified messaging and unified communications originated there long ago. The transition to the software-based IP-enabled contact center was slow until standards appeared in the form of SIP (Session Initiation Protocol (News - Alert)), popular voice codecs and compatibility with VoIP gateways. Today, such contact centers have thoroughly integrated formerly disparate means of communicating with customers, such as email, web portals, instant messaging, faxes, and of course the phone. There are better connections to the back office so that agents, armed with current customer information, can be more adept at cross-selling and up-selling. The modern contact center can even project its capabilities to outside experts and bring them into a call to resolve a customer problem and thus boost first-call resolution, even if the expert is roaming about in the field with a mobile handset. IP has opened up many possible new ways of communicating among customers, contact center agents and resources outside of the contact center.
As Alton Martin, CEO of COPC (News - Alert), says, “IP-enabled contact centers are the fastest growing aspect of the industry. The IP-enabled contact center can support unified messaging, which offers the best opportunity to reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction at the same time.”
Martin’s company, COPC (Customer Operations Performance Center (News - Alert)), is a world authority on customer contact center and vendor management operations and the originator of the COPC® Family of Standards for call center excellence, a set of global best practices designed to slash costs, improve efficiency, boost client satisfaction and build the bottom line.
IP has also helped make possible the growing interest in buying contact center functionality as a hosted or at least a managed service. Perhaps the most interesting leader in this field is CosmoCom (News - Alert), the company that introduced the term Unified Customer Communications in 2000, and which has promoted the idea of Contact Center Consolidation 2.0, an all-IP contact center strategy that makes companies for accessible and responsive in a cost-effective way, even those with the biggest and most complicated enterprise requirements. CosmoCom’s solutions are available as a premise-based solution within the enterprise, and as a service from some of the world’s top service providers who host it.
Recently (March 2009) CosmoCom released Version 6 of their CosmoCall Universe (CCU), a major set of enhancements and additions their unified IP contact center suite. Version 6, available without charge to existing licensed CosmoCom customers, includes new, optional capabilities that are available to customers as new licenses. CosmoCom has boosted capabilities in six areas: Unified Customer Communications, contact center mobility, real-time report and analytics, virtual outbound calling, screen recording and multimedia call recording, and better integration with Microsoft (News - Alert) Outlook.
Stephen R. Kowarsky, co-founder and Executive Vice President of CosmoCom, says, “Our new version of CosmoCall Universe is what we think is an important advance in the state of the art. We’re claiming a leadership position and we consider each one of our six major categorical improvements to CCU to be newsworthy. Moreover, our website has a link to a movie [www.cosmocom.com/to/cgo-video] that explains how version Version 6 of CosmoCall Universe includes CosmoGo, a new smartphone technology that extends the functionality of contact center technology to mobile knowledge workers. Any employee anywhere with a smartphone and access to a mobile network can be the recipient of automatic skills-based routing that directs calls to the right person, even if they’re on the road. Additionally, screen pops can now appear to provide information about the caller and the call, there’s inquiry and transaction enablement for recurring subjects, and tracking and reporting functions are also accessible form the mobile to manage the operation.”
Considering that it takes seven press releases just to attempt to explain CosmoCall Universe Version 6.0, Yours Truly can’t detail all of its features in these pages. Suffice it to say that CosmoCom has made a tremendous technological effort in Version 6.0 of CosmoCall Universe, creating a milestone in the advancement of IP-based contact centers.
CyberTech International’s Ed Kawecki, Marketing Manager, says, “We handle the call recording piece of the puzzle. We help use those calls for improving the quality of operations, validating what’s said on the phone, and such. Our solutions migrate easily from TDM over to IP, which these days is no surprise, given the growing popularity of IP-enabled contact centers. People in the industry talked about IP migration for many years, and as equipment ‘times out’ companies are moving replacing legacy TDM equipment and software with advanced IP-based solutions. Large installations have talked about moving their telecom infrastructure into a data center and getting some costs out of the branch offices. That hasn’t changed. I am surprised, however, at the number of at-home contact center agents, and the lack of discussion concerning security for those agents. But then, that’s mostly an operations issue, not a technology issue. I remember years ago when Ameritech was in business and they examined the whole idea of at-home agents. They came to the conclusion that it took two people to support one agent. Today the the technology is there, but as I say, I’m surprised that companies are not more worried about security when it comes to at-home agents. Some call centers are taking pens away from agents because they don’t want them taking account contact information. Bank of America had a little whiteboard they gave agents, so if they had to scribble something down, it could be erased immediately. And yet, other banks have scores of agents sitting at home, working away, with all information available to them! I’m surprised security hasn’t become a big problem, but I presume some kind of policies are in place to handle it.”
“Our ability to record calls has gotten a lot easier with today’s technology,” says Kawecki. “You won’t find a tangle of wires going out to phone sets, the ability to use more commercial hardware makes things cheaper than using proprietary hardware, which nobody wants anymore. The field is quite mature and more people are ‘pulling the trigger’ and implementing IP-enabled contact centers and their associated applications. The technology has caught up with regulations requiring call recording, and it has progressed to the point where it’s easier to manage the recordings you already have. Law firms and compliance people everywhere are worried about having boxes of tapes sitting in back room and somebody walking out with them. Now there are SANs and NASs on the network, and there are more advanced applications on the retention side, such as variable retention based on actual conversations that take place, so you can actively manage what you have in your archive. In short, you now have more ‘data awareness’ – you can be more aware of exactly what you have. That has invited the recording process into more areas, because now the recordings can be well-managed.”
Qwest is a household name when it comes to providing voice, video and data services.
Martin Capurro, Director of Qwest Business Market Group Product Management, “Contact centers deal with two things: First, keeping a meaningful contact with the customer; second, efficiency. Achieving high efficiency is really a big part of contact centers. How do you touch and treat in a quality way as many customers as possible while the operation runs on the best possible cost basis. Automation is key. IP has allowed the enablement of new feature functionality, of being able to understand the flows and requests of the actual end customers and being able to change and adapt IVRs, call center routing or agent interactions regularly. It used to be very common for there to be annual reviews of business processes in order to optimize them. But now, what’s happened with some of the call center environments is that you’re able to modify them easier now. In the past, this would have taken a great deal of software development and process engineering and maybe even some new equipment, but now you’re able to swiftly engineer either IVR or ACD-type of environment flows. I won’t say that you can do this on-the-fly, but we do know some customers who do it every couple of weeks. That is a big change in the contact center environment – we can be more adaptive, things can happen quicker. The customer can have more of a direct input with respect to changes that they’d like to see. At the end of the day it’s not about selling a service, it’s about how you can optimize the experience for the end customer. We at Quest ask what we can do with our direct customers in order to meet that end.”
“Our IVR-related products tend to be more ‘routed’ type products – how a customer can direct the call to the best desired resource,” says Capurro. That’s one of our buckets. ACDs are more about how to route the call to the best possible human resource. IVR involves less of a human touch, but if all else fails, the call ends up connecting to a human agent. In either realm, you’re talking about using a lot of automation, intelligence and prompting to help the end customer get at the information. Taking a step back, the best way to look at it is to first ask, ‘Who buys these type of environments?’. The answer is that almost every business out there has a need to interact with its customers. Even mid-sized and small businesses have access to these type of tools, whereas in the past, before IP-enablement and modern applications, companies had to invest in a real infrastructure and embedded equipment to build a top-notch system. Today, a small customer can approach Qwest and ask for an IVR environment to route calls and map them to certain sources of information, and we can have the customer up and running with basic routing services in a day. For more complex environments, we can do some very customized work resulting from our effort to understand the customer’s business processes, and we can then create a custom environment for them. Setting that up would take longer, perhaps three weeks or so. And, of course, there are ‘hybrid’ situations situated between these two extremes, where a customer may have more involvement in actually creating the kind of environment they want; they can do this via access to web portals where they can click on a screen and can begin configure their environment.”
“IP has made possible rather sophisticated contact center environments that can reach outside of the call center,” says Capurro. “In the simplest environment, you’re just allowing people to ‘route through’ an environment without necessarily reaching back and touching third-party data sources. The more complex ones may involve security PINs, required balances, catalog numbers, or their own accounts, and in such cases we end up ensuring that the environment can link or talk to third-party databases, or the customer’s own databases, so they can go search for validation data and provide that information. Lastly, we have a notify product. Everything I’ve mentioned thus far concerns instances of customers calling us. Another real service involves calling the customers and letting them know something when they need to know it. It’s basically an outbound call to notify them about prescription updates, alerts of suspected malicious accounts activity, appointment reminders, and so forth. In general, the trend is being able to IP-enable these services, which used to be standalone systems. By doing this, we’ve been able to bring down the cost and it opens them up to a wider range of customers. Whether we’re talking about a state or local government, a school, system, a large business or a local real estate business, the need is there for everyone, so it’s important for us to offer a wide range of services and make them available down-market. It’s been a big win for both us and the customers.”
Something to Call Home About
Virtual Hold Technology (News - Alert) (VHT), founded in 1995 by Mark Williams, is known for its innovative, customer-enhancing queue management solutions. In particular, VHT originated a novel technology they call virtual queuing, which customers have described as the next best thing to being answered immediately by a contact center agent. Virtual queuing eliminates the need for a caller to wait on the phone for a customer service representative. It allows the caller to do something else while a virtual placeholder saves the caller’s place in the queue (telling the caller how long the wait will be) or calls the person back later at a more convenient time. VHT has integrated its patented Virtual Hold software suite technical environments in industries ranging from utilities and telecom to healthcare and insurance.
Eric Camulli, Virtual Hold’s CTO, says, “Virtual queuing has been our business for a long time. The field is definitely changing and evolving. When we started in this business, it was about educating and empowering customers with options for simply managing hold time. But now, as things evolve, it’s about educating and empowering people with options for managing the way that they communicate.”
“Let me explain two things about where I think the field is going,” says Camulli. “People a few years ago started using the term ‘contact center’. It implied using the web as well as voice, and chat was thrown into the mix. So you have these different forms of communication. But with social networking the game is changing even more, and these are channels of communication as well. There’s no reason why in the future why you won’t be leveraging social networks alongside virtual queuing in IP contact centers in order to serve customers. An example might be something like this: In the future you may be interested in trying to get in touch with your cable company’s customer service. The best way for you to do that may for you to twitter for customer service or perhaps even go to their Facebook (News - Alert) page. There should be no reason why you shouldn’t be able to twitter and find out what the expected wait time is for the customer queue that you’re attempting to get in touch with. Also, at the same time, you should be able to make a request and enter the virtual queue via either a twitter request or by going right to a Facebook page. By making that virtual request into the queue over the IP network, you’re now using a form of communication with which you are most comfortable. In a sense it will also be what you use to keep track of all of your communications, since you’ve got some type of canvas of palette that has all of your social networking components in front of you, such as a tweet deck or a Facebook, or something like a Yahoo that will have some integrated tools. In fact, just recently I downloaded a new Yahoo client where I’m able to aggregate all of my social networks, be they twitter, Facebook, MySpace (News - Alert), etc., all into a single user interface, so I can keep track of all of these interactions. So, once again, there should be no reason why you shouldn’t be able to interact in the same way, by requesting the requested wait time, requesting agent availability, finding out if a specialist is available to speak with you, and if not, then being able to insert a placeholder into the queue in order to save your place in line so that a specialist can call you back when that person is ready.”
Camulli continues, “Because all of this occurs in a virtual reality world, the concept of time completely changes in that, just by a few keystrokes on your phone in making this virtual request via twitter, Facebook or whatever, you’re able to put the phone right back in your pocket, secure in the knowledge that your ‘place in line’ is secure in the virtual queue. And when that placeholder reaches the top of the queue, you know for certain that when the time expires, a specialist with the proper skills will be reached – not some secondary agent who’s just trying to answer the phone as quickly as possible, or some tertiary agent who’s a trainee and who has been asked to be brought online just to be able to answer phones quickly. No indeed, the response from twitter or Facebook is that a specialist will be available for you in 5 or 10 minutes, and you can confidently put your phone back into your pocket and go about your life. And before you know it, 10 minutes goes by, your phone rings, and you’re talking to the precise person you need to speak with in order to get the transaction done. So that is one major shift that I see coming down the pike in the future.” IT
The following companies were mentioned in this article:
COPC Inc. - (www.copc.com)
CosmoCom - (www.cosmocom.com)
CyberTech International - (www.cybertech-int.com)
Qwest - (www.qwest.com)
Virtual Hold Technology - (www.virtualhold.com)
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