Speech Recognition

Speech recognition is a lot like IVR, only callers get to speak selections rather than press corresponding numbers on their phone pads to get information.

Speech recognition gives callers without touch tone dialing the same access to information as those with touch tone service. Not only will it satisfy these callers — but think of the population of callers who need glasses to dial. These callers won’t have to juggle their glasses with the phone pad to see the numbers they are pressing.

Although over-the-phone speech recognition still has a limited vocabulary, most systems are effective enough to allow callers to speak selections such as “sales,” “flight number 123,” “transfer cash” or “order baseball cap.”

Speech recognition technology is constantly improving. Vocabularies keep growing (which means you can program the system to understand more caller commands). It seems that almost all systems are now continuous speech.

Make sure you choose one that is indeed continuous speech. Otherwise callers will be forced to pause and wait for a beep after saying every word or number. Since it’s unnatural to speak this way, callers may be more likely to hang up or ask for a rep. There’s also an increased chance of the system not understanding every word, since it’s hard to tell speech from silence.

If you already own an IVR system and want to add speech recognition capabilities, you should check with your vendor. Many of the big manufacturers like Lucent, Syntellect and InterVoice have added speech recognition to their IVR systems.

This technology has made tremendous strides in the last few years. It promises to change the way customers interact with automated systems, broadening the range of telephony interactions.

There are two distinct kinds of speech recognition, known as speaker-dependent and speaker-independent. The two diverge wildly in the kinds of things they are good at, and the kinds of systems needed to make them run.

Call center apps necessarily focus on speaker-independent recognition. Many people will call, obviously. The human brain in the form of a receptionist can recognize a huge number of variations of the same basic input — there are literally an infinite number of ways to intone the word “hello.” What you want in a call center is a system that will respond to the likely inputs — the most common words like yes, no, stop, help, operator, etc., the digits, the letters of the alphabet, and so on.

Internationally, touch tone penetration is still very low, leaving a vast installed base of potential callers who can not access IVR. It follows that these callers are then going to be expensive to process when they come into a call center because they have to be held in queue until there’s an agent ready for them — high telecom charges from the longer than average wait, coupled with the cost of agent-service (rather than self-service).

On the downside, international call centers, particularly those that serve multiple countries, can field calls in multiple languages. If you use an IVR front-end to have the caller select their language then you by definition don’t need speech rec. These are surmountable problems that have more to do with the operation of speech rec in practice than with the underlying technology.

Application Development Software

Getting a voice processing system to do exactly what you want can be frustrating. That’s why call center managers with computer expertise sometimes create their own systems using a PC, voice processing boards and application development software (also called an application development generator, or app gen.

These software packages make putting together a system easier by protecting you from the lower level computer languages (read: “harder to use”) through graphical user interfaces and object-oriented programming.

Sometimes a voice processing system will come bundled with an application development software component, to help you tweak the system to fit your exact needs.

When should you look into using application development software? If you are frequently going to modify your voice processing application — say for each campaign — then you could easily benefit from software that will let you do this yourself instead of waiting for your vendor.

But beware: this is not for the faint of heart. Even the most user-friendly app gen can be a beast. Quite frankly, creating the workflow logic of a voice processing application is very different from knowing how to schedule agents, or manipulate service levels. It’s not always going to work out the way you planned it, and it’s always going to take longer than you think.

Most voice processing systems come with preconstructed apps in their toolkits. If it’s at all possible, try to use those. App gens are wonderful tools, but the closer you get to off-the-shelf, the better off you’ll be.

Voice Mail

Now this is where you get into specialized technology. Not all voice mail systems are alike. And they have not (yet) been completely subsumed into larger boxes (though this is happening at a rapid clip).

A voice mail system answers telephone calls to individual phone numbers or phone system extensions, plays a greeting from the mail box owner and records the callers message.

At the mailbox owner’s prompting it plays back messages, forwards them to other extensions, saves them or deletes them.

Voicemail has a different role in the call center than anywhere else. While it can be used in the traditional sense for call center managers or upper management, it’s most often used to give callers an option to leave a voice mail message as opposed to waiting in queue for an agent when integrated with your ACD.

A voice mail system appropriate for the special needs of a call center should alert agents when there is a message in waiting. If the voice mail system you choose cannot do this, it’s important to create a system designating certain agents to return voice mail calls when call volume falls below a pre-determined level.

Voice mail is a critical tool for the small center that cannot afford to staff agents after-hours. A voice mail system won’t shut out any callers. It keeps your center open 24 hours a day.

Not long ago voice mail was the classic voice processing application and usually came in a standalone system that was sometimes bundled with an automated attendant. Today voice mail is usually a part of a complete voice processing system.

The latest thing in voice mail is “screen-based” voice mail that lets you call up messages of many kinds on your computer screen including your voice mail, email and fax messages. More and more vendors are jumping on the bandwagon to offer computer/telephony interfaces that put voice mail on your desktop PC. With this kind of interface you can get information not only about your voice mail messages, but also view email messages or faxes from your PC. This “unified messaging” gives you one mailbox combining voice, fax and email messages. Unified messaging gives you an easier interface than the telephone keypad. Most unified messaging runs across a LAN and integrates with your phone system. The object is to have desktop control over all of your messages, with the ability to retrieve them, read email messages or listen to voice mail and store and forward them through your computer or phone.

Some benefits:

  • Users can view messages that come in even if they are on the phone.

  • There’s no need for dedicated voice mail hardware.

  • The user can do all the configuring.

  • You can move voice, data and email from site to site across networks.

  • It eliminates the need to use the phone pad to issue commands.

Previously, telephone-oriented software had to run on systems connected to ISDN or proprietary digital phone lines to control features like hold, transfer and conferencing through TAPI.

Active Voice was one of the first companies to put voice mail on the user’s desktop. Their original TeLANphony product bridged local area networks, telephone systems, voice processing and desktop computing.

With a unified messaging app, when a call comes in, a window on your PC pops up and gives you information about the call. With the click of the mouse you can ask callers to identify themselves, hold, play a greeting, transfer the call to another extension or ask the caller to leave a message without picking up the receiver.

As call centers change (and as the Web becomes more of a customer input channel), combining different types of messaging will be more important, we will probably see the next generation of unified messaging applications focus more on serving the needs of the center.

Automated Attendant

Automated attendants answer a call, play a message with a menu of options and route the caller to the extension or menu choice selected.

In call centers, automated attendants are helpful in having callers direct themselves to an appropriate queue. For example, an automated attendant in a call center might ask the caller to dial one for sales, two for billing or account information and three for technical support. The call would then be routed to the correct department or the correct ACD gate.

Once it was common to find standalone automated attendants. Today they are usually a part of a voice mail or other voice processing system. In fact, they are so fully integrated into today’s PBX systems and messaging technologies that you almost never have to worry about buying this (or any of the voice technologies itemized so far). These are features of larger scale systems that are still important to the functions of a center.

Announcement Systems And Messages On Hold

The most basic building block in the suite of technologies I call voice processing is the announcer. An announcer simply answers an incoming telephone call and plays a recorded message.

Digital announcers use a computer chip to store the recorded message. Other systems use tape to store the message, similar to the way an answering machine does. (Word of advice: stick to digital. Tape is too delicate, too cumbersome, and hard to edit. Digital is not just the future; it’s the present.)

You can have the system play a message and simply hang up, or ring the caller through to your phone system after playing the message if they choose to stay on the line for more information.

Announcers can also work with ACDs to play messages to callers in queue. You can program a message to simply thank the caller for holding, play on-hold music, or even better, play recorded promotional messages.

Because an announcer is so simple, it doesn’t have the high-tech appeal of other voice processing technologies. But announcers are vital to most call centers and many other businesses because they play music and messages to callers waiting on hold or in queue for a call center agent.

Call centers turn to sophisticated technologies like computer integration to save a few seconds per call — and may spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so. But few stop to think that a simple announcement on hold that tells callers to have a credit card ready can save that same call center five seconds per call at almost no cost.

When choosing an announcer the most important thing you’ll need to decide is the amount of recording time you’ll need.

Voice Processing Fundamentals

Customers demand convenience. They want information quickly, but they also want specialized attention. And they want to reach you on their timetable, not necessarily yours.

Voice response assures callers reach the right department without the need for an agent. Callers like having options. They hate being forced to wait in queue. Voice processing means you can offer them options. Depending on the technology you use, they can leave a message for a return phone call, retrieve information themselves, or request that it be sent to them.

And the benefits to you are even greater. When you use a voice processing system, more calls get handled through the system. Instead of paying your reps to answer every call, they can handle just the callers who ask to speak to them. Depending on circumstances, you’ll be able to handle higher call volumes with the same number of reps.

Information that an IVR system captures is always accurate. It comes firsthand, from the customer. By now everyone realizes the value of customer information. You can use it for cross marketing, surveying demographics about who your customers are, and so much more.

A lot of information about IVR will be presented in the next section. IVR is a special animal; it’s the key voice processing component in call centers, worthy of special attention. What this chapter will do is explain some of the other voice technologies that are available. These technologies, like speech recognition and automated attendants are, if not critical, then important for specific applications and industries.

Less than 10 years ago it was possible to go through each voice processing technology and give an example of a standalone system that offered that technology. Today’s systems are much more sophisticated.

These days certain technologies are found almost exclusively as functions in larger systems. It’s likely that some or all of these are included in the ACD you’ve already got, whether you use them or not. (Maybe in reading this brief chapter you will see the virtue of simple voice functions and trot out your ACD manual to get some of them turned on.)

When there is a standalone product, it is almost always aimed at the low end of the market. But today’s voice processing market is also a place where you can get what you want — exactly what you want. The hottest technologies are application generation software products, voice boards and the accessories needed to create “do it yourself” voice processing systems.

Here, I’ve outlined the technologies that are available. In a sense, all I’m really doing is showing you how some core voice technology (voice boards plus some software logic) can be put to use. There is precious little difference between auto attendants and their grown-up cousin, IVR, besides power, scalability and feature set. Under the hood, they are all essentially the same. But no matter what type of voice system you choose, they all share one common characteristic — you’ll be more productive and will save money in the long run.

Key Features To Look For | Computer Telephony

And so here are five key features that you might want to add to your call center through computer telephony. There are many others, and the list grows all the time. (That’s part of the wonder of this industry.) Again, these are the ones I see most frequently, that provide demonstrable benefit to the companies that implement them. You can add them by adding software that contains them, or as part of a general CTI overhaul. The benefits of each of them are always the same — faster and better customer service.

  1. Simultaneous Screen Transfer. An agent is speaking to a client. The agent has the client’s database up on his screen. The agent needs to send the call to someone else for special treatment. Push a button on his screen, “Who would you like to send this call to?” He types the name, hits Enter. The call and the updated screen go to the specialist.

  2. ANI/Caller ID Database Lookup. A call comes in. It carries the calling number. Your ACD grabs the calling number, passes it to your database over your LAN. As the phone rings on an agent’s desk, the agent’s screen pops with a screenful of information on the caller. What he bought last time. What his problems were. How they were resolved. What he tried to buy last time.

    Automatic phone lookup can shave 15 minutes off a typical call — the time the agent takes to ask the hapless caller such questions as “What’s your name, address, phone number, etc.?”

  3. Predictive Dialing. When your agents are not answering incoming calls, they could be making outgoing calls. “Last month and the month before, Mr. Smith, you bought four dozen boxes of paperclips. May we send you another four dozen?”

  4. Other Database Lookups. Many agents are linked to only one database. But customers always want more information than one database can provide. A price list. A list of your dealers. Other machines you’re compatible with. How to get the machine fixed. Layouts of the hotel rooms you’re renting.

  5. Fax server. Your agent is answering a call for help. Explaining the solution is too difficult and time consuming. It’s easier to say, “May I fax you several pages of explanation?” Let your fax server send the pages while you make another phone call. Let your customer follow the jumping ball on the fax he just received.

How to Make it Work | Computer Telephony

There’s no way for me to tell you everything that can go wrong (or right) with a CTI install. There are so many things that can’t be anticipated by outsiders, which is another key reason why you want to have an internally directed plan, rather than handing everything over to a consultant or a systems integrator.

Many companies need help defining the scope of what CTI should do in a business context (not just from a technical point of view). That help can come in the form of a consultant or systems integrator, who typically work with a company to coordinate the entire plan of an installation, help select the products from the various layers, and if necessary create any custom linkages or applications to suit the situation.

Or, that help can come from one of the vendors themselves. This is more common than it used to be, as vendors have worked hard to orient themselves in a way that makes more sense to the end-user: end-to-end coverage of the entire CTI process, from the component layer through the applications and service. They often set up

So use this short list as a tickler, to spark some thoughts about the kinds of things that applies to your particular business circumstances. These aren’t the only things to watch for and pay attention to; they are just the ones I hear about most frequently.

  • Single out the high-volume areas of your call center operations. For a telemarketer selling stereo equipment, the customer service and new orders division may field many calls, while the help desk may get a relatively low load. For a PC vendor, however, the help desk may be just as inundated, or more so, in the face of decreased sales.

    Before implementing any computer telephony technology, you should define the internal environment. The areas with high volume are going to have the highest payback when you implement open applications. Possibly, only one or two of your applications would really benefit from computer-assisted telephony.

    The telecom manager should also assess the nature of each department, to see if the switch-to-host application would enhance or besmirch the corporate image. (Yes, failure to do this could prove extremely embarrassing.)

    When calling the complaints division, for instance, the caller usually expects to air her grievances to a live agent. Her resentment and frustration may only build if greeted by a VRU unit.

  • LANs, minis or mainframes — size up your host solution. For smaller call centers, a local area network can serve as the entire host side of the solution. Clearly, the last few years of application development have shown that a LAN-based or client/server-based application gives you more flexibility when it comes to importing telephone functions to the workstation than you’d get with a mainframe.

    Of course, if you have a mainframe or mini already in place, you’ll probably work with this existing hardware. You can often use these hosts as central servers, connected to workstations via local area networks, combining the flexibility of a LAN with the processing power of a mainframe.

  • Pin down the vendor on probable savings and goals. Before you even think of contacting a vendor, you should evaluate the time it takes to handle a given call. Only then will you know what your projected savings might be.

    Bear in mind that most applications salespeople are just that — salespeople. Get past the vague promises and pin them down on how much will be saved. Demand detailed projections and scenarios. Ask to speak to a few happy customers — even among happy customers you may find some potential drawbacks of a particular system.

    If you’re fortunate enough to be running a regional monopoly — a utility or water works — you can call colleagues from other areas to discuss any open applications they may have implemented. If you run a mail order house, you may have less luck getting your competitors to divulge their secrets.

  • Starting over or improving upon the existing order. Many applications can be integrated into an open CTI environment rather painlessly.

    For instance, you may have an application that calls up customer profile information by having the agent key in the customer’s social security number. Using ANI, the open application automatically summons the file to the agent’s screen simply by replacing the social security number with the caller’s home phone number.

    Many open applications, like predictive dialing engines, are more efficient or economical if purchased as turnkey applications. Sometimes, it pays to scrap the old order rather than undergo an ill-fitting adaptation.

  • Test the waters. There are two ways to test computer telephony apps prior to full implementation. Dummy applications are available, simulating call traffic, your workforce, the equipment you plan to employ, your network services and your application code. You can also have a test region on the host, where you can run pilot tests while you’re making changes, perform load analysis.

    Many telecom managers prefer to phase in the new regime gradually through such separate testing areas. One way is to phase in with 10% or 20% of your customer base, then gradually broaden the application to include the entire base through the call center.

  • Avoid glitz for its own sake. CTI apps perform some feats so stunning that even the most sober telecom center manager can get carried away with the fancy.

    Few would argue that the act of automatically shunting a caller’s vital data and his phone call to an agent’s terminal before that agent even picks up can save a lot of valuable seconds in WATS time and agent labor. All of these precious seconds are lost, however, when the agent picks up the phone and exclaims — “Hello Mr. Brooks, how may I help you?”

    If you call people by name before you give them a chance to introduce themselves, you’re going to waste 20 seconds of your time with ‘how did you know I was calling?’” The result is a transaction three times as long, and three times as expensive, than the manual solution.

  • Don’t ignore agent considerations. Weeks before you implement the application, you should set up a training program — coordinated by the applications developer — to master the system.

    As with any introduction of automation, you may need fewer employees on the job — in this case, agents at their terminals. Perhaps your budget will permit you to divert customer service reps to a larger support group or complaint division. You may also be compelled to reduce the workforce, either through attrition or layoffs.

    Also consider the implementation of new evaluation criteria for those who remain at the call center. If your application incorporates a voice response unit, for example, the unit will handle most of the simple inquiries without any live agent intervention. Which means that your agents handle only trickier, more difficult calls. So you should expect that the duration of an average call fielded by an agent will increase.

  • Reality checks. Three months after your application is in place, then three months after that, you should take a look at how much you are saving.

    Note that while it is relatively easy to calculate lower toll free usage or fewer agents needed to staff the phones, other benefits are more difficult to gauge — such as how many new policies have been taken out by insurance customers simply because the agent was able to transfer both their datafile and screen immediately from the life insurance division to the accident group.

    Often, you’ll find you must alter your long-distance contract, your agent scheduling, even the capacity of your computer plant to accommodate the changed call processing environment.

    From a bottom line standpoint, though, these changes are probably for the better. Many end users report a nine to 16 month payback on their investment.

The Call Center Jigsaw Puzzle

Putting the pieces of a CTI system together involves an amazing degree of coordination between products and vendors at several levels.

The bottom layer consists of the fundamental hardware and conjunctive elements: the boards that process the voice and data channels; the servers and networks, often ruggedized to reflect the mission criticality of what they are used for; and the standards and open APIs that link different vendors’ equipment together. The most common boards used in CTI systems are from manufacturers like Dialogic, Natural Microsystems, Lucent, Brooktrout and several other specialty companies, depending on the application.

Parallel to that sits the dual networking infrastructures: the phone switches and the data networks. The phone switches are usually PBXs or dedicated high-volume call routing switches called “automatic call distributors,” or ACDs. Phone service is also a core component. Not just because it’s an obvious necessity, but because increasingly, the carrier networks are being upgraded to deliver advanced call processing services through the network. Sometimes this works directly to the advantage of the smaller business — if messaging or call routing applications can be run from the network, you need to invest less in premise-based equipment. You can implement “high touch” services like call centers without spending so much on high tech infrastructure.

The data networking infrastructure, like the phone system, is probably already in place: LANs, intranets, external Internet connections and websites, desktop browsers and firewalls.

Between these two networking areas lies the middleware layer. The products in this category are what most people think of when they say CTI — the very specialized applications that draw data out of host systems and coordinate it with incoming telephony information, then format it for both sides. Originally, many of these products focused on coordinating between a single vendor’s switch and a single host format. As a rule of thumb, the older and more widespread the databases, the more important (and more complex, and customized) the middleware has to be. This has accounted for a lot of the tension surrounding the installation of CTI. For companies with decades-old legacy systems and extremely customized databases, installing CTI meant that to achieve any of the benefits, you had to go through a trying period of intimate customization between the switch and the database.

Increasingly, middleware connectivity is being sold as part of the switch, and middleware companies themselves are being acquired by larger companies above and below them on the CTI component chain.

The next level of product in the CTI hierarchy is the application layer. This is the software that actually does the things that make people more productive, things like messaging or speech recognition, automating sales forces or taking orders through the Web. It’s a good idea, when pondering a transition to CTI, to start here, with a concrete idea of what you want the system to accomplish. It’s akin to buying a PC based on what kind of application you want to run. You pick out the spreadsheet and word processor that has the features you need, then buy a PC that makes those features work best. CTI is no different. The best approach is to identify the applications that suit your business and then build up and down to integrate those apps with the infrastructure you already have.

Along with these layers of technology come the consulting services and systems integration know-how that ties it all together. For the most part, CTI is not an off-the-shelf accomplishment. It does require intimate connections between different technical realms — which are usually managed by different people, with different sets of priorities.

What it’s Used For | Computer Telephony

Voice response systems are front-ends to the phone system that deliver recorded information when someone calls. Interactive voice response is two-way; it responds with information when a caller enters digits on the touch tone phone. And when that information comes from a host database, that’s CTI in action.

Customers can call at any hour of the day or night looking for account balances or order status information. The IVR engine queries a database in the background and reads the information to the caller. In this way it can be made dynamic — instead of just reading off a set of canned, pre-recorded announcements (“we’re closed right now, please call again tomorrow” or “to leave a message for our sales department, press one”) it pulls real time data out of corporate databases.

When this is translated to the Web, the kind of information you can make available to customers is expanded dramatically. Anything visual, from catalogs to product schematics, can be dropped onto a customer (or agent) desktop. Customers can help themselves when problems arise. They can learn about your products before they buy. And when it comes time to talk to an agent, they are better prepared; so the call is shorter, more effective, and more profitable. The “shopper” does his shopping without consuming your most valuable resources. But the buyer gets your full attention.

CTI is an information delivery tool. It won’t make a seller out of someone with no sales ability, but it will give someone who deals with customers the knowledge they need to address the needs of the customer.

For starters, a customer record is brought to the agent’s desktop at the same time as the customer’s voice arrives on the phone. The caller can be identified in many ways, including the information that travels with the toll free call, or through digits entered by the caller himself. When the agent has the customer information in front of him, the call doesn’t last as long. The customer doesn’t have to repeat himself every time the call is transferred. And the agent sees the entire history of the relationship with that customer. If the customer has a history of problems, the rep will know about it. And if the customer has a million-dollar lifetime value to the company, the rep will know that too.

Better still, if that caller is really a million dollar value, the CTI system will know it before the rep will, and can be set up to send the call directly to someone equipped with the experience to handle priority customers.

Another way CTI helps is with quality control. In call centers, calls are often monitored — recorded and archived so that the agent and his or her supervisor can listen to them later and assess performance.

That analysis process is made much more productive when it’s augmented by the data that passes through the agent’s screen during the call. A complete record of every transaction can be kept indefinitely, including every screen viewed by the agent. This “screen scrape” is an audit trail and a training tool.

All these things help a company cut operating costs by reducing (or stabilizing) support staff headcount. A company can be more productive with the same staff by handling more calls (or customers, or transactions, depending on which metric is most important to them).

And most important, it lets a smaller company look like a big one — without sacrificing the personal touch. Customers don’t care how big a company is, they care about what kind of response they get when they call or contact that company. If they get good service from Federal Express or L.L. Bean, they’re going to learn to expect it from every other business they deal with, no matter how large. CTI applications allow companies to appear more fully outfitted than they really are. This could mean putting systems in place to answer calls during off-hours when no agents are available, or having a website take orders at all hours. In any of these cases, the underlying technology that links the computer networks and the telecom systems enables the small company to decide for itself how to manage its customer relationships.

A call center that uses computer telephony knows who its customers are and why they are calling. It knows what they like, what they dislike, and how much they are worth to the company. On the other hand, without computer telephony every customer interaction is like a blind date — full of expectation, and possibly, frustration.

CTI lets a company respond faster to changing market conditions. But it must be implemented correctly: with clear and ongoing support from upper management and a clear-eyed view of the company’s goals for the technology.

For a company to put computer telephony into place requires that they determine, from end to end, exactly what they want a customer interaction to be like. Every contingency must be accounted for: phone calls; emails; fax requests; even Web hits. Far too many companies have had disappointing results because they didn’t put in the computer telephony they needed; they put in the technology they imagined. The right CTI is the mix of applications and core technologies that add value to the company’s existing operations, and allow it to do more: voice mail, unified messaging, advanced call routing, fax redirection, Internet telephony, call center apps, customer service software, sales force automation — whatever combination is most useful in their particular circumstances. The key is to figure out which pieces are right for which circumstances.

There are many ways to make it work. There are also many places to go for expert advice. Component vendors start the process, and often point the way to application partners whose product works with the core pieces. Telcos and other large service providers can also provide an umbrella under which integration between all the pieces are certified to work correctly. There are systems integrators, who specialize in matching the various pieces to the custom needs of a particular company, or vertical industry.

Whichever direction, the growing company needs upper management buy-in, direction on the goals of the project, and a clear-eyed view of the relationship between the company and its customers.

CT’s Changing Face | Computer Telephony

What began as a tentative effort by PBX vendors to open their switches has turned into a more solutions-based set of technologies.

Part of that is due to the widespread adoption of technical standards for interoperability between vendors and industries. At the basic level, there are standards for the operation of component hardware at the board level. There are also specs put out by individual vendors that enable applications to work correctly on particular board sets — SCSA and MVIP, for example, by companies like Dialogic and Natural Microsystems.

There are also standards, created largely by the computer software industry, for the creation of applications that work with operating systems. The key standards, TAPI and TSAPI, were offered up by Microsoft and Novell, respectively, as a way to push the switch vendors into compatibility so that developers could use those companies’ OS platforms as the basis for CTI applications.

Some of these apps focused on call control (the movement and tracking of calls around a phone network). Many others were apps that took advantage of the growing LAN/phone system connections to bring data to the desktop at the same time as the phone call arrived. Wherever voice and data networks come together, you need standards to assure that the integration goes smoothly (or works at all).

The Internet, of course, forced things to become even more standards-based. Building apps that combined call control and data manipulation became a lot easier with the adoption of Java, TCP/IP and ODBC as standards for data communication.

While most apps assume that there will be a dedicated piece of hardware for the pure telephony switching, it’s becoming clear that nearly all the add-on functions of value — the call center specific applications — can reside quite nicely in a “telephony server” hooked into the phone switch. More and more, that telephony server is a Windows NT box.

In addition to raw interoperability standards, there are more different kinds of links to consider. In any data/voice application, there are a lot of possible combinations. When I say “voice,” for example, I could be talking about a lot of different kinds of “calls” — traditional phone calls, for one, but also recorded calls in the form of messages, fax traffic, even the digits that callers enter when they pass through a voice response system.

As for data, this starts with the host information that resides in the back office databases. But it also includes the subset of host data that moves to the desktop (and back). And MIS data that passes through the corporate LAN, through intranets, over the Internet (including company Web traffic), and emails.

It used to be easy to isolate the two streams — to break it apart and clearly identify what was voice and what was data. Today, though, a corporate CTI system might also be dealing with strange combinations that include elements of both sides: things like voice-over-the-Internet, fax-over-the-Internet, browser-based transaction processing, “call me” buttons that appear on Web pages. Even speech recognition — all these combos are the result of standards that make it easier to push data and voice across each other’s pathways, and that make it increasingly irrelevant in what form a piece of information comes in. What’s more important is how that information is acted upon, and who has access to it.

CTI is now so broad that it is best defined as any technology that combines some form of real-time, person-to-company communication with a background of data that adds-value to that communication.

When I first wrote about this, in the first edition of this handbook, computer telephony was a developer’s technology. It was still being thought out, and built into the core telecom. It needed to be embedded in the switch, or the switch needed to be open to one or more of the “glue” products that sit in between the switch and the applications you wanted to run (“middleware”). Now, that integration is showing up more behind the scenes, as products (particularly applications) for call centers assume a greater degree of CTI readiness on the part of the switch and the center infrastructure as a whole.

The phenomenon of switch-to-host integration represents a total transformation of what you can do with a center. Thanks to this category of product, the most sophisticated call center features are no longer only available to the biggest, highest-volume centers. Small companies can now avail themselves of once prohibitively expensive technology, taking advantage of ANI, DNIS and other network-provided services to do a lot more with each call. This places them on a more level playing field with their most mammoth competitors.

Some of the most obvious benefits that computer telephony offers the call center:

  • Have shorter calls. Cut hold time dramatically. Speed information to the agent’s desktop, then to the caller. Reduce your telecom usage costs (the second biggest expense in a call center).

  • Have happier customers. Simply put, your reps solve more of their problems the first time out. And faster.

  • Make more sales. You have more information about the caller. And, more important, you can bring the information that’s hiding in the corporate database to bear on that particular call exactly when it’s needed. You know what they like to buy, and what problems they’ve had in the past. You can appeal to them on their terms. They don’t get passed from agent to agent. And you can cross-sell or up-sell them while building their loyalty.

  • Make better use of staff. Gain efficiencies through blending, and other ways of creating dynamic, responsive group configurations. Slow period for calls coming in? Move some of those reps to the outbound side. A dialer seamlessly starts sending them calls, a script pops on the screen, a whisper prompt in their ear tells them the name of the person they’re talking to. Presto — no more down time. Now, it’s not quite as simple as that, but you get the point; computer telephony puts more information — meaningful information, not just raw data — into the hands of the people who can use it most.

  • Improve customer service. Put more information into the hands of the customers, with or without agent intervention. Customers can often serve themselves. This costs less and frees up company resources for more complex tasks.

  • Connect with the Internet, or with company intranets, with all sorts of multimedia sales and service tools. All of the traditionally expensive tasks, like order processing, literature fulfillment, interactive faxing, are made easier through computer telephony.

Where Did CTI Come From? | Computer Telephony

Consider, for just a moment, the historical anomaly of telecom. Despite the conventional wisdom about the rise of the microprocessor and the computer revolution, the fact is that the national telephone network built incrementally by AT&T over the course of decades was a feat of computational and networking engineering unmatched in the 20th century.

And yet, when microprocessors begat PCs and PCs begat client/server networks, the companies that made the phone switches for average businesses remained curiously unmoved. Notwithstanding the fact that the business phone system is one complex piece of computational hardware, there was a great deal of resistance to making the phone act more like a computer.

The computer, though, was easy enough to make act like a phone. The computer industry was better at implementing the things that make disparate technologies talk to each other — important things like vendor-independent standards.

Computer telephony has its origins in the fact that if you wanted to add on to a typical office PBX, you had to buy the add-on from the original vendor, or from a third-party company that wrote to the proprietary spec promulgated by that PBX vendor.

Good applications were hard to find because for a software company writing these add-ons, the cost of developing for multiple switch vendors was prohibitively high. If you wanted a reporting system to complement your switch, you had only a few options: buy from the vendor or the vendor’s approved partner, or build it yourself. None of the options were particularly attractive.

Computer telephony was an attempt by the more perceptive members of both the PBX and computer industries to come to grips with the notion that they were more alike than different. Switches were really high-performance communications servers, after all. If the specs could be opened up, if standards could be developed, both sides would benefit from the flood of applications that would be developed.

Today’s switches come with CTI hooks built in, and a suite of applications from the vendor and its partners that take advantage of the connections.

Computer Telephony

Any company’s main focus should be its customers: fielding their calls, delivering service, getting orders out the door, making sales. The easier it is for a customer to get in touch with you, the better the relationship will be. Companies that do the best job of opening the door to customers, those that make it as easy as possible for customers to find out what they need to know, are the ones that have the best track records in the long term. Small and medium-sized companies that have adopted customer-focused attitudes have, over time, become giants of their industries.

Over the past few years there has been much discussion of the pros and cons of a new set of technologies called CTI, or computer/telephone integration (or just computer telephony — they all mean the same thing). Computer telephony was designed specifically to enable better contact between companies and their customers.

It is a loose but complicated amalgamation of interlocking technologies. It isn’t any one thing, not any one piece of hardware or software. It’s a way of combining the two streams of information — voice and data — through open, standards-based systems. It has uses in all areas of modern business, but its most dramatic possibility is in the call center. If implemented well, it can improve the way a company interacts with its customers, which of course, is the whole point behind the call center.

Computer telephony is a way of reaching beyond the traditional limitations of either of the component technologies (phones and computers) and bringing them together in a way that improves them both, by bringing more information to the person on the phone, and making the data behind the scenes much more flexible.

Think about it. The ability to integrate your computer and telecom system could bring the customer’s phone call along with his datafile right to the agent’s desktop, as the call comes in. This translates to massive savings in 800 line charges and agent labor.

In practice, implementing computer telephony has been a dicey proposition. Until very recently, it was largely custom, with each venturesome company taking the plunge using a systems integrator to cobble together all the necessary links, proprietary interfaces and special connections to applications. The benefits are easy to see, but sometimes difficult to achieve. Most call center CTI experiences begin with good intentions. Somehow, they don’t all end up that way. Imagine this scenario:

Your company is facing stiff competition and is growing rapidly, resulting in a certain amount of customer tension — people have a hard time getting you on the phone when things go wrong. It takes too long for sales reps to respond to good leads. Emails come in from customers and go...you’re not exactly sure where. Same thing for fax traffic. You don’t even have time to think about the traffic coming in from your website (and whether your site is connected to your call center).

You hear that there are technologies out there that promise relief. They promise to tear down the walls between you and your customers by bringing voice and data together. You swallow the bait. You hire a consultant and they present you with a plan. Screen pop, says the consultant. When a call comes in, shouldn’t the agent have all the information? Sounds good, you say. Single point of contact, he says. So when a customer calls, whoever handles it has all the relevant info. Makes sense, you say. Links between the switch and the host. Connections everywhere.

Of course it makes sense. And before you know it, you are in the middle of an implementation. The months drag on. The consultant puts a dollar figure on the technology, but once he’s gone from the scene you realize that his number didn’t include things like training, or coordinating what happens in the center with what goes on in other departments. Of course, the technology works, but do the people know how to work the technology?

A year later, you are staring at the prospect of starting all over, with a different set of technological priorities, a different consultant, but the same basic feeling in your gut that yes, you do need to get closer to your customer. You just need a better way to get from Point A to Point B — one that has clearly defined cost and benefit signposts along the way.

For most of the 1990s, installing CTI systems was an incredibly custom job that involved detailed on-site “fixing” to make sure that everything worked together. Luckily, things have changed a lot.

Computer telephony is simply defined as “adding computer intelligence to the phone call.” When you think of it that way, everything from simple screen pop to predictive dialing becomes, at one level or another, a computer telephony application. Depending on your call center’s level of sophistication, and the capabilities of the underlying telecom infrastructure, you may already be using core computer telephony technologies.

What to Look For | Outdialing Systems

  • Databases. The dialer must connect to your host system to access your call lists. It’s got to switch between lists and campaigns and it’s got to reschedule callbacks for busies and no-answers.

  • Continuing improvement in software and applications. With a clear focus from the vendor on integrating the dialer with inbound switching and with the total customer management software infrastructure. It’s not going to do you much good if a sales person works from one isolated island of information, and the customer service department works from another.

  • Call blending. You don’t have to divide agents into inbound and outbound pools anymore. Once, it was necessary. But why should you have outbound agents rushing through a call list while inbound agents sit idle?

What happens when an automated outbound center starts to receive callbacks from the people not reached on the first call? (That happens a lot in collection environments.)

If the ACD and the dialer don’t communicate well, the calls could go to an inbound-only group. But you may want the same agents to handle inbound and outbound. Or a particular account may belong to an agent or a group.

Intelligent features are available for blending inbound and outbound calls on the dialer. You adjust for peaks and valleys by dynamically switching agents from one group to another. It reduces staffing inefficiency and maximizes agents’ talk times more than ever before.

There are two kinds of call blending: reactive blending, where agents are switched around when the system detects an overflow; and predictive blending, in which you predefine when the pools are switched.

  • Computer/telephony integration. Dialers should be linked to the host telephone switch, as well as fax and voice mail systems. Monitor ACD activity through server-based connections to the switch. These reports help control workflow in a call blending situation. All this information is vital — how many calls come in, how long they are on hold and when the call center is busiest.

  • Business-to-business impact. Predictive dialers are great when you have large lists of customers or potential customers. But they don’t work well when you have to call businesses.

    That’s because companies almost always answer their phones, even if the specific person you want to reach is not there. You lose the efficiency gained by screening out no-answers and busies. The same problem applies to people whose job it is to screen calls.

    If you need to do this kind of calling in conjunction with consumer telemarketing, consider a dialer that lets you shunt several agents into a separate campaign, then run that campaign with the predictive features turned off. Lots of dialers let you do this.

    If you do this kind of calling exclusively, try a sales management software program that controls your lists, feeds the sales person the phone numbers, but lets them keep control of the call from dial to hang-up. This is called preview dialing and it’s common to most contact management or sales automation software programs.

  • Do a 30-day test of the dialer with each vendor you’re considering. With a 30-day test, managers will experience not only what the system can do but what impact it will have on your people.

  • Make sure the system supports the number of users you need now and in the future. Take a close look at the stability of the company — those that made just dialers in the early ‘90s have been dropping like flies.

  • It’s important that there is at least one person within your company whose primary job is to see the project through. This shouldn’t be just a part of their job but a major function of their job.

  • Beware of slow transfers. If the prospect has to say hello three times before the call reaches the agent, you might lose the sale before you’ve made the pitch. Your system should transfer the call fast enough for the agent to hear part of the first “hello.”

  • Beware of call abandonment. Some lower-end predictive dialers hang up on 20% or more of prospects. The last thing you want is to generate complaints: for people with Caller ID to be calling your center, or calling the phone company, or the state regulators. List owners who receive complaints may stop renting you their lists. Try to buy a system capable of a zero abandon rate. This is a necessary precaution in case future regulations require it.

  • Get a system that’s capable of inbound/outbound call blending. That’s the ability of every agent to handle both incoming and outgoing calls from the same station. This leads to higher list penetration and more sales. The outbound agent can leave a message explaining what the call is about. Calls that come back in based on that are more likely to end in a sale. Likewise, inbound-based agents can handle outbound calls during slow periods.

  • More leads can mean a lower sales conversion. Perversely, when the supply of fresh leads is unlimited, agents sometimes don’t try as hard for the sale as they do when the supply is limited. Especially with very little wait time between calls.

  • Get call tracking and custom list loading. Your system should keep a record of call attempts to be certain that each attempt is at a different time during the day and on different days. Some weaker systems have no call tracking abilities at all, and every time you load the dialers the same people are always called first.

  • Keep transition times short. Predictive dialing should reduce the after-call work time (that time between when your agent hangs up the phone and when they are back on the phone) at a given low abandonment rate, say, 2%.

    Only a few predictive dialers can achieve list penetration level of 50% with daytime calling, while maintaining an average wait time between calls of nine to 20 seconds at a 2% abandonment rate.

  • Get full branch scripting. The best scripting systems allow data and calculations to be performed in the script and the screen routing is based on the answers given.

    Also when an agent hits a key to change screens, it must be instantaneous, no matter how many people are on the system. A multiple-second wait time is unacceptable. The system should also provide function keys for access to questions most likely to come up at each specific place in the script.

  • Ensure campaign flexibility. There should be no limit to the number of campaigns or number of projects that can be called. Every operator should be able to call a different campaign at the same time.

    Make sure it’s expandable. What if your company becomes a big success? Plan for future growth. (I always have to say this, but it’s true.)

So Predictive Dialers Head For Software... | Outdialing Systems

I found one company that put together a custom installation, using their own programmers, with a software-based predictive dialing system and Dialogic boards. It may not be the best system for everybody, but it is definitely possible to get predictive dialing for less than you expect.

Dialing is by definition software. It always has been. For years, the predictive dialing vendors (rightly) competed with one another on features — answering machine detect, speed of answer, and fundamental algorithm — that were software. The boxes were of secondary importance. They were proprietary because you needed lots of processing horsepower to drive those software applications.

Nowadays you want to have more flexibility with your agents, inbound or outbound. You want to link your hardware systems together: switches and computers, dialers and voice systems.

The logic behind it is overwhelming: if dialing features are mainly software, and powerful generic processors are available to run them, there’s no reason why they can’t be part of an overall inbound and outbound call routing system on a client/server platform.

So what should you be thinking about when buying your predictive dialer? Integration — with every other piece of hardware and software in your call center. Mostly software.

What’s happening in the call center now is the marriage of voice and data. Call centers are using open dialing platforms to take advantage of other niche technologies in the call center. It’s a powerful means of taking the benefits of predictive dialers even further.

Why is integration important to call centers? Primarily because of the increased control call center managers have over their technology. Essential call center equipment like ACDs, PBXs and predictive dialers now work in concert, allowing for greater efficiency and productivity.

Companies are driven to make better use of their resources. There are so many technology directions that companies can easily fritter away resources and not really improve the service they provide or the bottom line that they protect.

Smaller centers have basically three options:

  1. Buy a turnkey system (which may be proprietary) and build a telecom and computer system around it. This is good for companies that want to dump older equipment.

  2. Go for an integrated solution, combining the power of PCs and LANs with software or hardware dialing processors and a phone system.

    Using off-the-shelf parts, you can put together inexpensive solutions. You can grow into it slowly, without sacrificing the dialing features you need: swift answer detection and screen transfer.

  3. Or lay a dialing solution on top of the existing telecom and data infrastructure. Your best option here: talk to the vendors who make your existing equipment and software. Chances are you might find a dialer maker among the vendors of your ACD, VRU or call management software.

Software-driven predictive dialers integrate into the call center environment because they’re based on multipurpose minicomputers that let users run other software and because they employ industry standard computer-telephone devices to perform predictive dialing.

Besides predictive dialing, many dialing systems let call center agents perform preview dialing where agents call up data and review it before the call is placed. Preview dialing mostly benefits small call centers making business to business calls.

As for the future of predictive dialers, most agree about the importance of integration. For some call centers, integration means less dependency on mainframes, while others see it as a way to tie dialers into a national database of people who don’t want calls. Even more adventurous is the theory that full function predictive dialing will be possible from an agent’s home phone.

Regardless of what happens in the future, one thing is true: forward thinking has turned a once limited piece of hardware into a versatile and vital piece of technology. As long as that persists, its value in today’s (and tomorrow’s) call center remains undiminished.

But Wait - Aren’t They Complicated? | Outdialing Systems

Yes, and no. The story of dialing in the last few years has been one of a technology that matured, and then was overrun by changes in technology outside the box.

By that I mean that the basic functions involved in predictive dialing (or any other dialing, for that matter) were long ago created and encoded into software. The rest of the cost of a predictive dialer was the cost of the high-powered dedicated box needed to make it happen, and to integrate it into the list system, and to the agent desktop.

It wasn’t so long ago that predictive dialers were a simple purchase — you bought the one that gave you the most talk time per hour, or the one that had the best answering machine detect. What you looked for in a dialer was dialing features. That’s changing immensely.

Like most other hardware technologies, predictive dialers are responding to changes in the nature of the call center. Nowadays you want more flexibility with your agents, inbound or outbound. You want to link your hardware systems together: switches and computers, dialers and voice systems.

More than anything else, you want to choose the software applications that make sense for your business, and get cost-effective hardware to run them. Decoupling the software apps from the hardware is the most impressive development to come along in years.

Predictive dialer vendors, like PBX and ACD vendors before them, have been forced to adapt to a changing world. People are less inclined to choose a standalone system they can’t program and that can only be connected to a limited range of compatible peripherals.

Predictive dialing has always been a software application. It required a great deal of processing power, so vendors put their specialized software onto high-powered computers, most of them with a closed architecture. But the research and development was always geared to better dialing algorithms, more sophisticated call tracking features, and better database management — essentially software apps.

What started as a great idea for outbound telemarketing and collections — fire out more calls than necessary to maximize agent productivity — became the platform on which software companies continued to refine and develop new features for handling calls.

It was such a good idea that companies in other areas (telemarketing software, especially) began adding predictive dialing modules to their systems. The logic was good: if dialing features are mainly software, and powerful generic processors are available to run them, there’s no reason not to create a whole new category of product — the PC-based (or at least client/server-based) dialer.

The traditional hardware/dialing vendors are now changing to match. Several of them have taken their core technologies, enhanced them, and are presenting them to call centers in a new light. They are creating systems for managing all aspects of the call flow. They let agents make calls in predictive mode, and receive incoming calls as well.

To facilitate that, dialer makers have incorporated a technology to blend agents; this allows a single station to handle either incoming or outgoing calls. And although it’s not used widely yet, it’s growing. The dialer is steadily losing its identity as a purely outbound object. It’s got to act like, and interact with, inbound call routing systems. Because it’s increasingly unlikely that a given center will be doing all of one kind of calling, or all of another. Recent information from Datamonitor suggested that the market for outbound dialers was actually expected to increase in the next few years.

Since few call centers are now dedicated to outbound traffic, integration with inbound is the highest priority for the vendors of high-end outbound dialers. Their strengths is clearly in the software that routes the calls, downloads the lists, tracks the results and coordinates the customer information on the back-end. If this sounds an awful lot like the new CIS software, you are right. If it sounds like computer telephony integration, you are also right.

The most successful predictive dialer companies right now — the ones making the most interesting and useful technology — are the ones that have rethought the logic of the outbound call center and recast their dialer as an indispensable component of the inbound and outbound center. For all of them, the selling point is not the power of the dialing engine, but the value-added capabilities of the companion software.

Outdialing Systems

As an outbound call center manager or supervisor, you get more than a little annoyed when your agents can’t reach the people on their call lists. You know it’s not your agent’s fault. Much of their time is taken up trying to get through to a prospect to make a sale or collect a bill, and the longer it takes them to do their job, the more it costs.

Even if you have a small call center, a typical agent only reaches 25 to 35 people per 100 attempts, which could take hours. Enter predictive dialing: automation provides the same 100 calls in about 90 minutes, routing your agent only the ones that reach a human voice.

Today’s dialers are much more sophisticated than they were fifteen years ago. Predictive dialing automates the entire outdialing process, with the computer choosing the person to be called and dialing the number. The call is only passed to the agent when a live human answers.

Predictive dialers screen out all the non-productive calls before they reach the agent: all the busy signals, no-answers, answering machines, network messages, and so on. The agent simply moves from one ready call to another, without stopping to dial, listen, or choose the next call.

True predictive dialing is merely one kind of automated dialing — there are others; but predictive is the most powerful and the most productivity-enhancing. True predictive dialing has complex mathematical algorithms that consider, in real-time, the number of available telephone lines, the number of available operators, the probability of not reaching the intended party, the time between calls required for maximum operator efficiency, the length of an average conversation, and the average length of time the operators need to enter the relevant data.

Some predictive dialing systems constantly adjust the dialing rate by monitoring changes in all these factors. The dialer is taking a sort of gamble: knowing that these processes are in motion, and knowing that there is a certain chance that a call placed will end in failure, it throws more calls into the network than there are agents available to handle them, if all the calls were to succeed.

Sometimes the prediction is wrong, and there are fewer failures than expected. In this case the called party will pick up the phone, say hello, and be hung up on when no agent is available. One of the intricacies of predictive dialer management is fine-tuning the aggressiveness of your dialer’s algorithm.

Predictive dialing has been nothing short of revolutionary in the outbound call center. When agents dial calls manually, the typical talk time is close to 25 minutes per hour. Most of the rest of that time is non-productive: looking up the next number to dial it; dialing the phone; listening to the rings; dealing with the answering machine or the busy signal, etc. Predictive dialing takes all that away from the agent’s desk and buries it inside the processor.

When working with a predictive dialer, it is possible to push agent performance into the range of 45 to 50 minutes per hour. I’ve heard of centers going as high as 54 minutes per hour. (You can’t really go higher than that, taking into account post-call wrap up time.)

There is more to the technology than just the pacing algorithm. Predictive machines excel at detecting exactly what is on the other end of the phone, including the ability to differentiate a human voice from an answering machine. They typically decide that the call has reached a person within the first 1/50th of a second — the start of the word “hello.”

Here are just a few of the important ways predictive dialing systems can help you.

  • They completely automate outbound consumer calling. That includes the actual dialing, assigning agents and controlling the list you call from.

    You can run multiple inbound and outbound campaigns, and you can specify names on a list not to call. It also schedules automatic callbacks for nonproductive calls. Dialers let you set the parameters for the dialing algorithms to meet the needs of a particular campaign, like the percent of overdials the system sends out.

    With collections applications, for example, you may not care if the dialer has to hang up on a “customer” if there is no agent available. You’ll trade the customer’s good will for a higher volume of calls. But for a sales promotion, you’d want to keep those hang-ups to a minimum.

  • You can manage your call center more effectively.

    Standard features include real-time statistics about how each agent, group of agents or list is performing. Also, trunk pooling, which reduces operating costs by processing both inbound and outbound over the same trunks.

  • They reduce agent burnout and turnover. Just imagine all the tedium they avoid: finding the phone number, typing it in, waiting for the phone to connect and the number to ring.

    The dialer makes sure that the only calls an agent has to deal with are real calls, with a live customer on the other end. No busy signals, no endless ringing, no answering machines.

    Cutting out that stalling doubles the time spent talking on the phone. Talk time, which is about 20 minutes an hour without a dialer, jumps to 40 to 50 minutes with one. Agents like their jobs better when they don’t have to wait around for the phone to be answered.

  • Reach more people in less time. You penetrate lists more deeply in a fraction of the time.

Predictive dialers adjust the balance of agents from one list to another, taking into account factors like list performance, time of day and the success of particular agents.

What They Have To Offer | ACD

There are literally hundreds of companies out there that sell switching and routing systems for call centers. This is just a scratch-the-surface look at some of the major companies, particularly those that tend to be market leaders in developing new features and seeking out third party partners. These few companies sell the lion’s share of standalone ACD systems.

Aspect. In late 1997, Aspect radically changed the platform underlying its key switch offering. The change was partly one of positioning, and partly one of hedging technological bets as the call center industry becomes less tolerant of proprietary technology.

The core ACD, formerly called the CallCenter system, now known simply as the Aspect ACD, incorporates two new “platforms” for call processing. The first, called the OpenMedia Module, is built out of MVIP and SCSA cards. Co-existing with that inside the box is another new component, called the Integrated Applications Module — a standards-based (NT, Pentium, Oracle) processing platform that’s scalable.

This combination, it is hoped, allows Aspect customers to use a broader range of software applications, including some that appeal to the smaller, departmental or distributed call centers. In theory, you can link multiple IAMs off the main unit to create an ever-growing chain of connected applications, all processing in tandem.

At the same time, they brought out a construction and maintenance tool, the Aspect Architect Software. This places all the call routing templates on a single drag-and-drop desktop, including such things as IVR integration and call delivery channels from multiple media.

Shortly thereafter, seeking to position their switch as a serious one for the growing electronic commerce/Internet call center market, Aspect debuted its Web Agent software — a real-time browser-based information sharing tool that can be added to a call center for about $1,000 an agent, including CTI connectivity. Web Agent lets the person on either side of a Web transaction navigate through different pages, and gives the call center rep the ability to guide the customer through a series of screens according to a script. It works through a choice of multimedia options, including a desktop IP connection, Web-based text chat, or a traditional two-line callback using the public network.

The single most important thing about this software release is that it is an open system. It will work with ACDs other than Aspect’s — Lucent, Nortel and Rockwell, and connects on the other side with existing IT and telecom infrastructures. The advantage to Webifying an existing call center seat is that it allows you to leverage the already-trained rep and equipment to sell existing products — even complex ones — to someone that might not have even been a caller. Converting Web “lurkers” into callers is the first step to turning them into customers.

People used to talk about the “call center in a box,” as if there would come a day when a single vendor would create, and shrink down, a total application, hardware and software, for running a call center. Instead, it looks more like a collection of cherrypicked integrated apps, certified to work under the aegis of a single vendor, will do the job just as well.

For switch vendors, the imperative to grow by adding features has in years past created a spiral of really interesting technology that often goes nowhere operationally — fantastic ideas (skills-based routing, universal agent blending, “call-me” buttons on Web pages, etc.). However, they can’t be made to work in the real world because there are so many operational and cultural hurdles on the ground in real call centers.

With fierce competition on features, and a frightfully high cost of development, it’s only natural that a larger company like Aspect would find it more logical to add value to its switch through an aggressive acquisition strategy. For the small companies that develop call center and CTI apps, the costs of developing in a multi-vendor environment are so high, and the need to spend huge sums on marketing to get the word out (even when the technology is superior) make partnering up a no-brainer. One large software company’s CEO told me that he gets — and turns away — at least one request a day to join his firm’s application partnership program.

They’ve come to the conclusion that in a world of open systems, it’s better to be known for the enablers and the apps than the switches, and they are probably right about that.

Intecom. This Texas-based company has been a champion of the little guy, making advanced features available to the small- and medium-sized call center market. That’s not to say large users are left out in the cold. Their switch supports up to 8,000 agents. Addressing the need for increased call processing and application options planned for high volume call centers and PBXs, Intecom introduced its E Millennium Server in early 1998.

The original E was conceived as an incremental system, the kind that you buy a small piece of when you’re small, and then add to — emphasizing the multi-site linking capabilities.

Tremendously increasing the processing power of its communications platform, the Millennium Server has the sustained ability to complete over 500,000 calls and support 3 million CTI messages per busy hour in optimum configurations.

Serving up to 8,000 agents in a non-blocking, single database system, the Millennium Server supports an Ethernet CTI interface with 63 IP addresses to handle the most intense CTI capabilities in the industry.

Intecom adds to the E switch with an NT-based application platform, called CallWise Centergy. It uses SQL Server as the database upon which it serves up statistics, reports, and customized templates for seeing what’s going on in a call center, and making changes based on that information.

It traces call event details from start to finish, supporting single or multiple call centers from a single administrative point. (The reports are provided by Crystal Reports 6.0). The whole system is standards-based, extremely open and promises to bring more custom options to managers who use the high-powered E switch.

CallWise Centergy captures call center events second-by-second in an ODBC-compliant relational database to construct the information and statistics needed for effective call center management and quality customer service. The GUI reporting interface allows users to configure, layout, schedule and run reports. The single solution also provides data redundancy and fault tolerance, recovering data from the main Intecom platform after any loss of communications. The scalable Windows NT server allows customers to size the system for current requirements and expand it as their needs grow.

Lucent. Lucent is a spinoff of AT&T. In the breakup, AT&T got the wires, and Lucent got the phone systems. The Pelorus Group claims that Lucent led their call center rivals in 1997 in both revenue and agent positions shipped. In fact, Lucent shipped the most agent positions in five of the six market size segments they tracked, especially at the higher end. At the very highest end (centers of 151 agents and up), Lucent shipped a reported three times as many agent stations as its nearest competitor.

Though it’s almost impossible to pin down with any certainty, another study showed that Lucent appears to have the highest market share among call center switch suppliers to the US market. A Dataquest report entitled US Call Centers Market Share and Forecast showed that Lucent’s domestic shipments increased from 197,000 agent positions in 1996 to 251,000 in 1997.

Apparently, Lucent has 30%+ market share in several categories: small (more than 21 agents), middle (more than 75 agents) and high-end (401 agents or more). In that last segment, Lucent was reported to have a 52% market share.

However you count it, there’s no getting around the fact that Lucent’s Definity is one of the most popular switches for call centers.

The Definity ECS Call Center is the core switching platform on which Lucent overlays a very broad software suite called CentreVu. One application, for example, is called CentreVu Exchange. It can assemble info from as many as 20 Definity switches and 40 multi-vendor voice response units. It can tell you exactly who touched a call, even if that call was transferred from site to site. It also tells you the length of time a call spent in a given application. One use: gauging which voice prompts have the best effects under different circumstances. This reporting tool lets you see exactly what those circumstances were.

It’s so precise, for many call center managers this will open up a whole new way of looking at data — drilling down to the rawest call path information, rather than looking at aggregates. It’s being touted as an alternative do data mining, as more of a way of selecting out “boutique” batches of data.

The CentreVu Call Management System provides more than 100 real-time and historical management reports designed to help you achieve critical sales and customer service objectives, while boosting the productivity of your call center employees and resources. It offers extensive historical data storage capabilities, keeping detailed intra-hour data for up to 62 days, daily reports for up to five years and weekly and monthly data for up to ten years.

An optional Forecasting package allows you to use trended data and “what if” growth scenarios to forecast the number of agents and the economic break-evens of staffing and abandoned calls.

Their CentreVu Call Management System, which provides call center operation performance measurement tools, will, from a centralized site, use graphical tools to manage all agents connected via the ATM backbone. For CTI apps, customer records in one city will be instantly accessible by agents in other locations. Enterprises will no longer need to concentrate on integrating or linking databases and CTI applications.

The solution includes the integration of the CentreVu line with its Definity ATM switch and PacketStar Access Concentrators, which enable voice, data and video traffic at each call center location to be supported over the ATM backbone network.

Lucent also has analytic tools for call centers that combines center data with information from outside, in the rest of the enterprise. CentreVu Visual Analyst is software that helps companies understand the correlation between call center activity and business results. It collects information from a company’s multiple databases and presents it in easy-to-use interactive, graphical formats. CVA lets managers look at their call center performance data while simultaneously viewing data from other parts of their business.

With its integrated reporting capabilities, users can analyze complex networked databases to make smarter and faster enterprise-wide business decisions. It helps uncover trends, patterns and problems buried in large amounts of disconnected data. It works in conjunction with call center performance reporting systems, such as CentreVu Call Management System and CentreVu Explorer. A bank might learn from its report, for example, that agents are making strong sales on a loan product to a certain customer segment. At the same time a database outside the call center, with company revenue information, might indicate the bank is receiving more profit on that product from a different customer segment.

Basically, the more information from various sources that you can combine in a meaningful way, the better your call center will perform from a whole-business standpoint.

Nortel Networks. Nortel’s Symposium Call Center Server is a call switching system that sits inside a Windows NT server, and that allows users to layer a suite of NT apps on top. (The suite itself has been bundled with a host of other products, notably the WebResponse Server and an IVR, into a portfolio called Symposium Internet Call Center.)

SCCS puts the switching into a client/server box (an NT one, to be precise). That makes it an interesting choice for small companies looking for a platform upon which they can grow their center.

For the small center, this system offers a wide range of benefits, including advanced call control and reporting, skills-based routing, a good scripting language, and the ability to network existing call center apps with new Symposium sites.

Perhaps most important, Symposium is open to connection with third party products (Nortel has been a leader in this area since the days when the Norstar phone system was the most open, call center-friendly key system around).

The Symposium system can be networked together with existing Meridian or Norstar call switching systems (so companies expanding their call center infrastructures can do so incrementally). Capabilities included in the Symposium are skill sets (that is, a form of skills-based routing), and ease of integration with third-party products through open interfaces like ODBC, Host Data Exchange, Meridian Link and Real Time Interface.

The Symposium Agent software offering acts as something of a bridge between older platforms and Symposium — it runs on Win 95 as well as NT, and integrates with other Nortel call center products, such as the Call Center Server and the Meridian 1 communication system. Calls come into the Meridian 1; the Call Center Server routes them to the most appropriate agents; and Symposium Agent helps agents manage the customer interaction.

Further evidence that all the various streams of messaging input will ultimately be collapsed and handled by one “super-ACD”-type of box: Nortel’s enterprise messaging system, called CallPilot incorporates speech rec, call management, CTI hooks and an app gen for building the kinds of apps you’d need for a call center.

While it’s unlikely to be a call center app in and of itself, unified messaging (especially on the enterprise level) is likely to be the kind of glue that connects the business’ phone system with it’s data messaging traffic.

It’s likely to provide some of the structure for creating small-scale departmental call centers that are needed for specialty applications, or that connect to larger, standalone centers.

CallPilot manages voice, fax and email messages. It integrates with a wide variety of email clients and creates a multimedia mailbox. And you can use it with voice commands, saying “play” or “print” to activate functions.

While that kind of thing won’t be of much use to the call center rep, what will be good will be the background call tracking, and things like the TAPI and S.100 interfaces, which provide the hooks into coordinated call center apps.

If an app is intelligently designed on top of this, it literally allows any desktop or person in the company to act as (or interact with) a call center agent.

Rockwell. Seeking to grab a portion of the underserved, but exploding, small call center market, Rockwell took its call handling expertise and shrunk it down to the size of an NT box. Transcend is a call management system that’s based on their larger Spectrum switch; it runs the same software, but scales much smaller. A complete system can be had in 10, 20, 40, and 80 agent position configurations.

Upgrades are available in 10 agent increments. Transcend is also available in a 20, 40, and 80 agent position kit form, which includes all the software and just the ACE 360/ISA-2E processor board.

It’s built on an Oracle Universal Data Server and Dialogic’s CT Media middleware in a layered approach that separates out the application, switching, routing and call handling functions, making it easier to integrate the whole thing into existing data and telecom infrastructures. That aims it squarely at the informal and departmental call center.

The open, standards-based approach ultimately makes it easier to add on IVR or Web or any other data-oriented application, or connect to existing apps (which is the more likely case in the smaller center).

Rockwell has historically had leading edge technology but a hard time defining exactly where that technology fit into the real world activity of the call center. The small center market, however, needs no rationale; it’s a clear growth area in an industry that many are now seeing as somewhat mature.

The Spectrum is a switch that serves centers of between 50 and 150 seats and somewhat larger, depending on which model you use. All Spectrums, including the mid-sized version, incorporate Rockwell’s software like the Telescript Graphical Editor (for designing call flow), Total Recall Reports (for historical feedback on call center activity) and remote agent features.

This switch connects with other open Rockwell products like the Call Center Command Server and Transcend, based on the S.100 standard.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how far we’ve come, but this version fits inside a cabinet the size of a PC server, and has a greater degree of “plug and play” software configurability than older versions.

The Call Center Command Server (3cs) is a software suite that sits in front of the Spectrum. It’s a development tool for creating mini-apps that coordinate the flow of data in and out of the call center. Completely open and object-oriented, 3CS functions as the interface between business apps and call center systems. The control platform’s open architecture features reusable object-oriented components such as Microsoft’s ActiveX Controls, making it easier for call center supervisors to rapidly develop custom, enterprise-wide applications.

One component, an app, called Commander, consolidates separate call center data elements into a single control point, letting supervisors, managers and administrators immediately respond to changes within call centers. Commander also graphically manages the dynamic relationships between agents, supervisors and applications. Information screens are customizable and scaleable. Administrative features include the ability to view equipment configurations for the call center. Application telescripts can be created and modified efficiently, in both text and graphical modes.