Automatic Call Distributor

Automatic Call Distributor. A simple way of describing not just a piece of hardware, but really everything that goes on in a call center. That’s the basic function, anyway: taking incoming calls and moving them to the right place, the agent’s desk.

Over the years, things have changed. The ACD is responsible for more than just moving calls. That’s probably not even the best term for it anymore; I should probably be using something closer to telephony server, though that term is already in use for the LAN server that moves call control commands from client workstations to the attached ACD or PBX.

Now, the ACD’s job is not just to route calls, but to manage the information associated with those calls as well. “ACD” is really a function that can be carried out by a wide variety of different kinds of processors.

At the very low end, you can buy a PBX that has “ACD” (read: call routing to agents) built in, or you can choose to add it on through a PC application. (Yes, the switches are generally open enough to third-party or other add-on apps.) You can route calls in the network, thanks to intelligent features built into the carrier networks.

The ACD is the heart and soul of the modern call center. It is the engine of productivity — the single piece of technology without which the whole edifice of inbound sales, order taking and customer service all crumble. What the ACD has done is enable the volume of calls you take to escalate intelligently, and in ever more specialized complexity. It has matured beyond call routing. It is the brain and control point for the call center, for both inbound and outbound, for voice calls and data traffic. It’s a call center’s arbiter: setting priorities, alerting supervisors to patterns and crossed thresholds.

Once the term “ACD” meant a very specific type of telephone switch. It was a switch with highly specialized features and particularly robust call processing capabilities that served at least 100 stations (or extensions). It was purchased mostly by airlines for their reservations centers and large catalogs for their order centers.

Companies with less specialized needs bought different technologies that didn’t offer the same specialized features. Currently, true ACD functionality is found in telephone switches that range widely in size and sophistication.

Today, there are PC-based ACDs, key systems with ACD functions, key systems that integrate with a computer and software to create a full-featured ACD, PBXs with ACD functions, PBXs with ACD functions that are so sophisticated they compete with stand-alone ACD systems, stand-alone ACDs that serve centers with less than 30 agents, traditional stand-alone ACDs (don’t misunderstand, these are usually the most sophisticated), ACDs that integrate with other call center technologies, and nationwide networks of ACDs that act as a single switch.

There is simply no technology more suited to routing a large number of inbound calls to a large number of people than an ACD. Using an ACD assures your calls are answered as quickly as possible. It can provide special service for special customers.

ACDs are capable of handling calls at a rate and volume far beyond human capabilities, and in fact, beyond the capabilities of other telecom switches. They provide a huge amount of call processing horsepower. Using an ACD assures your human resources are used as effectively as possible. It even lets you create your own definition of effectiveness. An ACD gives you the resources to manage the many parts of your call center, from telephone trunks to agent stations to calls and callers to your agents and staff.

With all these call handling options, many of them surprisingly open and modular, why would anyone still want an expensive standalone ACD for their center? Two simple reasons:

Power. Nothing has more raw call processing ability than a first-tier standalone. Nothing else is so uniquely suited to the needs of today’s reservation or financial service megacenters.

Technology. When it comes to integration with other call center systems, like IVR, data warehouses and intranets, nothing can beat a powerhouse ACD. The same goes for multi-site networking and skills-based routing — two of today’s most sought after inbound features.

No knock on smaller systems like PC-ACD and PBX/ACD hybrids (which account for much of the industry’s phenomenal growth in small centers), but there is no substitute for the call-crunching strength of a standalone ACD in many high-volume applications.

The ACD is being changed by two dramatic trends in the call center. First, it is being asked to channel more information, of many different kinds, in more directions. A decade ago, there were two kinds of information: the call itself, and raw log information about the calls in aggregate. Little else was needed, and if you did need more details about what was coming through the ACD you could analyze the data (which often came out a serial port) on your PC with a cumbersome third-party tool.

Now, call center managers need information — presented in a form that makes it easy to grasp quickly. High-end ACDs vendors have added data management modules at a rapid clip. Also there are many outside programs that can connect to the ACD and funnel data in and out. These include workforce management tools that forecast load, and software systems that put real-time and historical data into any form needed (like reports and readerboard displays).

ACD vendors are improving the tools the supervisor has to tweak the ACD while it’s in motion: things like creating groups on the fly, moving calls and personnel around, monitoring for quality, to name just a few things.

The other dynamic change is in what kinds of calls the ACD has to route. Sometimes this is referred to as alternate methods of call delivery. Call centers have been integrating ACDs with IVR for years, and the same goes for the combination of ACD and fax. Now I’m seeing vendors grapple with the Web and the Internet, with calls that come in from PCs and that terminate in databases instead of agents.

The call center itself is giving way to something more amorphous known as (for lack of a better term) a “customer contact zone,” in which what’s important is the transaction between the customer and the company, not what wire that transaction passed through.

Another thing that’s shaken up ACD design is skills-based routing. At first, this was a feature that was added to switches more because the technology was possible and cool than because call centers were clamoring for it. It’s taken a long time for call centers to figure out how to make it work because (for reasons that I’ll go into in more detail in another chapter) skills-based routing rubs the wrong way against the proper use of workforce management software.

Be that as it may, skills-based routing is a highly interesting and advanced system for distributing calls that come into an ACD. Traditional routing is based on two factors — an equitable distribution of calls among available agents, and the random nature of incoming calls. Skills-based routing changes this somewhat: it routes calls to the agent “best qualified” to handle the call, measuring “qualified” by agent parameters you set.

The ACD does this in two steps. First, some front-end technology must be used to identify the needs of the caller. That’s usually accomplished through DNIS, ANI or an IVR system. Then that information is matched against the sets of agent skill groups. There are two ACD advances that let you run skills-based routing effectively:

  • Leaving a call in an initial queue while simultaneously and continuously checking other agent groups for agent availability;

  • Or allowing an agent to be logged on to more than one agent group (in this case a skill group) at a time, assigning priorities to those groups by skill type.

And finally, changes have been hastened by the need and desire to link call centers together into multi-site call center networks. In some ways, this is operationally an extension of skills-based routing: it’s not enough to choose the best available agent — often you have to choose the best available agent at the most appropriate location (based on time of day, traffic at one or more sites, skill clusters or call priority).

To a greater or lesser degree, vendors of standalone ACDs are pushing the technology envelope with their switches. Some are concentrating on software development to add value to the core switch. Others are paying more attention to integration with third-party call center technologies like the Internet and IVR. Still more are adapting their switches to smaller, departmental call centers, hoping to catch some of the growth in the industry that way. In all, it’s created a dynamic atmosphere — one in which if you want a feature, all you have to do is ask.

The Future | Toll Free & Long Distance Services

You’ll find information about the coming together of call centers and the Internet. It’s impossible to leave the subject of buying telecom transmission services without saying something about what the Internet revolution will do to call centers.

Though I’ve focused on three carriers here, there are dozens more that provide advanced networking services to large businesses that include call centers. We are poised on the edge of a new networking world, one in which a bewildering array of higher bandwidth networks will be available for piping into your center. Frame relay,

ATM, xDSL, ISDN, all sorts of IP permutations — they are strange, and the market economics haven’t been worked out yet. I don’t know yet what combinations of voice and data traffic will win out, and which carriers will offer what two or five years down the road.

What I do know is that, as the pipe grows thicker and stronger and more varied, the cost of each individual call gets lower and lower. As I said before, it’s going to be the value-added services that differentiate carriers. It’s going to be harder to tell who is a carrier, as data networking melds with telecom. And it’s certain that some form of digitized packet-based traffic will be part of even the most traditional network, driving costs down and opening up new international dialing vistas. The moral: don’t box yourself in, get the best deal you can and prepare to turn on a dime when someone offers you something cheaper or throws a killer application on top of their core service.

What They Offer | Toll Free & Long Distance Services

In previous editions of this handbook, I detailed precise product offerings from the three main carriers. I’m not going to do that this time out, and here’s why. Information like that changes so rapidly that there’s no guarantee that they won’t have changed a brand name, feature set or pricing schedule by the time this book gets into your hands.

Instead, what you’ll find here are broad brush outlines of what kinds of things you can do with their services. Please don’t beat me up if you try to buy these services from the carriers and they’ve changed some from the way they’re presented here. For more details about exactly what they do offer, I recommend visiting their websites. In general here, I’m going to refer to these services as toll free, because that’s what call centers are most interested in. This isn’t a bias against outbound-based centers, it’s just a fact that inbound call routing is more complicated, a more feature-rich set of tools, and because it’s more expensive, you have to work harder to get exactly the right deal.

AT&T. AT&T has the most to lose in any competition for long distance or toll free services. By ridding themselves of Lucent, they said to the world that what they wanted to be was a transmission company, once again a true carrier rather than a phone systems company. And they did that after seeing exactly how cutthroat and expensive a battle for market share can be. So they must really mean it.

One of the more interesting things they’ve come out with is called Transfer Connect with Data Forwarding. Data Forwarding uses ISDN technology along with computer telephony integration to let your agents forward each customer’s data along with their calls. It lets the agent or voice response system that initially receives the call forward the customer information to the receiving agent. This information can range from name, address and account number, or application-specific data like frequent flier information, insurance plan specifics or personal IDs. The data instantly pops up on the receiving rep’s desktop.

They also offer Enhanced Announcements — essentially the ability to use the network to pepper your holding callers with promotional information. This is just one small way to use the power of the carrier network to manage calls. AT&T has tools that route calls based on caller input (what they call Recognition Routing), and those that let you balance loads between centers for optimum staffing.

Quick Call Allocator lets you make changes as often as necessary: routing percentage changes can take effect within five minutes, and your customers won’t experience any service interruptions. This feature is especially useful for call centers that have traffic patterns or staffing levels that constantly change — despite frequent fluctuations, Quick Call Allocator lets you maintain a superior level of customer service.

There are packages that let you route by time of day, geographic origin of the call (down to the exchange), and countless custom preferences that you set and reset any time you like.

Next Agent Available Routing lets you reroute toll free calls to up to 99 alternate locations if the primary location is “busy.” If the primary location is busy, calls are instantly rerouted to the first available termination, decreasing customer “on-hold” waiting time. You can customize NAAR to match your call volume needs: you determine what is considered a “busy” location by defining the Maximum Calls Allowed (MCA). You can set this value in advance and override it at any time. When the MCA threshold is met, all toll free calls will be automatically rerouted to an available termination.

With Network Queuing, you can automatically queue calls without investing in any additional equipment. This feature allows your call center to optimize call distribution and improve call completion rates. Calls can be queued for multiple call centers or for locations with a single queue. Network Queuing can help boost sales by preventing customer hang-ups and increasing call completion rates. Of course, you can do this with premise technology built off the ACD, so you have to plan in advance where you want your call control to be handled.

Sprint. Sprint’s basic toll free offerings are designed for companies whose calls terminate at one location. They are pretty basic, but they’ll suit the vast majority of single-site small- and mid-sized call centers. You get things like DNIS and ANI call identification popped to the agent screen. (A simple thing that can shorten calls by 10 to 20 seconds, and when you add that up, call after call, multiplied by dozens or hundreds of agents, that’s a lot of money.)

You can distribute calls across a trunk group (very rudimentary), and designate a secondary location for calls to terminate in case of overflow. Sprint also offers a Carrier Diversity program that helps manage and coordinate service provided by multiple carriers through a single point-of-contact. You can allocate calls to carriers by percentages you set or based on location, time of day, day of week and day of year. (Very sporting of them.)

More advanced service includes what they call Network Call Distributor, a sort of virtual call center facilitator. NCD collects activity information from each ACD in your system every 20 to 60 seconds. It then uses that information to automatically route your toll free calls to the best location at that time. They have another, similar feature that’s for Call Allocation, distributing calls to your toll free number across locations. You specify a percentage of the calls for each location, matching your call volume to each location’s capabilities.

SiteRP is something that’s been around since the early ‘90s, and it was revolutionary when they first came out with it. It lets you route your toll free calls on a call-by-call basis. You define the parameters, customizing the routing system to your specific needs. With SiteRP, you can identify new callers or repeat customers and route each to an agent trained to handle their individual needs. It was revolutionary because it was one of the very first times the carriers allowed call centers to manipulate the network themselves, using their local premise equipment. It was, in fact, a strong competitive feature until the others came out with similar services. This was the first sign that adding intelligence to the carrier network was a way around the free fall in per-minute pricing that went on through the 1990s.

MCI. MCI’s Enhanced Call Routing (ECR) product line provides automated voice response, voice processing, and call routing. It’s their network-based call handling service, and it doesn’t differ a great deal from those offered by the other carriers.

Since coming together with WorldCom, they have been much more active in connecting their data and voice networks, and creating odd and interesting service offerings based on that, than they have on upgrading their standard voice-only toll free and long distance services.

With MCI’s offerings you can move in baby steps from a call center with technology that is exclusively on-site to a call center with virtually no technology on-site. In between you can have some of your functions based in the network, while others are based in equipment on-premises.

MCI also offers extensive outsourcing and service bureau capabilities. From total management of a large call center to on-call service for weekend or holiday traffic, they can handle a variety of application sizes. Available services include direct response, customer service, help desk, order entry and fulfillment.