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.

Small Center? No Problem | ACD

First, let’s start by thinking of the needs of the smallest centers, those for whom the purchase of an expensive, standalone ACD is too much to handle. Luckily, call routing is available as part of the PBX configuration, bringing large call center tools down to the level of even the smallest centers.

Think of the five or ten person collections department, the customer service area of a larger company. They have many of the same needs — and problems — as larger centers. But until now, there have been few call handling tools that deliver state of the art features at a reasonable price.

Their personnel are not always dedicated phone reps. They need flexible solutions that build on the systems already in place, that give them room to grow without putting the company in the poorhouse. The response to those needs is a new variety of call handling system — the ACD without the box, or the PC-based ACD. Thanks to the new-found openness of switch vendors, developers are offering a host of software products that add ACD features to key systems and hybrid switches.

For one thing, it’s far less expensive to bring ACD features into an existing business phone system. There’s no capital expenditure on a big piece of hardware. With larger ACDs, it’s very difficult to justify at the six-agent size or, for that matter, anything below thirty agents. It’s also a lot more flexible than it used to be. You can easily integrate top-notch systems like interactive voice response or voice mail, giving your small center a highly professional appearance.

Critical to call centers is that you be able to add third-party call control. You don’t need to know how to program to set up a rule-based system for getting the right call to the right agent. With the PC it becomes a low-end solution. You can do a lot of things, like provide special treatment to customers based on the language they speak, route calls based on skill sets, or based on time of day for full 24-hour coverage.

What the PBX ACD does is let you dabble in call centers without having to go full bore right away. Make no mistake — one of these low-end ACDs built off a PBX will only get you so far. If you’re going to grow beyond a certain point (50 agents is a good ballpark), then explore the larger, standalone systems. At least explore the low-end offerings from those vendors, because those vendors are offering much smoother upgrade paths than ever before, hoping to capture some of the small center market.

PC or PBX ACDs allow small installs (typically 10 to 15 people) to be placed on the same technological plain as bigger centers. Since many companies already have PBXs that can be enhanced with available software, they can dabble. It’s possible to convert a few users and then decide that if things go well (they usually do), to expand further.

For example, Cintech offers Prelude, by its very name a starter system that encourages people to step up to Cinphony, Cintech’s more advanced software ACD. Prelude is aimed at retail stores, pharmacies, universities, car rental places — places that until now might have gone without features like call categorization and advanced routing.

Comdial’s QuickQ software lets you set overflow patterns between multiple small groups, and lets you change those parameters quickly, with a minimum of required knowledge.

These systems do not deliver everything you’d expect if you used a dedicated ACD, but they don’t have to. Departmental needs are different. Few need multi-site routing, for example. Department heads (who may not be telecom people) need different kinds of reports that have more to do with sales and costs than with call traffic.

There are many small call centers that are just beginning to realize they are call centers. And that they need the same kind of technologies big centers have been using for years. Customers demand the same kind of service, no matter how big you are. This small-scale solution lets them reach more of their potential for pleasing customers at reasonable cost.