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’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.)