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.