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.