IP Contact Centers Take the High Ground
August 22, 2008
By Richard Grigonis
, Executive Editor, IP Communications Group
The contact center is often the first — and sometimes only — face that your organization presents to the public. If your customer has a bad contact center-related experience and doesn’t like it, then they don’t like your company either (guilt by association and all that). The result: you’ve lost a would-be loyal customer. As they say, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Fortunately, IP contact centers can boost first-call resolution to amazing levels. Moreover, contact centers have always clamored for new ways to interact with customers and collaborate with the rest of their organization, and IP enables all sorts of exciting multimedia linkages with customers as well as new ways of integrating with many back-office applications.
One of the earliest major call center players that ultimately took the plunge into the world of IP communications was Aspect Software. Also, throughout the 1990s, visitors to any telecom or computer telephony expo would inevitably see a crowd packed into the Interactive Intelligence booth, intensely viewing a presentation. Today, that company’s powerful standards-based solution handles automatic call distribution (ACD)-routed multimedia interactions, IP PBX functionality, interactive voice response (IVR), speech recognition, Web collaboration, remote agent support, screen and call recording, outbound dialing, reporting and voice and unified messaging.
A Touch of Mobility and Enterprise 2.0
Rather than maintaining a large customer premise infrastructure, many companies are opting for the very attractive scenarios of hosted and managed contact centers.
When it comes to hosted call centers, the name of CosmoCom looms large. CosmoCall Universe is a universal access contact center platform designed for high capacity, high availability, and host-ability; and implemented on industry standard computing elements and Windows Server. The system is based on IP communication and open, standards-based interfaces. The software is written in C++ and is object-oriented. Inter-process communication enables a distributed architecture. Furthermore, Universe fully exploits the benefits of the Windows security model. Recently, CosmoCom released CosmoCall Universe Version 5.2, laden with various enhancements.
Cosmocom’s Steve Kowarsky, Executive Vice President and Co-Founder of CosmoCom, says, “We have recently introduced a centralized agent configuration so that it’s no longer up to each agent to configure their own options, parameters and so forth. The company’s management now has much more control over that and can configure things centrally for all agents in terms of how to deal with client behaviors and permissions.”
“We’ve also added automatic voice quality monitoring and alerting,” says Kowarsky. “VoIP voice quality has improved greatly in recent years. But when voice quality issues do occur, you want to be proactive — you want engineers to be able to spot problems before the users do. We can set SNMP traps to generate alerts to whoever is monitoring the platform when any voice quality problem indicator reaches a certain threshold and goes off, such as those for jitter, delay or lost packets.”
“CosmoCom has also done a lot in terms of integration with BroadSoft’s platform,” says Kowarsky. “We have several customers that are very big on both CosmoCom and BroadSoft, notably some of the large European telcos. We have a really smooth and effective integration with BroadSoft, so a contact center agent can use a BroadSoft phone as their CosmoCom phone and they can also have a BroadSoft hosted IP PBX phone that’s fully functional as well. The two systems essentially share information about the state and presence of each extension, which is also associated with the CosmoCall agent. Both systems ‘know’ when the extension is busy. So if BroadSoft wants to make a call, and CosmoCom is using the extension, the BroadSoft technology is aware of it. And if CosmoCom wants to extend the call, and the extension is busy on the BroadSoft side, the CosmoCom platform knows it, so that the agent state is updated and it tries for another agent. When you answer your BroadSoft phone, it answers in the agent client, and when you hang it up, it hangs up in the agent client. When you get a CosmoCom call on your BroadSoft phone the system automatically locks out the BroadSoft controls that are inappropriate or irrelevant.”
“We’re working on an opportunity in Europe where about 14,000 BroadSoft-enabled extensions in a very large enterprise will all be CosmoCom-enabled as well,” says Kowarsky. “The issues of scalability and performance under a very heavy load become important in such projects, which is why we’ve worked closely with BroadSoft to enhance those. Our BroadSoft integration is without a doubt the most advanced in the industry, both in terms of functionality and performance.”
“We have two agents, the installable executable and the pure browser-based agent,” says Kowarsky, “and both are now supported in Microsoft Vista.”
“CCU 5.2 has just been announced,” says Kowarsky. “It has our latest big innovation, our configuration audit trail. The first thing you need to ask when troubleshooting a system is, ‘What changed?’. If you can’t determine that, then you’ve got to spend a lot of time crawling around and looking for something that must have changed. And even when you find it, more often that not you want to talk to the person who caused it. Learning from experience is important, and our system now tracks in a log every change related to the administration and other facets of the system configuration. You can see quickly exactly what changed and exactly who did it. It’s a major new module of the system, that’s fully integrated with our multi-tenant capability, which enables the service provider to use the system in a shared tenant environment. Each tenant has his own log of changes at the tenant level, and at the landlord level you have access to all the specific tenant logs, plus you have access to administrative and configuration changes at the landlord level.”
“We’ll be releasing CosmoGo in the near future, which will blaze a new trail in terms of adding mobility to the system,” says Kowarsky. “We’ve learned a great deal about how to optimize communication with customers and what’s important. First, it’s important to be able to route calls intelligently, taking into consideration the skills required for the call and obviously the presence of the people that might be able to answer the call. Second, we’ve learned that it’s a very good thing to present detailed caller information right along with the call, because it reduces the call time and it also makes the customer fell really good when the call gets a personalized answer and the caller learns that the person talking to him or her actually knows something about who he is and what’s going on. That both shortens the call and enhances the customer experience.”
“Third, if you enable the agent with inquiry and transaction capabilities likely to come up during the call, again, you can shorten the call’s duration but make the customer experience a more satisfying one,” say Kowarsky. “Forth and finally, if you wrap total management information and a QA [Quality Assurance] toolset around that, you can create a lean, mean operation that achieves the goals you want to accomplish. All these things we’ve learned through the evolution of contact center technology.”
“But there’s been a huge limitation with all this up until now,” says Kowarsky. “All of these benefits are available to people at fixed workstations with a phone and a PC. With our upcoming CosmoGo, all of those key customer communication optimizing points can now be brought to a mobile worker having a smartphone in his pocket and a Bluetooth headset on his ear. That’s the whole kit. CosmoGo will provide all four of those key points: Full ACD routing capabilities, screen pop with caller information, the enablement of inquiry and transactions, and the whole reporting management QA infrastructure and control tools, all of that would be extended to people that have nothing but a smartphone in their pocket and tend to be mobile, who are an expanding part of the workforce. Thus, we can broaden the reach of the contact center and at the same time move in the direction of ‘Enterprise 2.0’, since those capabilities useful to people who are not part of an organization’s full-time contact center-related staff.”
Test for Success
Empirix has long helped many organizations adopt complex contact centers and various other voice, data and VoIP applications and services, thanks to their advanced Hammer brand testing and monitoring solutions.
Empirix Senior Product Marketing Manager, Sue Anderson, says, “Overall, what we see from our customer base is that, when they’re looking at new equipment, they’re certainly having to go with an IP-based solution. For those companies looking to upgrade and replace existing equipment, they’re accepting the new technology provided by their vendors. Aside from the technology part of it, we also find that some of the larger contact center-based organizations, such as financial companies, are pondering how they can improve their business operations when deploying IP in the contact center. For example, can they now virtualize their agents as a bank? Can they utilize branch managers and subject matter experts?”
Anderson continues, “Some of our customers are in the planning stages and are asking themselves, ‘Okay, we have VoIP in the rest of our enterprise, but once we adopt this new technology in the contact center, how will it help us improve our business?’. So it’s more than just a technology shift, it’s a business shift. We also see in our customers a consolidation of their contact centers and therefore a consolidation of equipment. Since agents can be anywhere thanks to IP, all of the technology can be housed in the same location.”
Brian Gollaher, Senior Product Manager at Empirix, says, “IP contact center technologies enable a foreign footprint for outsourcing, virtualization of agents, work-at-home agents, streamlined operations, and they hopefully provide a better customer experience through integrated CRM, CTI (News
) screen pops and other things that are better enabled in an IP environment. At the same time, equipment providers are making obsolete the older products. If you’re building a new contact center, you’re faced with IP technology.”
Anderson adds, “Even so, our customers, being pragmatic, are making the transition at a somewhat slower pace because their concern over voice quality is such a big issue. We at Empirix have attended many events and call center shows this year. For example, we have partnerships with such major vendors as Avaya, Cisco, Genesys (News
) and Nortel, and we attend many of their user group events. At these events we keep getting questions about monitoring and ensuring voice quality, which is obviously a huge issue for contact centers when they move to VoIP, and if they’re installing things such as speech-enabled IVR, they must ensure that all of the technology is set up appropriately. They’re also working very closely with their LAN people, vendors and providers to make sure that everything is set up properly to support both the technology and the highest possible voice quality.”
It’s All in the Queue
), known for their SX phone systems (Yours Truly used a Mitel SX-2000 for many years back in the 1990s), is also a major IP contact center player. Each business has unique contact center service requirements, which is why Mitel developed its Mitel Customer Interactions Solutions set as a highly flexible, two-tiered offering. It consists of the Contact Center Enterprise Edition for highly sophisticated, large-scale contact centers, and the Contact Center Business Edition for individual contact centers that have 25 or fewer agents.
Mitel’s Asif Rehman, Director of Solutions Marketing, says, “Mitel’s platforms and solutions have supported contact center implementations from Day One. You can go back and look at the SX-200 or SX-2000 or now the 3300 ICP — we build into each box an automatic call distribution solution so you can set up a basic contact center with any of our platforms. That’s been the case for the past 20 years. On top of that we’ve built a rich contact center management applications suite that supports our call distribution equipment. We have an external server that provides contact center management and recording, scheduling, adherence and whatever else is needed to manage a contact center. We can deliver to a company much more sophisticated capabilities such as multimedia contact centers, where you can deal with not just voice but also emails, faxes, chat and so forth. We offer integration with ERP and CRM solutions so you can link up with external applications within the company that can be used by the contact center. Our functionality can even be extended to a remote contact center – small branch offices scattered across the country, or individual agents working from home, or you can set up a completely distributed contact center. We can add presence status information, not just of agents, but of all the subject matter experts those agents can contact when necessary during a customer call.”
Ed Kus, Portfolio Manager for the Mitel Applications Suite, says, “We grew out of the TDM space. About five years ago we embarked on a major push into IP technology. Our Mitel 3300 IP Communications Platform (ICP) can handle businesses with from 20 to 65,000 users. It combines enterprise IP-PBX capability plus a portfolio of embedded applications including standard unified messaging, auto-attendant, ACD and wireless. It can even IP-enable a company’s legacy PBXs, thus protecting existing investments. For the last three years or so, I’d say that 95 percent of our ACD agent shipments are for IP-enabled contact centers. So, by and large, we’re an IP contact center shop. You can do things in IP much more cost-effectively than in a TDM environment. IP enables us to offer blended contact centers, and the ability to easily escalate a call from chat to voice. And companies want more agents working from home, which is also easier to do with IP than TDM. Applications communicate over IP networks, and so IP allows us to integrate more readily with back office CRM applications such as Salesforce.”
Mitel also offers a powerful customer-profiling capability to its Customer Interaction Solutions portfolio that seamlessly enhances the way calls are managed. Mitel’s Interactive Visual Queue enables supervisors to identify queued customers and move them into shorter queues to expedite call handling. An email, pop-up, and / or audio alert is generated and pertinent attributes are displayed, allowing the supervisor to act accordingly.
Customer profiling is also extended into the Mitel Contact Center screen pop allowing agents to provide the most appropriate service by receiving intelligence about each customer prior to answering the call. Mitel can extract customer information from incoming customer calls directly from a CRM database. Using predefined customer-identification policies, callers are routed to the most appropriate queue and are displayed at the supervisor and agent desktops, thus furnishing real-time alerts to contact center staff, enabling them to better deal with the customers. For example, highly profitable volume business customers can be directed to the top of a queue or to an experienced agent or supervisor.
You can see that a key mantra repeatedly spoken by an increasing number of vendors has to do with boosting customer first-call resolution by developing a contact center architecture capable of handling any kind of media and which can pull in outside experts as needed, thus delivering a consistently high level of service regardless of when or how customers contact the center. One particularly noteworthy player in this area is Zeacom and its Zeacom Communications Center (ZCC).
ZCC allows contact centers to control the delivery of every contact, regardless of media type, which means that faxes, emails, SMS messages, chats and requests generated from the web are treated with the same care as voice phone calls. A single desktop interface allows agents to efficiently manage multimedia contacts including phone calls, faxes, emails, SMS messages, web chats and requests for callbacks generated from your website. ZCC lets you apply standard contact handling methods to all media types. ZCC enables maximum agent utilization by blending inbound and outbound call handling or redirecting repetitive requests to an integrated IVR system. Traffic at peak times won’t affect service quality, since the system can route contacts to backup agents or offer callers the option to be called back rather than wait in a queue. Access to real-time information from their desktops (via the Zeacom Agent Desktop) allows agents and managers to react immediately to service affecting situations, while the familiar Windows XP/Vista based user interface streamlines contact handling, administration and reporting (over 200 kinds of reports and graphs are available, and third-party reporting packages can be used to manipulate data and build customized reports).
Zeacom’s ZCC further enhances first-call resolution and customer satisfaction using skills based routing; delayed delivery to backup agents based on how long the call has been waiting; prioritization and routing of callers based on Calling Line ID, number dialed or data entered by the caller; directing callers to a preferred agent or the last agent they spoke with.
Interestingly, this seamless integration not only benefits customers. The same technology behind the ZCC solution can be extended to improve communications throughout your organization by adding a presence and mobility features and thus creating a Unified Communications (UC) scenario.
After all, organizations on average use over six different devices and five different applications to communicate on a daily basis, yet many co-workers have trouble reaching each other to access time critical information. Making employees increasingly mobile makes collaboration even harder. Once again, however, Zeacom can bring an individual’s communications devices and applications together and provides a simple user interface, making them faster and more manageable to use. Rather than replacing applications, UC allows employees to make better use of the technology they have. For example, Zeacom's Microsoft Outlook Integration makes managing phone calls, faxes and voice messaging functionality faster and easier because it can all be done within the familiar environment of the user's existing email application (Microsoft Outlook).
Recording and Optimizing
Modern government regulations demand call recording, logging and similar activities to a degree never before seen in American business (much to everyone’s consternation). The nice part is, once you have such information, it can be used to help optimize your business processes.
Verint Systems, headquartered in Melville, New York, offers Verint Enterprise Workforce Optimization Solutions that enable organizations to capture and analyze customer interactions, improve workforce performance, and enhance service processes in contact center, branch, and back-office operations. Verint Witness Actionable Solutions' Impact 360 Quality Monitoring solution has given Verint quite a name in the world of speech and data analytics and customer feedback software capable of helping organizations improve their total customer experience.
Greg Sherry, Verint’s Director of Marketing, says, “Analysts such as DMG tell us that early 2008 was a tipping point where IP recording was going to overtake traditional TDM-based systems in popularity. Of course, many large organizations haven’t yet pulled out TDM equipment for their large, mission-critical contact centers, but there’s definitely an increase in the number of hybrid systems and there are many smaller centers where they’re experimenting and implementing IP. So I believe we have reached an inflexion point, based on how quickly the world has moved in the last six months to VoIP.”
“We have installed more than 2,800 implementations have VoIP capability,” says Sherry. “One telling point is that two-thirds of those are not traditional contact centers. Some customers are 100 percent VoIP and function as a traditional call center, others are entities such as law offices and the MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) IP-based help desk. VoIP adoption will continue to accelerate, whether or not an organization has a formal or casual contact center capability. VoIP normalizes the technology. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an agent or someone working for the company at a remote location, you’re on the same network and therefore you can be optimized and you can be contacted to assist a customer, functions that in the past were limited to people physically confined to a contact center.”
“We help to optimize people, processes and technology in contact centers,” says Sherry, “and of course workforce optimization helps an organization in a number of areas, everything from service delivery and training to cross-selling. As things such as unified communications take hold, contact centers and VoIP will morph into even more advanced environments. As one of our customers said to us, ‘Right now you’re optimizing our people and our contact centers. But one day you’ll end up helping us optimize our whole company one day.’ A company in Los Angeles was an early adopter of Cisco. Since 2003 180 people are optimized and 100 percent are on VoIP, and half of them aren’t even call center agents. But it’s the future – VoIP and unified communications.”
Verint is perhaps best known for its contact center call recording capabilities. In a similar vein, ASC is a leading global provider of innovative solutions to record, analyze and evaluate multimedia-based communications. ASC’s solutions can reveal vital information, enabling companies and organizations to considerably improve their value creation: contact centers enhance customer service, efficiently deploy staff and increase productivity. Financial institutions fulfill documentation requirements, obtain legal protection and reduce costs.
ASC solutions include workforce optimization, e-learning and e-coaching, and they dynamically adapt to the changing demands of organizations across all industries and sizes. Their open architecture, allows their solutions to seamlessly integrate into any IT and communications environment. ASC software is also multi-tenancy capable. Customers obtain communications services from a provider like “water from a tap” — on demand, as required, and with maximum flexibility. In such an on-demand scenario, customers can enjoy a sophisticated communications recording and analyzing platform without financial pre-investments.
Harnessing the Home-Based Agent
Another huge trend is the home-based agent. West at Home is a service subsidiary from West Corporation, a leading U.S. provider of outsourced communication solutions. West at Home can call upon thousands of home-based agents situated across the country, all of whom are tied into an advanced network infrastructure to deliver superior service to customers. Every West at Home agent program benefits from West's advanced technology, in-depth reporting capabilities and system high availability, as well as highly developed staffing and training techniques.
Matt Driscoll, West at Home’s EVP of Custom Operator Services, says, “We run about 18 call centers. We’re located domestically as well as our two locations in the Philippines. We have about 10,000 dedicated agents supporting a variety of verticals as it relates to call center support, whether it be retail, finance and banking, communications, tech support, ISPs, insurance, utilities, healthcare, and so forth.”
Mark Frei is the Senior VP of Sales for West Corporation and oversees the West at Home subsidiary. He says, “The bulk of the support we do today consists of voice transactions, but a percentage of that is related to email, chat, or web channel management. It’s a small segment for us, but it’s growing. Most of our call centers are delivering call volume to us through our switch and then either data or voice lines. They may send communications to a data center and we may use ATM to reach a particular call hub-and-spoke type of environment. These communications are ‘locked down’ and are not wide open, per se. Most of the ‘IP’ we deal with relates to our customers desktop applications, so we will do some chat and email but it’s typically in a lockdown environment through their network.”
“Most of the movement transaction processing we do is on-network,” says Driscoll. “Once we get a call into our environment if we’re using ICM or whatever, that call travels via IP in our network. The three primary ways that customers reach are centers are via voice, email, or some type of web chat protocol. About 98 percent of communications to our agents are voice calls. We have also have a group focused on the automated notifications area, and they can deal with many different kinds of transactions. I joke that we don’t care if it’s a carrier pigeon dropping off a message on the roof, but in reality we deal with voice, text, SMS, email, chat, any of which could be passed under the floor to an agent as it comes in via automation.”
SIP Print Debuts at ITEXPO West 2008
The company SIP Print
launches its solutions at ITEXPO West 2008 in Los Angeles next month. It is introducing a new voice call recording product for VoIP/SIP telephones, Avaya IP office, Avaya distributed office, NEC 8100 and 8300 platforms, Allworx, Aastralink, 3Com, Toshiba, Shoretel, Mitel, Nortel, Fonality (News
) and any SIP appliance and/or SIP interface-based telephone system. Unlike more expensive “per channel and per line” priced systems, SIP Print prices each system based on the specific manufacturer’s platform. No added costs, no circuit boards, no hassle.
“As businesses struggle to comply with stricter federal and international regulations,” says SIP Print President and Co-Founder Don Palmer, “having a complete record and recording of every phone call has become critical.”
“One day I asked Jonathan Fuld — who ultimately became our CTO and Co-Founder — whether he knew of any pure SIP voice call recording platforms,” says Palmer. “We couldn’t find anybody who really did pure SIP or pure VoIP recording. Many companies claim they do, but they tend to simply record the trunk lines coming in off of the PRI or even a regular POTS line, or they’re recording off of the handsets with logger patches. I was talking about the appliances from companies such as Allworx, AastraLink, Altigen, Zultys, as well as peer VoIP systems were I wanted to record right off of the box. We decided there was a hole in the market.”
“Jonathan got excited and within about four months he had written the code,” says Palmer. “I named it SIP Print, because SIP is a major technology that will be going places over the next five years, and I had the marketing savvy to price it so that even small businesses can afford to buy it and use it to protect their company’s financial integrity, resolve ‘he-said-she-said’ issues, and assist in training, quality assurance or casual call center situations.”
Prospective dealers or distributors of SIP Print products and professional services can contact the company at email@example.com.
Mark your calendars for Internet Telephony Conference & EXPO — the biggest and most comprehensive IP communications event of the year. ITEXPO will take place in Los Angeles, California, September 16-18, 2008, featuring three valuable days of exhibits, conferences, and networking opportunities you can’t afford to miss. Register now!
Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC (News - Alert)’s IP Communications Group. To read more of Richard’s articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Mae Kowalke