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Turning Call Centers into Interaction Centers
Adding interactive technologies to your call center will improve customer service, build loyalty and powerfully coordinate your customer service resources.
For the rest of the January 2001 issue of CRM magazine please click here
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People communicate via the Internet in ever-increasing numbers, and savvy businesses know they have to do everything possible to accommodate their customers' communication preferences. Simply offering call centers is now too limited a choice if a company wants to stay in the game of keeping loyal customers.

Enter the Interaction Center

Competitive companies are creating "interaction centers" to stay ahead of the pack. An interaction center provides multiple contact options and efficient new ways to respond to client queries. It also allows an enterprise to leverage its internal corporate knowledgebase and the growing power of the Internet fully. The keyword here is convergence--interaction centers fuse existing call center technologies with new Internet technologies, resulting in an integrated solution that gives companies almost infinite flexibility and control over their customer response systems.

Numerous vendors are now offering comprehensive multimedia call center packages with modules that enable businesses to incorporate e-mail, fax and Web telephony communications options into their phone-based help centers. The marketplace is shifting away from the proprietary, highly customized solutions that were typically required for traditional call centers, says David Anderson of Anderson Consulting, a corporate communications consultancy in Cambridge, Mass.

"The interaction center space is rapidly moving toward packaged but customizable solutions that utilize a company's existing hardware. Since companies can work with what they have on the hardware side, or simply outsource the entire project to an application service provider (ASP), the costs for buying into the overall solution are rapidly falling. Meanwhile, these new solutions include a wealth of advanced features and capabilities."

Anderson points out that putting all communications onto the data network also allows for the creation of standardized routing procedures, unified management reports and a host of other functional abilities unavailable with traditional call centers.

"You can, of course, tightly tie all your help documentation into the service segment of your operation. And you also widen the flow of incoming information, which you can easily capture from your client's electronic interactions. It's like giving your employees access to an ever-growing and easily accessed electronic brain," Anderson says.

Bryant Downey, chief technology officer at Cintech Solutions, a Cincinnati-based CTI software developer, agrees that interaction centers make excellent use of business intelligence.

"Interaction center software can intelligently determine how a customer contact (e-mail, Web chat or voice) should be handled," says Downing. "For example, a customer requesting a Web chat session with a customer service agent first answers one or two automated questions about her need. The business intelligence built into Cintech's NetVIA software can then quickly determine what department or agent to send the contact to, whether some automated information can help or any other type of special handing that may be required. This is true of e-mail as well as voice contacts."

Business intelligence is what gets customers to the right resources quickly, and it's instrumental in assuring a positive experience. And happy customers are, of course, the whole point of an interaction center.

David Fuller, call center product marketing manager at Interactive Intelligence, an Indianapolis-based multichannel customer interaction management software developer, also points out that, from a CRM standpoint, the flexibility and power an interaction center offers is tremendous.

"An interaction center allows coordinated management of all types of contact with customers," he says. "Managers can access myriad real-time and historical reports, adjust contact routing procedures, incorporate infinite automated messages and balance the mix of e-mail, Web chat and voice agents. The interaction center is an extremely powerful tool that assures excellent customer service."

Nuts and Bolts

Interaction centers are powered by a combination of familiar and cutting-edge technologies. Interactive Intelligence's Fuller feels that the most important new technology used in interaction centers is the Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP). "VoIP allowed voice to join the other forms of communication--e-mail, chat, Web--that exist on the data network, which in turn, opened the door to a flood of new possibilities for contact centers."

All types of communications are basically the same as far as the network is concerned. They are all just information packets that are encoded, transmitted and then decoded. The only real difference is in the number of data packets required for each communication and the network capacity required to facilitate those packets. This means established users of existing call center technologies, as well as those newly evaluating call center options, can leverage their network investments to deliver greatly enhanced customer service and increase their own operational effectiveness.

Using established call center technologies as a basic framework, an interaction center adds e-mail management systems, Web collaboration systems and Web-based self-service environments. The new and old environments are then linked together using both traditional technologies, such as standard CTI applications and middleware, and new technologies, such as software-based universal queues.

Rich Feinberg, product marketing manager at eGain Communications, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based customer service software provider, explains that the integration of the Internet channels with the existing call center is usually done through a universal virtual queue or by enabling the existing ACD to act as the universal queue.

"In the case of the universal virtual queue, communications from all different channels are sent to a software-based universal queue where rules are used for determining where to route the communications and with what priority level. The communications are then processed using the appropriate system such as the call center, the e-mail management system, or the Web collaboration system," says Feinberg.

Making the Switch

Since no one wants to chance having their call center down for even a moment, most companies are implementing interactive features into their existing call center systems one step at a time using the modules offered by most of the IC solution providers. For example, a company might add e-mail functionally to its call center and then six months later incorporate Web chat capacity.

Cintech Solutions' Downey feels that a step-by-step approach is a wise implementation strategy for many businesses. But he also cautioned that it's important for companies to keep an eye on the future.

"Right now, e-mail management capability is the predominate need most companies have, Web chat is seen as a nice add on, but not a necessity. But just three years ago, e-mail was the nice add on. And three years from now, I think Web chat will be a necessity. Video may soon follow. So companies need to think about their future needs. Having independent systems for each channel is impractical, inefficient and expensive. Companies taking a staged approach need to give thought toward future integration."

Downey adds that there are some companies that are diving right in and rolling out complete interaction centers. He thinks that this approach allows those bold companies to realize the tremendous advantages of uniform contact management and reporting right from the start. "I feel that choosing to go with a fully featured solution is the ideal approach," Downey says, "but it does require a larger up-front investment in human resources, hardware and time."

But, as with any big business decision, the steps toward an integrated contact center revolve around a series of questions that each business must answer based on its own unique circumstances. Downey says that there are four main steps a company goes through when moving to an e-contact center solution. The emphasis and order within each step will vary, of course, from situation to situation. But in general the steps are the same:

1. Assessment: This step involves an analysis of the infrastructure and needs of the company. Is the network equipped to handle the increase in data? What hardware (desktop, server) upgrades need to take place? What type and volume of contacts will be coming in? What bandwidth capacity will be necessary? What human resources skills will be needed? An existing staff trained on voice-based call centers may be ill-equipped to deal with e-mail or Web chat interactions.

2. Design: This is the creation of a solution that fits the needs of the company in question. The vendor and company must work together to organize the map of how customer interactions will handled and how customers will access the center. It's important at this step to focus on the "front door," the Web site that will usher people to the contact center. Is it usable, convenient and logical? This is an important step that is often overlooked, says Downey. A company's Web site is an invitation that brings customers in. "Using a brick-and-mortar analogy," he says, "imagine a retailer with outstanding products and a great sales team but the storefront is boarded up and the entrance is located around the corner in a dirty alley. That store is severely handicapped."

3. Installation: The installation process requires interaction between the customer and vendor. The customer needs to work with the vendor to configure the system as well as test the range of customer interaction scenarios.

4. Training: The staff needs to be trained on the new software and any new hardware that has been implemented.

Controlling Costs

Equipment costs should be affordable for most companies since you can use existing hardware as a base for the interaction center. Incorporating e-mail or Web chat capacities into an existing call center would likely require only a minimal hardware investment, says Anderson.

"If the existing call center environment (PBX plus ACD) includes a CTI link or a PBX that supports a CTI link, then that environment may be retained and supplemented with CTI middleware to facilitate the integration of other interaction channels. However, if the PBX/ACD system does not have or support a CTI link, then major changes need to be made to the phone-based environment to support other communication interactions. These changes may involve the replacement of hardware and/or software as appropriate," Anderson explains.

The general consensus among vendors is that the main CRM application should not have to be replaced. "The underlying switching layer (for example, PBX) might be worth keeping, depending on how it's used in the organization," says Interactive Intelligence's Fuller. "The Web server and mail server should not have to be replaced either."

Because most middleware is specifically tailored to the applications and phone system currently in place, new middleware is another likely investment, says Downey, depending on the current configuration.

Adding VoIP would be the most expensive option for most companies, since it typically requires hardware upgrades, according to Cintech's Downey. "Most companies would need to upgrade the PCs in their contact center. They will probably need more RAM to handle the increase in data flow required by VoIP. PCs need to have multimedia capability so graphics cards, sound cards, headsets and microphones are a necessity. The network also needs a VoIP gateway to convert PTSN calls to IP packets for the data network."

Implementing the Solution

Most companies use a phased approach to roll out interaction centers, says eGain's Feinberg. "They typically deploy the new Internet communication channel and make sure everything is working as expected prior to integrating the Internet channel with the existing call center. Their first step toward integration is usually done at a pilot-project level to make sure everything is smooth before they roll it out to the rest of their environment," Feinberg explains.

But Cintech's Downey points out that there are benefits to an all-at-once rollout, primarily that the company immediately gains all the advantages of a fully integrated contact center. But he adds that there are also many advantages to a one-step-at-a-time approach, chief among these being a smaller up-front investment.

Right now, Downey says, the most urgent need most companies have (or will have very soon) is the ability to manage customer e-mail better. So by taking a stepped approach, a company can meet its most urgent need by adding e-mail abilities to their current call center and, with proper forethought and planning, can be well prepared to add other communication channels down the road.

Caution--Speed Bumps Ahead

Interactive Intelligence's Fuller says that the main challenge in setting up an interaction center is integrating the new components into existing technologies. "To be honest, many companies are not handling this all that well. It's hard enough to get CTI to work using a PBX, an ACD, an IVR, a FAX server, a voicemail system, a call recording system, a CTI server and a CRM environment," Fuller says. "Adding new interaction channels and mediums to an existing telecommunication-oriented architecture adds even more ‘boxes' to the multisystem CTI approach embraced by most existing call center vendors."

Fuller adds that trying to get integrated queuing and skills-based routing to work under all scenarios is virtually impossible. Sometimes new applications-oriented solutions are required to do this effectively.

"This is not to say that some organizations are better off adding a separate Web chat or collaboration solution to their existing mix. It just makes it technically more challenging to stay focused on customers with all the integration that's sitting between a customer's issue and the solution to that issue."

Cintech's Downey says that most challenges are not so much technical as they are logistical. Agent skill sets, Web-site quality and customer awareness of the new communication channels are more common difficulties.

It's crucial to consider the people issues when considering an interaction center. Fuller says that there are definitely management issues to address. "Getting IT, marketing and the call center people working together to build the right customer-driven processes is usually a challenge."

"But having said that, the difficulties in not becoming an interaction center, such as reduced customer satisfaction and isolated islands of service in an organization, vastly outweigh any implementation problems."

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