The next level of instant messaging applications can improve agent performance.
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America Online launched instant messaging (IM) as a free feature in May 1997. Coincidentally, my husband and I had moved to Europe that month and instant messaging became a great alternative to prohibitive international calling rates. IM also helped manage the issue of time-zone differences. If a client in Chicago just happened to be up at 1 a.m. and online, and I was at my desk in The Netherlands at 8 a.m., I would see him on my buddy list and we could chat.
Eight years have passed since IM capability began its meteoric climb to today's estimated 200 million-plus users, a growing portion of whom are corporate professionals. As an industry analyst I have waited patiently for the same kind of simple IM capability and true presence management (PM) to be made available to agents and supervisors in the contact center.
There are those who believe that PM has been an integral component of ACD applications for years. The supervisor usually has complete access to the availability and status of her agents on a real-time reporting screen. In some newer contact center applications supervisors have the ability to broadcast text messages to a team.
What's missing is peer-to-peer communications, the ability of one agent to ascertain the status, location, and/or availability of another agent or subject-matter expert, and then to communicate with them in real time. When the question is asked as to if and when this capability will be added to agent desktop applications, the answer is often that Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), an emerging Internet standard for peer-to-peer communications, will enable this. I've begun to believe that SIP will enable can be translated as we don't have it yet and we're not sure when we will.
At least one vendor is not waiting for SIP (or Godot) to bring peer-to-peer PM to the contact center. The Siemens ProCenter Agile solution was introduced globally in 2004 and implements presence in the contact center through its Team List and Team Bar features, the contact center equivalent of a Buddy List. With its notion of the Associate Agent desktop, ProCenter Agile can extend PM capabilities to part-time agents, knowledge workers, or other experts.
What can PM extended to agents mean in the contact center? One firm, Assurity Life Insurance, in Lincoln, NE, worked with a systems integrator to install ProCenter Agile in a 100-seat contact center in September 2004, as part of a broader business process reengineering effort. Assurity's agents are seasoned insurance professionals, and they quickly learned to exploit the benefits of presence information.
Growing a phenomenal 125 percent in 2004, Assurity increased staff to meet its contact center goals, one of which was 80 percent first-call resolution. ProCenter Agile's Team Bar quickly turned into a training tool, giving employees the ability to see what seasoned person might be available for quick IM-like questions. All have learned to use the presence tools to help manage their time better, for example, scheduling ad hoc breaks when they can see that contact center goal attainment won't be jeopardized.
Jan Zoucha, vice president of human resources at Assurity, is more than pleased with the results. Choosing a contact center application with PM features has helped her to empower Assurity's employees. "I have a passion for process improvement, giving people good resources and a good environment to get their work done."
Will SIP, deployed through the enterprise and beyond that to customers, suppliers, and channel partners, bring even greater benefits? No doubt. But in the short term it would be nice to see more vendors add simple IM and PM to their agent desktop applications.
Sheila McGee-Smith, founder of McGee-Smith Analytics, is a leading communications industry analyst and strategic consultant focused on contact centers and CRM markets. Go to www.mcgeesmith.com
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