New Technology, New Markets

By Christine J. Holley

Change or die. This admonition rings loud and clear to the many Telephone Answering Services (TAS) attempting to re-define themselves in today’s rapidly changing market. New innovations such as voicemail, wireless technology, alphanumeric paging, and the Internet have led to shrinking profit margins for TAS. These changes have prompted many TAS to provide what some are calling Enhanced Telephone Services (ETS). ETS include such offerings as lead generation, customer support, and telemarketing. While the addition of these services may extend the life of your TAS, they do not address the need for a telephony platform that will not only support new customer services, but one that will support such services using any communication medium desired by the customer. The right platform will enable TAS to succeed in the customer care market (formerly the call center market), and prepare them for whatever new media types lie ahead.

So what does a TAS look for when evaluating telephony platforms? What type of architecture will enable a TAS to cost-effectively take advantage of the customer care market, now the domain of a myriad of media types such as fax, email and the Internet? Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) promised a solution that links telephone and computer systems so that agents can more effectively service customers. This architecture takes proprietary communication devices, such as the PBX, Automatic Call Distributor (ACD), Interactive Voice Response (IVR), voice mail system and fax server and, through the use of CTI middle ware, links them to the computer. Hallmarks of CTI are the “soft phone” (the use of the computer to process calls), “screen pop” (upon receiving a call, the simultaneous “popping” of customer data), and “unified messaging” (the ability to receive voice, email and fax messages in a universal in-box).

While CTI offers many useful features, it also comes with inherit problems. As its name implies, CTI offers an integrated solution. Separate devices may be linked, but each device remains an information “silo” whereby processes such as reporting and routing are necessarily duplicated. CTI is not a bad solution if a TAS chooses to deal in only one or two media types. However, as media types multiply, complexity grows exponentially. In addition, since CTI architecture starts with hardware-based, proprietary devices, customizations entail costly visits from the vendor. Adding to this cost are “forklift upgrades,” common occurrences among CTI vendors despite the fact that many customers only require a single new feature.

In response to the weaknesses of CTI architecture, comes a new technology known as “all-in-one” communications server technology. This technology begins with an open, software-based architecture. It is considered a unified solution – as opposed to an integrated one – because it utilizes a single server to process all media types, including voice calls, faxes, email, and Web interactions. As a unified system, interactions are managed from a central point. Start-up costs are lower because Comm Server technology requires fewer devices, and administration and maintenance are simplified. Due to its open architecture, Comm Server technology also provides an ideal platform for integration with a multitude of third party applications. Most Comm Server solutions are targeted at organizations with between 20 and 200 users at a given site.

For those TAS attempting to transition into the customer care market, Comm Server technology offers many benefits. For starters, TAS must service a variety of customers with changing needs, thus, their telephony platform of choice must be flexible and easily customizable. Comm Server technology accomplishes this through built-in GUI-based tools designed to customize everything from dial plans and IVR scripts, to fax routing and automatic email responses. In addition, the same rules applied to voice calls, can be applied to faxes, Web chats, or any other media type. This reuse of business logic saves TAS valuable time and resources. The Comm Server’s GUI interface also reduces training time.

Another significant advantage of communications server technology is its comprehensive feature set and software-based architecture. The communications server is designed to replace PBXs, ACDs, IVRs, voice mail systems, fax servers, Web gateways and CTI middleware systems. Any TAS hoping to compete in the customer care market must provide these sophisticated interaction handling services. While Comm Server technology starts with a robust feature set, TAS can build upon these incrementally, thus TAS only pay for the functionality being used. Unlike hardware-based systems, many more upgrades can be offered throughout the life cycle of a major Comm Server release, so TAS can take advantage of the most recent technological developments instead of waiting years for that “forklift upgrade.”

Leveraging the Internet is one of many ways TAS can break into the customer care market. Comm Server technology supports important Web services such as Web chat, Web callback, and Voice Over Net (VON) calls. Imagine your agents chatting with customers in real-time and “pushing” them Web pages. In this way, the customer actually sees what you’re describing, giving them the kind of personal service generally unheard of on the Internet. Comm Server technology also supports the use of “scripts.” These are pre-stored answers to commonly asked questions so that agents can, with the click of a button, give customers consistent, accurate information during a Web chat. This reduces training time and expedites time spent answering “rote” questions.

In order for TAS to remain cost-effective, they must also optimize agent resources. The Comm Server comes with built-in routing capabilities that include skills-based routing and multimedia queuing. Interactions can be routed based on virtually any criteria desired, including priority customer routing, last/best agent routing, agent cost routing, off-site routing, and others. communications server technology also accommodates “blended” strategies (the combination of inbound and outbound campaigns) so that agent resources are further optimized.

One way for TAS to cut down on overhead is to employ remote agents. Comm Server technology is ideal for supporting remote agents as it allows a person working from home, with a standard telephone line and an Internet connection, to perform exactly the same interaction management functions as a person sitting at TAS headquarters. Remote agents can perform telephone functions (e.g. dial, hold, transfer, conference), participate in call queues, view the real-time status of remote co-workers, receive mail (e.g. email, voice mail, fax), and so on. Call queues can be set up to transparently route calls to work-at-home agents (or regional offices), and since Comm Server technology can also route calls via the Internet, long distance charges are drastically reduced.

Employing sophisticated interaction management functions is an important first step to providing excellent customer care. Without the ability to monitor and evaluate these functions, however, TAS can waste a lot of money. In order to ensure that resources are used most effectively, TAS must also implement good quality assurance methods. Reporting tools serve as the basis for this type of evaluation, and communications server technology offers a unique advantage over traditional communication systems. Unlike integrated solutions, communications server technology utilizes a single reporting tool to measure all interactions regardless of type. This means that true end-to-end reporting is finally possible.

In many ways, TAS have an advantage over existing customer care centers. Many TAS have not yet invested a great deal of money or time in a communications infrastructure. They are not yet saddled with expensive proprietary devices that must still realize a return on investment before they can be replaced with more flexible and cost-effective technologies. Comm Server technology can position TAS ahead of even its most “branded” competitors by providing better customer service at a lower cost. Now it’s just a matter of who’s first to implement this emerging technology…so what are you waiting for?

Christine J. Holley is the Market Communications Specialist for Interactive Intelligence Inc. Read a case study: Communications Server Technology.

[From Connection Magazine – November 1999]

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