Answering the call

New tech helps contact centers improve consumer service

Every industry has a version of the ultimate outcome. In manufacturing, it's zero defects. In transportation, it's on-time departures and early arrivals. For contact centers, it's first-call resolution, in which the communication doesn't have to be routed to other agents, who are presumably more skilled and expensive to employ, and callers don't have to call back to get what they need.

Government agencies have an economic reason to upgrade and automate as many contact center features as they can. Celent, a consulting firm, estimates that it costs $6.85 per call when someone answers the phone to serve a customer. Forrester Research found that the cost can be as high as $15 per call. Interactive voice response (IVR) technology can reduce that to as little as 40 cents per call.

Of course, most agencies don't get 32 million calls a year to their toll-free numbers like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in Baltimore does. That volume explains why CMS has linked its IVR platform to customer relationship management (CRM) software, which authenticates callers and summons their records before an agent answers the phone.

That step shortens calls by 20 seconds on average, said Mary Agnes Laureno, director of CMS' Beneficiary Information Services Group. That's a significant savings considering CMS' calling volume and boost to agent productivity, she added.

For government officials looking to transform contact centers, one option is to integrate the center's system with enterprise software. Some other options are ready, while others are still in development. Some are affordable, while others are not. For government users, two considerations dictate the decisions: budget and need.

Press '1' for VOIP

Voice over IP (VOIP) is probably a slam-dunk for contact centers. Its ability to combine voice and data applications on a single network infrastructure is well-documented.

With VOIP-based call centers, network administrators can install the service software at one location and use a standard IP network to add agents regardless of their locations, creating virtual contact groups. For example, the network could route a call to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the closest agent or a part-time worker who had been added after a disaster.

Although VOIP can deliver 99.999 percent availability, converting voice to data packets often uncovers weak links in an agency's network, possibly disrupting VOIP service, said Russell Brodsky, sales director for the federal solutions division of Siemens Communications.

Agencies must also consider the price of VOIP hardware, which can come in the form of specialized handsets or software that morphs a laptop computer into a voice device. Software-based call managers, which provide the intelligence for routing, billing and service features, add to the cost. VOIP agent stations range from $200 to $500 each, Brodsky said. Services software has a much broader range — from $500 to $15,000 per seat — because there are many options.

VOIP still underperforms in a couple ways, said Joe Heinen, vice president of corporate marketing at Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories Strategic marketing, which sells contact center solutions.

"Call center managers are loathe to leave behind the [time-division multiplexing — traditional telephone technology] reports and tools they've had to run the operations and staff and track customer details," he said. "The IP offerings haven't yet matured in sophistication of agent routing and analytics about agent performance during the course of the day."

However, Heinen said he predicts that to change as IP phone deployment surpasses TDM units, which will likely occur in 2007.

Tag, speech is it

Speech recognition continues to become smarter and better at distinguishing among homonyms and regional accents. Contact center vendors say the Voice Extensible Markup Language (VXML) standard treats voice like any other application and converts it to a more dynamic format so it can do more than count calls or make routing decisions.

VXML requires an application server that runs a Java server page. The application prompts users for a piece of information, listens for keywords or asks callers to press a key, said Gene Cox, a director for contact center product and solutions management in IBM's software group.

"Once any of those things happens it takes it to the next level, where grammar is applied and passes the data on to a speech-recognition engine," Cox said. The user request can be as simple as a stock price or something more complex, such as the spoken response to an automated question: "How can I help you today?"

"Sound gets turned to text and then it's analyzed," Cox said. Based on those conversions, organizations can more methodically look at inquiries to determine the most commonly requested information and most frequent means of advancing or clarifying a request. Then they can alter call routing or information delivery.

The VoiceXML Forum has already tested and certified equipment from Avaya, Genesys, Nortel Networks and others to determine conformance to the standard and basic interoperability.

VXML hardware and application software are widely available, and their prices are close to the costs of conventional voice response products, Cox said.

Mining and management

Agencies want to use contact center data in several applications, including CRM, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and overarching network management frameworks.

But government IT buyers know that integration doesn't come cheap, and the landscape is littered with CRM and ERP integration projects that exceeded their budgets, spun out of control and never produced their desired capabilities.

Heinen said the expense issue may be overblown. His company's platform, which works with CRM software from Siebel Systems, PeopleSoft/Oracle and SAP, is decreasing in cost because of adapter technology that eases contact center integration. He said more government agencies are looking at Microsoft's CRM software, which has undercut the big players' prices. He said Genesys' low-end Express adapter product costs about $200 per seat, which is affordable for centers with 30 to 50 agents.

Drew Kraus, a research director at Gartner, warned government IT buyers to beware of the quick-fix approach. Companies that have undertaken such integration projects have plenty of incentive because it enables them to better market their services to customers. Many are financial services firms. Typically, they have the IT expertise and budget to undertake those projects. Laureno said the $15 million that CMS is spending on integration and development is unusual in the government sector.

"Either way, it's an effort, since you have to have organizational buy-in to get data from a number of different entities," Kraus said. "Some hoard their data and don't want to share it."

In addition to finding funding, agencies must collect the data and make sure database fields align. "Potentially, there's a lot of value there, but an organization needs to go into that with their eyes wide open," Kraus said.

Terry Sweeney is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has covered information technology and networking for more than 20 years. He can be reached at [email protected].

Making contact
  • $6.85 to $15: Range of what it costs per call to take a customer out of self-service to speak with a live agent.
  • 40 cents: Average transaction cost per call when using interactive voice responses.
  • 102,000: Average call volume to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services' toll-free numbers on Mondays, its busiest day of the week.
  • $17,000 to $20,000: What it costs to recruit and train a single contact center agent.
  • $100: The average cost a "valued customer" of Columbia House pays when a contact center agent is prompted to assist with a Web purchase. That same customer would spend $20 on average without agent intervention.

— Terry Sweeney

The incredible multitasking agent -- or not

As new methods for communicating proliferate, it's not hard to imagine a converged contact center staffed by agents who can handle phone inquiries, e-mail messages, Web chats and instant messages. Theoretically, it makes good management sense to draw on seasoned agents to respond to inquiries, regardless of the medium. Plus, the technology for integrating multiple channels is no longer on the bleeding edge.

However, such convergence isn't always that practical for a variety of reasons, experts say.

"An agent who is really good at typing may not be very good on the phone, and good phone workers may be lousy at text messaging," said Joe Heinen, vice president of corporate marketing at Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, which sells contact center solutions.

Officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have looked at this blending capability as they prepare to implement new Medicare drug benefits this November.

"We weren't happy with the experience we saw with commercial companies that did mix" e-mail, Web chat and voice calls, said Mary Agnes Laureno, director of CMS' Beneficiary Information Services Group. As a result, CMS agents will handle either voice calls or text inquiries, but not both.

"There's lots of vendor hype about this sort of channel integration, but only a few organizations have actually done it," said Drew Kraus, a research director at Gartner. Part of the reason is that such unifying technology is expensive and requires customization. But it also often means a change in the way that agents are managed and compensated, he added.

For example, when an organization handles inbound and outbound calls, agents either specialize in one or do one for a few hours and then another, but they typically don't do both simultaneously. "We've seen little blending to date," Kraus said.

— Terry Sweeney


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