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The blended contact center: myth or reality? The keys to building a unified inbound and outbound call center operation.

For many years, there has been an ongoing industry discussion about the costs and benefits of blended best-of-breed contact centers that, among other things, leverage resources across inbound and outbound activities. Industry leaders tout the wisdom that truly blended environments will maximize productivity, enhance service levels and reduce expenses while maintaining the reliability and scalability of the individual components. Yet the successful and seamless integration of these core contact center competencies remains an elusive goal. Many attempts at blended centers have failed simply because the ACD, outbound dialer and call management software were designed as separate technology silos--often forcing contact centers to operate inbound and outbound calling as distinct business lines, each with separate reporting capabilities and agent interfaces. This silo-based approach is more expensive by way of redundant applications and systems, incomplete views of contact center activities and disjointed service. The inadequacies of this approach are also very apparent to the end customer.

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To build a truly holistic customer service operation, today's customer-centric businesses require an integrated system for balancing calls across inbound and outbound activities; the ability to optimize agent resources across different skill sets and abilities--regardless of type of interaction; and a reporting structure that provides a single, unified view of the contact center from end-to-end. Following are five key elements that are essential:

1) Centralized Decision Making

In outbound-centric blending, the decision to move an agent is usually made by monitoring information available through the CTI link. Typically, this will include data on inbound queues and agent skills. CTI links provide call and agent state change events and allow for external call control. However, they do not provide a complete view of the ACD to external sources. Additionally, routing within the ACD has become more complex, with multiskilled agents, calls queued to multiple skills and multisite call routing capabilities. This makes it much more difficult for an external system, such as an outbound call management system, to estimate the true wait time of a call in queue. Likewise, an external system must view each call within a queue as having the same value, while the inbound system may have additional information about the caller and his or her value to the enterprise. Essentially, an outbound system using a CTI link to make blending decisions is analogous to peeking through one window of a large house and trying to determine what's happening in every room. There is a partial view and some information available, but there are many blind spots that may hide important details. The key to improvement lies in having the most comprehensive information available to the system that is making the blending decision.

Today's contact centers are required to support open standards which allow other systems, such as e-mail and chat, to provide data feeds and define and invoke business rules--thus enabling universal queuing and call blending. By tightly integrating an outbound system and treating it as just another channel, you end the data isolation of the outbound dialer and give the call management software a more holistic view. The decision to pull an agent from outbound to handle an important queued customer is identical, regardless of whether the customer is queued on an inbound voice call or a chat session. The contact center can now optimize every customer interaction, improve customer satisfaction and provide consistent, personalized service across all contact center channels. Because the decision-making has been moved from the outbound dialer to a centralized routing engine, blending decisions can be made across multiple inbound and outbound telephony switches.

2) Consolidated Reporting

More informed blending decisions are not the only benefit of blended information integration. Shared data provide the basis for achieving consolidated real-time and historical reports. The lack of consolidated reporting has proven to be a significant problem in call centers with standalone inbound and outbound operations. While it is common for multichannel contact management systems to provide reports on inbound contacts across channels, in many cases, data related to outbound activity are generated by a separate system using separate metrics. Without a mechanism for combining inbound and outbound calling data, it becomes difficult to derive complete business intelligence, taking into account all customer transactions, regardless of what channel or direction of contact. Through integration, contact centers no longer have to retrieve report data from two systems and try to tie all the information together, a necessity when agent duties can span inbound and outbound call handling within a single shift.

The first step to producing consolidated reports is to store both the inbound and outbound data in a common database so information can be easily viewed and summarized. Over the last decade, reporting has become more advanced and complex. Where simple printed reports were once the standard, today's reports have evolved into complex data analysis, complete with drill downs, "what if" scenarios, trend analysis and consolidation of data into key performance indicators. Having the data for all channels in a single repository makes it possible to perform complex analysis across all channels, enabling centers to measure and manage agents in a more sophisticated manner.

With this in place, supervisors can easily classify their agents into groups. One group of agents may have shorter-than-average handle times for voice calls, but longer-than-average handle times for chat--perhaps indicating a need for typing skills training. On the other hand, there may be groups of agents who have a high success rate on handling outbound calls, but a low success rate on inbound calls. Perhaps these agents feel more comfortable "pitching" someone on the benefits of a product than they do handling a distraught caller who needs assistance. As it becomes easier to measure key performance indicators across channels, agent skills can be defined and improved at a more granular level. For example, Agent "X" is primarily outbound, but can do inbound in a pinch and should only do chat as a last resort. Or, Agent "Y" should be moved to inbound as soon as service levels for sales contacts exceed a certain threshold, requiring a person with the skills to handle voice or chat. These more granular details can then drive decisions on blending, staffing, training and routing.

3) Right Agent, Right Time

Sophisticated routing that takes into account agent skills, location and contact channel is now a must for today's contact centers, driving more responsive, focused and effective customer interactions, and efficient use of resources. Integrating these routing capabilities across inbound and outbound activities enables proactive customer service while also providing improved agent utilization.

Consider for a moment the use of proactive customer service in the travel and hospitality industry. Advanced routing provides the ability to ensure the right agent is available at the right time to deliver the highest quality customer service possible. For example, it enables outbound agents to proactively alert your most valued customers about flight delays or changes, promoting customer loyalty and alleviating inbound backups from the inevitable increase in customer calls later in the day. In other cases, scheduled callback functionality reduces customer frustration with hold times during high call volumes by offering them the option of a callback at another time. This concurrently enables outbound agents to pick up the slack when call volumes are high, and offer greater convenience to the customer.

When inbound and outbound routing is coordinated, agents can be more effectively utilized based on real-time occurrences in the contact center. This is not about blending agent skills, per se. Typically, very different skill sets are required for either inbound or outbound customer interactions. This is about blending the management of inbound and outbound calls so that the most appropriate agents are being matched more specifically to each customer need.

4) Holistic Workforce Management

Advanced agent management that carefully balances forecasted call volumes with agent schedules is another function that needs to move out of inbound and outbound silos. Holistic workforce management must take into account both inbound and outbound staffing so that even greater efficiencies and cost savings can be derived from the system.

Workforce performance analytics based on integrated data spanning inbound and outbound activities is another way to drive new gains in agent optimization. Most contact center managers must work very hard just to manage day-to-day scheduling and agent troubleshooting. Without the time and tools to analyze how they should modify operations to ensure there will be less need to rearrange schedules or to deal with under- or over-staffing in the future, it is extremely difficult to continually improve performance. Should the routing scheme be changed? Should the company invest more hours in agent training? Forward-thinking workforce management should not only allow managers the time to ask these questions by automating labor-intensive manual tasks, it should also provide the tools to answer them.

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Analytic solutions are available that are geared toward improving performance across the entire contact center. Analytical applications are designed to answer a pre-selected set of questions, not just aggregate collections of raw data. With a unified contact center, the time-consuming work of sorting through the data to search for what's relevant to both inbound and outbound operational and business requirements has already been done. These applications are capable of analyzing only what applies directly to the pressing concerns of the contact center in direct support of business objectives.

Workforce management solutions provide a detailed source of data regarding forecasts, schedules and schedule compliance. All of the advantages that analytics can offer, such as quick access to relevant information, job-specific displays and tools to communicate and take corrective action are directly applicable to the processes of managing and motivating agents for maximum efficiency, whether inbound or outbound. Backed with strong analytics and advanced workforce management functionality, contact center managers can ensure that inbound service levels are kept high while outbound campaign goals are met.

5) Consolidated Administration

Consolidated administration is the final piece to the blended contact center puzzle. Even in an environment that has installed best-of-breed components, contact center supervisors are forced to use separate interfaces to administer and manage the inbound and outbound systems. This creates unnecessary overhead because administrators must be trained on multiple interfaces and duplicate agent information must be entered into two distinct systems. There is also the ongoing maintenance nightmare of keeping the two systems in sync as agents are hired, acquire new skills or are promoted to new roles. By creating a single point of administration, and more importantly, a single configuration repository shared by the inbound and outbound systems, duplication of effort is eliminated. This does not mean that all configuration items must or will be shared. In fact, outbound-centric configuration information such as trunk group definitions should be administered directly on the dialer and not be part of the shared configuration. What is vitally important is that all the configuration data that are used by more than one system either for blending or for consolidating reports be stored in one location, administered through one interface and available to all systems.

Implemented intelligently, a truly unified contact center should allow companies to best utilize resources across inbound and outbound operations, optimize every customer interaction, improve customer satisfaction and provide consistent, personalized service across all contact center channels. At the same time, it should provide scalability and reliability to support the most demanding enterprises today and well into the future.

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BY Larry Mark, SER Solutions, Inc. and Paul Lang, Aspect Communications Corp.

A call center industry veteran, Paul Lang, VP of Product Line Management for Aspect, is responsible for ensuring the successful introduction of new Aspect products to market. Prior to this position, Mr. Lang was VP of Call Center solutions with oversight over Aspect's suite of ACD products. Aspect Communications Corporation (www.aspect.com) is a provider of contact center solutions and services that enable businesses to manage and optimize customer communications.

Lawrence P. Mark, CTO of SER Solutions, Inc. (www.ser.com), brings more than 20 years of technical development and managerial experience to his position. As CTO, he leads the company's strategic planning and technology direction initiatives. SER Solutions, Inc. provides software solutions to help companies achieve efficiencies, maximize workplace productivity and enhance customer service.
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Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Cutting-Edge Technologies for the Contact Center
Author:Lang, Paul
Publication:Customer Interaction Solutions
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:2071
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