Twenty-five years of call center innovations: a retrospective.
It did not take me long to figure out where to go for this information: more call center innovators per square foot can be found at Aspect Software than nearly any other company in the industry. Aspect Software is today a family made up of individuals and organizations that were on the forefront of cutting-edge technology for the modern contact center. Following are the musings from three individuals from Aspect Software: Gary Barnett, Jim Mitchell and Roger Sumner. I hope you'll find these retrospectives as fascinating as we do.
--Tracey Schelmetic, Editorial Director, Customer Inter@ction Solutions
The Contact Center Industry: Where We've Been And Where We're Going Next
During the past three decades, we have seen a number of significant changes in the contact center industry--some have been technology-related, while others have been associated with business rules and processes.
From a technological perspective, in the early to mid-1990s, we witnessed the explosion of computer-telephony integration (CTI). At the time, CTI was a great new technology that tied the contact center to the backend systems and enabled machine-to-machine exchanges. Before the advent of the modern contact center, when you called your favorite airline to book a reservation, your call would enter an automatic call distributor (ACD) and queue for the next available agent. When you finally reached an agent, he or she would ask you questions and enter your information into the computer. The agent essentially served as the intermediary between you--the customer--and the contact center.
CTI simplified this process for agents, enabling the airline's system to identify your phone number on the network, send it to an interactive voice response (IVR) system for validation, and pop a screen with information about you for the agent to whom you would be connected. This automatic procedure drastically increased the speed at which companies could handle customer requests, greatly enhanced agent efficiency and resulted in more satisfying customer interactions.
As customer experiences improved, more people began to call contact centers. Inquiries became more challenging, agent skill sets became more complex and agent pay began to increase. At the same time, we saw a steady decline in the cost of both equipment and toll-free numbers. Labor was becoming the largest expense in the contact center and companies began to focus on better management of their workforces. We developed our workforce management application to meet our customers' needs to increase scheduling efficiency, maximize agent productivity, lower operating costs and streamline tasks.
After working to achieve more efficient labor costs through workforce management, many companies implemented self-service for additional cost-cutting measures. In the 1980s and 1990s, we helped a large number of our customers deploy touch-tone and voice automation systems that enabled them to divert calls from live agents. Their callers could now complete their transactions or obtain information by simply pressing buttons or "speaking" to automated systems. Both of these self-service options are still popular. However, forward-thinking contact centers are using them to complement agent interactions rather than prevent them.
Today, we are beginning to help our customers secure and deploy open-source Internet protocol (IP) PBXs--an increasingly viable option for contact centers due to the growing adoption of session initiation protocol (SIP) and standards-based technology. We have seen, and are continuing to see, a huge shift from proprietary, closed standards to open standards. Contact centers are now starting to deploy open-source IP-PBXs to gain more flexibility and control over their applications and PBX-related operations.
We have seen a number of equally interesting business changes alongside the technological advancements. The rise of the Internet has had a significant impact on the way companies do business. Prior to the "information age," customers received most of their correspondence via postal mail, today known as "snail mail." They would call the phone number on the direct mail piece to get more information. Now, customers can surf the Internet, gather information related to various products and services, then call the contact center, send an e-mail or click-to-talk for more information. This kind of tight integration across multiple communication channels is a new phenomenon in the past 10 or so years.
Another fairly recent development is the importance of the contact center as a key contributor to the overall bottom line. In the early days, contact centers were virtually hidden from C-level executives because they were viewed as cost centers. Today, they can be seen as true revenue generators.
Many of our customers are even taking this concept one step further. They are using the contact center to help them differentiate themselves by the quality of customer service they provide, as it has become more difficult to gain competitive advantage with products alone. For example, a large number of contact centers are now focusing on a holistic view into their customer's activities across the full organization to better improve the service being provided. In the past, you may have had to call different phone numbers at your bank for your checking account balance and credit card information. That barrier has been broken down, and today you can call one phone number to both hear your checking balance and make an inquiry about a recent credit card purchase.
The integration of various systems and processes in contact centers has brought about much needed consolidation amongst contact center solutions providers. We knew that customers wanted a single vendor they could turn to for all of their contact center needs. We also knew that, in order to maintain our position as a major player and to continue to influence the marketplace, we needed to be a consolidator rather than a single product provider. We began acquiring various companies that offered solutions that complemented our ACD, such as workforce management, CTI, IVR and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). It was natural to bring FirstPoint Contact, Concerto, Aspect Communications and others together to create Aspect Software and to begin unifying the industry-leading products from these companies rather than to simply offer them as integrated solutions in a portfolio.
I've seen a number of innovations and achievements in the contact center industry during the past 25 years, but I strongly believe that the next 25 years will require even more radical and rapid change. A new generation of consumers and workers will soon enter the marketplace. They are dramatically different than any generation that has preceded them. This new generation is extremely mobile and on-demand driven--they are very adept at using tools such as instant messenger and text messaging. This new generation expects and demands immediate turnaround.
In the next 25 years, changes in the contact center will be driven by this new breed of consumer and their philosophies--no longer just by the technology. I look forward to being a part of this evolution and eagerly await the challenges that lie ahead.
Gary Barnett, a recognized industry luminary, has a distinguished history as a driving force in communications technology. He played a key role as a founding engineer at Aspect Communications in the development of the company's first automatic call distributor (ACD). Gary was also a founding engineer at Octel Communications, where he was one of the developers of the company's first voice-messaging system. In 1987, he became a founder of Prospect Software, a company that pioneered computer-telephony integration in the early 1990s.
Today, Gary is the Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President of Technical Services for Aspect Software, where he is responsible for corporate planning, product architecture and life cycle management, among other processes. Gary also ensures that customers receive the level of product support required to achieve their customer contact strategies in collections, customer service, and sales and telemarketing.
By Gary Barnett, Chief Technology Officer, Executive Vice President Of Technical Services, Aspect Software
My Baby--The Predictive Dialer--All Grown Up
The earliest predictive dialers, primarily located in banks, were extremely primitive standalone systems that were used for telemarketing or collections. These dialers required contact centers to go through the painstaking process of loading floppy disks containing the names and contact information for the people they wanted to call. Groups of agents would physically sit next to the dialers in four-hour shifts.
The initial dialers didn't allow for updates and weren't integrated with any other systems. As a result, sometimes during their four-hour stints at the dialers, telemarketing agents would call customers who already owned the products or services they were trying to sell, or collections agents would contact customers who had already made payments on their debt. Companies quickly realized that agents were wasting a lot of time on unproductive activities, and that customers became agitated when they received these unnecessary phone calls.
At that time, Davox was manufacturing and supplying terminals with telephones. Our clients included a number of financial services companies and, one day, a large bank approached us about the possibility of bringing their predictive dialing systems online. As this has always been a part of our history--helping our customers achieve their specific objectives--this was a challenge we gladly accepted because we felt we could help our customer fill this technological void. In retrospect, we see the impact that this decision made on the contact center, particularly in the sales and collections markets, which makes us proud.
Davox first approached Melita, a company that at the time was making big strides in the development of the predictive dialer, and told them that we wanted to partner to develop a full predictive dialing solution. We provided Melita with product specifications, and they subsequently became the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for our design.
A few years later, in 1987, Davox bought TBS, the leading dialer company at the time, and together we launched Unison, a new, high-powered predictive dialer. Unison helped ensure that agents maintained a steady, busy pace throughout the day.
As with any new technology, the initial power dialers had some flaws. They would dial telephone numbers regardless of whether agents were available to handle the calls. When a dialer initiated a call and all agents were busy at the time the customer answered, the dialer would put the customer on hold until the next agent became available. The industry quickly learned that customers found this practice to be annoying and intrusive. We refined the algorithms until they became significantly more precise, and we were able to help companies prevent contacting their customers and asking them to hold.
Drastic increases in efficiency--generally a 300 percent productivity improvement--encouraged many companies that were once solely focused on outbound contacts to use their predictive dialers to explore the possibility of call blending. Soon, we saw traditionally outbound centers handling inbound and outbound contacts with one agent pool and dynamically optimizing their agents based on inbound or outbound needs.
At the same time dialers were gaining in popularity, telephone call costs were declining. Companies that were looking for new and effective ways to market their products began to see the telephone as an extremely cost-effective tool. The number of companies making telemarketing calls was rising, while the number of telemarketing calls that companies were making was also drastically increasing. It didn't take long before consumers began to complain about the number of phone calls they were receiving.
As a result, in 2003, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stepped in to begin regulating telemarketing activities. They developed new legislation that required telemarketers to become more selective about who and when they were calling. The telemarketing community was suddenly forced to look into other applications to maintain their livelihood. They began working more closely with customers with whom they already had existing business relationships and abandoned their shotgun attempts to acquire new customers. In my opinion, this legislation has been a step in the right direction for the industry and for consumers. It has forced companies to constantly fine-tune their calling lists and has resulted in more contacts to the right people--people who want the products and services the companies are offering.
Predictive dialers have also been vitally important for collections. While the first dialers simply ran down call lists and contacted customers in the order their names appeared, today's dialers allow companies to reach out to their customers at the times that are most convenient for those customers. This process is one of many that have helped to drastically streamline the collections process.
We are now seeing a new use for predictive dialers: customer service, believe it or not. Many companies are using dialers for high-touch applications; for example, you might call your favorite retail store to place an order and ask the agent a question that he can't immediately answer, but he vows to find the answer and call you back. Rather than placing a reminder sticky note on his computer, the agent schedules your callback with the predictive dialer. The dialer automatically initiates the return call from that same agent at the time you specified and at the phone number you provided. You are guaranteed to get your callback, and when you do, your opinion of this retail store will most likely increase.
Some contact centers today are using predictive dialers to call their customers back when hold times are too long. Others are developing and implementing proactive customer care strategies. Take, for example, a large cell phone company. The company regularly contacts its new customers to make sure they understand the features of their phones, and simultaneously asks customers if they have questions about their service. These activities are geared toward improving customer satisfaction and retention rates.
We are beginning to see the integration of predictive dialers and text-to-speech capabilities as companies use their dialers to call their customers and then pass the calls to a speech self-service application rather than to agents. Customers speak their responses directly into their phones, and the automated systems respond appropriately, engaging customers in "conversations." For example, if you're 30 days delinquent on a payment, a collections agency might call you and ask you for the last four digits of your social security number. You speak the digits into your phone. The system then asks you to submit payment and offers you the option to speak with an agent.
Just as we developed our initial predictive dialer to meet the needs of one specific bank nearly two decades ago, today we are working with our customers to continuously fine-tune our offerings. I am proud of our solid understanding of contact center technology, and even more proud of our customer and our industry knowledge.
We have certainly come a long way when it comes to predictive dialing. I have not only witnessed it, I have lived it. I envision even greater change on the horizon for companies that are always looking for ways to improve the customer experience they deliver. I am proud to be a pioneer in this part of the market, but I also look forward to being a continuous innovator in the industry. Needless to say, I look ahead to the future with great anticipation.
Jim Mitchell is acknowledged as a pioneer of contact center technology and an authority on FTC and FCC telemarketing regulations. Jim has authored numerous articles and white papers and is a frequent speaker at industry events.
In 1981, Jim co-founded Davox Corporation, which became Concerto Software in 2002 and Aspect Software in 2005. Under his direction, Davox developed and introduced the Unison call management system, which helped to revolutionize the outbound dialing process and the contact center industry. As Senior Vice President of the Technology Office at Aspect Software, Jim plays an instrumental role in setting the technology direction of the company. He also acts as a customer advocate.
By Jim Mitchell, Senior Vice President, Technology Office, Aspect Software
How CTI And Other Contact Center Technologies Changed My Life
I began working at Rockwell International in 1978 as a co-op while I was finishing my college education. At the time, the airline industry was extremely competitive. If an airline couldn't provide their customers with the appropriate information or could not answer their incoming phone calls quickly enough, their customers were likely to conduct business elsewhere.
A few years before I joined Rockwell, Continental Airlines approached Collins Radio Company and requested the first real digital, intelligent call center. At the time, Collins was known to Continental Airlines as a reliable supplier of products and known to the airline industry as a whole for its data packet switchers. Collins, which merged with Rockwell International in 1973, collaborated with Continental Airlines to invent Galaxy, the first intelligent automatic call distributor (ACD). The system was installed in Continental's Houston Reservation Center and was initially used to handle the airline's reservations and information calls throughout the Southern U.S., in addition to private automatic branch exchange (PABX) functions and management reporting. Galaxy was quite the invention: it triggered a chain reaction and launched a new industry, creating thousands of new jobs and most important, forever changing the way companies interacted with their customers.
We saw the next technological advancement in the late 1970s/early 1980s when airlines with contact centers in various cities wanted to divert calls from overly busy centers to underutilized centers. We worked with them to make geographically dispersed contact centers appear to customers as though they were one cohesive center. Overflow, which was based on agent availability and queue levels, allowed the airlines to look at their centers across the country and easily move calls to agents in different time zones without incurring expensive routing changes in their networks.
By 1982, we had invented some of the first notions of computer-telephony integration (CTI) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and deployed the technology for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for tax collections purposes. The task of the system was database look-up using CTI. For the first time, IRS agents were able to view delinquent taxpayer information on their computer screens and hit buttons to initiate calls to collect tax dollars that were owed. Shortly thereafter, we worked with directory assistance for one of the large telephone companies to implement CTI to decrease call lengths, key strokes and mistakes resulting from misdials and redials. The new system enabled agents to hit buttons on their computer screens to transfer calls to an interactive voice response (IVR) system, which then gave callers the phone numbers they requested. Prior to the implementation of this technology, agents were required to manually dial telephone numbers for their callers.
CTI is, without a doubt, my favorite contact center technology. Over the years, it has allowed thousands of companies to deliver better customer service, and has enabled them to know more about the customers who are calling them. CTI brings data together in an appropriate place and allows applications to connect and exchange information with each other. It provides information to agents--the most important resource in the contact center--and gives them the ability to respond in the most appropriate way. CTI helps improve customer experiences by eliminating the need for customers to repeat information, and helps to decrease agent burnout.
There are also a number of exciting technologies we are now seeing emerge in the contact center, including presence, session initiation protocol (SIP), voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), open-system IP-PBXs, as well as other new technologies that will change the way customers interact with companies. For example, we've developed speech applications that enable customers to "talk" to automated systems that make it considerably easier for customers to secure answers to their questions or complete transactions without needing to wait in queue for an agent.
Also, in the coming years, presence-based communications will greatly expand the role of the contact center to potentially incorporate resources across the whole enterprise, as well as change the notion of where agents are located and how customers can interact with companies. As session initiation protocol (SIP) becomes more widely deployed, communication links will be automatically established based on an agent's availability. This concept is powerful for the contact centers of the future because SIP-enabled presence detection can be applied to any traditional or non-traditional agent device that supports SIP, such as a PDA (personal digital assistant) or other handheld device. Presence will also be a key requirement for pushing customer service throughout the enterprise. This technology will change the dynamics of how agents are deployed in the contact center space, and how companies contact their customers in a proactive way.
Collins turned to us more than 30 years ago to help them meet a very specific need for something that hadn't yet been invented. We worked with them to make it happen, and we still do the same today.
We are dedicated to working with our customers to move them to new solutions at their own pace, when it makes sense for them and their businesses. The products in which our customers have invested will continue to evolve and offer new capabilities. We're protecting their investments and showing them what they need to look at as they move forward. That is our heritage, and it is our future.
Having been a part of the contact center industry for nearly three decades, I am dedicated to personally helping customers figure out the best way to solve their business problems using the right technology at the right time. Everybody wants to know that they have brought some benefit to the world, and I take pride in being able to look customers in the eye and know that I have honestly made a difference in their businesses and the way they interact with their customers.
Roger Sumner is a recognized industry pioneer and author with more than two decades of experience in the contact center. He is the co-creator of the Aspect Spectrum ACD and also helped guide the development of the first truly open platform for contact centers. Roger also plays a significant role in overseeing and building Aspect Software's extensive patent portfolio.
Roger now serves as Senior Vice President of the Technology Office for Aspect Software, where he is an advocate for developing new technologies and solutions to enhance interactions between companies and their customers. He was previously the Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Solutions Technology for Rockwell FirstPoint Contact, where he led the technological direction of the company and managed solution services and engineering while supporting the firm's business objectives.
By Roger Sumner, Senior Vice President, Technology Office, Aspect Software
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|Title Annotation:||CONTACT CENTER TECHNOLOGY|
|Publication:||Customer Interaction Solutions|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2006|
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