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The Golden Rules of Computer Telephony Integration: Part 2

Developing the strategic value of customer interaction centers is dependent on how well computer telephony platforms are built. A robust platform will reliably, consistently, and dynamically bind together company resources to serve various customer demands, just in time.
Written by Larry Velez, Contributor on

Developing the strategic value of customer interaction centers is dependent on how well computer telephony platforms are built. A robust platform will reliably, consistently, and dynamically bind together company resources to serve various customer demands, just in time.

META Trend: Investment in customer interaction centers (CICs) will focus on agent productivity and decision support systems in 2003/04, concomitant with renewed interest in customer management outsourcing. Enterprise call centers will migrate to IP slowly (2005-07), with the exception of niche applications (e.g., knowledge worker), due to reliability concerns and enterprise reluctance to put customer-facing activities at risk.

Computer telephony integration (CTI) still eludes 70% of call centers in the world. Organizations have been attracted to the potential benefits of reduced call-handling times and overall lowered costs, but there is a misconception that CTI simply coordinates incoming customer calls with customer-specific application screen pops. This is only part of the story. CTI platforms (e.g., from Alcatel/Genesys, Apropos, Aspect, and Avaya) integrate a lot more and help improve overall contact-center operations.

Our research indicates that leading companies use CTI platforms to bind corporate resources (i.e., skilled agents, customer knowledge, company policies, and marketing promotions) in the time it takes a customer to call and identify himself or herself (see Figure 1). The CTI-enabled customer interaction center (CIC) dynamically links a multitude of resources to handle customer needs in real time, every time, thousands of times per day. This perspective is needed to improve the probability of getting CTI business cases approved. The enhanced business case should disclose the traditional transactional cost savings, as well as the lower cost of ownership due to centralization benefits (e.g., routing policies, reporting), and better allocation of corporate resources, which inherently improves customer satisfaction.

To preserve the value of just-in-time binding of corporate resources, CTI platforms must be built with a degree of agility to ensure the policies set to bind corporate resources are quickly changeable. The platform must also be reliable to ensure operations are highly available and recover quickly on failure. Finally, the platform must have a high performance rate to ensure transactions are completed quickly and consistently throughout the working day. More important, developing this platform requires greater cooperation between IT and CIC management. We expect this cooperation to increase and result in centers of excellence (COEs) or virtual teams during 2004-08. This teamwork will give the IT organization more confidence to establish and meet CIC service-level commitments. The COE will is also be the forum where current operations can be benchmarked to industry best practices, leading to a road map of short-, medium- and long-term initiatives for operational improvement. The following are some CTI infrastructure development best practices:

  • Consolidate routing policies and reduce costs: Using the CTI platform for all routing decisions helps organizations develop staff economies of scale and eliminate the need to have skills in multiple private branch exchanges (PBXs), automatic call distributors (ACDs), interactive voice response (IVR) systems, and e-mail management systems (see Figure 2). The central CTI administration team enables the enterprise to create and enforce customer interaction routing policies across multiple points of interaction (POIs) and report on the interaction volumes across multiple systems. Moreover, it is an opportunity for the IT organization to negotiate lower maintenance costs with other vendors because their routing functions are not used during CIC production hours. However, it is wise to have some backup routing capability within PBXs and ACDs in case of CTI failure. However, 100% backup is rarely, if ever, cost effective.
  • Centralize reporting platforms: Concurrent with consolidating routing policies, the CTI platform also centralizes real-time statistics and historical reports for all customer interactions, potentially across all POIs. This will drive a fundamental organizational change to the CIC and spur many debates about the quality of CTI reporting. The debate becomes acute when companies seek to compare PBX and ACD reports to CTI reports. These reports never match, and, in our opinion, this debate should be ended swiftly in two to three months in favor of CTI reports. The evaluation period is necessary to learn the differences between the reports and define the new reporting metrics for the business. Moreover, we strongly recommend CICs hire specialist firms to help organizations create the reporting platform. CTI manufacturers are too focused on technology and are notorious for dropping the ball on reporting platform projects.
  • Place IVR under CTI control: The greatest degree of coordination between self-service and assisted service is achieved with this design (see Figure 3). This implies that inbound calls first terminate at a switch (e.g., PBX, ACD) and then are routed to an IVR farm for call treatment. This is a more expensive design compared to designs that terminate public switched telephone network (PSTN) calls directly to the IVR. However, our research indicates that these lower-cost designs result in limited functionality that leads to annoying customer interactions. For example, these designs generally do not enable customers to be routed back to the IVR on customer request and require the customer to redial. They also generally force the customer to re-identify himself or herself to an agent after spending several minutes navigating through IVR menus. Granted, most IT organizations build IVR platforms for self-service applications and hope fewer calls get routed to agents. Although this has been greatly successful, the majority of CICs still have a huge population of agents spending 60-120 seconds re-authenticating customers (i.e., the customer spent time identifying himself or herself via IVR-driven menus). We expect this design tradeoff to be eliminated with IP-based IVRs during 2005/06. In this scenario, all calls are terminated at a single media gateway, and CTI platforms coordinate the self-service and assisted-service handoffs.
  • Determine the CTI traffic sensitivity over the corporate WAN: Using a single CTI platform to centrally manage routing decisions across multiple sites is a classic cost-savings initiative taken by many organizations. IT organizations have generally interconnected these sites with private leased circuits (PLCs) to ensure that wide-area network (WAN) failures are kept low. A less expensive approach is to transport CTI traffic (see Figure 4) over a frame relay (FR) or a private virtual private network (VPN). The tradeoff is lower costs for a less available WAN, which amounts to a potential of several more outage hours annually. The IT organization should calculate the cost of outages and ascertain whether eliminating the PLCs are worth it. Moreover, CTI traffic over the WAN must be given greater priority than other data traffic. CTI traffic controls and tracks events to and from the CTI server and other CIC technology (e.g., ACD, IVR, customer relationship management applications) and is on standby to bind together corporate resources. Any WAN packet loss will result in call handling delays, underused resources, and lost calls. The IT organization should ensure that CIC locations have resilient WAN backup facilities (e.g., ISDN) in case of primary WAN failure, and it should be monitored for congestion to proactively prevent failures.
  • Eliminate integration points: The CTI platform is successfully being used to eliminate point-to-point interfaces between the ACD and quality monitoring systems (QMS; e.g., from Nice and Witness), and between the ACD and workforce management systems (WFMs; e.g., Aspect, Blue Pumpkin, IEX). Eliminating these integration points will simplify upgrade complexity because fewer integration points exist, thus reducing the cost of new installations (see Figure 2). This emerging integration policy is expected to gain momentum in 2004/05 as more WFM and QMS manufacturers certify their products with leading CTI vendors.
  • Invest in high availability: The greater importance the CTI platform has, the more important it will be to have server redundancy, process mirroring, and continuous monitoring of server processes. Server platforms (e.g., from Microsoft and Unix) have standard high-availability configurations, and J2EE application servers enable process mirroring, though some proprietary CTI platforms also have this capability (e.g., Genesys, Avaya). Equally important is the ability to remotely monitor how the CTI servers are performing, enabling IT to respond proactively to alarms set off by processes exceeding operating thresholds.
Business Impact: Strategic customer interaction centers serve customers with the most appropriate corporate resources every time, enhancing customer intimacy.

Bottom Line: Computer telephony integration centralizes resource allocation policies across multiple points of interaction over many sites. This centralization creates a common reporting platform and reduces total cost of ownership.

The Yankee Group originally published this article on 8 August 2003.

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