Where Can the Information Superhighway Take You?

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineSome embrace it, others spurn it, but most would agree that the Internet is part of everyday life today – and it is here to stay. Of course, some people will never use the Internet, but then there are still those who do not have a telephone or own a television!

The Internet is a big part of Connections Magazine, too. In the past nine months, not a single letter to the editor has arrived via “snail mail”; all have arrived through cyberspace. We now only accept press releases and articles in digital form and though these could be put on a disk and mailed, all contributors elect to simply email their copy. Though the telephone takes the lead in communicating with advertisers, email is an essential secondary channel. Ad copy needs to be in digital form and even the layout and design proofs are transferred over the Internet. Last and not least, all articles and other relevant industry information are on our website which is updated every couple of days. Yes, for a traditional business – print media – the Internet is playing an increasingly bigger and profoundly more critical role.

In the same manner, the Internet is – or should be – transforming your business. Are you a leader, a follower, or a naysayer? In what ways can you use the Internet to achieve greater success? First, you can use the Internet to keep closer to and better serve your clients. Second, you can supply innovation and services that your competitors are not – or at least have the ability to match competitive offerings. Third, you can reduce costs and overhead, thereby increasing profitability. And fourth, you can open up new lines of business. Ken Coleman of TimeTrade Systems sums it up succinctly, “The Internet makes things possible that were never possible before.”

Jim Esser, Product Manager at Amtelco, helps put the importance of being Internet-ready into perspective, “Anyone who has asked questions or done business on the Internet recognizes that…eBusinesses aren’t equipped to provide their eProspects and eCustomers with the information and responsiveness that they need. It is not at all uncommon to wait days or perhaps never even get answers to questions asked on a eBusiness website.” This is the essence of opportunity that is presented to the teleservices industry. It is up to us to make the most of this occasion.

Many vendors in the teleservices industry share this perspective and aggressively work to offer innovative and groundbreaking services, features, and options capitalizing on the acceptance, popularity, and ubiquity of the Internet. These initiatives fall into five areas: agent tools, message dissemination, client control, remote access, and hosted services. Additionally, a few innovations defy categorization. Also, do not overlook the importance of having your own website as a critical part of your Internet initiative.

Agent Tools

Agent tools are services and capabilities afforded by the Internet to facilitate agent productivity, enhance quality, or increase efficacy.

Web Pop: A common implementation is the venerable screen pop to a website. For this application, a client’s URL (Web address) is preprogrammed into their account. With the touch of a key or two, the agent can access the site and enter call data or access client information. Although this can occur from a separate PC browser, it is often accomplished from within the call-processing application. Amtelco’s ePop is a prime example.

AccuCall’s Weblink provides a Web pop when a call is answered. The Web page can be viewed in either a window or full page on the account screen. One Weblink per account page means that up to 999 different Web pages per account can be accessed. Weblink also provides for the ability to access third party Web chat and appointment scheduling packages. Alston Tascom, AccuCall (CadCom), Startel, and other platforms can also pop Web pages.

In addition to accessing a client’s website, other valuable resources can be queried. These include tracking a caller’s shipping status from the delivery company’s website, accessing any one of the useful phone number lookup or reverse lookup site, and consulting a area code directory.

Szeto Technologies’, Call Linx platform can access a centralized database that is shared between the call center and its client so that the client can access the same database, through Internet, as is used by the call center’s agents. One common application is appointment scheduling. In fact, any database accessible on the Internet can be used by any platform that provides Web pop capability.

Instant Messaging: Instant messaging (IM) is another business tool of growing popularity. It can be used for intra-company communications for short messages or to broadcast urgent communiqués and even for interaction with key clients. At this time, the integration of IM into the call center is a homegrown implementation; no vendors surveyed offered it as part of their software package – yet.

Web Channels: Other services focus on alternate communication channels, such as integrated text chat, callback, and talk-to-me services. Each of the three provides ancillary means of communication, all from a client’s website. Coupled with this is the ability to “push” Web pages to the caller/surfer.

Amtelco’s eCallBack feature lets clients place an icon on their websites that allows a person who is browsing the site, and has more questions, to enter a telephone number and preferred time to receive a call (either right away or at a later time). The Infinity system receives this request and then schedules that call and at the appropriate time delivers the request to an agent who can call the inquirer. Coupled with the ePush option from Amtelco’s Infinity, agents can access the list of Web pages that can be ‘pushed’ from a pre-programmed inventory of pages for the client. In similar fashion, the Tascom and Startel system can also handle Web callback.

For text chat, pre-written responses to common questions can be quickly pasted into the text window, allowing for ultra-fast response times. Amtelco’s eChat also allows clients to place icons on the Web page, which, when clicked on, opens a two-way, interactive text chat session with an Infinity agent. (The Infinity system distributes the text chat sessions to agents using its regular call distribution rules.)  A text chat can be used to give additional information to a person on the client’s website.

AccuCall’s Weblink provides for the ability to access third party Web chat and appointment scheduling websites. Whereas Alston Tascom provides for text chat capability within the Tascom system, allowing agents to engage in free-flow text chats and to add pre-programmed text responses for each client account. Agents can engage in multiple text chat sessions simultaneously if desired.

Email: Lastly is “email answering service.” The vision of email answering service is to be able to accomplish everything with an email message that can currently be done with a phone call: capture data, give out information, covert it into another form (an alpha-page, fax, or voice mail message), or redirect it to another destination.

Amtelco does this using eResponse. It is an Infinity feature that can ‘poll’ a client’s email server for messages, download them into Infinity, and then distribute them to agents as specified by call distribution. The agent can answer the email, either manually or with pre-written responses, or forward the email to another person. Also, eResponse can be used to place a client’s email into an Infinity message ticket to be dispatched as a fax or alpha page or to be recorded into voice mail.

For text chat, call-back, talk-to-me, and email answering service, though each can be independently implemented, it is critical for them to be fully integrated into a holistic message queue that manages all messages, regardless of source or form, in a unified and equitable call distribution.

Message Dissemination

Email: The Internet provides several alternate message dissemination options. Email is, of course, the premier means, quickly rising to “must have” status for the serious teleservice provider in order for them to remain competitive and viable. Most current teleservice platforms have the means to send messages and orders to clients via email, including Amtelco’s Infinity, CadCom’s AccuCall, Alston Tascom, and Szeto Technologies’ Call Linx. AccuCall messages can also be exported in ASCII, comma delimited, and Excel formats.

In other implementations, an external message server can be utilized. The venerable FMDS system from Professional Teledata is one such system. Using a standard message communication protocol, FMDS allows most systems to provide the capability to email (as well as fax) messages to clients. The Axon 8000 is one such system. Additionally, the Axon/FMDS interface is unique in that once a fax or email message is dispatched and accepted, the FMDS reports back to the Axon and the message is marked as delivered. This allows call center agents to have up-to-date and accurate status information about message transmissions.

An exciting option, prompted by many of the leading unified messaging vendors, is the ability to convert a voice mail message or other audio recordings into a wave file, sending it over the Internet to an email address. The voice recording can then be listened to, replayed, responded to, copied, or deleted, just like any other email message. The email interface then becomes a cohesive message management machine.

Amtelco’s Infinity provides resources that allow a client’s text messages to be sent to an email address, either directly from the Infinity system itself or from the Infinity UltraComm message server. The eVoicelink feature expands upon that by automatically sending voice mail files to clients as wave file attachments to their email.

Most current generation (that is, digital) voice loggers allow recorded phone calls to be sent as a data file to an email address. Record Play/Tek (RPT) is one such vendor. For obvious security and control issues, the files cannot be automatically delivered to an email address. Someone at the call center must first review the message and, since RPT records audio continuously, mark the start and ends of the call. RPT’s Michael Stoll has explored the idea of remote access to their voice logger, but in user group discussions and repeated customer interviews the response has been overwhelmingly to not provide for remote access. The reason is consistent: security issues simply loom too large and problematic.

Wireless: Wireless PDAs and WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) telephones free business people from their desktops and allow them to do business anytime, anywhere. Amtelco’s Infinity supports that by allowing message delivery and access to other Infinity client information. Similarly, wireless connectivity allows users the ability to collaborate with the Tascom system database from most popular wireless devices. Startel also offers a PDA wireless interface that allows messages, on-call schedules, and directories to be accessed remotely.

Unified Messaging: Unified messaging platforms allow email, voicemail, and faxes to be retrieved from a single inbox, accessible from any phone or Internet connected PC anywhere in the world. Vendors, including Amtelco, Alston Tascom, CadCom, Hark, and Telescan offer aspects of unified messaging, typically in conjunction with messaging platforms.

Web Site: Messages and orders can also be posted on a secure, password-controlled website. Comparable to Web-based email portals, such as Yahoo and Juno, messages and orders can be sorted, stored, forwarded, deleted, organized, and saved. Szeto Technologies’ Call Linx system can provide a Web page where clients can pick up their messages from the Internet, as can Amtelco Infinity, and Alston Tascom.

Web Portal – The Client Control Interface

Taking the concept of the Web-based message portal to the next logical step is to allow clients to interact with your staff by changing the programming, parameters, and information within their accounts. Szeto Technologies’, Call Linx can provide clients access to the call statistics and various call traffic information via the Internet connection through a website.

Alston Tascom has developed the Tascom client Web interface. In addition to viewing messages, clients can create, update, and dispatch information (messages, on-call schedules, reaching information, and even database entries), listen to voice mail messages, and run pre-defined custom client reports. Clients can access their accounts and message information via a standard Web browser or wireless Web via a handheld device. Each client can create multiple users with unique log on, password, and varying degrees of access to features and capabilities via the Web. Clients can also enter data or update information about their account into the Tascom server via the Web. Access to reports over the Internet allows clients to view, filter, sort, print, and deliver specified system and account-specific reports via alpha pager, fax, email, and HTML, as well as to upload and download database files. Also, Tascom Evolution automatically creates HTML versions of all message forms and can provide immediate access to virtually all system data via the Internet.

In the same way, the Infinity client Web desktop offers a secure, password protected Internet website that serves as a central point where a call center client can access the resources of the Infinity system via the Internet. From their desktop, clients can change their Infinity status, view messages, change their system automated on-call information, view the roster (status) of other employees in their organization, and even create messages that will be sent to other employees using Infinity’s message distribution.

Startel’s Web Text Retrieval feature similarly allows the end user the ability to manage their messages using an Internet portal.

Remote Access

Many teleservice platforms, such as the Amtelco Infinity, allow remote agent access via an Internet connection. When this is available and configured, any authorized agent can access the central system any place they have Internet access. This allows for managers and supervisors to view information, research problems, update and program client profiles, monitor system performance, and perform basic troubleshooting.

Some systems allow audio access as well over the Internet using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). In these implementations, full agent functionality is provided, including the opportunity to take calls and monitor agent audio in real time. There are some quality issues with VoIP and, although quality is steadily improving as technology marches forward, an alternative is to provide for the audio connection on a dialup basis using a regular phone line.

Using standard Internet IP telephony gateways and Axon 8200R remote operator terminals, Axon 8000 systems can establish complete remote operation from virtually any location. System operation is completely transparent and toll-quality voice communication is achieved over standard DSL connections, avoiding long distance telephone charges.

Remote agents can also connect to the Tascom SQL digital system using a virtual private network (VPN) and have calls routed via standard telephone lines.

AccuCall remote agents can connect through cable modem or DSL lines to make the data connection; the audio path is established through a T-1 or PRI circuit. Future developments will enhance this capability with the addition of VoIP to allow the audio to be routed over the Internet as well.

Hosted and ASP Services

Some vendors are beginning to provide hosted services for their customers. These fall into two classes of purposes. The first is a temporary, “try-it-out,” small scales basis. The idea being that before a significant investment is made in hardware or software, a customer can use the hosted services from their vendor to serve their initial clients. As they add more and more clients, a critical mass can be reached where the revenue from this new niche is sufficient to justify and pay for the purchase of the system or platform. Once the equipment is installed, clients are then migrated off the hosted platform on to the newly acquired, locally installed system, allowing for greater margins and increased control.

The other scenario of hosted services is where the hosting is continued indefinitely. This may be a result of the business model established by the vendor, or more likely, because of the preference or circumstances of the customer. In this situation, the vendor in essence becomes an ASP (application service provider) for their customer. Although the customer will pay an ongoing fee for as long as they use the service, the vendor maintains the equipment, handles the software upgrades, and replaces hardware when needed. This is a great alternative for a teleservice company that does not have a great demand for the service in question, has limited internal technical expertise, or wishes to focus investment dollars in other areas. Ken Coleman of TimeTrade Systems concurs, stating “the Web makes it easy for smaller teleservice companies to gain access to world-class software without purchasing, installing, and maintaining the software themselves.”

Amtelco offers three hosted services, which can be used either as a short-term, incremental step or as an ongoing solution. Their Infinity, eCreator, and IVR services are generally thought of as being located on premise, at the serving call center. However, all three of those services can also be provided by Amtelco’s own servers located in Wisconsin and accessed over the Internet by call centers located anywhere.

Similarly, Alston Tascom offers hosted services for two of their popular offerings. One is Web-based appointment setting, on-call scheduling, and verification services. The second offering is interactive voice services, which features Web, email, and touchtone interfaces.

TimeTrade Systems saw that appointment and reservations scheduling was ripe for transformation using Internet technology. Before the Internet, it was inherently difficult for a call center to book appointments for a client. If the outsourcer takes an appointment, how is the schedule updated and synchronized with the client to avoid double booking and confusion? TimeTrade solved that problem with Web-based software that allows call centers to view the available resources and timeslots of a service business and confirm an appointment for the caller in real-time. The schedule information is stored centrally, where it is accessible by all parties, using the Internet, and instantly updated whenever an appointment is made. Businesses can book appointments in a number of ways – at their front desk, by call forwarding to a call center, or by enabling self-service scheduling for their end customers over the Internet. TimeTrade hosts its software as an ASP (Application Services Provider) and charges a monthly fee for software use and technical support. Timeskeeper, Inc. also offers an appointment setting solution, as does Telescan, working in conjunction with Adjuvant Technologies of St. Cloud, Minnesota

Other Significant Developments

Account Networking: Amtelco’s enhanced order-entry call scripting product, eCreator, can be run entirely within a call center’s own network facilities but is also a Web-capable application that can be deployed over the Internet allowing multiple call centers to collaborate to handle accounts that are too big for any one of them to manage on their own. Using Web resources, eCreator is also able access a client’s internal ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) compliant databases. This paves the way to provide many complex and intricate services to clients, which have been previously not feasible.

Email Bills: Sending bills by email is not a new development, but one advanced several years ago by Professional Teledata in their TBS billing platform. With the growing use of email, sending invoices in the manner has more accepted and with higher participation rates. Bill delivery outsourcer TASbill.com has found that clients are more likely to view an email bill immediately and pay it sooner. In fact, experience has shown them that those who pay online pay within two or three days rather than two or three weeks when the invoice and payment are handled through the regular mail. Chris Twigg, shared this example: “If a teleservice firm invoices $100,000 each month and sends half of its clients an email bill, it could expect to bring forward around $25,000 in receivables by about two weeks.” Sending bills by email has been common for medical, banking, and insurance companies for some time; these companies report that a major side benefit is sales of new services to existing customers – much easier than new sales to new customers. Also, the bill can become a sales or customer service tool as Internet links can be embedded into the electronic invoice.

Credit Card Processing: QOS Merchant Solutions offers a number of Internet-based electronic payment solutions for merchants of all kinds. The first is their Virtual Terminal products that allow for processing credit card transactions over the Web. They also provide WebLinks so you can add credit card processing to your website. WebLinks can also be used by all centers can accept checks by phone for their clients. Lastly, QOS Merchant Solutions allows customers to use Web-based reporting services for electronic payment transactions.

Website

Not to be overlooked in the discussion of the critical relevance of the Internet to teleservice companies is essential prerequisite of having a website. At the most basic level, a website is an on-line sales and marketing tool. More significantly, it is rapidly becoming a necessary indicator of business viability and significance. Businesses without websites are increasingly being viewed as out-of-date and outmoded.

Web designers and developers are almost as ubiquitous as the Internet itself. Each local market likely has a plethora of self-proclaimed Web designers, offering services of varying quality and prices. Although it may make sense to select a local firm to design your website, there is also considerable justification to select an industry specialist. Axon Communications operates ConnixUP Web Services, a separate operating department of Axon. ConnixUP offers a convenient one-stop location where you can confidently establish a website solution for your business that includes domain name selection and registration, website design, website hosting, search engine registration, and website management.

Connections Magazine thanks the following vendors for providing information used in this article: Alston Tascom, Amtelco, Axon, CadCom, Record Play/Tec, Szeto, and TimeTrade.

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection MagazineJuly/Aug 2002]

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