By Laura Alexander
As technology has developed over the past decade, the Internet has become ubiquitous, and this is certainly true in the teleservices industry. Within the past five years, the use of instant messaging (IM) specifically has exploded. In fact, it was Web pioneer Marc Andreessen who predicted, circa 1997, that IM would be the next big development for the Internet.
Gary Pudles, CEO and president of AnswerNet Inc., explained how his company employs IM. When the company was first started, a personal America Online (AOL) account was used for communication between key employees and to provide corporate email addresses. Then, about a year and a half ago, AnswerNet started installing high-speed Internet connections to its sites. Now, half the AnswerNet offices, technical staff, and sales people use AOL’s AIM instant messenger application.
Just what exactly does AnswerNet find so useful about IM? “When carefully targeted,” said Knowledge Management’s consulting editor Lee Sherman, “IM can support some useful kinds of knowledge sharing.” IM allows communication in near real time and is a “presence technology,” identifying who is online at a given time.
According to Mark Chediak, writing in Red Herring magazine, IM applications “have gained popularity because they’re often quicker and easier to use than email or the phone.”
Pat Scott, owner of A Better Answer, Inc., explained how instant messaging is used in her company. The program that A Better Answer uses is part of the company’s Startel system, known as the “operator x” feature. Scott feels that the system is quite effective. When an agent makes an error during a call, the supervisor on duty can send an “operator x” message and let the rep know of the mistake and, if necessary, communicate with the agent about the issue without singling him or her out in front of everyone. “As long as we are logged into Startel,” Scott added, the agents “have access to us.”
Other companies also use IM for better in-house communication. In the end, time is saved because administrative employees don’t have to run back and forth between offices to ask questions, or try to catch someone on the phone. Alan Hamer, president of Exchange Network, Inc., explained, “The instant messaging feature is great for administrative purposes, it saves time trying to find the person you want to ask a question to (and is better than) getting their voice mail if they are on the other line.”
Also, if a company is spread across several offices, money can be saved on phone bills because IM simply costs as much as it does to connect to the Internet. This is especially beneficial for national businesses. Chuck Boyce of Appletree Technology Services uses AIM to communicate with off-site agents. “IM is a great way to get a quick message to the remote agent to handle routine items like breaks, account updates, and feedback on performance,” he said. “This works great because the agents are already online, and most only have a single phone line, so phoning them while they are logged in is not an option. We also looked at using Nextel two-way radios, but found that it would be cost prohibitive.” (The company limits the IM chat to the shift leader/supervisor and the remote agents, as they don’t want the reps chatting with each other.) Boyce also uses Amtelco’s software package to provide online customer service via Web chat, offering a communication option to Internet users viewing his clients’ websites who need assistance.
Just as with anything else, though, this system is not flawless. Users may abuse the system. Dennis O’Hara of ACC Solutions said, “We ended up blocking all IM from our agent positions; it was being abused big time. They would wait and finish the chat sentence before answering a call.” Obviously, this is not conducive to running an effective operation. In fact, 23 percent of businesses surveyed, actively block IM traffic.
AnswerNet managers realize this potential problem, but according to Pudles, “While I am sure that some of the people abuse the system, I believe that we not only share more because of it, but that it adds to our sense of community that we try to instill within the AnswerNet Network.”
Many people recognize that a future of integrated technology includes today’s youth. Their dependence on technology has brought about an eagerness and energy for using their ideas in the business place. “Young adults who are experienced technology users also bring a confidence and openness to new ideas that sometimes freshen stale thinking,” stated Esther Rush, product engineer at Intel.
Ray Goel, CTO at Brainlink International, witnessed his interns’ use of IM. It was by observing the efficiency and effectiveness of their collaboration that first turned him on to the technology. “Sometimes, something completely different is just what’s needed to solve old problems.” Sometimes certain age groups tend to look at problems the same way. By factoring in another generation, today’s teens and twenties can generate a different and new perspective. The result was that their 9 to 5 operation effectively became 24 x 7 “because as long as they were on IM, they were reachable.”
One of the things that promotes youthful interest is curiosity. “[Young people] tend to have little fear about deleting files, freeing up memory, even taking apart software and hardware to troubleshoot or just understand how it works.” By being willing to take chances to learn about how systems work, it shows the comfort level with computers, data, and technology. Many younger people are being hired in the work place because of their interest and knowledge from growing up in an age filled with the necessity of technology.
Will corporations continue to embrace IM? International Data Corp. predicts that corporate IM use will increase more than ten-fold over the next three years, from 18.4 million in 2001 to 229.2 million in 2005. Forrester Research says that 45 percent of businesses already use IM, while Osterman Research puts the level at a more modest, but still significant, 29 percent. Gartner adds that “free instant messaging services are being implemented rapidly by employees and will be found in 70 percent of enterprises by the end of 2003.”
Numerous kinds of instant messaging systems are available from several different companies. AOL’s AIM system boasted 100 million users in 2001. Yahoo has a system called Messenger and Microsoft has MSN Messenger. These are not specifically designed for corporate use. However, Yahoo recently launched an enhanced IM product specifically for business users. It is designed to let IT managers grant IM access to employees based on their roles. The product, Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition, uses Secure Sockets Layer encryption from Verisign. Licenses will cost from $30 to $40 per user, per year.
[Our title comes with respect to Descartes who said, “Cogito, ergo sum” which translates to: “I think, therefore I am.”]
IM Product and Vendor Overview
In the teleservices and telemessaging environment, IM can be used in one of three ways. The first, and most common, is internal IM used as part of the main call-processing platform. This allows real-time text messaging to occur between agents and supervisors who are logged into the system. In some cases, this can be extended beyond the system to allow for client to supervisor access. These IM implementations are proprietary and are not, at this time, interfaced to commercially available IM products. This offering is available from Alston Tascom, Amtelco, and Telescan. (See chart 1: Internal IM.)
The second implementation of IM is for Web to agent communication. In this scenario, an Internet user can click a “talk to me” button on a website and automatically initiate a text chat or IM session with an agent at a call center. Features generally include the ability to view what the Web surfer is seeing, to “push” or send Web pages to the user’s computer, and to send pre-written text. This is available from Alston Tascom and Amtelco. (See chart 2: Web Chat.)
The third option is an interface to commercial IM products, such as AIM, Instant Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger, among many other offerings. Sometimes, each interface is a separate program and in other instances a universal interface is developed. The universal interface allows an agent to use a single, consistent program to communicate with contacts who may be using many programs. At this time, none of the vendors contacted offered this level of integration and conductivity, although Alston Tascom is planning to in the future.
Here is an overview of how industry vendors have implemented IM into their products:
TheTascom Evolution chat feature is available for both internal agent and external client communications and allows chat sessions to be directed to a specific agent or to a queue with multiple agents. Although it cannot be interfaced with any of commercial IM products, this feature is in development.
Tascom Evolution chat allows agents to “co-browse” the Web with the Internet user, greatly increasing the effectiveness of the chat session. Also, agents can text chat with multiple simultaneous callers. This allows an agent who is proficient with IM to work with several Internet users concurrently.
Most notably, the Tascom Evolution text chat and page push can function independently of the Tascom Evolution system and be used as a stand-alone application by centers that do not use Tascom as their call processing platform.
Amtelco first added instant messaging capabilities to its product line in 1999 with the addition of Web-enabled op chat, callback, and e-push features to the Infinity telephone agent application.
Proprietary IM, between agent workstations, is available in Infinity v5.20 and is part of the company’s high-resolution Windows telephone agent feature, which allows more information to be displayed to agents, including areas for chat (IM) and a real-time bulletin board.
Amtelco’s Infinity IM feature can maintain a full-time communication link between all workstations in a system or between individual supervisors and agents as needed. As such, no messaging queuing or manual distribution is required. To minimize misuse, the feature is restricted to Infinity stations.
Access to the chat feature is controlled in the system configuration using the Infinity supervisor application. The supervisor application also is used to enable and disable chat logging, which can capture both instances of individual chat sessions and complete transcripts of the communication. Usage of the operator chat feature is routinely captured and reported as part of the Infinity system and traffic statistics.
For more information, contact Amtelco at 800-356-9148, firstname.lastname@example.org, or callcenter.amtelco.com.
Telescan Spectrum Messenger
Recently, Telescan introduced Spectrum Messenger, which aims to provide secure, encrypted communications across a local-area network and the Internet. Spectrum Messenger can be used with any telemessaging or answering service system.
Unlike email programs or simple chat programs, Messenger allows control of both the client side and server side. The primary purpose of Spectrum Messenger is to connect all users together, allowing them to send messages to each other based on their level of access. With Spectrum Messenger, a company can:
- Allow users to send messages to each other or to many users
- Restrict users from sending messages to certain recipients
- Be notified of events, using flexible, built-in reminder management
- Track message activity, with reporting capability
Users can be set to work in “member” mode where they can only exchange messages with supervisors, or “supervisor” mode, which allows them to exchange messages with anyone.
Complete, encrypted logs are automatically backed up for added protection.
[From Connection Magazine – March 2003]