Tag Archives: Speech Technology Articles

Voice Quality Enhancement: Resolving VoIP Audio Quality for Contact Centers

By Ray Adensamer

Every day, contact centers connect with customers to deliver services across the globe. Advancements in telecommunication capabilities have allowed contact center operators to improve quality of service and expand their communication methods. Today, voice over internet protocol (VoIP) is fueling a new round of innovation in contact center features and capabilities.

VoIP offers a number of benefits for contact centers. As opposed to traditional circuit-switched communications, next-generation VoIP contact centers allow providers to deliver services across multiple modes of communication: voice, fax, email, instant messaging, Web, images, and video. Providers can take advantage of the open computing architecture to realize reduced costs and improved flexibility. VoIP long-distance backhauls are more cost-effective, making remote contact centers more financially viable. Finally, the standards-based interface delivers a robust ecosystem of best-in-class solutions.

However, there are common audio quality problems associated with VoIP telecommunication services in IP packet networks, including noise, packet loss, and echo. These problems pose significant challenges for adopters and diminish providers’ confidence in the conversion from circuit-switch to VoIP networks. To approach these service barriers, voice quality enhancement (VQE) software is required.

Tackling the Challenges of VoIP Voice Quality: Recent software advancements are allowing contact center providers to achieve the same audio quality on VoIP networks as on traditional circuit-switched networks. VQE software incorporates a variety of functions designed to tackle the audio challenges inherent in VoIP networks. One highly effective approach for addressing these challenges is to integrate VQE capabilities into an IP media server. An IP media server is a common, shared IP media processing resource used for a broad range of IP applications. Because an IP media server is a centrally deployed resource in the core of the network and is involved in real-time IP packet processing, it is the ideal technology and network location for addressing common sources of poor audio quality. Using this integrated approach creates a single network element that performs both IP-packet processing and voice quality enhancement. As a software solution, VQE does not require an additional network element; this reduces both capital and operational expenditures, providing benefits at one-fifth the cost of comparable hardware solutions.

Audio Noise: The freedom granted by mobile phones and the Internet means that people are now making calls from just about everywhere. Calls are no longer made from quiet offices, and background noise – from barking dogs to blaring traffic – drastically lessens call quality. Lower-quality devices such as cheap earpieces can further exacerbate the matter.

VQE software can address and solve the primary audio quality challenges facing today’s contact centers. For excessive noise, VQE offers three approaches:

  • Noise Gating: This is a simple yet effective mechanism that reduces background noise. When no speech is detected, the signal is attenuated to prevent any unnecessary noise from being inserted. Providers can configure how much they want to decrease amplification to avoid making the line unnaturally quiet.
  • Noisy Line Detection: Noisy line detection actively looks for and distinguishes four noise conditions: background noise, impulsive noise, continuous signal noise, and low signal-to-noise ratio. These conditions are reported to the application server, at which point the moderator can then choose to mute the noisy line or leave it unchanged.
  • Noise Reduction: This service goes a step beyond noise gating, using digital processing techniques to remove unwanted noise while leaving the important speech signal intact. Because this process requires a great deal of processing power, noisy lines are dynamically identified and ranked before noise reduction is selectively applied.

Packet Loss: While the Internet is incredible on many levels, it isn’t perfect. IP protocols do not guarantee packet delivery; they can get lost or delayed when the networks get busy or congested. To solve the problem of lost packets, VQE software includes packet loss concealment. When packets are lost or unacceptably delayed in the IP network, the software replaces them with predictions from previously received audio. Unlike voice repair technology, which would have difficulty recovering from extreme packet loss in abnormal conditions, this process is designed to perform intelligent restoration of lost or delayed packets for a majority of congested network scenarios. By inserting estimates based on previously received packets, the software creates a speech rendering that closely resembles the original and reduces the occurrences of choppy audio.

Acoustic Echo: Similar to yelling in a cave, improper echo isolation can result in a caller hearing a delayed echo of their own voice. This happens when a speaker’s voice is transmitted back by the receiver’s microphone. Because the echo is often heard by all but the guilty party, it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause.

Acoustic echo cancellation (AEC) is an integral function of VQE software. AEC detects and removes the sender’s transmission from the recipient’s path while addressing the inherent variable packet delay. AEC on a VoIP network is particularly challenging because of the variable packet delay. Because of this, VQE algorithms used to reduce the echo are more computer-intensive than equivalent echo cancellation solutions for circuit-switched networks. However, proper VQE software can detect and eliminate the echo without affecting call quality or drawing attention to the customer.

Voice Quality Metrics: Having the ability to remove audio quality impairments is one thing; having an objective way to measure quality and monitor performance is even better. Voice quality metrics give contact center providers a standard way to measure audio quality and uphold service level agreements (SLAs). Part of the VQE software, the metrics capture statistics for three categories: 1) packets, monitoring packet throughput, loss, and delay; 2) audio, measuring speech and noise power levels; and 3) AEC, measuring echo delay and cancellation performance. By having these statistics available, service providers can continuously monitor audio quality performance, verify performance expectations, and identify any potential issues in the network.

Summary: Advancements in VQE software are enabling contact center services to overcome the audio challenges of VoIP networks. Software that provides noise gating, packet loss concealment, and AEC capabilities is enabling providers to offer the same audio quality as traditional circuit-switch networks, while also offering metrics to uphold SLAs and continuously monitor performance. Integrating VQE capabilities in an IP media server delivers an innovative and cost-effective approach for addressing the audio quality challenges of VoIP. By incorporating these technologies into their contact center networks, providers are able to realize the economic and technical benefits of VoIP networks while delivering the highest quality service to their customers.

Ray Adensamer is with Radisys, a provider of hardware and software for IP-based networks.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2011]

Tackling the Top Ten Contact Center Challenges with Speech Analytics



By Brian Severson

Bridging the gap between information stored in contact center interactions, the actionable intelligence that reduces personnel costs, and the time needed to take action can only be cost-effectively accomplished through the automation of speech analytics. Without it, contact centers can only perform these tasks manually or not at all. Deploying an effective speech analytics solution helps to resolve the top ten most critical challenges facing formal and enterprise contact centers.

Mining for Gold in a Quarry of Data: Call recording and screen or text capture technologies have created a virtual gold mine of data from interactions and transactions. All too often, this precious commodity remains buried, requiring a laborious and often manual effort to extract useful nuggets of intelligence. While call recording and quality assurance technology can help direct data into compartmentalized buckets, there is still a big gap between simply having information and possessing actionable knowledge.

Most contact centers employ dedicated personnel to listen to recorded calls and manually note information that helps mitigate one or more of the ten critical contact center challenges. Most contact centers only conduct a partial sampling, leaving a valuable store of data untouched.

Speech analytics offers the flexibility to define exactly what users are looking for within recorded calls and data. Words, phrases, and the logical combinations of words, phrases (and even the time between words and phrases) all indicate what customers are thinking, what they want and need, and how they perceive their experience. Only analytics can automate the process of mining data for that valuable information.

Automation is not the only advantage of speech analytics. Speed is an additional benefit with a significant improvement in productivity. Speech analytics software can generally process thousands of hours of recorded calls in a matter of minutes.

Not only can contact centers and enterprises save costs associated with overhead and productivity, they are empowered to analyze every call and every piece of data to deliver actionable intelligence that will help them effectively manage critical challenges. More advanced speech analytics products also offer the following:

  • Dashboards and reports that reduce the time needed to analyze and take action
  • Intelligent distribution of actionable knowledge that automatically routes agent evaluations and analysis to internal organizations (an agent’s behavioral scores submitted to HR, skills reports forwarded to training managers, script adherence issues routed to compliance managers, etc.)

Tackling the Critical Top Ten with Speech Analytics

  1. Quality Monitoring and Assurance: Words and phrases deemed critical for quality assurance can be defined and automatically searched by speech analytics software faster and more accurately than by human effort alone. This empowers contact centers to drive up quality by analyzing all of their recorded calls and using considerably fewer personnel in less time and at a lower cost.
  2. Agent Training: Training is a costly and time-consuming effort, especially in an environment driven by complex customer transactions and a high turnover. Agents must correctly respond to questions or take advantage of up-sell and cross-sell opportunities and initiate required actions or responses. Speech analytics software can economically produce clear insight related to an agent’s performance during every transaction. Such insight accurately identifies the types of training required for improvement.
  3. Compliance and Liability Management: Local, state, or federal regulations, combined with business requirements, mandate that call centers satisfy compliance at many levels. Compliance can be a make-or-break concern in some business models. Traditional ways of monitoring calls to assure compliance or detect noncompliance are time-consuming and costly. Only speech analytics provides the speed and automation needed for compliance management.
  4. Transaction Validation: A critical stage of each customer interaction is validation of the agreed-upon transaction. Often, such transactions must be verified independently of the agent in order to comply with certain requirements. Validation requires listening to recorded calls to ensure that the data recorded matches the conversation and that the agent did not deviate from any requirements in closing the transaction. Speech analytics is utilized to rapidly verify the occurrence or nonoccurrence of validation requirements.
  5. Customer Satisfaction: Customer satisfaction is achieved through factors such as first call resolution, short call duration, and agents that are professional and well-informed. Continuous monitoring and discovery of what happens during interactions provides insight into the customer experience. Speech analytics automation and near real-time reporting provides both a mechanism for gathering feedback from customers and a basis for training that will affect positive change.

For example, survey scripts can be designed to prompt agents to ask specific questions that solicit feedback from customers about their level of satisfaction. This is referred to as “verbal bookmarking” in a recording. Bookmarks make it easy to search for keywords/phrases intentionally triggered by agents. This is especially helpful in circumstances where compliance is critical. These recordings can be categorized by speech analytics and set aside for further review by quality assurance teams.

  1. Cost Reduction: Cost reduction, especially in the current economy, is a major challenge for any contact center. Cost reduction efforts often conflict with other goals that require investment in IT and personnel. Speech analytics enables contact centers to achieve cost reductions without sacrificing initiatives, such as customer satisfaction. It provides faster, more accurate analysis of recorded calls and significantly reduces the expense of personnel required for compliance, discovery, and quality management.
  2. Agent Retention: Job satisfaction is a major driver in retaining agents. In addition to the work environment and compensation, an agent’s job satisfaction is also driven by their performance satisfaction. How agents feel about their own performance, how they positively affect the business, and how often they are recognized by management contributes to their state of mind at work. Rapid analysis of all recorded calls for all agents and the extraction of usable information are major enablers for contact center managers to facilitate agent satisfaction.
  3. Transition to Profit Center: Transitioning to a profit center has long been a struggle for in-house contact centers that offer customer service or technical support. Initiatives usually begin with minimizing costs and then justifying the already minimized budget in light of the quality that results. While shareholders and investors pressure executives to focus on revenue generation and the bottom line, the question becomes, “How do we get there from here?” With speech analytics such as the launching pad, contact center managers are free to explore, plan, and implement activities that will turn their cost center into a profit center.
  4. Business Intelligence and Discovery: Contact centers are a direct conduit to an enterprise’s market and customers. Every interaction can offer a great deal of business intelligence and insight. Understanding customers’ degree of satisfaction, their business drivers and needs, and interactions with competitors can benefit the decision-making process for corporate marketing, sales, and strategic management. However, a tool such as speech analytics is required to cost-effectively transform enormous amounts of data into categorized intelligence in order to benefit the enterprise. With speech analytics, enterprises can implement a variety of initiatives to capture specific intelligence in a timely manner.
  5. Enterprise-Wide Delivery of Benefits: Traditionally, in-house contact centers have not been able to demonstrate how their work benefits the rest of their organization. This may seem ironic considering the fact that contact centers are continuously interacting directly with customers on a daily basis. Customer interactions contain information that can be valuable to a company’s sales, marketing, and business strategies. Speech analytics delivers valuable intelligence to all parts of an enterprise without additional cost.

How-to Guidelines: Although speech analytics has numerous advantages, special care has to be taken in vendor selection, effective deployment, and use of the solution so it can deliver all benefits discussed in this article. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Identify specific areas among your top ten call center challenges that can deliver the most benefit. In-house call centers might include enterprise-wide requirements, such as business intelligence, that contribute to other departments, which will better justify the initiative.
  • Define and measure the current status versus expected improvements after implementing speech analytics.
  • Select a vendor that can implement the following steps:
  • Study the center’s needs and environment to document the ROI requirements
  • Implement a free trial of the solution to analyze actual data and demonstrate real results
  • Develop a customized, hands-on program to train personnel in various departments to ensure adoption and full utilization
  • Explore procurement options such as purchase, managed services, or software-as-a-service to accommodate existing infrastructure, IT resources, and budget

Complexity, business disruption, and expense are often the first concerns that come to mind when considering the adoption of a new technology. Speech analytics, however, simply adds a layer above call recording and data capture, thus minimizing operational risk. Realizing benefits takes weeks, not months. Payback addresses common challenges facing contact centers. If the valuable information hidden within recorded calls remains untapped, contact centers will overlook a gold mine of opportunity to improve all aspects of their contact center business, not the least of which is their bottom line.

Brian Severson is a senior sales engineer at OnviSource, Inc. He may be reached at info@onvisource.com or 877-903-0322.

[From Connection Magazine June 2011]

IVR Optimization: A Small Investment for a Great Payback

By Donna Fluss

Voice self-service solutions are considered mission-critical by business managers in most North America-based contact centers with more than 150 agents, and they are growing in importance in India, Western Europe, and other parts of the world. These solutions have a clear, simple, and highly profitable value proposition: When interactive voice response (IVR) applications are well designed, implemented, and maintained, they automate anywhere from 20 percent to more than 90 percent of incoming calls. Many enterprises would face a major financial hit if they had to employ agents to handle the calls that are automated by their IVRs.

Despite these facts, IVRs are often neglected and under-resourced. Too many companies have IVRs that were implemented years ago and are enhanced only when something breaks or there is a major change in business requirements. Additionally, IVRs are often relegated to the nonessential category by CIOs, who were happy to “outsource” them long before hosting became acceptable for other mission-critical contact center solutions.

Dichotomy – IVR Dependability Results in Its Downfall: While this is a seeming contradiction, the success and dependability of many IVR solutions has caused them to be treated as “second-class citizens.” IT groups take them for granted because they generally do not require a great deal of support to keep them in production. However, while call processing continues without interruption, the vast majority of IVRs in North America are not performing at optimal levels, according to recent DMG Consulting research. It estimates that more than 80 percent of IVR users around the world would be able to improve their automation rates and dramatically increase customer satisfaction if they invested in routine optimization of their IVR solutions. Another way to look at it is this: If an IVR was installed more than three years ago and has not had an overhaul of its script or voice user interface (VUI) since then, it’s time for a full “health checkup.”

Scenario – IVR at Work: The following example proves the point. A financial service organization receives a million calls per week. This organization has an IVR that automates 60 percent of their calls, or about 600,000 weekly. Their non-fully loaded (variable) cost per agent-handled call is $5.50. If they automated as little as 2 percent of the remaining 400,000 calls per week, they would displace an additional 8,000 calls from agents. This would save them $44,000 per week, or $2,288,000 per year. At the same time, the quality of their service would increase and complaints would decrease.

Of course, there are additional factors to consider. By automating some of the easier calls, agent’s average handle time is likely to increase for the remaining calls by an average of two to three seconds. Assuming a 200-second average handle time, this will increase the cost per call by approximately 1 percent, although this gain could easily be offset by a corresponding reduction in average handle time due to a decrease in customer complaints about the IVR. (Note that during wrap-up, agents generally record the reason callers need help, so the volume of complaints about IVR applications may be underappreciated.)

Additionally, there is also the cost of the optimization project to consider, which runs from approximately $50K to $150K, depending upon the resources required. The payback period from an IVR optimization, with a cost of $150K for the project and a 1 percent increase in the cost per call, was less than one month. (It saved the organization almost $1.9 million during the first year.)

What Are Organizations Holding Back? Given these returns, one would expect many organizations to jump at the opportunity to enhance their IVRs. There are three primary reasons why end-user organizations are not making the investment, all of which are based on fear:

1. Vendors scare away prospects by pushing them to make major investments in expensive speech recognition-based platforms.

2. Enterprises do not have the appropriate resources available in-house and are trying to avoid using “expensive” professional services for an “uncertain” return.

3. End users do not see a compelling enough reason to take a chance on disrupting what they already consider to be a highly effective solution.

Separating Fact from Fiction

Myth 1: End users with touch-tone or non-VXML-based speech recognition applications must upgrade to a new platform in order to realize benefits from an IVR optimization.

Fact: No, they do not need to upgrade to a new platform. In some situations, upgrading to a new IVR platform could be a good idea, but if the application works, it is not a necessity. As long as there is a way to evaluate the performance of the IVR application by putting in trackers that identify where and why customers drop out and/or request an agent, the current environment can be optimized without replacing the underlying system. Premise-based IVR vendors make most of their money from selling new and upgraded solutions and charging maintenance fees, so this is what they push. Moving from a touch-tone IVR application to a VXML-based speech platform may have substantial long-term benefits, but it often requires a hefty up-front investment that could cost more than $250k, particularly if speech-recognition application-development fees are included.

While many organizations see the benefits of a self-service platform refresh that may have a payback in one to two years, it is often very hard to justify when the current solution still works, the CIO has a tight budget, and there are other critical investment priorities. In other words, the vendors often price themselves out of a job; instead of helping organizations undertake an optimization initiative, they scare off prospects by pushing an expensive “rip and replace” solution. This is one of the major reasons why sales of premise-based IVR solutions have fallen during each of the last few years and why this downward trend is expected to continue for the near future. (The opportunity has been seized upon by more flexible hosted/managed service IVR providers.)

Myth 2: End users have little to gain and a great deal to lose from trying to improve an IVR application that delivers an acceptable automation rate.

Fact: As long as experts are used to implement the improvements, the benefits should be significant, relatively rapid, and mostly risk-free. An IVR optimization exercise includes two major components: figuring out what does not work well in the current application (i.e., where people get confused or stuck and drop out); and identifying agent-related tasks that can be automated. The first step is to identify and document the problematic activities and new automation opportunities. The second phase, which has some risk, involves rewriting the application to take advantage of these opportunities.

The Bottom Line: IVR is not a new or sexy application. It’s perceived as a dependable core contact center application that runs without requiring a lot of attention. Most contact center leaders would prefer to invest in new solutions, like speech analytics, rather than in their old and dependable IVRs. The “catch” is that a small investment in IVR might result in major cost savings. Any organization that has not optimized their IVR application in the past three years should undertake an IVR assessment to identify ways to improve their existing system and estimate the potential long-term benefits of an optimization initiative. If IVR optimization would be highly beneficial, find a vendor that can help deliver savings on an ongoing basis. IVR optimization should not be a one-time exercise. Leading IVR users continuously strive to enhance the performance of their solutions; it’s part of their annual budget and their corporate culture. If the necessary resources are not available in-house, find a hosted/managed service IVR provider that can help enhance the operating environment with little up-front investment and risk. The world of IVR has changed dramatically in the last five years, as have many business requirements.

Donna Fluss is the founder and president of DMG Consulting LLC, a provider of contact center and analytics research, market analysis, and consulting. She is the author of industry reports on contact center hosting, IVR, speech analytics, performance management, workforce management, surveying and analytics, and quality management/liability recording. Contact Donna at donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com.

[From Connection Magazine October 2010]

A Multimillion-Dollar Trap: Recording Customer Service Calls

By Perrie Weiner, Edward Totino, Joshua Briones, Ana Tagvoryan

A company’s success hinges on the quality and efficiency of its customer service. For businesses that provide service to customers by telephone, ensuring quality customer service often depends upon the ability to evaluate calls with customers – live through call monitoring or after the fact by listening to recorded calls. However, while call monitoring and recording aids in agent training, quality assurance, and quality control, these methods can expose a company to legal liability costing hundreds of millions of dollars if call monitoring is not implemented in accordance with local law.

In the United States, federal and state regulations govern the monitoring and recording of telephone conversations. Many of these laws are found in the penal statutes that forbid eavesdropping, wiretapping, and monitoring communications. While these laws may originally have been aimed at nefarious activities, like secretly tapping another person’s telephone line, amendments have expanded these laws to cover innocent activity such as a company monitoring its telephone calls for quality assurance. Indeed, although the federal law makes one party’s consent to the recording of a telephone conversation a defense to a claim of unlawful recording or monitoring, many state laws require all parties to the conversation to have consented to the recording or monitoring, or at least be notified that the call may be monitored or recorded. To avoid liability for monitoring or recording, a business handling customer calls to and from different states in the United States should implement procedures to ensure compliance with every state’s monitoring and recording regulations. Only such universal procedures will provide a bulletproof defense to any claim of unlawful monitoring or recording.

Potential Risks for Monitoring or Recording without Consent: Many state laws provide for criminal sanctions against companies that monitor or record telephone calls without notice, as well as give a private right of action in civil courts against such companies to the person whose “privacy” rights are violated. Moreover, many of the states that allow for civil actions expressly provide for the recovery of fixed statutory damages on a per call basis, even in the absence of any actual damages. Minimum statutory damages vary depending on the state, but several states require $1,000 for each recording. In California, the minimum is $5,000 for each recording. Many of these statutes also allow for the recovery of punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The creation of a private right of action, as well as the fixed damages provisions of these statutes, create an incentive for actions to be brought for violation of the statutes on behalf of a class of plaintiffs (i.e., class actions). Such class actions are often brought on behalf of a class of consumers who engaged in telephone conversations with companies that are alleged to have deficient procedures for providing notification of monitoring or recording, or that experienced a technical breakdown in their automated systems for recording or monitoring. In such cases, actual damages are minimal or simply do not exist, but each consumer nevertheless may be entitled to the minimum statutory damages for each illegal recording. For companies that have hundreds or thousands of calls per month, the potential liability can easily reach enormous proportions in the multibillion-dollar range. Indeed, under California law, recording or monitoring only 200,000 calls without the required notice or consent can result in aggregate statutory damages of $1 billion. This is true even if no one suffered any actual damages.

Interstate Recording and Monitoring: Twelve states have statutes that in some form or another require all parties to a telephone call to be notified or give consent to recording or monitoring. When one of the parties to a telephone conversation is in a state that requires all parties to consent to recording, complex choice-of-law issues arise. A comprehensive analysis of both states’ laws will determine whether the party doing the recording can take cover under available safe harbor provisions. For example, some states have an exception that allows recording that takes place in another state, or a choice-of-law provision or interpretation that only applies the law to recordings done in the state. Other states have an exception that allows recording without notice for business or customer service purposes.

Businesses that take customer-facing calls from many different states must be wary of the recording laws in the states in which they do the recording, and the states from which they receive or to which they make calls. Indeed, in 2006, the California Supreme Court decided to apply California Penal Code section 632 – which requires that both parties be notified of, or consent to, monitoring or recording – to calls in which any of the parties is located in California, even if the recording or monitoring took place in a state that allowed recording or monitoring without notice or consent (see Kearney v. Salomon Smith Barney, Inc., 39 Cal. 4th 95, 2006). The safest approach is to always provide notification of monitoring or recording on every call. However, even then there may be issues of whether the type of notification given was sufficient to obtain consent to recording.

Notification and Consent: What’s the Right Way? There are many different ways that a company may attempt to provide notice of, or obtain a consumer’s consent to, monitoring or recording. For example, a company can give written notification of telephone monitoring or recording in their customer account agreements, email communications, or invoices. A company may also provide automated notification of recording before a call is routed to an agent, or by using automatic beep tones during a call. A company may even instruct its customer service agents to inform customers of the possibility of monitoring or recording at the beginning of each call. Whether any of these methods is sufficient to constitute “consent” under the statutes requiring all parties’ consent to recording depends on the state’s law. No statute is specific with regard to the manner in which a person may comply with its provisions, or the manner in which consent may be implied or confidentiality defeated, although some states do have regulations on the subject. The issue is mainly explored and analyzed through court interpretations, support for which is derived from regulations promulgated by public utility commissions and tariffs of telephone communication carriers.

For example, the California Supreme Court has discussed the effect of verbal warnings, stating directly that “[a] business that adequately advises all parties to a telephone call, at the outset of the conversation, of its intent to record the call would not violate the [Statute]” (Kearney v. Salomon Smith Barney, Inc., 39 Cal. 4th 95, 118, 2006). The rationale is that “if, after being so advised, another party does not wish to participate in the conversation, he or she simply may decline to continue the communication” (Ibid., emphasis omitted). Thus, if the party then continues with the call, he or she no longer can have a reasonable expectation that the call was not being recorded, thereby implying consent to the recording. In California, courts that have interpreted the statute have not had the occasion to analyze or decide whether tone warnings may defeat confidentiality under the statute. However, one court has mentioned such circumstance in passing.

Courts have also opined that several existing legal protections for communications could support the conclusion that a person did or did not possess a reasonable expectation of privacy in a conversation. One such existing protection is found in the regulations of the Public Utilities Commission of the State of California. General Order 107-B, for example, provides that notice of recordingshall be given “by an automatic tone warning device” or “by verbal announcement by the operator of monitoring equipment to the parties to the communication that their communication is being monitored.” However, whether compliance with CPUC Regulation establishes immunity from suit under the California Penal Code has not been decided.

Even if notifications of monitoring or recording are provided, it would be wise to have a system that creates and maintains proof that such notification was given. Accurate records should also be kept of the dates the recordings started, backup procedures, storage of recordings, and software that can accurately quantify and capture call volumes, caller identifying information (including phone numbers), and other data.

Conclusion: There are additional factors that may come into play regarding the liability analysis for recording calls. For example, some states, like California, make it illegal to record a telephone conversation only when the conversation is “confidential” – meaning that one of the parties has a reasonable expectation that the call would not be overheard or recorded. Because of the complexity of the analysis for any given case, companies would be wise to engage experienced attorneys to analyze and offer recommendations on their monitoring and recording practices. Otherwise, they may find themselves defending a “bet the company” class-action lawsuit.

Perrie Weiner, Edward Totino, Joshua Briones, and Ana Tagvoryan are with the law firm DLA Piper.

[From Connection Magazine September 2010]

Navigating the Slippery Slope of Call-Recording Compliance

By Tony Procops

The laws, regulations, and stipulations surrounding call recording are tenuous at best.  In many cases, it is hard to find specific language pertaining directly to the mandate for the capture and storage of voice and screen recordings. However, in order to maintain full regulatory and industry compliance across a variety of industries – and avoid costly penalties – many organizations might want to consider the utilization of a call-recording system that can provide the necessary level of protection and archiving management.

You see, there are numerous foundational provisos in many of these laws that create the need to record and securely store customer interactions. Many of these conditions center on the necessity of protecting sensitive customer information (account numbers, for example) from unauthorized personnel. The only way to ensure such compliance is to audit the front-end staff that interact with customers; the best means of accomplishing this is by recording both the calls and the screen activity of these employees – whether they are call center representatives, financial traders, etc.

Failure to effectively protect sensitive customer data can have serious consequences for the noncomplying organization. This can amount to expensive fines, costly litigation, a damaged public reputation, customer attrition, and lost partnerships. These detriments are simply too great for any organization to bear. Fortunately, there are secure, robust, and highly resilient call-recording systems available today that can facilitate much of this work for you, and they typically feature the necessary automation to simplify and manage this whole process of capturing, auditing, and storing.

Maintaining Compliance with Intelligent, Centralized Storage: Two of the more prevalent laws – the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) and the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA) – center on an organization’s ability to protect its customers’ sensitive personal information. The most effective way to manage this whole data management lifecycle is with an integrated call- and screen-recording system with an intelligent storage area network (SAN). Working hand-in-hand, these two systems can automatically capture, store, and control access to such sensitive information while also adhering to both internal and external policies and requirements.

Moreover, the integrated recording and storage system will encrypt the recording and securely store it for as long (or as short) a time as needed. It also has the ability to set automatic-deletion parameters based on how long you want or need to keep the file.

Ensuring Verbal Compliance with Speech Analytics: Both the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) require relevant organizations to say certain things during the course of a customer interaction. For instance, the FDCPA stipulates that agents must identify themselves, the name of their firm, and state that the purpose of the call is to collect on a debt. Similarly, with the TSR, telemarketers have to provide seven specific pieces of information during a call – such as the identity of the seller, the full cost of goods and services offered, and so on. Additionally, the law actually requires telemarketers to record all interactions in which an agent is engaging in a free-to-pay conversion discussion with a customer whose free trial period has just ended.

In the average call center, it can be arduous and difficult to closely audit agent behavior to ensure proper compliance by all customer-facing staff. Managers have to listen to every call or physically sit with agents to hear the interaction live. Furthermore, with minimal resources at their disposal, these supervisors are never really able to audit every call; it just isn’t feasible. Therefore, many interactions go by without any auditing – during or post interaction. This is a frightening scenario when you think about how costly each of the potential infractions could be.

Fortunately, with the help of the latest speech-analytics applications on the market (some of which are tightly integrated with leading call-recording systems), these challenges can be easily and efficiently overcome. This advanced software enables a business to automatically flag specific keywords, such as “debt” or “cost,” so they can be easily identified post interaction to ensure compliance.  The right call-recording system can also send real-time alerts directly to supervisors to provide them with the information they require to maintain compliance.

Overseas Laws: The issues outlined in this article are not germane solely to the United States. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) has impending legislation that could force financial companies to record all mobile calls and store them for six months. This same authority also mandates that such organizations already record customer interactions that relate to certain types of investments (when receiving or executing client orders or arranging for their execution are two examples).

In Finland, organizations across the board fall under many of the same types of privacy and data protection laws as those in the US. India has very strict laws that require certain types of recordings to be approved by the Union Home Secretary personally before the conversation ever takes place. Moreover, in Australia there are regulatory restrictions related to listening to and recording telephone calls according to interception and listening devices laws.

All of these forms of regulation can be best managed and complied with if an organization has a robust, flexible, and integrated call-recording and centralized archiving system.

Conclusion: The reigns of regulation continue to tighten the world over, and the forecast doesn’t call for anything less. Therefore, smart organizations must arm themselves with the tools necessary to comply with such laws to minimize risk, mitigate liability, protect their reputation, keep customers, and avoid costly fines. Businesses that attempt to navigate these tumultuous waters without the aid of an intelligent recording and archiving system run the risk of falling victim to these consequences. In today’s business climate, can you really afford this?

Tony Procops is president and CEO of CyberTech North America. CyberTech is a global call-recording provider offering secure, open solutions for organizations to improve performance, optimize service, mitigate risk, lower cost, and maintain compliance.

[From Connection Magazine June 2010]

Benefits and ROI of Hosted/Managed Service IVR

By Donna Fluss

The hosted/managed service business model is a compelling one. With the on-demand model, enterprises of all sizes have access to IVR and the other contact center technology they need to cost-effectively provide an efficient and outstanding customer experience. The hosting/managed service model allows companies to acquire leading technology and applications without a large capital investment, start-up costs, or a long-term commitment. It also is scalable and gives users ongoing technical support and access to upgrades at no additional cost.

Ease of provisioning, reduced maintenance, and the opportunity to “try-before-you-buy” make hosted solutions an attractive and low-risk alternative to on-premise solutions. Depending on the needs of the enterprise and how long it wants to use a hosted solution, the benefits and return on investment (ROI) can be significant.

While there are many benefits from using hosting and managed service technology offerings, prospects should perform a financial lease (hosted/managed service) vs. purchase/license analysis to understand the impact of this acquisition model on their bottom line.

Chief financial officers (CFOs) often prefer the hosted/managed service acquisition approach as it allows them to hold onto their company’s capital. This capital is considered a scarce resource, particularly in a recessionary economy, even with the knowledge that after three to five years the cumulative cost to their company’s bottom line could be higher from a hosted/managed service model.

In general, if the cash outlay for the hosted solution remains consistent over a three-to-five-year period, it will have cost the company more to host during this period than if they bought a license. However, this is not typical. During a three-to-five-year period, enterprises owning IVR systems are often confronted with hardware and software upgrade fees, the opportunity to purchase innovation that will improve their operating environment, the need to add additional capacity, and other unplanned expenses beyond basic maintenance.

Hosted/Managed Service Value Proposition: Below is a list of the top reasons why companies are investing in hosted/managed service IVR solutions:

1) Need to upgrade legacy systems, reduce maintenance costs of legacy solutions, or add to or improve self-service options

2) Expense reduction

  • No capital investment
  • Low or no up-front costs
  • Fixed monthly operating expense
  • Investment protection – no software or hardware upgrade costs to affect TCO
  • Fewer IT resources required to maintain the hardware and, depending on the business model, the application
  • Reduced administrative/overhead costs
  • No need to buy or build to meet peak traffic – scalable without capital investment
  • Fewer unexpected expenses – more manageable budgeting

3) Protection against technology obsolescence

4) Avoidance of long-term commitments/contracts, allowing the company to easily change solution providers, as needed

5) Avoidance of capital write-offs

In addition to the benefits above, users of managed service offerings (where the vendor takes care of the hardware, software, IVR script, and all other aspects of the implementation) also realize the following benefits:

  • Availability of IVR and vertical domain experts when you need them
  • Experience and expertise available at reasonable prices
  • Continuous optimization of the self-service application without substantial investment of in-house resources
  • Improved customer service
  • Enhanced customer experience

The hosted/managed service IVR providers have proven to be a practical group of vendors that appreciate the need to address many of the challenges and concerns associated with speech-enabled IVR implementations. Besides the classic benefits associated with any hosted and managed service IT implementation, these IVR competitors have innovated with highly flexible offerings, pricing models, and implementation strategies.  Users of all sizes can find solutions that meet their needs. Specifically, many of the hosted/managed service IVR providers offer:

  • Flexible and aggressive pricing models; some are based on per-minute cost, others on completed transactions, and still others on success rates
  • Willingness to amortize up-front start-up costs instead of requiring customers to pay large setup and implementation fees
  • Rapid implementations, even for complex projects
  • Payback in three to nine months – sometimes as quickly as within the first month

What’s clear is that these vendors understand their customers and are willing to put together a package that addresses their specific needs. Of course, there are trade-offs. Customers who want to amortize their start-up costs over the life of the contract must be willing to pay a slightly higher transaction fee and commit to a time frame that allows the vendors to recoup their initial investment.

Return On Investment (ROI): A major reason companies invest in hosted/managed service solutions is that they realize a very rapid and quantifiable return on investment without a large capital investment or major start-up costs. This is also the reason that hosting is popular even during tight economic times.

IVR solutions are rightfully considered mission-critical for contact centers. IVRs typically handle 40-to-80 percent of all calls received by an inbound customer service contact center. Since many of these departments handle millions of calls each month, it’s clear that the IVR is an essential production “workhorse.” As a result, when capacity is needed, this is not an investment that can be delayed, as it is much more costly to defer investments that could have diverted calls from live agents. (The typical cost of an IVR transaction is $0.05 to $0.40 vs. $3.50 and $6.00 for an inbound call handled by a live agent.)

Figure 1 shows the expected payback period provided by the seven leading vendors analyzed in this in-depth report. Vendors and users told DMG that customer payback can be as short as one month or as long as a year, although three-to-nine months is most common. Payback depends upon many variables – in particular, the size and complexity of the project, as well as the start-up and integration costs.

To win business, some of the hosted/managed service providers do not charge a start-up fee to cover the cost of application development and integration expenses; instead, they increase the cost-per-minute during the initial contract. However, to ensure that they recover their start-up fees, the initial contract is generally for two-to-three years. This also points out that there are flexible hosted/managed service vendors who work with their customers to identify the pricing model that works best for them.

Figure 1: Hosted/Managed Service ROI by Vendor
Vendor ROI
Contact Solutions 2 to 4 months
Nuance 3 to 9+ months
Prairie 3 to 12 months
Tellme 3 to 6 months
TuVox Less than 9 months
Voxify Within the first 6 months
West 1 to 6 months

Source: DMG Consulting LLC, June 2009

Good News for Prospects: Because of increased competition in the hosted/managed service IVR market, vendors large and small are willing to negotiate most aspects of the relationship, including price and start-up costs. There are many strong and viable hosted/managed service offerings, but they are not all the same.

To make sure that their full range of needs will be met, prospects need to carefully assess many factors, including the technology, platform, scalability, integration capability, contingency/backup capabilities, development environment and resources, reporting and analytics, functional capabilities, management tools, ongoing service and maintenance, optimization capabilities, customer references, vendor responsiveness, financial strength, and planned research and development (R&D) investments of the vendors they are considering. Price is important, but it should not be the primary deciding factor.

Learn more at www.dmgconsult.com.

[From Connection Magazine April 2010]

Voice Self-Service Is Essential for Achieving Enterprise and Contact Center Goals

By Donna Fluss

A Q3 2009 survey asked 107 enterprise, contact center, and IT executives and decision-makers from around the globe to identify their top goals and priorities for 2010. Surprisingly, voice self-service solutions (also known as interactive voice response systems, or IVRs) are expected to play a key role in helping enterprises of all sizes achieve their 2010 objectives.

The top 2010 goal for enterprise and contact center executives is improving customer service. The second most important goal for enterprise executives is cutting operating costs; this is similar to the number two goal for contact center leaders, which is to improve productivity. Companies where contact center VPs and leaders have aligned their top goals with those of the executive suite are much more likely to succeed in retaining and enhancing customer relationships.

The DMG benchmark study indicates that IT has its own priorities; IT’s top goals for 2010 are to meet the needs of business customers and to keep the enterprise’s technology and applications running at optimal levels. This shows that IT organizations are entering 2010 with a strong appreciation of the need to support their business clients’ goals and objectives. It’s disappointing that IT does not seem to make an effort to understand their customers’ goals, as this would help organizations to meet them better on an ongoing basis. This goal misalignment is the primary reason for the lack of trust between IT and contact centers.

IVR to the Rescue: An astounding 28.1 percent of companies not currently using IVR systems are in the process of looking for a voice self-service solution to help them meet their goals. The recession has pushed companies that were previously hesitant to use voice self-service automation to make investments in these solutions. An IVR initiative that is planned, designed, and rolled out properly can reduce the volume of calls to live agents by 20-to-90 percent over time, depending upon the purpose of the contact center and the tasks programmed into the solution. The trend toward increased adoption of IVR is expected to continue even after the economy recovers. The benefits and cost savings from a well-designed IVR implementation generally convince even the most reluctant managers that these solutions are effective both for their customers and their cost structure.

The primary drivers for current and prospective voice self-service users who are considering investments in hosted/managed service IVRs. Two obvious reasons why prospective users are seriously considering hosted IVR solutions are to avoid capital expense and minimize start-up costs, not surprising during tough economic times. A less obvious reason for looking into hosting is to acquire the expertise along with the solution.

Donna Fluss is the founder and president of DMG Consulting LLC, a provider of contact center and analytics research, market analysis, and consulting. To obtain a free copy of the fifty-one-page report, “IVR to the Rescue! A Benchmarking Study of 2010 Enterprise, Contact Center and IT Priorities and the Critical Role of IVRs in Achieving These Goals,” contact Deborah Navarra at deborah.navarra@dmgconsult.com or 516-628-1098.

[From Connection Magazine March 2010]

IVR Goes Proactive

By Donna Fluss

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems have been around since the 1980s and are still going strong. Investments in self-service applications have accelerated during the past two years as more enterprises of all sizes are building or enhancing self-service solutions. DMG estimates that the IVR market reached $1.867 billion by the end of 2007, making it the second largest contact center technology segment, trailing only the Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) sector.

This market is being driven by a strong demand for self-service applications, strong speech recognition capabilities, a steady flow of innovation, the growth of hosted solutions, and an expansion of the outbound notification market. Recently, slower IVR growth in the U.S. has been offset by increases in international sales, especially in Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, eastern Europe, and the Pacific Rim.

IVR systems are both strategic and tactical solutions that are mission-critical for a growing number of contact centers around the world. Some customers complain about these automated systems, but most customers find them convenient and easy to use, and they have come to depend on them. With the emergence of the proactive outbound notification market, IVR systems are providing additional strategic benefits, making major contributions to revenue generation, and helping to provide an outstanding customer experience.

The Emergence of Outbound IVR (Proactive Notification): The hosted outbound IVR market, also known as proactive notification solutions, has started to come on strong. New vendors are entering this market, many with vertical solutions for healthcare, pharmaceuticals, medicine, dentistry, travel, collections, and many other industries. Currently, most of the outbound notification offerings are sold on a hosted or managed service basis.

The concept of outbound IVR is not new; it has been used for collections for many years. Many vendors are now offering packaged solutions that provide tracking and dialing capabilities, along with their primary function of leaving an automated message using IVR. Enterprises have built outbound programs utilizing their “inbound” IVR platforms for many years. However, as this is seen as just another use for the solution, the premise-based IVR providers do not track this activity separately. As inbound vendors start to offer prepackaged, vertical applications, they may eventually track and report the revenue from these solutions separately.

Outbound Legislation Helps to Create the Outbound IVR Market: In 2003, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued an amendment to the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) for the benefit of consumers. This amendment changed the rule in a way that altered the dialing landscape. The legislation did not kill dialing, as many people had believed it would, but instead established strict guidelines for enterprises to reach out to prospects and customers.

Companies are allowed to call customers with whom they have an established relationship and have already conducted business. Most companies had not previously invested in proactive customer care, despite the fact that existing customers are often more receptive than prospects. The legislation changed dialing from a disruptive activity that disturbed many dinners to a relationship-oriented function intended to build and enhance loyalty. It also became the driving force behind the outbound IVR market.

Outbound notification is used for many purposes, including proactive customer care. When implemented properly, this functionality can help build an organization, enhance customer loyalty, and generate incremental revenue. Until August 2008, when two amendments were added to the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) to reduce the number of automated nuisance calls, there were few barriers to market entry, thus attracting a rapid influx of new vendors.

DMG Consulting does not expect the new TSR amendments to seriously impede the growth of this market, although it may slow down for a short time while vendors enhance their offerings to address the new requirements. According to these provisions, “prerecorded” messages can be delivered only to customers who have explicitly given permission, and the systems delivering the messages must allow customers to opt out. While these provisions require technology enhancements for some of the vendors, they are simply good business practices that should strengthen this market in the long term.

High-Value Uses and Benefits of Outbound Notification: There are twenty-one types of relationship calls. A few of these call types are related to collections and fraud, business necessities that are not pleasant for anyone, but the majority of these uses are intended to enhance relationships with existing customers. Many of the call types also help to reduce the volume of inbound calls to organizations. As depicted in this chart, all of these categories – even collections and fraud calls – improve a company’s profitability, and most canimprove the customer’s experience, as well. Of course, how the calls are executed will determine if they achieve their goals.

Enterprises of all sizes, from solo practitioner dental offices to Fortune 100 companies, are using IVR systems to reach out to their customers in a cost-effective manner. In general, customers welcome these calls because they have granted implicit permission to be contacted in this way and informed about specific activities – such as appointments, sales, and travel – in which they have an interest.

The Outlook for Outbound Notification: The future for the proactive customer care market is strong. Customers in all types of companies welcome relevant reminders or notifications that enhance their daily lives. The outbound IVR market is still relatively new and is just hitting its stride, and vendors from many arenas continue to enter this market, as the revenue potential is large. Increasingly, the market will see multimodal outbound notification solutions that can reach customers via their channel of choice. As long as the vendors stay focused on the goal of proactive customer care – providing information their customers find helpful – this market will grow rapidly over the next three years.

For more information regarding the IVR market, see DMG Consulting’s recently released Worldwide IVR Trends and Market Share Report.

Donna Fluss is the founder and president of DMG Consulting LLC, the leading provider of contact center and analytics research, market analysis, and consulting. She is the author of The Real-Time Contact Center, the 2008 Contact Center Executive,Management Briefing, and many other leading industry reports on contact center hosting, IVR, speech analytics, performance management, workforce management, surveying and analytics, and quality management/liability recording. Contact Donna at donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com.

[From Connection Magazine September 2009]

Today’s Call Center Recording

Recording calls in call centers was once considered a luxury. Initially call-recording devices (also known as voice loggers) were used to record agents’ conversations with callers. This made them an invaluable tool in conclusively documenting what was communicated and the manner in which that communication took place. Since then, the use of call recorders has greatly expanded and is being used for training, agent self-evaluation, quality control, order confirmation, and call compliance monitoring. Most modern call recorders also document other information that relates to each call, such as switch data or statistics, agent screen shots, or even full-screen video.

When pursuing a call-recording strategy, be aware that acquiring and installing the technology is just the first step. It must also be successfully introduced to agents as a tool to help them, not hurt them. Proper notification to clients is also imperative, especially given growing alarm over privacy and unlawful recording concerns. Lastly, before recording any calls, check with an attorney familiar with your state’s laws. The biggest issue is whether one or both parties need to be made aware that recording is taking place. Agents should always be notified when call recording is happening (one-party notification); notification to the caller can be made by a preamble recording (“This call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance purposes”) or a periodic beep tone (two-party notification).

The following vendors provide comprehensive call-recording solutions. [Read more: voice logging requirements.]


Alston Tascom, Inc
866-282-7266

The Alston Tascom Evolution System provides automatic call recording of conversations with callers. The caller can be advised of potential recording either verbally by the agent or announced by the IVR. The log administration program is used to find specific log files. The search criteria include call type, call number, call time, DID number, caller ID, agent, workstation number, extension number, trunk number, and recording file size. The files can easily be emailed to the client.


Amtelco
800-356-9148

One of the most requested features in the history of Amtelco’s Infinity system is the Unity Voice Logger. It eliminates the need for third-party hardware, external wiring, and individual software installations on each workstation to record every call. Unity Voice Logger uses the voice-processing resources in the Infinity server to generate call recordings and can convert them into popular digital formats for long-term storage and retrieval.

Record Every Call Completely: Unity Voice Logger makes it possible to record calls completely. Call recordings can be started as soon as a call is answered, whether by a live operator or a prerecorded greeting.

Reliability and Reduced Maintenance: Recording calls using voice-processing resources in the Infinity Server offers many benefits over other methods. The key benefits are reliability and reduced maintenance. All external wiring and software requirements are eliminated. Each client is simply enabled for logging, and the Infinity Server handles the rest.

Operator Audio Connections: Unity Voice Logger recording is not dependent on the type of audio connection or the location of operator workstations. An operator can be local or remote, using traditional hardwired analog connections, dial-up connections via T1 or ISDN, or VoIP connections.


CenturiSoft
800-866-1929

Centuri Voice Logger records all calls digitally; information can be stored in the database and in the file itself; it can be played by any Windows Media Player available on PC, Linux, and Mac platforms. A non-blocking approach of resources gives CenturiSoft the ability to record Telco and VoIP calls simultaneously while providing voice messaging and unified communications capabilities out of one platform. Additionally, logger messages can be treated as voice messages and can be picked up and heard by phone, sent via email, or played thru a secured Web portal. Centuri Voice Logger can be implemented with several different switches and allows for analog, digital, and VoIP connections.


Professional Teledata
800-344-9944

Professional Teledata is an official reseller of full-featured voice logging systems from CenturiSoft. With its PInnacle Telemessaging System, Professional Teledata offers the powerful and comprehensive Voice Logger Interface Program that includes and extends the features of both CenturiSoft and Wygant voice loggers.


Record/Play Tek, Inc.
574-848-5233

The SCL 8900 Simple Computer Logger records nine, eighteen, or twenty-seven channels of audio from operator headsets, DID lines, POTS lines, and room microphones. The nine-channel system has 150 days of conversation recording on an 80 GB hard drive, regardless of the activity level. Call center agents can search by customer account number (on Startel, Amtelco, Telescan, Morgan systems) or by SMDR/DID information. The system runs on a standard computer or server and is easily installed on a standard telco punch block. The normal delivery time is two weeks.


Startel
949-863-8714

Startel offers a comprehensive suite of voice services products that enable call centers to create incremental revenue. Startel’s voice services portfolio includes their proprietary Voice Processor and Voice Logger, as well as the StarTel Messenger (provided by CenturiSoft) and TDI’s (formerly Wygant) Encore logger, which are fully integrated into the Startel CMC product set.

The Startel Voice Logger offers an advanced product feature suite for recording inbound and outbound calls that can be used for quality assurance and training purposes, information verification, and other applications. There are a number of customizable features that can be used to configure the system, including the ability to record only specific agents. Startel’s Voice Logger starts with four ports and is expandable to forty-eight ports.

The Encore Suite maximizes the productivity of a contact center’s workforce via integrated voice and screen recording, quality management, coaching, and its reporting and distribution package. The key differentiator that Encore provides is the capability to record full motion video as well as audio. This provides a complete recording of the call rather than incremental “snapshots” of the screen periodically.


Telescan, LLC
800-770-7662

Telescan provides an enhanced interface for voice logging software through Spectrum Agent. This program is capable of starting and stopping the logger, as well as providing the logger with information to store the recording. Provided information includes agent ID, account number, the caller ID (if available), and a system time/date stamp. The logger can also provide more search criteria for retrieving recordings, thus saving time in the retrieval process. Spectrum Agent interfaces with Exacom, Panda (PanIIS), and Wygant Encore Host.

[From Connection Magazine April 2009]

Appointment Taking in Today’s Web 2.0 World

By Brett Torvik

I was in college before the dot-com bubble burst. Every semester I dialed into the university’s automated system to register for courses. A creepy touch-tone lady instructed me to enter my course numbers using the DTMF keypad.

This was prior to the invasion of IVR systems. It was the only way. To make matters worse, the timetable of classes and course numbers was not online, but instead came bundled in a tome large enough to rival the phonebook.

Today, students can simply surf the Web, sift through a few screens, click a couple of buttons, and voilà: schedule complete! Kids these days have it so easy!

Call Center Insight: The call center industry can learn much by taking a long look at the university experience, particularly in regards to streamlining the process of taking and communicating appointments. My alma mater did a fine job of adopting a twenty-first century solution to a form of appointment taking; after all, what are college classes but an agreement between teacher and students to meet at a preappointed time on certain days?

As a consumer of instruction, I would sort through the offline catalog of classes, choose those best suited for me, and add them to my schedule. However, the university’s software wasn’t equipped to keep me from double booking a time slot. I could sign up for a 12:00-1:00 p.m. lecture even though I already had a 12:30-1:00 p.m. class. By the time I spotted the overlap, all available seats were filled, and it proved difficult to secure another open time slot for the class in question. Appointment-taking software should give its users the flexibility to choose whether double or triple booking is acceptable. In my situation, a pop-up warning or confirmation email could have helped me avoid an undesirable outcome.

This mistake, however, could have been limited, or mitigated altogether, if the university recognized that some of its students could use the aid of reminders. They did provide a static online calendar to view your schedule, but in the real world, appointments can change: classes are cancelled due to weather or a teacher’s illness. At times, impromptu study sessions are added in preparation for midterms and finals.

Surprisingly, this sort of information is still spread by word of mouth, or worse, in the case of a teacher’s illness, with a note on the door. Instead, each student should be able to access a real-time, dynamic calendar of events, and their teachers should have the power to update their schedules and communicate changes instantly via any number of contact methods, such as telephone, email, or SMS messaging, depending on the students’ preferred method of contact.

My experience with college course registration demonstrates a few of the challenges that appointment taking brings. The example oversimplifies the reality of the task, though, as classes mostly come in predictable half-hour or hour blocks; variability is limited in comparison to the scope of appointment-taking with which call centers must be prepared to deal.

Call Center Opportunities: Not only should an appointment-taking solution be smart enough to handle in-house staff scheduling duties, it also should allow the call center to resell the same service to its clients through a secure Web portal. Any business that books appointments with pen and paper needs a solution like this, and call centers that cannot provide one are missing an opportunity to profit from the ongoing shift to the digital world.

Hospitals nationwide are increasingly feeling Uncle Sam’s nudge to use Electronic Health Records (EHRs), which are digital versions of a patient’s medical history. At present, progress remains in its infancy, but for how long?  It is 2009, but I cannot go online to book an appointment with my general practitioner. If the airline industry can manage real-time online reservations, why not clinics?

President Barack Obama recently unveiled a goal to deploy EHRs for every clinician within the next five years. Once medical records are ubiquitously accessible online, appointment taking will be in tow, with this mammoth market catching up and joining the rest of us in the Web 2.0 world. Will your call center be ready to seize the opportunity?

Call Center Essentials: For call centers, appointment-taking software must be generic enough to meet all of their clients’ needs, while guiding agents to gracefully and professionally handle calls at lightning speed. That is why it is imperative to be able to request and retrieve the next available appointment slot for any given schedule. When every second lost means dollars down the drain, speed counts.

Also, a variety of colorful snapshot views of the data – by month, week, or day – gives the agent the perfect tool for swiftly assessing the schedule and processing the call. Next, the details of a schedule should include customizable resources, roles, and appointment types. Possible resources range from teachers and lecture halls to doctors and hospital beds – any person, place, or thing that might be associated with an appointment.

Appointments for Joe the plumber differ greatly in recurrence and duration from those required for a pediatrician. Further, each resource should be able to define their weekly schedules – work hours, out-of-office hours, etc. The hard-working Joe might need the occasional personal day, so a means of overriding his default schedule template is also in order.

Schedule resources, in some instances, have unique specialties. For example, a doctor (resource) can fill a prescription (appointment type), but a nurse cannot. This is where roles come in play. Roles define the type of appointments assignable to each resource. This type of administrative setup allows your clients to control who can be assigned to what and when.

Call center message taking is in a constant state of evolution. It was not that long ago appointments were stored in a physical book on the shelf. A call would come in, the agent would place the caller on hold, open the book, find the appropriate page, and pencil in the appointment. Next, delivery of the book posed its own challenges. It was time-consuming and awkward. The call center faxed the schedule, or the client picked it up on location. How cumbersome!

The advent of Internet calendars presented new opportunities, but out-of-the-box solutions on the Web today are not calibrated for call centers that charge by the minute or per call. Once a call comes in, the agent opens a Web browser, logs into the site, navigates to the correct schedule, and only then begins to take the appointment.

Call Center Success: Connecting to an external application wastes time. This means money lost for you and your clients. Your call center needs an appointment-taking program tailored to defeat this time crunch. Success relies on seamless integration with your call processing or call scripting software.

Once your call center is wed to the right dynamic Web-based appointment-taking solution, you and your clients will both have real-time access to the latest up-to-date schedule. Both parties profit. If you are not yet taking advantage of such a system, or your current message taking process is so Web 1.0, it is time to seek out a better way, to think like the future inventors of the next big thing.

Brett Torvik, a software engineer at Amtelco, is the lead developer for the company’s suite of online CRM products, chief among them Client Management Intelligence (CMI).

[From Connection Magazine March 2009]