Tag Archives: Technology Articles

Messaging Systems

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

It may not be exciting, glamorous, or invigorating, yet for the vast majority of companies in the teleservices industry, messaging services constitute the bulk of the work they perform and are the cornerstone of their business.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Messaging — answering calls, providing or obtaining information from the caller, and reporting it to the client – is the consistent revenue stream teleservices companies need to remain viable. New service options may beckon and sophisticated decision-making and order-taking software may open the door to new markets and potentially profitable new accounts. But for most teleservice companies, the consistent presence of messaging clients pays the bills and offers consistent opportunities for profit.

In the early days of the telephone answering service industry, messaging was a manual process. Phone answering was accomplished by various implementations of electro-mechanical devises, message taking was done by hand, and storage and retrieval systems were comprised of message slots and file cabinets. In the 1970s, fueled by the Carterfone decision allowing devices to be connected to the telephone network, equipment emerged that facilitated a more effective system for answering calls. In the early 1980s, the idea of storing client instructions in a computer system, as opposed to on index cards, began to surface. This was followed by the innovation of entering messages into a computer for storage, processing, retrieval, and record keeping. Hence, the age of computerized messaging. Today, second generation platforms dominate the market, offering labor saving automation options, client convenience features, and agent-assisting software to provide leading edge messaging systems.

Allan Fromm, owner of AnSer Services in Green Bay, Wis., operates an Amtelco Infinity system. He is able to confirm the importance of these developments. “Our Infinity platform is the foundation of our business,” Fromm said. “We have a huge array of services that enable us to compete with practically any blended call center in the world.”

Dick Huffer, owner of ADS Communications, likes to focus on the cost savings provided by his Startel system. “We’re doing three times the business with one-third of the phone charges,” Huffer said. “We’re able to use those savings for business expansion and help with our bottom line, which ultimately results in more profits.” Huffer has followed through on his plans for expansion. “We do business nationwide and [in] Canada,” he added. “With T1s taking the calls [on] a single 800 number, we have eliminated the phone company charges, taxes, access fees, and everything else they hang on the bill!”

The enthusiasm that Fromm and Huffer have for their respective messaging platforms is not exclusive to owners of Amtelco and Startel systems, but is also shared by users of products from other industry vendors. These include Alston Tascom, Americom, Axon, CadCom, Morgan Comtec, Szeto, Telescan, and Taseco. Although there are scores of other messaging system manufacturers, the deciding factor separating the preceding list from other aspirants is their ability to excel in a multi-client environment, offer comprehensive feature customization for each implementation, and provide an array of information dissemination methods, all with a steadfast focus on agent efficiency and effectiveness. This article will briefly address the main messaging systems offered by these companies.

See our current listing of vendors that provide Message Taking Systems and Software.

Peter Lyle DeHaan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time. Learn about his books and read more of his articles at  Peter Lyle DeHaan.

[From Connection MagazineDecember 2002]

Area Code Information

As telephone numbers are assigned, the availability of numbers within an area code diminishes. In order to make sure that there are always numbers available, usage is analyzed, number exhaustion dates are projected, and steps are taken to provide for more numbers.

Although short-term steps, such as “thousand block number pooling” are taken, the long-term solution is either an area code split or an area code overlay.

A split means that the geographic region of the area code is divided in two. One part will keep the same area code, while the other section must switch to a new area code (but they will retain their seven-digit number). There is a transition period for this, called permissive dialing, in which either the old or new area code can be dialed for the effected section. After a time, mandatory dialing goes into effect. Then, any call to the new region using the old area code will not go through. These numbers eventually become available for reuse. Splits are not popular with most businesses, as it requires printing new stationary and other changes, as well as reprogramming phone systems. (To avoid repeating this process in a few years, sometimes a three-way split is made at the same time.

An overlay means that a new area code is assigned to the same geographic region as the existing code(s), which is in jeopardy of depletion. With an overlay, no one needs to change area codes. However, if it is not already implemented, ten-digit dialing becomes required for all calls, even local numbers. All new number assignments are in the new area code. As such, ordering a second line could result in a number with a different area code. Overlays are not popular with most consumers, as they do not want to dial ten digits on every call, nor remember different area codes for friends and neighbors.

The area code listings shows all current area codes in North America. If you are in an areas whose code will undergo changes, you can expect your local phone company to provide ample notification in the form of letters or bill inserts, giving you time to make the needed plans and adjustments. However, do not expect to be notified of changes outside your area code. You may bookmark these lists for your call center agents to use as a handy reference, as well for your technical staff in programming area codes in your call center switch.

[From Connection MagazineDecember 2002]

Centralize Communications with Unified Messaging

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Unified messaging was designed to solve a problem: message overload. For most of us, we not only receive too many messages, but these messages are in too many different places: our voice mail at work, the answering machine at home, various fax machines, our cell phone’s voice mail, and at least one, if not more, email addresses.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Once we corral each of these messages from their disparate sources, we then need to process them and respond. The frustrating reality is that all to often we need to reply in a different medium or channel than which the message arrived. No wonder these communication tools often end up causing frustration.

Enter unified messaging. The vision of unified messaging is that a user can interact with all voice, email, fax, and image communication from a integrated communications interface. This appliance is usually a computer, but can also be a standard telephone.

Unified messaging will not reduce the number of messages, but does promise to centralize them, allowing for the same quantity of messages to be received, reviewed, and responded to in less time.

The trend towards unified messaging is both compelling and striking. In 1999, there were $135 million in sales of unified messaging services. By 2006, this number is projected and predicted to reach $18.1 billion. This is a 45% annual compounded growth rate! With such a promise for its future, what then is unified messaging in practical terms? Unfortunately, the answer is less than clear.

If you were to ask one hundred industry participants what unified messaging is, you would get scores of different answers. In fact, unified messaging must often be viewed in the context and standpoint of those who are discussing it. Alston Tascom’s Bill Cortus sums up it, saying that, “unified messaging is a broadly applied term.” He adds that, “unified messaging should also be defined from the user’s perspective.” When a prospect inquires if Tascom has unified messaging, Bill asks what unified messaging means to them. Based on their definition, he can then respond.

Jim Becker from Amtelco defines unified messaging as the ability to “take a message in any form and deliver it in any form or combination of forms that are convenient to the client.” According to Telescan’s Patty Anderson, unified messaging is “a central service which assures delivery of messages originating from a variety of sources and formats such as email, fax, voice or paging to the recipient.” Chris Semotok, is more definitive, stating that, “unified messaging is the process of taking voice mail, faxes, and email messages and storing them in one location from which the end user can retrieve, using the most convenient technology – telephone, Web browser, or email.”

“Unified messaging,” states Mike Dutton of CadCom Telesystems, “is being able to access voice, fax, and email messages at the same time on a single platform. Message retrieval may be accomplished with many different avenues and protocols that result in all messages being available from one location.” However, the “one location” phrase is difficult to pin down.

One option is to have the user go to a specific website (Web portal) to access messages. The service provider assigns each user a voice/fax number and then has the user’s current email address available for email retrieval. Voice messages can be accessed by phone or Web; faxes can be sent to fax machines or viewed at the Web location; email messages are viewable on from the Web and some systems will even read email over the phone.

A second option is to have fax and voice messages accessed from the user’s desktop with Microsoft Exchange/Inbox or Outlook. This requires the user to have constant Internet access. In this format the email is handled by regular Outlook protocols, but the fax and voice messages are maintained on the voice mail server. The voice messages can be played from Outlook with player controls like that of a tape player. This allows for visual and audio access to voice mail and fax messages, but still keeps the email and voice/fax messages on separate servers.

The last option is to have the voice and fax messages sent to the users’ email address. Voice messages are sent as compressed .wav files and faxes as .tif files.

Keys Considerations for Service Providers: The International Engineering Consortium provides advice to service providers who wish to offer unified messaging. The primary item they stress is availability. Availability is manifested in two ways. The first is that unified messaging must be provisioned for a large potential market, not just one central office, or a handful of select cities, but available to all. Those already in the teleservices business are likely to have the infrastructure in place to meet this aspect of availability. (This avoids the disappointment of responding to an ad only to be told, “sorry, the service is not available in your area.”) The complementary aspect of availability is that the platform must be robust and reliable. Once the public subscribes to unified messaging services, they will expect one hundred percent uptime, total and complete reliability, 24 x 7.

The second critical element is scalability. Some products only work, or only work well, on a small scale. To be able to sustain a possible forty-five percent annual growth rate, today’s unified messaging platform will need to be expanded to keep pace with demand. Few things are more frustrating than to have rapid growth stymied by a system that is maxed out or becomes unstable under traffic. Therefore, be sure to select a system that can be expanded (“scaled up”) when needed. The unpleasant alternative will be to buy a second system. This results in an inefficient use of technology resources, a negation of possible economies of scale, and a decrease in profitability.

The third item is the user interface. It must be simple and intuitive. The easier the system is to learn, so the quicker sales can be made and less amount of time needed to spend training new subscribers. This will help to retain subscribers, as new users will quickly learn and master the system’s operation.

Other considerations include integration or interfacing with your existing system and telephony network, additional features and benefits, and having basic voice mail features. In today’s age of technology some people are technically inclined and some are not. By having a unified messaging platform that does plain voice mail, you are best able to offer basic services to this later group, while having the features that attract the technically sophisticated ones.

Benefits for Service Providers: There are three benefits that unified messaging offers to service providers. The first is a new source of revenue. If your business focuses on having people serve your client base (labor-centric), then unified messaging is a viable diversification strategy. Conversely, if your business focus is technology (automation-centric), then unified messaging is one more tool in your arsenal of services.

The second benefit of unified messaging is that it provides a means to grow your subscriber base. Although your existing customers will be your first, and best, source of sales, you will also attract new consumers. Once you have sold them on unified messaging, you have begun a business relationship and are in a good position to sell them other services in the future.

The third advantage is often overlooked. Quite simply, it is the positive impact that unified messaging will have on your own operation. Your company may be the best candidate to use and benefit from unifying various messaging services.

Vendor Information: The following is a summary of information provided by vendors of unified messaging systems. In some cases these are stand-alone platforms, while in other cases their offering is part of a larger, more inclusive system, such as a messaging or order-taking platform.

Alston Tascom: Tascom views unified messaging as encompassing both a software and hardware solution. From a software perspective, all communications media should be intelligently routed to the correct user in the appropriate priority order. The user should simply be able to log in to one system and process messages.

From a hardware perspective, unified messaging also relates to how the various communications devices connect to one another. There are three scenarios by which communications devices can be connected:

  • Interfaced: Different components from different manufacturers that use both software (Computer Telephony Integration – CTI) and cables to link a system together. In this instance, hardware ports must be expanded to allow for more traffic between specific devices and multiple vendors are required for training, installation, and technical support
  • Integrated: Different components but from the same vendor, using software (CTI) and cables to link a system together. Hardware ports must be expanded to allow for more traffic between specific devices, but the need to contact multiple vendors is eliminated.
  • Unified: One server, one vendor, and an all-in-one solution. Here, every inbound call has full access to all communications modes, no “hardware” ports needed for internal connections, and there is a single vendor for training, installation, and technical support. Alston Tascom offers the Tascom SQL Digital Unified DigitalComCenter that provides true unified messaging and a complete set of call center applications in a single or multi-processing chassis.

For more information about Alston Tascom or unified messaging call 866-282-7266 or visit their website at www.alstontascom.com 

Amtelco: With an Amtelco Infinity system, a message can be taken in any form and delivered in almost any way that is convenient for the client. Infinity’s unified messaging system can accept a variety of messages including text, voice mail, and voice scripting. It can also perform automatic email response as well as allow text messages to be entered over the Internet via the Web desktop. Once the messages are in the Infinity system, there is a wide array of access and dispatch options. Typical unified messaging access options such as email and email wave files are part of Infinity’s offering. Other options include alpha dispatch, digital paging, voice mail delivery, access via wireless PDAs and WAP-enabled cell phones, cascading messaging, follow me, orbit alert, and agent message delivery. When the UltraComm fax server is integrated to Infinity, more output options are added. These include fax, fax broadcast, fax store and forward, email, agent initiated faxes, text-to-speech, and email retrieval. This vast array of features and options transcends the typical ways in which unified messaging is defined. In doing so, this sets a vision for the breadth and depth of what unified messaging can become.

For more information about Amtelco, the Infinity platform, or unified messaging, contact Amtelco at 800-356-9148 or visit them at callcenter.amtelco.com  

CadCom: CadCom’s unified messaging system is called VM III. It is a full featured, voice messaging system which has been developed for multiple industries, such as executive suites, telephone answering services, and anyone needing a single solution for voice mail, fax, and email, such as a virtual office. VM III also provides auto attendant, voice mail, fax capabilities (fax on demand, fax store and forward, and fax mail), unified messaging with email options, and a comprehensive feature set for call processing and message handling. Some features include greetings for call screening that can be changed by day and time and four language choices for the systems prompts. With VM III’s message control options, you can stop, fast-forward, rewind, and undelete messages at the touch of a button; you can also change the volume of the call. VM III can support from four up to ninety-six ports in a single chassis, an unlimited number of mail boxes, and up to 1500 simultaneous connections across the LAN and Internet.

For more information about, call 800-422-3266 or visit www.onvisource.com.

Telescan also provides unified messaging systems; contact Telescan directly at 800-770-7662.

[From Connection MagazineMarch 2002]

Advantages of Unified Communication

By Scott Stone

Voice mail is one of the most significant communication technologies of the past decade. It enables people to access messages from virtually any location where a telephone is present. However, this produced somewhat of a dilemma: consider the amount of time it takes to retrieve these voice mail messages, in addition to email documents, faxes, and instant messages – let alone analyzing the content and responding. There is clearly a need for a solution that consolidates all of this information so that it can be managed more efficiently and effectively.

Unified messaging builds on the proven functionality and value of voice mail by integrating it with other messaging channels to include email and fax in a single mail box that offers expanded message and contact management capabilities. By implementing a unified messaging solution, users have the ability to access, manage, and reply to all messages from a PC, touch-tone telephone (wire-line or wireless), or PDA virtually anywhere in the world.

Unified messaging has proven to be a powerful tool in helping workers organize and manage not only voice mail but also other non-real time communications such as email and fax. Unified messaging is an outgrowth of the success of voice mail, which continues to enjoy a must-have status in today’s business environment. As companies’ needs evolve and change, unified messaging will become a critical and ubiquitous business tool, just as voice mail is today.

Make The Case To Unify: Workers can spend up to fifty-eight percent of their workday (approximately four hours) away from their desks. Being out of touch half their workday can mean risking relationships that are increasingly essential in today’s customer-centric economy.

To remain competitive, an enterprise must constantly improve its communication abilities by enhancing contact tools for its workforce, customers, and partners. Efficient communication drives customer responsiveness and advances employee productivity. This results in increased satisfaction, retention, and loyalty for both customers and employees.

Use Accessibility To Increase Productivity: Unified messaging enables the receiver to react to any message, at any time, regardless of the format in which it was sent. For example workers can:

  • Access and manage all messages using a PC, telephone, PDA, or Web browser.
  • Listen to email messages over the phone via text-to-speech conversion and reply instantly.
  • Send and receive fax messages with a PC.
  • Generate voice mail messages as email attachments that can be sent to anyone with an Internet address.
  • Reply in the “medium” of choice, allowing users to use the application and device which is most convenient.
  • Work with compound messages, such as forwarding an email or fax message with a voice introduction, or embedding voice messages into emails.

Unified communication enables organizations to operate more efficiently no matter where users access the system – the office, remote locations, or mobile.

Choose A Solution Today: One of the key strategies for implementing a cost-effective unified communication system is interoperability. A good unified communication platform should integrate easily into one’s existing infrastructure. For example, businesses that have made significant investments in their voice messaging technology should identify a solution that can support it.

The right solution will provide scalable, open systems architecture capable of supporting present and future communication applications. Whether a company is using a PBX style or IP-based communications infrastructure, a good unified communication solution should be capable of extending an organization’s reach and providing a new set of tools designed to positively impact the bottom line. When evaluating different solutions, look for ones that offer a full range of options.

Reap Positive Returns: Unified communication’s potential return on investment lies in its ability to support revenue growth and market leadership. For example, if company “A” does not respond to inquiries fast enough, the customer is a mouse click or phone call away from doing business with company “B.” Therefore, handled separately, unanswered voice mail, email, and fax messages present a liability. What good is a cell phone to a company representative on the road when an urgent email arrives from a high-priority client? However, using a unified communication solutions, the same company representative can listen to that message using a cell phone and respond to it immediately anytime, anywhere.

This type of best-in-class service makes a strong impression not only to customers, but on the bottom line. Businesses know that it costs five to seven times more to get a former customer back than it does to maintain an existing customer relationship. Customers who receive timely responses are more likely to remain loyal, purchasing more and generating business in the future. A good unified messaging solution can save thirty minutes of productive time per day, per employee. Based on a typical work day, this is an efficiency gain of about five percent.

Is unified messaging the end of voice mail? No; it is just the beginning. Unified messaging is a pliable technology with lasting power that can provide a building block for future unified communication capabilities. Unified communication will help make our lives easier, more mobile and efficient, and when the right solution is implemented, it can be done with minimal risks and entry expense. In short, unified messaging will drive responsiveness, competitive advantage, and productivity.

Scott Stone is Vice President of Solutions Management at Avaya, a leading global provider of voice and data networks as well as communications solutions and services. Avaya is a worldwide leader in unified messaging and messaging systems.

[From Connection MagazineMarch 2002]

E-Customer Contact Tools

By Gary Blasiar

One main objective of any business’s customer service department is to satisfy and build relationships within its customer base. Customers are demanding that they be served the way they want to be served until they get stuck, at which point they want immediate assistance with a live person. The Internet gives customers a new avenue to conduct their business and consequently, a new way to serve them.

The traditional call center is now a customer care contact center and deploys a variety of communication platforms to convert every online communication into a successful opportunity to serve a customer. Outlined below are a few of the basic Internet-based tools your company can use to enhance customer care. These tools can be purchased individually through third party providers or can be bundled in e-suite customer relationship management solution packages.

The following includes a brief description of each tool, how it is used to complement customer interaction and strategy to get the most out of your investment.

  • Web chat: Web chat is the live text dialogue that will enable your Internet site to interact with visitors. Customers needing assistance simply click on the “Live Help” icon that prompts a window to pop up. This essentially initiates a session and an operator is selected. The customer begins typing messages and receives a response from the agent in real time. Since an estimated 65 percent of customers who begin to order products over the Net don’t finish their transactions, place the “Live Help” button at the top of the shopping cart page of your website. Train your customer service representatives to be sales reps, as they can help customers through the purchasing process.
  • Email: Email provides a communications platform in which a customer can order a product, ask questions and request service at any time of day. Email is a common communication mechanism within most website “Contact Us” pages. Customer care centers use email to respond to order status inquiries, order confirmation, pre sales questions, complaint/resolution issues, up-selling and various promotional offerings. If your customer service center does not have email communications it should be initiated immediately. If your company is one of the many companies investing thousands of dollars in market research, try attaching a customer questionnaire to your emails. Even if you offer a discount to your customers for filling out and returning the form, the savings in postage and data entry make this a cost-effective method of gathering important customer data.
  • Web callback: Web callback allows customers to initiate assistance by requesting a callback from an agent in either real time or a scheduled time frame. Visitors on a website merely click on a “Call Me” icon and enter their number. An automatic switch will put a member of your customer care group straight through to the inquirer. If the visitor asks for a delay before being contacted, the button will ensure that the visitor is called at that specific time. The customer-care representative can then assist the customer with any question or transaction. Use this tool for more complex customer service applications, as it offers “page-pushing” features of live chat; however limited, but with a live voice. In addition, cameras can be used at the service center so an agent can display your product and be able to give visible usage/repair/maintenance instructions.
  • Voice over Internet protocol (VOIP): VOIP is the practice of sending voice or video or both over the public Internet or intranets. VOIP is like using the telephone, but the signals are converted into digital data that are routed over the Web rather than the conventional telephone line. VOIP communications are broken down into discrete chunks of data that are transmitted digitally over the Internet. One of the most significant advantages of VOIP is that it avoids the tolls, taxes and other fees that phone companies typically charge for a traditional phone call. This tool requires your customers to have multimedia computers, a microphone and speakers to enable agents to converse with your visitors. Customers visiting your website can click on an interactive button or icon to speak with a customer-care agent instantly. Many of the VOIP tools can inform the customer-care agent whether the website visitor has multimedia capability. Most VOIP environments are equipped with Internet navigation assistance tools to help agents “push” information to the Web visitor. Computer telephony integration capabilities can offer tremendous enhancements to VOIP. Consult with your VOIP provider or service center for more information. Features to look for: Now that you have decided to service your customers via the Net, here are features to look for when choosing the right tool:
  • Universal compatibility (Web chat): It is crucial that the chat tool you select works with all standard Web browsers and that the agent and customer can access the tool behind corporate fire walls.
  • Dynamic icon placement (Web chat, email, Web callback, VOIP): Since your customer-care environment may have certain hours of availability, it is important that the icon for live help is shown only during coverage hours.
  • Custom and preformatted response capability (Web chat, email): The ability to use preformatted responses can increase efficiencies, reduce agent response time and ensure consistency in response. Custom answers are critical when addressing the more specific inquiries that are bound to surface in the customer care environment. Having a spell check on these tools will also reduce the number of correspondence errors.
  • Auto response and intelligent response (Web chat, email, VOIP): An immediate auto response (confirmation message) communication will assure that your customer contact has not fallen into a black hole. The response can become “intelligent” if a preformatted response is generated based on keywords that are present in the text. Intelligent keyword searches are often used for troubleshooting, order status and frequently asked questions requests.
  • Multiple sessions (Web chat, email): It is important to choose a tool that can increase agent efficiency by allowing multiple email/live chat sessions to be processed concurrently. For quality purposes, an agent should never manage more than three at any given time.
  • Data gathering and reporting (Web chat, email, Web call back, VOIP): You will always want to keep a pulse on customer trends, website user expectations and general feedback. Make sure the tools you use allow you to survey customers at the end of each session. It is also important to look at other forms of gathered data, review dialogue transcripts, analyze call/contact logs and monitor contact duration. Being able to readily access data is critical in getting to know your customers better and enhancing their contact experiences.
  • Prioritization and skill-based routing (email, Web chat, Web callback and VOIP): All forms of contact can be qualified through a few simple questions and then routed to an agent skill set that is trained to accommodate the customers’ needs. This will help you manage your center in a more efficient manner and achieve a higher level of first contact/call resolution.
  • Web page pushing (Web chat, email): This feature will allow your customer care representatives to open up and “push” any URL page to your website visitors to assist with problem resolution or to provide additional information. Some tools even allow the agent to highlight specific areas of text or graphics that may require clarification. The main objective of any customer care environment is to help the customers. Customers need to be able to communicate with your business in a way that is most comfortable and available to them. If you can’t provide the communication platforms they want to use, they will find companies that can. It is those companies that can hear their customers’ suggestions, complaints and buying signals that will excel relative to their competition. The Internet offers some of the best ears to a company and its over-all business strategy.

Gary Blasiar is president of Alert Communications, Los Angeles, an outsourced call center. He can be contacted at gblasiar@alertcom.com.

[From Connection Magazine – March 2001]

Web Contact Centers, A Whole New Language

By Irene Cash

The evolution of technology is sometimes difficult to keep up with. Looking back on the evolution that the traditional answering service has undergone is an eye-opening and educational experience! This evolution has taken us into an unparalleled time of technological advances. From the traditional “answering service,” to the “message center” of the 1980s, to the “call center of the 1990s,” this evolution has been driven by both technology and by customer expectations that spring up from that technology.

The telephone answering service (TAS) client has had a “brick and mortar (BAM)” presence where business was conducted. Adding the call center to that presence extended capabilities, productivity and profitability for that business; however, the new millennium has ushered in an era of technological change that has altered the way our clients look at doing business. Today they not only have that BAM presence, but they are also developing Web-based portals into their traditionally BAM-based businesses.

Tying together the BAM, the Web-based business presence, and the call center into a vital, unified business presence creates the call center of the future–the Web-enabled contact center. But in a world where buzzwords are prevalent and confusing, it’s not always easy to understand what being a Web-enabled contact center entails. Does it mean that you field traditional telephony calls from people who found the phone number on the Internet? Does it mean that your call center has access to the Internet?

The answer to those questions is yes, but it also means much, much more. To truly become a Web-enabled contact center, it becomes important to “integrate” to the Internet, and to provide a contact point above and beyond the traditional telephony means.

Let’s take a look at some of the terms, applications, and functions that go into becoming a full-fledged Web-enabled contact center.

Agent: Terminology traditional to the call center market that refers to operator, or telephone secretary.

Contact Center: or Multimedia call center. This is an evolved call center that provides contact above and beyond traditional telephony. Through integration to the Internet, text chat with Web surfers, email auto-response services, Web callback capabilities, voice over IP, and account information portals that clients can access via the Internet are some of the unique capabilities that go into providing contact center services. Email response: In the Internet-integrated contact center, this involves receiving the client’s email messages, typically through the ACD queue, and providing responses (canned or otherwise), based upon content and criteria supplied by the client.

Portal: A doorway or gateway to information on the Internet. It provides a common “face” to extensive and varying information. Yahoo could be considered a portal. Your website could be considered a portal to your client’s account information, on-call schedule, messages, status, and more, if you provide Internet-integrated client services, extended via the Web.

VPN: Virtual Private Network. This network makes use of the existing Internet infrastructure, but supplies the benefits of security and privacy that you can not get from solely utilizing the public Internet. Web Callback: Web callback provides the ability for a Web surfer to fill out a page on the website, and request that an agent call them back live, using traditional telephony methods. After filling in all of the pertinent information, the request is submitted by the Web surfer, and in an Internet-integrated contact center system, the request is presented to the first eligible agent via the ACD queue. The agent then initiates the callback.

Web Chat: Web chat is text based. It allows a Web surfer to contact an agent while viewing a website. If the Web surfer has a question, or needs further information, they typically click on a “Speak with an Agent” button on the Web page that they are looking at. In an Internet-integrated contact center system, the chat request is presented to the agent from the ACD queue. The agent connects to the call, and chats real time with the surfer, using text.

Web Database: A database that is capable of existing on a Web. This Web could be an intranet, the Internet, or a Virtual Private Network (VPN ). The benefits of utilizing a Web database include the ability to easily deploy at-home agents, the ability to access vital, up-to-date information from a client’s database, as well as update that same database real-time, and the ability to network large accounts with remote offices and co-operative services so that all of the data is being accessed and updated real-time, one time, in one common database source.

Web Push/Collaboration: In an Internet-integrated contact center environment, agents can actually take control of the Web surfer’s browser, and “push” information to the surfer. Product information, frequently asked questions, and applications are just a few examples of information that can be pushed to a Web surfer by an agent.

Web Screen Pop: This is a key element in the integration of the Internet into the contact center. A Web screen pop will automatically present the appropriate Web page to a contact center agent, from the call handling screen. This provides instantaneous access to applicable Internet-based information.

Unified Messaging: Unified messaging is a buzzword that has been used to mean many things to many people. Traditionally, unified messaging indicates the ability to take a message in any form, and deliver it via any other form. For example, delivering a voice mail message to an email account to be played, or translating a text message to voice automatically using “text-to-voice” technology could be considered instances of unified messaging.

Voice Over IP: This is also referred to as VoIP. VoIP is the ability to conduct real time audio conversations utilizing the Internet. You may also hear this referred to as Internet Telephony.

These are just some of the newest terms and technologies that are springing up as technology advances. And as technology advances and your clients become reliant on that technology, it becomes vital that the call center positions itself to become an all important link–the link that ties together the BAM business, the Internet presence, and the call center into a one-contact point. That one-contact point has become known as the multimedia contact center.

[From Connection Magazine – September 2000]

Using the Internet to Your Advantage: Part II

By Frank D’Ascenzo

[Part I of this series was in the May 2000 issue of Connections Magazine.]

2. Adding Internet Unified Messaging Services.

A. Internet Unified Messaging. Internet unified messaging is a relatively new Net-service that directs voice, fax, and email messages to a single place for easy management–your email in-box. You can, for example, log on the Internet to check your voice, fax and email messages. Or you can call a toll-free number to receive and reply to your emails and voice mails, and to hear about the faxes waiting for you.

Several Net companies are offering unified messaging services. The more popular are: eFax.com, jfax.com, onebox.com, and uReach.com. These services are very similar in concept and features in that they: are all aimed at the individual client; all provide a telephone number for the client to use; and all deliver fax and voice messages to a client’s email address for free.

B. Use It to Your Advantage. You can use one of these Internet unified messaging service providers to offer email message delivery to any telephone answering service (TAS) client. This is something you can offer to current and prospective clients right now, without adding any special equipment or purchasing any special software. These are free-to-you services you can use for your income-producing advantage.

Making use of one of these services is relatively simple. It assumes that your TAS system is equipped either with an internal form of automatic fax message dispatch, or an external FMDS system. In either case, all you to do is:

  1. Have your customer subscribe to one of the Internet unified messaging services and obtain a “fax-to” telephone number. We recommend selecting the same service for all clients to use, so you are completely familiar with the features of that service. Depending on location, your client will either be given a local or long distance telephone number to use for their fax messages. If you wish to exercise more control over the subscription process, you can handle the sign-up process for the client. Just make sure you are familiar with the required information by going through the process yourself.
  2. Using your client’s assigned telephone number, program it into your TAS system’s fax message dispatch system.
  3. Then, when you “fax” messages to your client (to the programmed number), they will be converted into email messages by the Internet unified messaging service provider and deposited into the client’s email inbox.

NOTE: Remember, the client might be given a long-distance number, so make sure you either cover this cost in your pricing structure or limit the number of times each day you fax messages to the client. How you charge for this extra service is up to you. A one-time setup fee, plus an incremental charge on each delivered message, over and above your normal fax message delivery charge, is probably appropriate.

3. Adding Internet Telephony Services

A. Web Site Live-Answer. Providing live-answer service for websites is a new Internet revenue producing opportunity available to every TAS service center. It’s a service you can offer to your present customers that have a website, and to all prospective clients even though they are not regular messaging clients. Which means a whole range of new potential clients is open for your live answering service!

Providing live-answer service for a website involves the use of Internet telephony or voice over IP technology. An Internet telephony-enabled website means that a visitor to the website can “click on a button” and be connected, through the Internet and the public switched telephone network, to an agent at your TAS service.

B. Internet Telephony. In order for voice to be transmitted over the Internet, it must be properly configured for the journey. At the sending end, the voice message must be digitized and separated into packets. Each packet carries identification information that determines its destination and its order. The packets are carried over the Internet to their destination address and reassembled in the proper order for listening. It’s important to note that the final destination point might be another PC, or even a regular telephone. Which means that it’s possible to make a computer-to-computer call, or a computer-to-telephone call. For this two-way Internet voice connection to work, the website visitor’s PC must be equipped with a sound card, headset and microphone.

When a website visitor uses the service for the first time, they will be prompted to download a small software program. The program takes care of digitizing their voice and preparing it for Internet packet transmission–and reception, since we’re interested in two-way conversations.

While voice over IP quality isn’t quite equal to what we are accustomed to hearing over current direct line connections, it is good enough to enable intelligent communications. And, website visitors will be so pleased (or perhaps intrigued) with being able to reach a live person via their computers that any voice quality differences will be overlooked. In other words, they will make an allowance for the current state of the technology.

C. At Your End. Surprisingly–or perhaps amazingly–you do not need any special equipment or software to answer the VoIP call at your TAS end. All you need to do is: contact ConnixUP to arrange Internet telephony service for your Web-TAS account, provide a toll-free telephone number for the client’s website, and Set up the Web-TAS account on your system.

ConnixUP–ConnixUP is a Web services company that will arrange Internet telephony service for your Web-TAS client. ConnixUP interfaces with your client’s Web master to add the required HTML code and link to their website, or can perform the addition with their permission. Your client will be billed directly by ConnixUP for these services. The charge is $500 for one full year of Internet telephony service plus a $50 set-up charge.

Toll-free Number–You need to provide a toll-free number for the client’s Web-TAS account. This number is required to complete each Internet call, and must be available before ConnixUP can complete the Internet telephony service connection. In fact, this number becomes a part of the HTML code that will be inserted in the client’s website. A different toll-free number is required for each Web-TAS client.

Web-TAS Account Revenue–How much you charge for Web-TAS live-answer service is somewhat open. This is, after all, a relatively new service area. Incoming calls might be either short or long in duration, depending on the type of service requested by the client.

The number of calls you might expect to process will be directly related to the popularity of the client’s website. For most small businesses, the amount of Internet traffic to their website will be normally light–on the order of 100 to 500 visitors per month. If 10% of the website visitors opted to use the live answer feature, call volume would fall in the 10-to-50 calls per month range, which is certainly not a high-volume account.

Is this a cost-effective service for the client?

Let’s assume an average of 30 Web-TAS calls per month, or 360 per year. Further assume you charge $75 base per month plus $2 per call. That’s $1,620 for your services, plus $550 for one year of Internet telephony service (paid to ConnixUP), or a total of $2,170 per year. Divide that by the 360 calls for an average lead/prospect cost of only $6.03. Any business should be pleased to pay only $6 for a prospect lead.

4. Using Internet Business Assistance Services.

In addition to the previous revenue-producing potentials, there are a number of business assistance services now available on the Internet that you might want to consider for your own use or to suggest to your clients. Here are several examples you might find of value.

A. The United States Post Office Goes Net. At least three companies offer postage services on the Internet. They are: E-Stamp Corporation and their e-stamp.com service, Pitney Bowes’; ClickStamp Online clickstamp.pb.com service; and Neopost Corporation’s pcstamp.com service. These services simplify the task of purchasing and using postage by printing “stamps” and address labels complete with USPS delivery point barcode, return address, and even special graphics or promotional copy. All this happens in your office, right from your PC.

B. Business Support Services. DigitalWork and b2bNow are two dot-com business support sites on the Internet. The services they offer include marketing, direct mail, public relations, and sales assistance. They offer discounts from affiliates, free information, and access to numerous other business-oriented sites via links from their website. Can you make use of their services? You’ll never know unless you take a look. Where else can you get business assistance for little, or no cost? It’s available on the Internet, and well worth the look.

C. Internet Call Identification Services. Internet Call Manager is a caller ID service for your computer. It lets you see who’s calling on your PC modem line while you’re browsing the Web. You can respond with a “You call me back” or “I’ll call you back” message, route the caller to voice mail, or you can ignore the call; all for less than $5 per month including the voice mail service.

D. Ping Alerts. Here’s a reminder service for everyone. iPing Corporation is offering multi-reminder service products under the names: Mr. Wakeup, Ms. Reminder, Mr. Notify, Ms. Followup, Dr. Dose, and Mr. Dollar. Presently, these services are all free as iPing refines their technology. Eventually they may carry a fee structure of some kind. The important point is that these are reminder services that you might use to your business advantage wherever you travel.

E. Affiliate Programs. By the way, business assistance services, and other Internet companies, are a potential source of additional revenues. Many Internet companies offer revenue sharing opportunities through affiliate programs. The concept is as simple as including some promotional text on your website and a link leading to the Internet companies website. When a visitor on your site uses the link to visit “their” site, and then purchases a product or service from them, you can earn a fee or commission. There is a number of affiliation programs available, some of which will be appropriate for your website. But, you must have a website to participate.

[From Connection Magazine – July 2000]

Unified Messaging

By Nigel Alexander and Ben Feder

Unified Messaging is taking our industry by storm. Here are two different accounts by Nigel Alexander and Ben Feder who represent companies that are joining voice and data at the desktop of holy matrimony.

I (Nigel) have just finished rereading Aldous Huxley’s, futuristic book, Brave New World. Last month I read Orwell’s 1984 (again), watched Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, reviewed the predictions of Nostradamus, and even reread Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues.

I was stunned to find that in all these predictive masterpieces of film and literature, voice mail appears to have been completely overlooked. This means one of two things, (a) I am in completely the wrong business, or (b) voicemail will become so ubiquitous, that these visionaries of the past simply accepted it as a part of life, and forgot to mention it. I really hope it’s the latter!

According to a nameless 1997 study, (nameless because the owners wanted a fortune to allow me to quote their name in this article), the U.S. basic automated voice messaging services industry was about $2.7 billion, with an 8 to 12% annual growth rate. That means that by now it is well over $3 billion and growing. As you would expect, the Bell companies have 85% of it and apparently there are 4,200 small independent voice mail companies sharing the remaining 15%. That’s a lot of us. Too many, actually.

This thing called “Unified Messaging” is going to change the face of this industry completely. By the term “Unified Messaging,” I mean a voice mailbox that can do everything except make coffee. It will:

  • Gather all your messages from home, office and mobile phones into one mailbox;
  • Notify your pager or PCS phone of all message activity in your mailbox;
  • Store voice, fax and email messages, read email back over the phone, play voice mail over your PC and deliver faxes anywhere you may want them;
  • Dial all your numbers simultaneously when a caller reaches voice mail and needs you urgently;
  • Capture the numbers of people who leave you messages, and call them back at the touch of a key;
  • Allow you to make calls from your mailbox;
  • Eventually do all this in response to your voice commands, and not key presses.

They (whoever “they” are!) tell us that this type of service will do three things to the industry. First, it will grow the messaging services industry from $3,000,000,000 to $30,000,000,000 over the next decade. Second, these services will be too complicated for the Bell companies to deliver effectively, and they will lose their dominant market position; and third, it will be too complex for companies to maintain their own equipment and they will come crawling back to the service bureaus they abandoned when voice mail equipment dropped in price so dramatically.

Personally, I can’t wait. I can visualize the scene a haggard, middle-aged, dejected man, on his knees, pleading for my unified messaging service. I smile smugly and respond: “I’m sorry Mr. Smith. I see from your record that you cancelled our service in 1994 when you bought a voice mail system tell me, where was your loyalty why should I take you back now? Have you changed?”

Seriously though, this is going to be huge. Not today, probably not even tomorrow, but over the next decade. As William Shatner is so fond of saying about Priceline.com “Its big, really big.”

So, what are we doing about it? Well, at Multi-Link, we are preparing to offer full unified messaging on Glenayre equipment later this year. It’s costly, and the provisioning is going to be complex and intricate, but hey, if I think its difficult, just imagine how Mr. Bell is going to feel.

We’re expanding the number of cities we serve. In May of last year we just served Denver. Now we serve Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Raleigh and are looking at several more cities this year. We are merging with automated voice mail service bureaus, upgrading their equipment when necessary, and preparing for the boom that will surely come.

Voice mail, its growing up fast, and its much like your awkward, pimply, teenager who’s growing up fast. The last 10 years have been great fun; the next few will be tricky, but 10 years from now the rewards will be unbelievable.

Nigel Alexander is CEO of Multi-Link Telecommunications, a voice mail company with over $10 million in sales. Multi-Link is headquartered in Denver, Colorado, and is publicly traded on NASDAQ under the symbol MLNK. Nigel can be reached 303-313-2001.

The future of unified messaging has already happened with growth of the industry forecasted at over $1.2 billion by 2003. People working in the finance, real estate, and travel industries, as well as many others, are taking advantage of unified messaging today to simplify their communications. With the growth of mobile phone and hand-held computer use, corporations and individuals are seeking easier, more efficient ways to receive messages. And the opportunities for telephone answering services to broaden their service offerings with unified messaging are enormous.

Unified messaging simplifies every day communications for employees by letting them manage all of their messages using a PC or a telephone. This means employees spend less time managing messages and more time doing their jobs. Traveling employees, such as executives and sales people, also benefit from unified messaging, because they can manage their messages, including faxes and email, while they are on the road. In the past, this often required cumbersome remote access solutions or calling the main office to get these messages.

People can and should choose how they communicate. While they may be receiving voice mail from a live telephone answering service, unified messaging from MessageClick provides a means to receive faxes in their email 24 hours a day. No need to worry about busy signals or machines that are out of paper.

MessageClick’s follow-me service is a value-added service in which people can call your single number and it will ring all your telephones (mobile, home, office, etc.) in the order you prefer.

Time is the primary resource that none of us have enough of, and recent statistics suggest that the growing implementation of unified messaging will yield productivity gains equivalent to approximately 30 minutes per person every day. Why have fax machines, answering machines, multiple phone numbers, email, and pagers, when it makes communications complicated? Why not have one central place to receive all of your messages? For example, if most businesses were organized like the traditional communication industry, we would go to one store to buy shoe laces another to buy the left shoe and another to buy a different right shoe. We scoff at the U.S. mail but at least people have only one zip code versus multiple area codes for office, home, cell and other numbers. The post office has no right to change your address, yet the communication industry owns your many phone addresses.

Widespread adoption of any new technology takes some time. However, all signs point to the success of this industry, with thousands of new customers signing up for unified messaging services every day; about 2,000 of them signing up for MessageClick alone. We will continue to improve upon our technology and allow companies in the telephone answering service industry, as well as others, to offer unified messaging as a value-added service.

Ben Feder is chief executive officer of MessageClick. Before founding the company, Mr. Feder was an executive with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Serving as one of News Corp.’s youngest executive vice presidents, Mr. Feder developed and managed Internet services for businesses and consumers, and created a joint venture with MCI at Delphi Internet Services, a wholly owned subsidiary. Mr. Feder holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Columbia University. MessageClick is a leading provider of Internet-based unified messaging and outsourced faxing services. Partners include EarthLink, Juno, @Home, RCN and MindSpring. Founded in 1996, with headquarters in New York City, the company operates a global Internet messaging network that facilitates high-quality messaging 24 hours a day.

Publisher’s Note: The new hype term when it comes to unified messaging is Digital Subscriber Line ( DSL). DSL is a modem technology using packet switching technology that operates independent of the voice telephone system, allowing the telephone companies to provide the service without locking up circuits for long calls. Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) service provides faster downstream speeds and is suited for Internet usage and video on demand, where the heaviest transmission requirement is from the provider to the customer.

For consumers, DSL means a super-fast Internet connection without any fancy new wiring, which won’t interrupt standard telephone service, thus eliminating the need for an extra phone line. For businesses, DSL means multiple voice lines at a fraction of T-carrier pricing, and bandwidth that can be dynamically assigned for data.

The availability of DSL is very limited at present, but Cahners In-Stat Group has forecast DSL growth at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 63.7 percent over the next five years. DSL is coming, and with it the opportunities for new revenue.

DSL will initially find its way into the small business and home consumer market, exactly the demographic that would find service provider unified messaging appealing. DSL solves the problem of bandwidth lag-time when downloading voice messages in the home or office. Its high-speed connection will make the messaging seem instantaneous.

Because DSL is an always-on technology, the computer can be left on to receive messages 24 hours a day, and the consumer has to only peek at the computer screen to see any email messages, live TAS messages, voice mail messages, or faxes. For these reasons, DSL is an outstanding medium in which to deliver unified messaging when it becomes available in your area.

[From Connection Magazine – March 2000]

A Holistic Approach to Unified Messaging

By David Winikoff

Building your telephone answering service business (TAS) today requires continuously adding value to the services you provide your customers. New technologies are making it easier to provide higher levels of customer service. Customer relationship management (CRM) tools, for example, can help you target incoming calls, emails and Web inquiries to the telephone agent best able to handle them, allowing you to serve your clients’ customers with greater ease and efficiency. Tele-working solutions can help your company take advantage of a dispersed pool of talented workers and reduce operating expenses. And, unified messaging applications can help your customers keep in touch with their messages anytime, anywhere, via the medium of choice. This article, in particular, focuses on unified messaging.

Information technology has progressed at such a rapid pace that it is now estimated the average executive, or some of your clients, are receiving or sending more than 190 electronic, voice, fax or paper messages per day (Pitney Bowes, 1998). Retrieving these messages is not only time-consuming with multiple message “in boxes” to check, but when and how your clients respond to these messages depends on their ability to access them, especially while traveling or working from a remote location. Many unified messaging solutions vendors have presented compelling arguments about the business case for unified messaging: from helping workers manage information, to increasing the effectiveness of remote/traveling workers, to maximizing a company’s intellectual capital; while others have touted the technology trends that have made unified messaging possible. But few, if any, have delivered products that address the very real issues of implementation and cost.

The truly successful approach offers practical solutions, both for the administrator and the end-user, for moving unified messaging technology out of the lab and into everyday business use. This article will describe how unified messaging could potentially enhance the quality of service you are currently providing your clients. It will discuss distinctions between “integrated” vs. “unified” architectures, exploring the “shortcomings” of integrated systems, and will introduce three imperatives that can make unified messaging truly “work” for you and your clients.

Finally, it will touch on some key technology issues and present a glimpse at what future open-standards-based unified messaging solutions might have to offer.

Three Imperatives: Unified messaging can add significant value to your clients’ business. First, your clients can have their answering service as well as email messages read to them over the phone. Fax messages can be retrieved over the phone and delivered to a nearby fax machine. Your clients could access and listen to voice mail messages through their PC or laptop message in-box. Some unified messaging system seven provide find-me, follow-me personal digital assistants that can track your clients down on their mobile phones to notify them of incoming urgent messages.

There’s also the potential for productivity gains. Even if your average client could save at least five minutes a day per worker in productivity by using a unified messaging system, the payoffs for a client with 1,000 employees could easily exceed $360,000 per year!

A purchase decision, in many cases, may be driven by a single lost opportunity. How much business could your client potentially gain or lose based upon that critical message reaching them?

Some also suggest unified messaging can enhance knowledge sharing and collaboration between employees. In 1995, Computer World reported that as little as 20 percent of an organization’s knowledge gets used; the other 80 percent remains untapped in databases, PCs or people’s heads. If unified messaging could make it easier for your clients’ employees to share their experiences, creativity and knowledge across continents and time zones, then the dramatically increased value of this knowledge could pay off big.

At Siemens, we believe enterprise-scale unified messaging solutions must address three key imperatives to be successful, namely:

  • It must provide complete convergence of voice, fax and email messaging for the end-user,
  • The system must be designed for trouble-free operation and easy maintenance, and
  • The solution must provide you and your clients an affordable, flexible and rational migration path to unified messaging.

Complete Convergence: Unified messaging solutions should offer robust and reliable, anytime, anywhere access to voice, fax and email messages via PC or phone. Most vendors can deliver these features, but how these features are delivered to you and your customers can make a difference. Today’s vendors offer two different architectural approaches: “integrated” and “unified” messaging.

The integrated approach does not deliver true unified messaging. Instead, it provides users with desktop access to messages located on separate voice mail, fax mail and email messaging systems. These separate messaging systems must be maintained independently, meaning two or more points of system administration. Preserving the appearance of unified messaging requires continual synchronization between the various messaging servers. This consumes valuable system resources, slows system performance, and can delay the delivery of messages to desktop and telephone clients.

The unified approach, by contrast, stores all incoming voice, fax and email messages in a single mailbox. With this approach, all messages are centrally stored, administered and controlled from a single messaging database, eliminating the need for background synchronization. Further, because voice, fax and email messages are stored together, there are almost no limitations on how one can respond to an incoming message. One can answer voice messages with fax or email (and vice versa), add voice comments to fax messages, or broadcast a single message to both fax and email recipients. This process is called “message morphing.”

The unified approach provides economic and performance benefits to the TAS operator that can be extended to its client base.

Simple Administration: Another key requirement for today’s next-generation messaging systems is ease of implementation and maintenance.

For TAS providers using unified messaging internally, a truly unified approach to messaging makes back office administration simpler (than the integrated approach), because there is only one database to update or maintain when customers join or leave your company, or when they request changes to their messaging services.

Unified messaging systems that share a common in box can also take advantage of shared directory (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol-LDAP) services that can simplify directory updates throughout the enterprise. Some systems also feature an intuitive Web-based interface that streamlines installation, maintenance and updates.

Externally, the simplified system administration can be translated into reduced unified messaging service costs for your customers.

Rational, Affordable Migration: A third imperative for the success of an enterprise unified messaging system is a rational and affordable migration path.

Many of the offerings on the market, however, fall short of this criteria, forcing customers to buy a fully loaded unified messaging system now, or a legacy voice messaging system with no clear upgrade path to true unified messaging. Today’s advanced unified messaging systems offer customers maximum flexibility in design and deployment. A scalable system allows users the flexibility to implement unified messaging on a work group-by-work group basis or an application-by-application basis as needs dictate.

Being able to provision some users with full unified messaging and some with just voice messaging is a good feature for those who are hesitant. A client, for example, may want to roll out unified messaging to its sales reps first to see how they respond to it. If these road warriors respond well, they can roll it out to other people in their organization.

Next Generation Messaging: So what’s in store for tomorrow’s enterprise unified messaging systems?

“For so long, we’ve had discrete voice, email and fax messaging systems, but now these are being combined into a single in box,” said David Zimmer, president of the Unified Messaging Consortium.” Tomorrow we’ll be putting other types of messages in there, such as work flow, e-commerce and knowledge management. Our whole communications paradigm will change drastically over the next five to ten years as we roll these systems out.”

Among key developments we are likely to see flourish in next-generation messaging solutions:

  • Speech recognition software will be added to unified messaging applications allowing users hands-free navigation through message review and distribution.
  • Advances in voice compression technology will increase voice quality and further reduce network bandwidth requirements.
  • The addition of multiple language voice menus will allow virtually any company to provide customized support to a global client base.
  • Advances in video recording and compression technologies will enable the expansion of video messages into the unified messaging mix.
  • Intelligent agent technology that finds and sorts messages and other database information according to criteria you specify will allow users more control over an ever-growing volume of messages.
  • Mobility functions such as find-me, follow-me forwarding will ensure that urgent messages are delivered right away.
  • Telephone-based management of calendar and contact files as well as messages will more completely provide for the “virtual desktop.”
  • Integration with real-time collaborative work flow applications will promote faster response to dynamic business opportunities.

David Winikoff is director of messaging and collaboration at Siemens, headquartered in Santa Clara, California. In this position, Mr. Winikoff is responsible for directing the development and delivery of Siemens’ messaging and collaboration solutions across North America.

[From Connection Magazine – January 2000]

New Technology, New Markets

By Christine J. Holley

Change or die. This admonition rings loud and clear to the many Telephone Answering Services (TAS) attempting to re-define themselves in today’s rapidly changing market. New innovations such as voicemail, wireless technology, alphanumeric paging, and the Internet have led to shrinking profit margins for TAS. These changes have prompted many TAS to provide what some are calling Enhanced Telephone Services (ETS). ETS include such offerings as lead generation, customer support, and telemarketing. While the addition of these services may extend the life of your TAS, they do not address the need for a telephony platform that will not only support new customer services, but one that will support such services using any communication medium desired by the customer. The right platform will enable TAS to succeed in the customer care market (formerly the call center market), and prepare them for whatever new media types lie ahead.

So what does a TAS look for when evaluating telephony platforms? What type of architecture will enable a TAS to cost-effectively take advantage of the customer care market, now the domain of a myriad of media types such as fax, email and the Internet? Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) promised a solution that links telephone and computer systems so that agents can more effectively service customers. This architecture takes proprietary communication devices, such as the PBX, Automatic Call Distributor (ACD), Interactive Voice Response (IVR), voice mail system and fax server and, through the use of CTI middle ware, links them to the computer. Hallmarks of CTI are the “soft phone” (the use of the computer to process calls), “screen pop” (upon receiving a call, the simultaneous “popping” of customer data), and “unified messaging” (the ability to receive voice, email and fax messages in a universal in-box).

While CTI offers many useful features, it also comes with inherit problems. As its name implies, CTI offers an integrated solution. Separate devices may be linked, but each device remains an information “silo” whereby processes such as reporting and routing are necessarily duplicated. CTI is not a bad solution if a TAS chooses to deal in only one or two media types. However, as media types multiply, complexity grows exponentially. In addition, since CTI architecture starts with hardware-based, proprietary devices, customizations entail costly visits from the vendor. Adding to this cost are “forklift upgrades,” common occurrences among CTI vendors despite the fact that many customers only require a single new feature.

In response to the weaknesses of CTI architecture, comes a new technology known as “all-in-one” communications server technology. This technology begins with an open, software-based architecture. It is considered a unified solution – as opposed to an integrated one – because it utilizes a single server to process all media types, including voice calls, faxes, email, and Web interactions. As a unified system, interactions are managed from a central point. Start-up costs are lower because Comm Server technology requires fewer devices, and administration and maintenance are simplified. Due to its open architecture, Comm Server technology also provides an ideal platform for integration with a multitude of third party applications. Most Comm Server solutions are targeted at organizations with between 20 and 200 users at a given site.

For those TAS attempting to transition into the customer care market, Comm Server technology offers many benefits. For starters, TAS must service a variety of customers with changing needs, thus, their telephony platform of choice must be flexible and easily customizable. Comm Server technology accomplishes this through built-in GUI-based tools designed to customize everything from dial plans and IVR scripts, to fax routing and automatic email responses. In addition, the same rules applied to voice calls, can be applied to faxes, Web chats, or any other media type. This reuse of business logic saves TAS valuable time and resources. The Comm Server’s GUI interface also reduces training time.

Another significant advantage of communications server technology is its comprehensive feature set and software-based architecture. The communications server is designed to replace PBXs, ACDs, IVRs, voice mail systems, fax servers, Web gateways and CTI middleware systems. Any TAS hoping to compete in the customer care market must provide these sophisticated interaction handling services. While Comm Server technology starts with a robust feature set, TAS can build upon these incrementally, thus TAS only pay for the functionality being used. Unlike hardware-based systems, many more upgrades can be offered throughout the life cycle of a major Comm Server release, so TAS can take advantage of the most recent technological developments instead of waiting years for that “forklift upgrade.”

Leveraging the Internet is one of many ways TAS can break into the customer care market. Comm Server technology supports important Web services such as Web chat, Web callback, and Voice Over Net (VON) calls. Imagine your agents chatting with customers in real-time and “pushing” them Web pages. In this way, the customer actually sees what you’re describing, giving them the kind of personal service generally unheard of on the Internet. Comm Server technology also supports the use of “scripts.” These are pre-stored answers to commonly asked questions so that agents can, with the click of a button, give customers consistent, accurate information during a Web chat. This reduces training time and expedites time spent answering “rote” questions.

In order for TAS to remain cost-effective, they must also optimize agent resources. The Comm Server comes with built-in routing capabilities that include skills-based routing and multimedia queuing. Interactions can be routed based on virtually any criteria desired, including priority customer routing, last/best agent routing, agent cost routing, off-site routing, and others. communications server technology also accommodates “blended” strategies (the combination of inbound and outbound campaigns) so that agent resources are further optimized.

One way for TAS to cut down on overhead is to employ remote agents. Comm Server technology is ideal for supporting remote agents as it allows a person working from home, with a standard telephone line and an Internet connection, to perform exactly the same interaction management functions as a person sitting at TAS headquarters. Remote agents can perform telephone functions (e.g. dial, hold, transfer, conference), participate in call queues, view the real-time status of remote co-workers, receive mail (e.g. email, voice mail, fax), and so on. Call queues can be set up to transparently route calls to work-at-home agents (or regional offices), and since Comm Server technology can also route calls via the Internet, long distance charges are drastically reduced.

Employing sophisticated interaction management functions is an important first step to providing excellent customer care. Without the ability to monitor and evaluate these functions, however, TAS can waste a lot of money. In order to ensure that resources are used most effectively, TAS must also implement good quality assurance methods. Reporting tools serve as the basis for this type of evaluation, and communications server technology offers a unique advantage over traditional communication systems. Unlike integrated solutions, communications server technology utilizes a single reporting tool to measure all interactions regardless of type. This means that true end-to-end reporting is finally possible.

In many ways, TAS have an advantage over existing customer care centers. Many TAS have not yet invested a great deal of money or time in a communications infrastructure. They are not yet saddled with expensive proprietary devices that must still realize a return on investment before they can be replaced with more flexible and cost-effective technologies. Comm Server technology can position TAS ahead of even its most “branded” competitors by providing better customer service at a lower cost. Now it’s just a matter of who’s first to implement this emerging technology…so what are you waiting for?

Christine J. Holley is the Market Communications Specialist for Interactive Intelligence Inc. Read a case study: Communications Server Technology.

[From Connection Magazine – November 1999]