Looking Ahead


Amtelco

By Bob Vornberg

Telephone answering services (TASs) have played a unique and important role in our economy, from the early days of cord boards to the current era of smartphones and soft switches. A TAS combines people and technology in support of the business processes of their clients, helping small companies to grow and larger companies to continue to prosper.

As a creator of products for the industry, we at Amtelco and Telescan have this same relationship with you, the users of our products. We strive to create tools that are general in function and still powerful enough for you to service a wide range of clients’ needs and assist you in assimilating these tools into your operation in a timely and cost-effective way.

With today’s mobile workforce, servicing your clients’ needs means supporting them in their workflow in ways that were until recently not feasible. In the past, reception of a message meant an interruption to the workflow and consisted of several discrete steps of notification, message delivery, and follow-up. But now, thanks to the pervasiveness of wireless and smartphone technology, these steps are seamlessly combined and serve to enhance the workflow rather than interrupt it. This also implies a TAS now can participate more fully in the workflow itself.

Timely, reliable, and secure communications always have been a characteristic requirement of the medical community, and they have been the first to benefit from the ability to use these new communication tools. But the technology used to support it also can be applied effectively in other business settings. When working with your clients, analyze their business processes and be attentive to how new technology can be applied.

For example, when dispatching to on-call personnel, a secure message delivered using the Spectrum Secure Delivery app can keep the TAS informed automatically throughout the lifecycle of the message, from “viewed” to “in process” to “completed.” The on-call personnel can exchange notes with each other through the app or can optionally notify the TAS through the app to enlist backup support. Supervisory personnel can log in to the desktop or tablet version of the app as an admin to obtain access to the status of all outstanding and completed calls. As an admin, supervisors can create messages and notes, thus joining and supporting the workflow as appropriate.

Or consider Amtelco’s MergeComm, the Intelligent Series feature that automates a myriad of dispatch scenarios. It is being augmented to provide a dashboard for the status of its programmed workflows, providing real-time monitoring. This enables response delays to be identified and corrective action to be taken when needed. For the TAS itself, the Spectrum Charts application provides powerful analytical tools for evaluating agent performance and staffing requirements.The goal is to provide a service to a company that you do better than they do. Click To Tweet

These are just a few examples of how you can apply new tools to make your service and your clients more productive.

Todd Kamp of Business Centers in St. Louis, and a TUNe (Telescan Users Network) users group member, recently shared with me a maxim of how to acquire and keep clients. Citing research from an early market study done by the National Amtelco Equipment Owners (NAEO) users group, Todd said, “The goal is to provide a service to a company that you do better than they do and do it more cost-effectively.” He went on to say, “If you only do one of those two, they will keep [the service] in-house.”

As you analyze your client relationships, strive to identify the critical components of their workflows that can be improved by your involvement and at the same time lead to a reduction of their overall costs. Look for ways that new technology can be applied, perhaps in ways that were not anticipated. This is the key to innovation. This is the key to seizing opportunity.

Through our partnership with our customers, Amtelco and Telescan developers stay keenly aware of our responsibility to provide the tools needed to meet these challenges. This is the spirit that guides our development process.

AmtelcoBob Vornberg is general manager and director of product development for the Telescan division of Amtelco, a manufacturer and supplier of call center solutions located in St. Louis, Missouri. Contact Bob at bvornberg@amtelco.com

Telephony and Connectivity to the Cloud: Considering an All-in-One Contact Center Solution

By Mariann McDonagh and Mike Perry

As a contact center executive, telephony is critical to your business. If you’re moving – or thinking about moving – your contact center to the cloud, the last thing you need is a cobbled-together connectivity solution with telecom services from one vendor and cloud contact center software from another.

If you want to streamline your cloud connectivity solution, eliminate hassles, and spend more time on your core mission, consider an all-in-one cloud connectivity solution. A true all-in-one solution is pre-integrated, end-to-end, and provided and managed by a single vendor. It combines telephony, cloud infrastructure, and contact center software into one harmonic solution.

Avoid Communication and Implementation Headaches: Most cloud contact center software providers cannot provide and integrate a broad range of telephony solutions. Therefore, contact center executives must bring in multiple vendors to meet their telephony needs.

In this scenario, contact center executives serve as the go-between for software and telephony vendors. Not only must they manage multiple contracts and reporting systems, they must also act as a conduit between vendors from different worlds: Each vendor has an incomplete understanding of the other’s technologies, which were not designed up-front to be compatible. Communication issues are almost guaranteed.

Furthermore, the contact center executive must align vendors prior to building, connecting, and deploying a solution. He or she must coordinate and manage each phase of implementation, define roles and responsibilities, and keep each party accountable.

In short, the contact center executive and his or her team must duplicate work with multiple vendors. This can make for hassles, uncertainty, and time-consuming discussions. Even simple call routing can become difficult. And that’s just setting up the solution—it will only get more complex when problems arise and changes are needed.

There is a better way to address telephony and connectivity to the cloud. The following are key benefits of a true all-in-one solution.

Benefits of an All-In-One Cloud Connectivity Solution: A true all-in-one cloud connectivity solution helps optimize call center operations and eliminate deployment and management hassles.

  • Streamlined: One partner working for you means a single and open channel of communication. There’s no management between multiple vendors. You have one reporting system, one contract, and – perhaps most compelling – one partner to hold accountable.
  • Transparent: When you work with one partner that understands the nuances of your unique telecom solution as integrated with your cloud contact center, you and that partner have a clear view of your total solution, its architecture, and its performance.
  • Convenient: When you have one dedicated partner responsible for your solution, you have someone who listens and is responsive to requests.
  • Rapid deployment: A cloud connectivity partner with a pre-integrated carrier network means you’ll get up and running faster. Additionally, changes like adding or eliminating phone lines and locations will be easier and quicker.
  • Flexible: It’s important to find a partner able to combine a broad range of telephony options and accommodate any type of connectivity model working with any PBX system.
  • Objective: One relationship means one partner fully invested in your success, interested in finding what works best for you rather than selling a particular type of connectivity.

What to Look for in a Cloud Connectivity Partner: If you’re interested in pursuing a true all-in-one cloud connectivity solution, here are attributes to look for, beginning with an overview of what a complete solution should include.

A true all-in-one contact center solution includes telephony, cloud infrastructure, and cloud contact center software.

  • The global telecom infrastructure needs to be from an enterprise-class global carrier, with a full range of telephony options, provide switching and routing, and offer global, geographical, and toll-free numbers.
  • The cloud infrastructure must be secure and reliable, with a redundant network and platform, include international data centers, have network operator centers staffed 24×7, and provide a trust office with open access for all customers.
  • The cloud contact center software platform features should include interactive voice response (IVR), workforce optimization (WFO), cloud applications, CRM integrations, disaster recovery, multi-channel ACD, blended predictive dialer, reporting and analytics, workforce management (WFM), customer feedback tools, and quality monitoring.

Attributes of a Cloud Connectivity Solution

  • End-to-end connectivity: Security and quality are integrated at every point in the contact center’s telephony and IP connectivity.
  • Carrier-grade connectivity: Extensive telephony options are offered, including global inbound numbers, ISDN, PSTN, VoIP, MPLS, and SIP trunking in any
  • Broad international coverage: Agents may be located all over the world, with follow-the-sun routing available. The network has multiple, geographically-disperse POPs to reduce call latency and increase voice quality.
  • Pre-integrated technology: The carrier network and cloud software solution were built with one another in mind and optimized to work together from the start. Technologies are compatible, use the same protocols, and are ready to implement.
  • Redundancy and business continuity: The solution includes redundant fiber links, edge and core routers, firewalls, and VoIP hardware, as well as multiple ISP and diverse toll-free carrier routes. Multiple mirrored server centers function as both primary and backup locations so that call flows continue uninterrupted if there’s a problem. The vendor provides a documented disaster recovery plan to ensure business continuity.
  • Transparency and unified reporting: The vendor has a CSO (Chief Security Officer) and Trust Office and provides transparent online reporting. Unified reporting includes performance measures for telephony and cloud contact center software.
  • Expertise in telecom and cloud technologies: The vendor has in-depth expertise in both telecom and cloud technologies. He knows how to seamlessly integrate the technologies and has experience implementing telecom solutions while also serving telecom customers. The network infrastructure and architecture is robust and managed by the vendor’s own employees. Finally, the vendor is continually improving and upgrading to the latest technology.

Summary: As a contact center executive, your time is valuable and your priorities, many. If you’re contemplating moving your contact center to the cloud, consider a true all-in-one solution. Avoid the hassle of managing multiple vendors. Don’t become the go-between and struggle with implementation and management when you can focus on what you do best – delivering a superior customer experience, maximizing contact center performance, and growing your business.

It’s possible to simplify operations while staying on the leading edge. When you consider a true all-in-one cloud connectivity solution, you can build tomorrow’s contact center today.

Mariann McDonagh is the CMO at inContact.

[From Connection Magazine November 2013]

Five Reasons Why Voice Remains a Vital Channel

By Joe McFadden

With all the fuss, excitement, and chatter about new media marketing channels – digital and mobile – it’s a wonder we can hear and think about anything else. But the voice channel remains a vital conduit for customer engagement, sales, and service. In fact, the digital marketing explosion, featuring tools such as push-to-call and mobile advertising, is actually driving more consumers to the phone. Companies therefore, have to keep the consumer phone-call process vibrant, dynamic, and effective.

Here are five reasons why voice remains a vital channel:

1) Live calls convert to sales at a much higher rate than other advertising channels alone, such as web advertising. An October 2011 Business Week article reported that twenty percent of Nutrisystem transactions that occur on the telephone result in a sale, while only 2 to 3 percent of consumers who click on an online ad continue on to sign up for the program. That’s a big difference – and one that companies should take note of.

2) People respond to human contact for sales. Greg Sterling, an analyst at Opus Research, told Business Week: “The naïve assumption that people made in the early days was that e-commerce was going to decimate other kinds of customer contact. When there’s a human connection, there’s a lot more that can be sold, and those customers are a lot more valuable inherently.”

3) Lead-to-sale conversions are supercharged when cross-sell and up-sells are based on product relevancy. This is especially true when consumers are in the midst of a trigger event in their lives. For example, if you are buying a house and you call the cable company to sign up for new service, you may also be interested in a new home security system, homeowners’ insurance, or even a home-cleaning service.

4) Live one-to-one interaction allows for greater insight into what the customer is looking for. There’s a give-and-take, a personal element, during phone conversations you simply can’t get with an online purchase.

5) Pay-per-call campaigns are typically performance-based, allowing advertisers to pay only for calls they receive or those that result in a sale. According to a September 2011 Forrester report, there is significant demand for call-focused digital advertising from small, medium, and large businesses, as well as medium and large advertising agencies. Forrester predicts US marketing spent in this new space will be at least six billion dollars by 2014.

With the onset of mobile and digital marketing, companies are continuing to invest heavily in their contact centers and finding ways to evolve them to meet the needs of today’s marketplace.

Joe McFadden is vice president of marketing for SalesPortal, a partnership-marketing network for enterprises using contact centers as a strategic customer engagement channel. He has more than twenty-five years of experience, primarily in marketing customer service software solutions to global enterprises.

[From Connection Magazine May 2013]

Anatomy of a Telephone Call

By Wayne Scaggs

What is more basic or universal in the call center than the telephone call? No matter how different, unique, or special your call center is, the one common thing we all share is that we handle telephone calls better than anyone else. We take that basic telephone call and make it special in our own way. Some add style to the call, others add humor, and we all know how to help the person on the other end of the line. That is what we do.

What does a telephone call really mean to us, though, and how do we get paid from it? The drawing (figure 1) will dissect an inbound call and add some possible revenue generators.

CM June 2014 - #5

1) When the telephone company sends a digital call to your switch, the call has a data stream containing information about that call.

2) We match up the information from the telephone company with the information programmed in the switch; the amount of time to do this is in the milliseconds.

3) When the caller hears ringing, we have connected to the call and are playing the ring tone. Callers are so accustomed to hearing the phone ring that in most cases we play the ring sound even though the call has been answered. A typical ring cycle is six seconds, and if you are playing two or three rings before making the call available to the agents, it is time added to the call that may not be necessary. Assuming the average call lasts one minute, if you reduce the number of rings by one, you are able to answer eleven calls in the time it took to answer ten calls.

4) The call is now in queue waiting for an agent. At this point we start to see the differences that make it special to be at one call center as opposed to another.

  • If you do “live” answer and take one call at a time, this time may be zero; however, your ring time may be extended while the caller is waiting for the live agent.
  • If you do live answer and place the caller on hold, you will have a short ring time and a short agent queue time with extended initial hold times.
  • Another method is to take one call at a time and let the call queues handle the distribution of the calls. When the call is in queue, the caller usually hears hold music, but what if you provided targeted advertising for that client to his customers? You will add value to answering their call and either bind that customer closer to you or increase the value of that call, which makes it possible to add an additional fee to the calls.

5) Above all this is the make-or-break point of the caller’s customers’ experience. The caller may hate any automated services. The live agent can make that caller feel like the most important person in the world, or confirm to the caller that he or she is just a number in the system. The agent answering your calls is the heart and soul of your call center. Simple and kind words from the agent can enhance the caller’s experience to the point the caller may not want to speak with anyone else. I know those agents are out there because I often get to talk with them. It is a real joy to call many call centers, if for no other reason than to say hello.

6) In the some cases it’s necessary for the agent to place the caller on hold. To maintain a quality caller experience, the hold time must be short.

7) While the caller is on hold, you can play the appropriate hold music, but what if the caller was informed about the business they are calling (advertising)? Take a lemon and make lemonade. Increase the value of the call and prove how wonderful your service is and show that you offer something truly special and unique.

8) At this point your agent will get a second chance to make your service shine with person-to-person communication, and the agent will get the satisfaction of providing the caller with a most pleasant caller experience—the hallmark of why we exist.

9) This is the end of the person-to-person experience, and the termination of the call will have made the client happy with you because you have made the caller feel special.

10) The call is not finished until the wrap-up is completed.

Some of you have been handling calls longer than I have, and since I am a vendor, we probably look at calls a little differently. This article hopefully has given you a different look at what you do every day. Can you find something to improve your business or increase your revenues? If you are answering 100,000 calls a month and you are able to add one penny or save one on each call, it’s an extra $1,000 per month. We live in a competitive world, where pennies and tenths-of-a-second do matter.

Wayne Scaggs is president of Alston Tascom, Inc., which offers premised-based and hosted contact center solutions.

[From Connection Magazine May 2013]

The Importance of Voice Communications

By David Baker

The age of social media is upon us – it’s the new, cool kid at school. How quickly everyone forgets about voice communications! Voice may have been cast aside once again for the newer, cooler thing of the moment, but voice is resilient and will always play an important role for companies.

Let me take you back to when the Internet boom hit and everyone thought voice would fade off into the sunset. Fast-forward twenty years, and voice is still prevalent for companies around the world. The phone is a ubiquitous device, and people have anytime, anywhere access to it. It is not always easy to type or order something from the Internet on your phone, but it sure is easy to call a company and interact with their IVR system or customer service agents.

Some companies are spending money on upgrading or replacing their voice infrastructure because they realize the importance of it on their everyday business. As much as some people don’t like talking to an automated phone system, they also don’t like having to wait in queue only to deal with unpleasant customer service agents. IVR is the lesser of two evils, allowing the caller to get what they need and move on to the next thing.

There are other options available to the customer today to interact with companies, such as the Web, chat, and email. Although they get their fair share of traffic on a daily basis, voice communication will continue to play an important role in how companies interact with their customers. During a recent visit to one of our clients, I found out that they had an end-of-life, end-of-support IVR system that was handling calls for some of their most prestigious clients. I asked them, “What would happen if that IVR system crashed?”

“We would be in big trouble with our key clients,” was the response. I then asked, “How much money would it cost you for every minute that IVR was out of production?” They didn’t know the answer. My final question was, “Who is ultimately responsible if your IVR should go down and you get flooded with calls from angry clients?” The executive in the room said, “I am.” Although voice is a very critical component for most companies around the world, it still is treated at times like the ugly duckling when compared to newer, slicker technologies like the Internet or social media.

Voice is a key component to a company’s infrastructure, but it often gets put aside and never touched again. Meanwhile, companies are busy spending money updating their websites and training additional staff to handle the social media onslaught, but very rarely, if at all, do they invest the time and money to refresh or “retrain” their voice systems by enhancing current applications or adding new ones. The technology just sits in a corner of the data center and does its job handling call after call.

Companies need to budget as much money, if not more, for their voice technology as they do for other customer touch points. It’s just as important a channel as the others are, but it is never given equal weight when the budget dollars are handed out. The corporate mindset is that it works so no action is necessary. Your car works too, but it probably wouldn’t last as long if you never changed the oil or performed routine maintenance. A little TLC goes a long way when you make the annual investment in updating and maintaining your voice infrastructure.

As much as technology has changed over the past twenty years, voice has always been the one constant that has truly stood the test of time. From Alexander Graham Bell to the current day, voice has been the one technology that both companies and individuals around the world have come to rely on time and time again.

No matter what new technology might take the world by storm over the coming weeks, months, and years, voice will once again survive the lovefest that happens with the next new, cool kid at school.

David Baker is vice present of sales at Servion.

[From Connection Magazine June 2012]

Phone Failure Fiasco

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineLast month I shared that our house took a minor lightning hit, resulting in the need to call our satellite television provider and telephone/Internet provider. The satellite provider understands how to provide great customer service; the phone company does not.

Though my business line was unaffected, our home phone had a loud hum and much static. We could make distorted calls, but no one could call us. The Internet was meandering at one-tenth its normal speed. (Our Internet is on our home line because the phone company insisted that DSL couldn’t be installed on the business line.)

I first reported the problem on Tuesday and was promised resolution by Saturday. My dismay over this delay was met with apathy and unwavering resolve.

Repairs were not made by Saturday, so I called again. After navigating the IVR maze, the agent happily informed me that I had canceled the service call. My insistence to the contrary was met with disbelief – until the agent realized the repair ticket had been filled out incorrectly. He issued a credit and promised repair by the following Friday.

Friday came and went. I called again and was assured everything was working – because the technician had “cleared a short.” When I pointed out that no one had stopped by or called to test the line, the agent reiterated that the repair was complete. I hit my phone’s conference button so the agent could hear the noise on my home phone. “That’s really bad,” she said in surprise. “We’ll have it repaired by Wednesday.” That was unacceptable; I insisted on talking with a supervisor. After holding for twenty-seven minutes, I was disconnected.

By that weekend, our 1.5 megabyte Internet connection had slowed to a mere .01 – even slower than dial-up. Now adept at navigating their inane IVR prompts, I called again. The agent comprehended my frustration, but the Wednesday date was absolute. I informed her that without the Internet, I could not work – but would have all day to call them. She then told me to report my Internet problems to a different number. I was issued another credit, and the trouble was finally escalated.

On Tuesday, the repairman arrived midmorning. He looked inside the interface box and said, “You’ve been hit by lightning!” Soon we were back in business.

How to provide poor customer service:

  • Fill out the report incorrectly
  • Be apathetic about lengthy delays
  • Irritate customers with irrelevant and time-consuming IRV options
  • Disbelieve or argue with the customer
  • Disconnect people waiting for a supervisor
  • Require a customer to call multiple numbers
  • Insist that things are fixed when they aren’t

Other items I didn’t mention:

  • Waste an hour making the customer reinstall and reprogram their modem
  • Threaten that there will be a $90 charge if it’s not the phone company’s problem
  • Warn that if no one is home with they come out – even though they can’t specify when that will be – they might not fix the problem
  • Take thirteen days to repair the issue

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

[From Connection Magazine October 2011]

The Trials and Triumphs of Telephone Support

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineI’ve been thinking a lot lately about customer service via the telephone, even more so than usual. There are some things that I am excited about, while others are a concern.

On the negative side, consider a large telecommunications company that provides cell phone, Internet, and long distance. Another is a large national banking institution. You know them both. They are notorious for their consistently abysmal record of poor customer service. If I were to name names, there’s a good chance that either you or someone you know has had a bad experience with them. Actually, saying “bad” would be kind. Uncaring, unconscionable, and unethical come to mind.

With these companies, it seems that once a problem occurs, there is a strong likelihood that it will never be resolved. This is not an overstatement. People have only so much patience, and then they give up. Excessive runaround, hours spent on hold, and limited energy to pursue a satisfactory resolution eventually overwhelm frustrated customers. Either they decide to accept the problem or they switch providers.

Although some of these companies’ frontline staff truly do care and try their best, others do not. Regardless, there seems to be cumbersome bureaucracy thwarting every move and complex support systems that make no allowances for nonroutine problems.

There is a real opportunity awaiting these two companies – and others like them – if they can just provide effective telephone support. With best-in-class phone support, I envision their cancelation rates dramatically decreasing, customer satisfaction levels skyrocketing, and a whole lot less negative press.

Maybe these companies are simply too big or offer too many services to be effective. Perhaps their call centers are mismanaged or bogged down by bureaucracy. But I suspect the underlying reason is that upper management treats telephone support as an expense item that needs to be minimized. The reality is that providing good customer service is good business – but one that requires an investment to fully realize.

I recently experienced the trials and triumphs of phone support after my house took a minor lightning hit, affecting our phone, Internet, and TV service. I called my satellite provider and spoke with a woman named Beth in the Oklahoma call center. The first time I encountered a call center agent telling me his location, I thought it was a bit hokey and an overreaction to the backlash against offshore call centers. But it actually helped me establish a personal connection with him. In the same way, I was positively predisposed towards Beth from Oklahoma. While waiting for various diagnostics to run, we had time to chat about call center stuff, which I greatly enjoyed. A service call was soon scheduled for the next day, when the problem was quickly fixed and service restored.

However, six days out and I’m still waiting for my phone and Internet to be repaired. Multiple phones calls, missed commitments, wrong instructions, and conflicting information: that’s no way to run a call center – or a business.

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

[From Connection Magazine September 2011]

UC-Based Phone System: The Potential to Make Life Easier

By Angie Reed

What if callers could be connected to the right person on the first try without having to listen to long on-hold messages or wait for a callback?

What if you could optimize your call queues based on the time of day and schedule agents accordingly?

What if you could take calls, transfer calls, or even record calls from your mobile device without interrupting the call?

What if you could see the callers’ location, along with associated calendar appointments and emails in real-time with their incoming calls?

What if you could automatically schedule a follow-up event or schedule a technician on-site based on location and availability, without waiting to manually check availability?

These unified communications (UC) examples will undoubtedly improve and provide competitiveness to business communications. In fact, UC is a solution embraced by companies of all sizes, even small ones. Why? These are just a few examples that illustrate some of the ways UC facilitates productivity and essentially makes life easier for businesses. Efficiency gains ranging from 20 to 50 percent can be measured by simply implementing UC into a network. An Aberdeen Research analyst cites the following:

  • A 53 percent improvement in customer service metrics compared with an increase of just 1 percent among those at the low end of the performance scale.
  • A 49 percent improvement in workforce productivity metrics compared with an increase of just 3 percent among those lagging in UC.
  • The ability to contact an employee within ten minutes compared with sixty-six minutes among those at the other end of the deployment spectrum.

The steps to accomplish these productivity gains and allow businesses, such as call centers, to do more with less include the implementation of a phone system that enables the automation of other types of business processes. Consider that UC can include both basic functions, such as click-to-call, as well as advanced features that enable business processes by accessing real data in back office applications and optimizing it for call center agents.

Inherent UC Capabilities: UC encompasses four primary features: presence, chat, unified messaging, and speech-to-text. Presence allows agents to know when your coworkers are on the phone and when you can transfer a call to that employee. It also provides the option of knowing when to send a call directly to voicemail, reducing the caller’s anticipated wait time. Similarly, agents can avoid transferring a call or interrupting a coworker by instead using an integrated chat feature, which enables coworkers to easily ask and answer questions, without further inconveniencing the caller.

Another common feature within UC is unified messaging, which enables users to receive voicemail in an email format. This can allow for faster responses. Taking this one step further, speech-to-text applications allow users to access their voicemail in a more convenient context.

These features are typically inherent to UC solutions, though UC often has the power to improve productivity beyond these expected services. One such advanced feature is the flexibility to extend beyond the existing phone system and database to dive into CRM or ERP systems, a compelling feature for businesses of all sizes. These features are considered to be more advanced and work in tandem with communications-enabled business processes (CEBP).

Advanced UC Capabilities: Beyond unified messaging and presence, UC easily promotes benefits such as mobile support, email integration, website click-to-call, conferencing, and collaboration. All of these features allow users to access their data and business-critical applications from a single interface, their computers, thereby saving what can add up to a substantial amount of time.

Frequently, UC solutions offer a single dashboard to not only manage calls, call queues, and contact center details, but also to manage other applications, such as CRM records or location services. This is where CEBP readily integrates with UC. CEBP allows pop-ups, database dives, reporting, and monitoring to occur based on the UC solution. For example, incoming calls can trigger an automatic follow-up from an HR database or call center list without the need for anyone to manually touch the process.

Basic CEBP may also integrate email calendars with phone systems, permitting users to see calendar invites automatically and click-to-call a contact. More advanced CEBP integrations allow for the UC-enabled phone system to integrate with location services to easily see where remote workers are at a specific moment and determine if the remote worker is able to take a call. If so, it automatically triggers a follow-up with the customer based on current location and status and subsequently updates the CRM record with this information.

The intelligence of a UC-based phone system – with an open architecture – allows for easy integration with other key applications and promotes efficiency by enabling automatic processes to occur. The result is that businesses – especially those dependent upon communications systems to help maximize growth and profit – save time and money.

Businesses, such as call centers, recognize this opportunity and are making smarter decisions when purchasing their phone systems. Research shows that the trend of choosing UC-based phone systems is definitely on an uptick. Businesses are placing UC adoption at the top of their primary goals, recognizing it as a way to improve communications and efficiency.

In fact, according to Forrester Research, nearly 70 percent of businesses have prepared a business case or a strategic plan to adopt UC and collaboration, driven by the need to:

  • Reduce operating costs
  • Increase productivity
  • Improve the reliability of communications
  • Improve cross-function communications and collaboration

In a Gartner Research survey of more than 1,500 CEOs, UC and collaboration are being utilized to help organizations meet the following top three business priorities:

  • Improve business processes
  • Reduce enterprise costs
  • Improve workforce effectiveness

As businesses work to improve efficiencies and learn how to work smarter, the communications system is one of the biggest and most accessible tools to assist in accomplishing this goal. UC paves the way to become more efficient and achieve savings goals, while also providing a competitive edge.

Angie Reed, product marketing manager for business phone systems with Digium, is a subject matter expert in VoIP and telecommunications, with thirteen years of experience. Her background includes technical and business IT roles. She is the author of multiple technical articles and most recently completed the TCO Study: IP Buyer’s Guide, which compares the best value in IP telephony solutions.   She is CCNP and CCNA certified and has an MBA from the University of Alabama.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2011]

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]

The Benefits of IP Contact Centers

By Stephen Collins

Voice over IP (VoIP) has forever changed the telephony industry and radically transformed the way voice services are priced and delivered. Every day, millions of consumers use VoIP services like Skype and Vonage for low-cost calling. The vast majority of business phone systems sold today are IP-based as well.  Yet most businesses have been slow to adopt IP in the contact center. Concerned about VoIP reliability, call quality, and security, most contact centers still rely on conventional TDM architectures.

Traditional contact center implementations are costly and inefficient. Each site acts as an autonomous island with its own telephony systems and PSTN (public switched telephone network) trunks. Each island is independently administered and maintained, adding cost and overhead. Worse still are expensive “take back and transfer” fees – costing millions of dollars per month in the largest call centers – as calls are transferred from site-to-site back across the service provider infrastructure. Additionally, since legacy networks weren’t designed to support Internet users or unified communications (UC), contact centers have to build separate networks to enable home-based agents, implement live chat, or employ interactive video capabilities.

Enterprises can overcome all these limitations by implementing a more efficient IP contact center architecture.

IP Contact Centers Reduce Cost and Complexity: With an IP contact center architecture, telephony systems are consolidated into a central data center (or two data centers for disaster recovery). Remote sites and agents are connected to the data center over a private IP network or through the public Internet. IP architectures offer a number of advantages over traditional TDM (time division multiplex) architectures. With an IP contact center, businesses can:

  • Reduce capital expenditures and operating expenses by consolidating equipment into a central location, realizing economies-of-scale, and simplifying administration and maintenance
  • Eliminate expensive carrier “take back and transfer” fees by redirecting calls over the IP network
  • Create cost-effective “virtual contact centers” and intelligently route calls based on presence and business rules
  • Extend the contact center to home-based agents and satellite offices
  • Utilize offshore or outsourced resources to reduce labor costs or handle overflow
  • Engage customers in a variety of mediums, such as voice, live chat, and video
  • Integrate interactive communications into business processes, sales force automation, and customer relations management solutions to improve agent productivity and boost customer service
  • Reduce local, long distance, and international calling costs

SIP – the Foundation of the IP Contact Center: SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) is the cornerstone of the IP contact center architecture. A standards-based signaling protocol for controlling interactive communications over IP networks, SIP is supported in a wide variety of telephony systems (IP-PBXs, ACDs, and IVRs) and devices (desk phones, soft-phone applications, and UC clients).

Dozens of established and upstart service providers offer cost-effective SIP trunking services for site-to-site connectivity and PSTN access. Unlike PSTN trunks, SIP trunks can be provisioned on the fly, enabling contact centers to adjust capacity quickly in order to support last-minute campaigns or meet seasonal business demands.

IP Contact Center Implementation Challenges: As with any new technology, enterprises must resolve a number of technical issues when implementing an IP contact center:

  • Security: Conventional IP firewalls and application layer gateways (ALGs) weren’t designed to support real-time interactive communications. They leave IP contact centers vulnerable to denial of service (DoS) attacks, viruses, VoIP spam, and other threats.
  • Interoperability: SIP specifications are less rigid than traditional ITU (International Telecommunication Union) telecom specifications. SIP implementation variances can lead to vendor incompatibilities and interoperability issues.
  • Reliability: IP contact centers must deliver superior customer experiences with PSTN-like reliability and call quality. Networks must route around system and infrastructure failures, and services must remain operational during office closings or emergency situations.

Leading contact center infrastructure vendors such as Avaya, Cisco, and Genesys recommend the use of a session border controller (SBC) to solve these technical challenges. An SBC is specifically designed to address the unique security, interoperability, and service quality issues associated with interactive IP communications. SBCs are installed at SIP trunk termination points the same way firewalls are installed at Internet termination points. SBCs are also deployed within the service provider network to maintain the integrity of the provider’s infrastructure.

SBCs can come in the form of software-based applications, dedicated blades, or stand-alone platforms. Features and capabilities vary greatly from product-to-product and vendor-to-vendor. When evaluating an SBC be sure to consider the following:

  • Interoperability: If you run a multi-vendor network, be certain to identify an SBC that will support all your SIP systems and endpoints. Some UC and IP telephony suppliers offer vendor-centric SBCs that address only the most basic interoperability issues and work best in homogeneous environments.
  • Extensibility: Identify a vendor who can address all your requirements in a single platform. Some manufacturers offer different solutions for different applications, such as SIP trunking and remote access. By selecting an extensible platform, you’ll avoid separate management systems and unnecessary training, spares, and maintenance overhead.
  • Breadth of Features: Some SBCs focus mostly on SIP security issues. Look for an SBC that delivers a broad range of capabilities. Best-of-breed SBCs help overcome common IP migration challenges, such as implementing emergency calling services, enabling call recording, or minimizing the impact of IVR on the network.
  • Reliability: Choose an SBC that delivers carrier-class availability. Some SBCs offer no system redundancy at all. Others offer redundancy schemes that preserve the media-stream only. For ultimate reliability, identify an SBC that supports media and signaling protection and meets your full disaster recovery and business continuity requirements.

By choosing the right SBC, you can successfully overcome SIP security, interoperability, and reliability challenges and enjoy all the benefits of a modern IP contact center.

Stephen Collins is vice president of marketing at Acme Packet, a provider of session border control solutions.

[From Connection Magazine November 2010]