Internet Technologies in the Contact Center

The telecommunications industry is undergoing a major change from proprietary hardware-based systems to software-based systems built on open standards. Standards such as VoiceXML, CCXML, SIP, Service-Oriented Architecture, and other Internet technologies are radically changing how contact center applications are built and deployed. But these enabling technologies are only the means to an end. The real goals of applying new technologies to the contact center remain: improving the customer's experience (Happy customers are better than disgruntled, former customers.) and reducing cost for the enterprise. How can new technologies be best utilized to simultaneously improve customer service, reduce costs, and simplify development, deployment, and management of CRM (customer relationship management) applications?

Figure 1: Classic Call Center Architecture

Let's examine the basic components of a "classic" contact center (figure 1) by following the call flow of a customer's experience. We'll use the fictional Clampett Airlines as an enterprise with various types of customers who frequently use the phone as an important customer service tool. As a budget airline, Clampett Air must keep expenses low through automation and a limited number of customer service agents. However, in order to keep repeat business customers, great service is essential.

Road warrior Maxwell Peck is in the middle of a hectic business trip and needs to change an existing reservation. Clampett Air has several different toll-free numbers to segment customers; each number connects to a separate incoming call queue at their reservations center. In Max's case, he dials the special toll-free number reserved for Clampett's best customers. His call is routed via the public switched telephone network (PSTN) to the Clampett contact center PBX (public branch exchange). 

Based on the number Max called, the PBX identifies the call as being for priority service.  Since the PBX is equipped with an Automatic Call Distributor (ACD), Max is put in a special queue for priority service. His caller ID is provided to the backend CRM application via a CTI server. When an agent becomes available, the CRM app retrieves Max's itinerary from the customer database and presents it to the agent's screen (this is commonly referred to as a "screen pop"). The CRM app instructs the PBX to route Max's call to the right agent via the CTI server.

Let's step back and look at various ways of deploying an ACD. The concept is straightforward - distribute incoming calls to end terminals in order to quickly answer calls and keep agents evenly busy. The most basic form of distributing calls to agents is via a hunt group, a mechanism in the phone switch that finds the first available line in a predefined group of lines. Common algorithms include sequential, round-robin, and least-busy.  ACDs may be deployed as standalone systems, containing all the equipment and software necessary to answer, queue, and route calls, or as an adjunct to a PBX. The PBX may be used for routing and moving calls (to correct agent, for agent re-routing, adding supervisors, etc.), adding special services such as voice verification, etc. The ACD might handle calls and voice paths directly, or might instruct the PBX what to do.
Some ACD systems are separate from PBX, some are provided as software add-ons to existing PBXs; some PBXs might even have this functionality built in.

Dynamic Queuing
To improve customer service and utilization of agents, data from enterprise systems and information collected from the caller enable real-time changes in priority and queuing. For example, calls might be moved from one queue to another or moved ahead of other callers based on business logic, not static routing and queuing rules. 

A caller may enter a queue by dialing a specific number, such as the main number or 'premier customer' number.  Calls might later be transferred from one queue to another based on a variety of factors:

  • due to collected information while "on hold"
  • agent transferred to a new queue after collecting information (re-route)
  • agent availability (you end up talking to the international reservations center even though you called the main number since agents were available)

In Max's case, even though he is a premier customer, many other premier customers are in the queue ahead of him. Rather than just play music on hold while he waits for an agent to become available, Clampett's contact center has deployed a VoiceXML-based IVR system (figure 2) to collect information from Max to help prioritize his call.

Figure 2: Call Center Architecture with VoiceXML IVR

System:  "Welcome to Clampett Airlines. Are you calling about flight status, reservations, or upgrade status?"

Max:  "Reservations"

System: "What's your premier customer number?"

Max:  "Eight six seven five three oh nine"

System: "Thanks. Your call will be answered within four minutes. Please stay on the line."

The system uses this information to estimate hold time, and to provide the agent with Max's profile.

Internet Technologies and New Opportunities
The traditional contact center architecture of ACD, PBX, IVR, CTI server and custom agent terminal is being replaced by an IP-based architecture (figure 3). Rather than one-for-one replacement of components, open standards enable building customized systems from off-the-shelf components. As enterprise IT operations are redesigned using Web services and Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA), these same technologies are finding their way into contact centers. Vendors are adding features to legacy systems to be "IP-ready" to allow contact centers to smoothly migrate to new technologies. The "classic" contact center architecture uses dual networks: TDM (time division multiplexer) voice is totally separate from data.  As systems evolve, hybrid systems may continue to use TDM for voice traffic, but use Internet-based open standards for CTI.  For example, Web services using technologies such as XML and SOAP permit "rich" CTI to share more data than is typically permitted by UUI (user-to-user information) or other simple data connections in legacy telecom environments. Pure IP-based contact centers are enabling more advanced queuing and real-time, flexible routing decisions, before and during a caller/agent conversation. VoiceXML simplifies programming of speech-enabled VUIs, and CCXML simplifies programming of IP softswitches. Both integrate seamlessly with Web-based CRM applications, utilizing back-end server logic, customer data, and Web services throughout the enterprise.

Figure 3: IP-Based Call Center Architecture

Let's look at Max's call again, this time with a more advanced contact center system.  The new VoiceXML-based VUI dynamically decides what questions to ask based on the answers Max gives as the dialog progresses. The VUI asks for information to not only identify him, but also the specific reason for this call.  Since Max travels frequently, he has multiple reservations:

System:  "Welcome to Clampett Airlines. Are you calling about flight status, reservations, or upgrades?"

Max:  "Reservations"

System: "What's your premier customer number?"

Max:  "Eight six seven five three oh nine"

System: "Hi Mr. Peck. Are you calling about one of your existing reservations or to make a new reservation?"

Max: "An existing reservation."

System:  "We have two reservations on file. Are you calling about today's flight to Houston, or next Friday's flight to Los Angeles?"

Max: "Today."

System: "Please wait while we connect you to the next available agent."

Note that the system asked very specific questions based on who the caller is and information retrieved from the customer data and reservations systems. Since this particular call is about a flight a few hours from now, Clampett's business logic decides to bump up the priority of his call in the queue. The information Max provided not only has helped change the priority of Max's call, but also to find an agent with the right skills. The agent will have all of Max's reservation details available immediately upon connection. As a result of collecting this information, real-time queuing and routing decisions can be made.

Web services and VoIP greatly enhance the ease of building and deploying robust distributed systems. Proprietary hardware and programming environments are replaced by common off-the-shelf hardware and software to leverage the ongoing evolution of Internet technologies for greater scale, performance, reliability, cost, and security.  Web services, SOAP, and XML replace proprietary CTI servers. Functions performed by traditional ACDs - multiple queues, skills-based routing, priority-based routing, status reporting - can be replaced with business logic in Web-based CRM and workflow applications.

VoIP dramatically increases flexibility of "moving" calls from one location or application to another, regardless of geographic location.  Presence servers maintain status information about agent availability, skills, spoken languages, and data relevant to customer care. IP-enabled media servers permit supervisor monitoring for training purposes, and supervisor participation or take-over in case of customer issues. Nothing infuriates a caller like having to repeat information when transferred from agent to agent.  Integration of Web services and VoIP permits "intelligent" re-routing from one agent to another, in circumstances such as incorrect initial routing, different skills are required, or for up-sell opportunities (transfer to another agent to sell something, or transfer to another company such as co-marketer). "Blind" call transfers to re-route a call become obsolete. All this advanced call control is made possible via SIP, CCXML, and SOA.

With an IP-based architecture, agents no longer need to be co-located with ACD/PBX systems (figure 4). Agent terminals consist of a PC using a Web browser to access the CRM application, and a VoIP soft phone instead of traditional TDM voice connection. As a result, clusters of agents can be located anywhere; alternatively, individuals at home can work whenever they "log in" to the system. Real-time status of agents is available to contact center managers regardless of where agents might be located.

Use of open standards across IT and telecom applications permits integration across the enterprise, regardless of geography, vendor selection, or evolution of technologies. While enhanced automation reduces the need for agents for simple customer inquiries, advanced Internet technologies and integration with enterprise-wide CRM allows agents to more quickly and efficiently handle complex customer issues via traditional voice calls, inquiries via email, fax, Web, or even video calls from 3G wireless phones or IP phones.

Glossary:

  • PBX - private telephone switching system
  • ACD - Automatic Call Distributor
  • CTI - Computer Telephony Integration (facilitates agent "screen pop")
  • SIP - Session Initiation Protocol, an Internet standard used for VoIP and presence
  • VoiceXML - W3C standard for voice user interfaces
  • CCXML - W3C standard for third-party call control
  • XML - W3C standard for structured data
  • SOA - Service-Oriented Architecture
  • SOAP - W3C standard protocol for exchanging XML-based data over a computer network


Ken Rehor is chief architect of Vocalocity, Inc. He currently serves as chair of the VoiceXML Forum, chair of the Forum's Conformance Committee, and Co-Chair of the Speaker Biometrics Committee. Rehor is co-author of VoiceXML 1.0, 2.0, 2.1, 3.0 and CCXML 1.0. He previously was a member of the Bell Labs Research team at Lucent Technologies where he co-developed the first Web-based telephony platform, PhoneWeb in 1995. He holds seven U.S. and international patents in telecommunications and speech technologies.

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