Bridging the Gap

Article Featured Image

Web and phone self-service tools have eased live agent support efforts, especially for routine service calls. However, by deflecting calls away from agents, companies are now forced to manage the rising influx of support queries from a variety of self-service touch points (i.e., Web, phone, email, and chat). No longer can companies view speech self-service as a standalone support channel. Instead it is part of a larger, unified self-service strategy.

One of the biggest bottlenecks facing unified self-service strategies is the inability to create a seamless experience across all channels. This stems from a fundamental flaw in many implementation strategies, according to experts. "Self-service is owned and designed piecemeal. The result is that the integration of these piecemeal pieces is owned by the customer [company]," says Susan Aldrich, senior vice president and senior consultant at the Patricia Seybold Group.

Integrating these touch points is becoming more necessary because end-user perceptions of service have changed. "The technologies themselves shouldn’t reside in the contact center alone. If they are purely call center technologies, it’s the tail wagging the dog because the customer does not see the workflow beginning at the call center anymore," says Mike Bergelson, director of business development at Cisco Systems. "Companies need to bridge their speech [applications] and live agents with other technologies and processes to support one another."

For this to happen with any level of effectiveness, contact centers must be designed to work in conjunction with other forms of communication. It all starts with the company’s approach."Organizations have been focusing too much on when the customer picks up the phone to when he hangs up. They largely are now structured for ring to dial tone," Bergelson says. "Things need to change from just a contact center level to more of a customer care level.

"The workflow for the customer begins well before the phone call. It may have been at a branch office, online, at a kiosk, through an ad, or in response to a direct mailing campaign," he continues. "It’s this kind of a workflow that should design how an organization proceeds, rather than just following a pre-engineered set of prompts or scripts."

Marco Pacelli, CEO of ClickFox, agrees. "It should be about a complete view of all your interactions with my company," he says. "That can go from the Web, in the store, through a speech-based IVR, or at a kiosk."

The question then becomes, how does a company tie all that disparate data together? "The common way," Pacelli says, "was to build a huge data warehouse and to build huge and sophisticated data storage systems and put all the information in there." But that, he adds, doesn’t solve anything. "The problem then becomes ‘What do I do with the information?’ and ‘How do I connect the dots?’"

Tear Down Silos
The first step requires companies to tear down the silos that exist between voice, data, and Web-based communications. "One thing we’re seeing is that responsibility for the phone system is falling to the IT department, and they are aggregating the [phone and IT] systems together," observes Tim Moynihan, vice president of product management and marketing at Envox Worldwide.

This change is being driven by a growing adoption of Voice over IP telephony among businesses, especially small and mid-sized firms. Networking and telecommunications analysts Dell’Oro Group reported recently that shipments of IP lines grew by 30 percent in the second quarter of this year. It noted that especially among small businesses seeking to gain the benefits of mobility and application integration, companies are selecting an IP line for every four voice lines deployed.

When it comes to integrating self-service channels, "open-source technologies and multimedia tools will be the difference," Bergelson states. "The key to managing it is a service-oriented architecture, which will allow you to tailor the method to the customer and the means to get there."

A service-oriented architecture (SOA) enables channels to interact with core applications and one another and share data among them. At the heart of this new structure is software based on the VoiceXML format. "Standards like VoiceXML have helped," Moynihan says. "The same information and programming used for one channel can be used for others."

Breaking down the silos in an organization not only requires the removal of technology barriers, but emotional barriers as well. Companies that are benefiting most from integrated self-service channels are training agents to successfully work with multiple communication channels. Some no longer have separate departments within their contact centers for inbound calls, outbound calls, Web contacts, and emails. They are redefining the meaning of a "universal agent" from someone who can handle all types of inquiries—bouncing between sales, technical support, and billing functions—to someone who can handle all contact types.

These companies also are finding greater efficiency in that they have to train only one agent in multiple communication methods rather than to train multiple agents in the same product or service information. The right training is important because different communication methods often carry varying levels of urgency and demand different types of responses.

Tracking Movements
Once the barriers are removed from the technology and the corporate culture, companies can start to benefit from a unified service strategy and better track and analyze customer data. Pacelli explains that companies need a way to log every step in a customer’s interaction trail—whether on the Web, through an IVR, or talking to a live agent, and then tie those logs together with an analytics solution that will break them down.

"Analytics need to go beyond the call centers to identify every stepin the workflow," Cisco’s Bergelson says. "You need to feed the analytics further up the business process management systems to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of the entire workflow."

Dozens of applications could do this. A number of them "will transfer information about prior Web page viewing to the live agent, including where he went and what data he entered into specific fields,"says John Hermanson, director of marketing at Global IP Solutions (GIPS).

Such an environment also will increase opportunities for the contact center to become a profit center. "We have stuff in place now that will let you see that a visitor to the Web site downloaded a program or went to an FAQ, and then identify that visitor so that an agent can call him to see how it’s going, if he has what he needs, or if she can offer him something else," adds Michael Perry, director of voice self-service at Avaya.

"You could do things like this before, but you had to build and manage separate systems," Perry says. "Now they have really come together and are all embedded together within the fabric of the applications."

That’s a huge break from the traditional way companies bought and implemented solutions. "One problem we’ve seen is that an enterprise may have had 30 different applications, and couldn’t connect them all," notes Manish Sharma, a business planning manager at Nortel. Luckily, that’s starting to change. "Any investment now in closed systems is going away," he says.

What’s Ahead
As agents gain insight into customer behavior across a variety of channels, their roles will likely change. Bergelson already has started to see the change and expects it to continue. "Three to five years from now, we expect 20 percent of contact center phone calls will not happen because companies will use other channels to proactively obviate the need for a customer to call," he says. "In this environment, the role of call center agents will change. They will become guides, steering customers to where they can get the right information."

This is already made possible by Web chat capabilities. However, the role of the agent as a guide could also be furthered by agent-assisted IVR technology. Its purpose is to increase customer satisfaction rates while limiting agent involvement with individual calls; it fits somewhere between fully automated speech applications and one-on-one communication with a live agent.

Aumtech, a provider of agent-assisted IVR technology, states on its Web site, "Instead of callers becoming frustrated by speech recognition errors or traditional, highly structured menu options and transferring out to speak directly to an agent, Agent-Assisted IVR allows a control agent to quickly assess the situation and direct the automated service process to meet the callers’ needs. The control agent can update information, direct the IVR application, or initiate dialogue with the caller via recorded phrases and dynamically generated text-to-speech—all without the caller realizing an agent is involved.The agent can then return the session to a fully automated state."

One blogger on the topic, Llance Kezner, vice president at Spoken Communications, a provider of guided self-service technology, stated on a Spoken Web site that the technology "allows call center agents to handle as many as four calls at once by blending the agents with enabling technology…. Assisted self-service provides a way to tackle more complex interactions that fully automated systems cannot handle. The key is that a human attendant is added to the mix to make sure the system completes the transaction."

He added that Time-Life Music uses an agent-assisted IVR to handleits customer service calls with a 65 percent completion rate. Other organizations are catching on to this blended model as well.

When the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) was commissioned to survey the dietary habits of a diverse population for use in studies of gene-diet interaction, it turned to an agent-assisted IVR to ask respondents a simple question: What did you have for dinner? In such a scenario, that question could branch into a maze of queries. Harvard hoped to lead survey participants easily through the maze by quickly and efficiently obtaining the required data via Aumtech’s agent-assisted IVR, which it implemented in the fall of 2006.

Harvard required both an efficient and financially feasible solution. Standard survey methods could be labor-intensive and therefore costly, while less expensive automated methods relied too heavily on a step-by-step, directed dialogue, stretching five-minute interviews into two-hour marathons. A simple question regarding dinner would become time- and labor-intensive as further details were gathered. How many chicken breasts? What type of preparation? What type of seasoning? As a result, Harvard opted for something in the middle: an agent-assisted IVR.

Aumtech sought to balance three major elements: speech recognition, multiple food responses, and directed dialogue, says Bill Jones, senior vice president at Aumtech. The solution, called Thelmma for The Harvard Epidemiological Linguistic Meal Metrics Application, combined speech recognition, text-to-speech (TTS), and agent-assisted IVR to automatically administer the survey to thousands of participants. Thelmma initiates the call to participants, engaging them in an automated dietary intake survey using a synthetic TTS voice. Participants use their natural voice to interact with the system, usually completing the survey in approximately 25 minutes.

"Good speech recognition alone wasn’t enough for Harvard," Jones says. "We needed to leverage speech, telephony, data, and decision support tools to provide a seamless, safe-guarded solution that reduced cost and improved end-to-end quality."

Thelmma allows for a variety of accents, dialects, and background noise interference, as well as hard-to-recognize food types. When any of these factors cause a potentially false entry on the Web-based interface, a screen-pop alerts an agent, who intervenes to clarify and respond to TTS. The participant is never aware of the agent interface and continues to smoothly interact with Thelmma.

By providing for agent assistance only where and when it is needed, Thelmma maximizes agents’ time, allowing them to monitor approximately five to 10 calls simultaneously, depending on call complexity and system optimization over time. In addition, for survey participants the interaction is faster, less burdensome, and less intrusive than other commonly used methods.

Moving forward, Thelmma is designed to evolve so that future adaptations are possible for any number of dietary surveys of populations of diverse backgrounds, including differences in ages, literacy levels, ethnicities, cultures, and languages.

None of this could have happened unless organizations bridged the gap between self-service technologies and live agent support. Even if a company only invests a tiny bit to make sure self- and agent-service are connected, "the fact that they are joined up [at all] makes the customer experience a lot more pleasant in the long haul," says Ashu Roy, chairman and CEO of eGain Communications. 
—Additional reporting by Coreen Bailor and Colin Beasty

A Case in Point: BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina
Integrating Web chat and email capabilities cuts waiting times and reduces costs

Doctors and healthcare providers trying to get approval for a procedure or to check on the status of a claim with BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina often had to wait 50 minutes or more to speak with a liveagent. For most, that was simply time they could not spare.

Realizing that a large portion of those inquiries were routine and straightforward, the organization thought that handling these issues through another self-help channel would eliminate the telephone logjam. So, in August 2004, the organization added self-help capabilities to its Web site, www.southcarolinablues.com, and installed a feature that allows doctors and healthcare providers to place a phone call or send an email to the call center right from their Web browsers if they can’t find the information they need on the site. The calling feature, which is branded as STATchat, is a customized version of Global IP Solutions’ Click-to-Talk Web plug-in.

"We clearly understood the evolution taking place within call centers and could no longer assume such an entity would thrive by only offering live phone service. Instead, to meet the ever-evolving needs of today’s customer and the constant need to be profitable, a center must be more accessible in more cost-effective ways than ever before. As we manage our provider contact center, we’re trying to manage every single channel we can," says David Boucher, assistant vice president of healthcare services at BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina.

"When providers call us, they hear a recorded message directing them to our Web site to get faster response to their inquiries. We encourage providers to use our self-help tool on the Web before calling our toll-free line," he says. "Those who can’t find the answers they seek also have the option of sending a secure email to us directly from the site. We respond to messages within 24 hours and often in as little as four hours."

Clicking on the STATchat icon instantly connects them to a call center agent, who can then engage in a voice conversation. All that’s needed to initiate a STATchat call is a microphone, headset or external speaker, PC, and a high-speed Internet connection. And, as a reward for trying the self-help option, STATchat calls receive priority in the call queue. Wait times for most STATchat calls are about 12 seconds.

The system also logs all of the providers’ activities on the Web site, including what pages were viewed and what data was entered into specific fields. It uses that information to route STATchat calls to the proper agents. The agents also receive that information, as well as the provider and patient information, on their computer screens. The system also allows for real-time monitoring and recording of all interactions.

Implementing STATchat has minimized the chance of providers failing to complete their self-service transactions. Only about 3 percent of online Web self-service users opt out of the system before completing their tasks.

As an added benefit, because STATchat calls enter the call center via the Internet, neither BlueCross BlueShield nor the provider incurs telephone toll charges. "Our savings are huge just in the long-distance fees that we are not paying to BellSouth," Boucher says. "It was a
significant amount that we were paying each year."

The number of providers using STATchat has increased from 223 in the first quarter of 2005 to 980 in first quarter of 2007, while the total number of STATchat calls has increased more than 313 percent in the same time frame. The organization receives about 500 STATchat calls per day. Emails through the Web channel number about 400 per day.

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina also had the option to let providers send text messages, but decided against it. "We did not see a benefit in live text chat or IM because we already have a fast enough turnaround with email and click-to-call," Boucher explains.

"We implemented STATchat to incentivize providers to hang up the telephone and log onto the Internet," Boucher says. "Our theory was that if this were successful, our total traditional call volume would decrease because providers would be obtaining the information they were seeking and not have to call us. We’re claiming victory with this initiative because, in fact, our total call volume has dropped by more than 300,000 calls per quarter." —L.K.

A Case in Point: Web Chat with the Teacher
Schools use Web chat to links students and teachers

Multichannel self-service integration doesn’t apply just to the way customers and corporations interact. Similar technologies are also making their way into educational circles, which are now starting to supplement traditional phone-based dial-a-teacher homework help programs with Web-based conferencing.

When school started in Albuquerque, N.M., September 4, for example, teachers who had signed on for the city’s Dial-a-Teacher program also began to use a Web-based virtual classroom called Elluminate Live!, offered by Canadian firm Elluminate, a provider of Web-based conferencing solutions for eLearning. The technology also is being applied to distant learning programs, supplementing the traditional self-paced and text-based teaching with live interactions between teachers and students.

Elluminate Live! features high-quality voice over the Internet, interactive functionality, and No User Left Behind technology that supports multiple platforms and low-bandwidth connectivity. To date, Elluminate has served more than 200 million Web collaboration minutes to more than 2 million teachers and students in 184 countries.

With the new system, Albuquerque students enter a user ID and password to log into their virtual classroom for free. In that virtual classroom, they interact with teachers via two-way voice communication. Both parties also can write on a shared whiteboard, which is especially helpful for students seeking help with multilayered math or science problems. An archiving function also is available.

Last year, a limited number of teachers in Albuquerque’s Dial-a-Teacher phone bank handled more than 2,800 calls from students from the elementary school through college levels. The service is available in both English and Spanish.

"Our ultimate goal is to transform teaching and learning through the use of next-generation collaborative learning tools," Maurice Heiblum, president of Elluminate USA, said in a statement. —L.K.

SpeechTek Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues