The implementation of a CTI solution begins with the selection of an overall system architecture. One of two options may be selected:
Traditional mainframe level (enterprise)
Workgroup (client/server) level external to existing telecommunications switches and infrastructure
These options represent two philosophically different approaches to CTI. The advantages and disadvantages of each are described next.
The enterprise or PBX level requires additional intelligence in the PBX. Considerable time and expense will be required to upgrade the software and hardware, however, possibly requiring complete replacement of the PBX. In addition, the existing proprietary software used for call control and call processing, as well as the complex interactions between call processing and the features and functions accessible through desktop telephones, may not be capable of upgrading, thus requiring a complete system upgrade.
At the client/server or LAN level, integration is accomplished by the addition of an applications or telephony server to the existing LAN architecture. As a result, the legacy PBX investment is maintained and CTI functionality is delivered by another server on the LAN. The server takes control of telephone calls and serves as the interface between telephony protocols, server software, and the clients using the applications.
Once the implementation alternative has been selected, a key business parameter related to the implementation of CTI, and more importantly, to the objectives and goals of a call center operation, must be addressed. This is the overall enterprise objective for customer interaction, or in more current terminology, the corporation's customer relationship management (CRM) strategy. (see Chapter 6). Assessing the impact of CTI on this strategy means evaluating every possible contingency and every possible combination of customer communication, including e-mail, telephone, Website hits, fax, and even regular (snail) mail. The correct CTI process or product is the appropriate mix of applications and core technologies that add value to a company's existing operations and allow it to do more to enhance its CRM strategy.
A number of specific CTI applications may be considered at the evaluation stage for their contribution to meeting call center objectives:
Advanced call routing
Call center applications
Customer service software
Once the CTI implementation option has been selected, there are several logical, practical approaches to meeting the specified requirements. The 12-step, chronological CTI Project Checklist described next is a process that has been tested in the development of successful call centers. It is flexible in that it can be modified to meet specific requirements and is applicable to either of the implementation options.
The following activities will take the CTI project from inception to complete activation and should be addressed in chronological order:
Convene an initial meeting of all stakeholders, users, and departmental representatives involved in the call center operation.
Identify workgroup/project for pilot program.
Identify key objectives for CTI implementation—internal and external benefits, ROI (return on investment), individuals and processes affected.
Develop detailed vendor/supplier briefing or RFP (request for proposal), including objectives.
Visit vendor sites and hold briefing sessions.
Issue call for proposals.
Evaluate proposals relative to expectations/objectives and ROI targets.
Select vendors and other contractors.
Install pilot site and train staff.
Introduce CTI components on a phased basis beginning with call control, and moving into call processing.
Introduce full CTI feature set and application functionality.
Review progress and adjust as necessary.
In the PBX approach, primary vendor contact will be with PBX legacy system representatives. If the client/server approach is selected, primary contact will be with a supplier having LAN, computer, and telecommunications experience. Expert advice is also available to the CTI project team from a number of other sources. Component vendors can be consulted in the early stages and often point the way to application partners whose products works with the core elements. Other organizations that are operating call centers may be willing to share their experiences. Telephone companies and other large service providers can also help integrate the components of CTI to meet performance specifications.
To ensure success, companies implementing a call center need upper management to buy in, to direct the goals of the project, and to establish a clear, consistent view of the relationship between the company and its customers. This last issue must always be in the forefront of the call center development team's planning process and needs to be stressed in initial project meetings and management presentations.
Putting the pieces of a CTI system together involves a high degree of coordination between products and vendors at several levels. Once the 12-step project checklist has been completed, the project team can move into the actual implementation stage, in which equipment is assembled, tested, and proven and the pilot site is brought to an operational state. The fundamental hardware and the integration elements are the foundation, including
Boards that process voice and data channels, servers, and networks that meet specifications for high reliability and reflect mission criticality
Middleware—the standards and open protocols that interconnect equipment from different vendors
The other major components are
Dual networking infrastructures—phone switch and data network
The phone switches are usually PBXs or dedicated high-volume call-routing switches called automatic call distributors (ACDs). These devices are described in detail later in this chapter.
Telephone service is obviously a core component of any call center, and as carrier networks upgrade their services to deliver advanced call-processing features through the network, acquiring premise-based equipment to provide these functions is no longer required. For smaller businesses, this means that if messaging or call-routing applications are available from the network, there is a significant cost savings.
Between the phone and data networking areas lies the middleware layer. Originally, many middleware products focused on interconnecting a single vendor switch and a single host format. Older and more widespread databases involve more complex middleware, which gave rise to many problems in implementing CTI. These problems occurred because companies with old legacy systems and extremely customized databases had to endure a difficult period of customization of switch-to-database interfaces before they could achieve the benefits of CTI. The incorporation of middleware connectivity in the switch is eliminating this technological hurdle and making call center development easier.
The next level of product in the CTI hierarchy is the application layer, the software that actually makes people more productive, providing features such as messaging or speech recognition, automating salesforces, or taking orders over the Web. When considering a transition to CTI, it is important to start with a concrete idea of what the system should accomplish by identifying the applications that suit the business and then to build up and down to integrate those applications with the existing infrastructure.
There are consulting services and systems integration knowledge and expertise available that can assist an organization to integrate all of the elements of CTI. Generally speaking, CTI is not an off-the-shelf system. It requires the interconnection of different technical realms that are usually managed by different departments and personnel having different mindsets and priorities. Because of the inevitable and often unforeseen problems associated with integrating the two core technologies, making CTI work can be a challenge, despite the best efforts of standards committees and vendors to make the process easier. As well, there are many things that can't be anticipated by outsiders, which is another key reason to have an internally directed plan rather than hand everything over to a consultant or a systems integrator.
Many companies need help defining the scope of what CTI should do in a business context (not just from a technical point of view). Consultants or systems integrators familiar with the business environment may be able to coordinate the entire implementation plan, help select the products from the various layers, and, if necessary, create any custom linkages or applications to suit the situation. As noted previously, vendor assistance may also be available, a resource that is becoming more viable as the vendor community develops better knowledge of CTI and its components in order to provide end-to-end coverage of the entire CTI process, from the component layer through the applications service. Vendors often set up umbrella systems through application partners from which a customer can choose a variety of applications that are precertified by the vendor to work with selected hardware.
Before deciding on implementing any computer telephony technology in the call center, the internal environment must be defined. One rule of thumb that may be applied is that areas with high volume are going to have the highest payback when implementing open applications.
As additional support for the 12-point checklist, the following guidelines will assist call center development teams to assess and meet their requirements.
LANs, minis or mainframes? For smaller centers, a local area network can serve as the entire host side of the solution. Recently, application development and the experience of established call centers have shown that a LAN-based or client/server-based application provides more flexibility for importing telephone functions to the workstation. If there is already a mainframe or mini in place, use the existing hardware. These systems may be used as host servers and connected to workstations via local area networks, combining the flexibility of a LAN with the processing power of a mainframe.
Before contacting vendors, evaluate the time and cost of handling a given call. Compare this information to the vendor's proposal, in order to calculate projected savings. Demand detailed projections and scenarios, and ask to speak to a few happy customers. Even among happy customers you may find some potential drawbacks to a particular system.
In noncompetitive situations, colleagues can be valuable sources of information on open applications they may have implemented.
If a call center is being upgraded, many applications can be integrated without difficulty into an open CTI environment. For example, an application that calls up customer profile information by having the CSR key in the customer's Social Security number can be replaced using ANI in which the open application automatically summons the field to the agent's screen by replacing the Social Security number with a home phone number. Many open applications, like predictive dialing engines, are more efficient or economical if purchased as turnkey applications. In this situation, it is more practical to keep the existing application than to attempt to adapt a new one.
There are two ways to test computer telephony applications prior to full implementation. Dummy applications are available that simulate call traffic, the workforce, the planned equipment, network services, and application programs. A test region can also be made available on the host platform where pilot tests can be run while changes are being made and load analysis is being performed. Many telecom managers prefer to phase in the new regime gradually using such separate testing areas, for example, phasing in 10 or 20% of the customer base, then gradually broadening the application to include the entire base throughout the call center.
Some CTI applications can perform feats so stunning that even the most conservative telecom center manager can get carried away.
Plan and organize training sessions, coordinated by the applications developer, on new applications well in advance of the installation so that CSRs can master them before they are implemented. Keep in mind that the introduction of automation into any process involving human resources means fewer employees are required. Perhaps the budget will permit the diversion of CSRs to a larger support group or complaint division; otherwise, the call center workforce may have to be reduced through attrition or layoffs.
If an application incorporates a voice response unit, for example, the unit will handle most of the simple inquiries without any live intervention. This means that CSRs will handle only the more difficult calls, and therefore the duration of calls fielded by CSRs will increase while the number of calls handled will decrease.
Evaluate each new application 3 months after it is in place and again in 12 months to determine if cost savings have been achieved. It is relatively easy to calculate lower toll-free usage and the savings resulting from fewer CSRs staffing phones, but other benefits are more difficult to gauge. For example, in an insurance application, it is difficult to determine how many new policies have been purchased simply because the CSR was able to transfer both the data file and the screen immediately from the life insurance division to the accident group. These reality checks may require altering long-distance contracts, CSR scheduling, and even computer capacity to accommodate a changed call processing environment to generate real cost savings. Incorporating changes of this nature will result in a faster return on investment. The experience of some call center users indicates that the payback period on investment ranges from 9 to 16 months.
A properly planned and implemented integration of computer and telephone technology can provide several specific benefits to organizations, including
Providing more timely access to information
Enabling the sharing of current and new information
More effectively communicating and presenting that information
Allowing more timely response to information requests