Automatic call distribution is a function performed by several components—software and hardware—in a call center. ACD essentially involves taking incoming calls and moving them to the right place—the CSR's desktop computer screen. Behind this simple description of the function of an automatic call distributor are a number of underlying processes and technologies, including
Voice mail systems
Workforce management software
(see Figure 2.8)
Figure 2.8: Communicating with a call contact center through an ACD.
As call centers have evolved, a number of changes have affected the ACD and its functions. The ACD is responsible for more than moving or routing calls; it also manages the information associated with those calls. The ACD function is performed by a variety of different kinds of processors.
The following ACD options are offered by vendors:
Traditional PBX with either internal ACD software or external server-based software
Multifunctional contact handling system
Hosted software ACD
VoIP-integrated platform with ACD
At the low end is the PBX with built-in ACD that routes calls to CSRs. This function may also be performed by a software application. Calls may also be routed within carrier networks, using the intelligence built into these networks. The ACD, however, is the real engine of productivity and the single piece of technology that can make the call center effective and productive for inbound sales, order taking, and customer service. The ACD enables call volumes to escalate intelligently, in increasingly specialized complexity. It is not simply a call-routing feature, it is the nerve center and control point for the call center, for both inbound and outbound voice calls and data traffic. It is a call center's arbiter: setting priorities and alerting supervisors to patterns and crossed thresholds.
ACD functionality is available in a wide range of telephone switches that vary in size and sophistication. Earlier versions of ACDs were very specific types of telephone switches with highly specialized features and particularly robust call-processing capabilities that served at least 100 stations (or extensions). One of the primary applications was in airline reservation centers. Among the various types of ACDs available to the modern call center are the following:
Key systems with ACD functions
Key systems integrated with a computer and software to create a full-featured ACD
PBXs with sophisticated ACD functions
Stand-alone ACDs that serve centers with less than 30 CSRs
Traditional stand-alone ACDs—usually the most sophisticated
ACDs integrated with other call center technologies
Nationwide networks of ACDs
There is simply no technology more suited to routing a large number of inbound calls to a large number of people than an ACD. The ACD ensures that calls are answered as quickly as possible, and it can provide special services for selected customers. ACDs are capable of handling call rates and volumes far exceeding human capabilities and the capabilities of other telecom switches. They provide a high degree of call-processing horsepower and augment human resources very effectively. An ACD provides the resources to manage the many parts of the call center, from telephone trunks to CSR stations and from callers to CSRs and other staff members.
Despite the availability of all of these call-handling options in a variety of open and modular products, some organizations still prefer an expensive, stand-alone ACD in their call centers, for two reasons:
Power—a first-tier stand-alone system has a tremendous call-processing power, and no other product is so uniquely suited to meeting the needs of the larger megacenters found in the reservations or financial service sectors.
Technology—integration with other call center systems, IVR, data warehouses, and intranets is significantly easier with a powerhouse ACD. This is also true for multisite networking and skills-based routing, two of the most popular inbound features.
Smaller systems—PC-ACDs and PBX/ACD hybrids—which account for much of the industry's phenomenal growth in small centers, have their place in the range of call center solutions. However, for high-volume applications there is no substitute for the call-managing power of the stand-alone ACD.
Vendors are providing stand-alone ACDs in several different ways. Some acquire the technology envelope with their switches, while others concentrate on software development to add value to the core switch. Still others are paying more attention to integration with third-party call center technologies like the Internet and IVR. Some are adapting their switches to smaller, departmental call centers in an effort to capture some market share in this call center segment. The benefit to the user community is that there are a number of options available from vendors for installing ACD functionality.
The role of the ACD is changing because of two significant, current trends in call center operations. ACDs are required to channel more information, of many different kinds, in more directions. In earlier call center models, the ACD handled two kinds of information: the call itself and raw log information about the total number of calls. To analyze this data using a PC and software, call details were provided from a special port.
Call center managers need information in a form that makes it easy to understand and analyze. Vendors have added data management modules to the high-end ACD, and there are many outside programs that can connect to the ACD and transfer data in and out. These modules provide two key functions:
Workforce management tools that forecast loads
Software systems that convert real-time and historical data into any required format
Along with these new tools, supervisors are now able to modify the ACD while it is in operation, to accomplish such functions as creating groups "on the fly," moving calls and personnel around, and monitoring quality.
Another dynamic change concerns the kinds of calls the system has to route. Call centers have been integrating ACDs with IVR and fax communication for a long time. Systems now have to integrate Websites and the Internet with calls that come in from PCs and that terminate in databases instead of with CSRs. As a result, the call center is now being referred to by a broader, more appropriate term that better describes its enhanced scope and current role in this age of technology: the contact center for customer communication, which recognizes that the transaction between the customer and the company is what is important, not the communication medium and the process that carries the transaction.
Skills-based routing is another advanced feature that has changed the role of the ACD. This feature was added by switch designers because it was an interesting and available technology that could be added easily to a switch, not because call centers were clamoring for it. Unfortunately, it has taken a long time for call centers to understand and to derive benefit from this feature, because skills-based routing has some negative aspects involving the proper use of workforce management software. Nevertheless, skills-based routing is a very interesting advanced technology for distributing calls handled by an ACD. Traditional routing is based on two factors—an equitable distribution of calls among available agents and the random nature of incoming calls. Skills-based routing changes this by routing calls to the "best-qualified" CSR, using individual call center parameters to define this attribute.
The ACD routes calls in two stages, the first being to identify the needs of the caller using some front-end technology. This operation is usually accomplished through a DNIS, ANI, or an IVR system. Once the caller is identified, the information is matched against the sets of CSR skill groups. Two advances in ACD technology allow skills-based routing to operate effectively:
Leaving a call in an initial queue while simultaneously and continuously checking other CSR groups for availability
Allowing a CSR to be logged on to more than one skills group at a time, assigning priorities to those groups by skill type
Corporate requirements to link call centers together into multisite call center networks have caused changes in call routing to be implemented at a faster pace. This development can be viewed as an extension of skills-based routing, because in some situations, it is not enough to select the best available agent; it may be desirable to select the best available agent at the most appropriate location, based on factors such as
Time of day
Traffic at one or more sites
Small call centers may have different needs than large ones, and they may have financial and human resource limitations. For those centers that cannot afford an expensive, stand-alone ACD, call routing is available as part of the PBX configuration, thus making the same tools available to these facilities as to larger call centers. A smaller call center within a larger customer service center, such as the 5- to 10-person collections department in a larger company, is an example of this type of application. The CSR needs are the same as those of CSRs in larger centers, and advances and refinements in call center technology, as well as economies of scale in electronics manufacturing processes, now enable these smaller centers to take advantage of state-of-the-art features at a reasonable, affordable cost that will be within their budgets.
In addition, staff members in these smaller departments are not always dedicated to call center functions and roles. They need flexible solutions that build on the systems already in place and that also provide room to grow. For these situations, the PC-based ACD, a new type of call-handling system, is available. The previously mentioned new-found openness of switch vendors has resulted in the development of these products, making possible a host of software products that add ACD features to key systems and hybrid switches.
It is less expensive to incorporate ACD features into an existing business phone system—there is no capital expenditure on a large piece of hardware. There are also rules of thumb for the number of agents per ACD. At the level of 6 CSRs, or even up to 30 agents, it is difficult to justify large ACDs. However, systems and products are much more flexible than they used to be, and it is now relatively easy to integrate top-notch systems like interactive voice response or voice mail, giving a small center a very professional appearance to customers.
Another feature critical to call center operations is third-party call control. Third-party call control can, for example, provide special treatment to customers based on the language they speak and call routing can be accomplished based on skill sets or on time of day for full 24-hour coverage. Using the PC, it is not difficult to set up a rules-based system for directing the right call to the right CSR. This has become a low-end solution for small call centers.
The PBX/ACD allows an organization to implement a call center in stages; however, a low-end ACD in a PBX switch will only allow a facility to grow to a certain point—here the rule of thumb is about 50 CSRs. At this point, it will be necessary to explore larger, stand-alone ACDs. Low-end systems should be evaluated for their upgrade capabilities. Vendors can now offer systems that can be upgraded smoothly in stages, a result of their efforts to capture some share of the small call center market. PC/ACDs or PBX/ACDs may handle smaller centers—typically, 10 to 15 CSRs—very well, placing them on the same technological level as bigger centers. Organizations that already have in-house PBXs can experiment with available ACD software. A commonly used technique is to convert a few users, and if this conversion works well, to expand the availability of the ACD function to other CSRs.
In addition, there are software products available (see Appendix A) that allow overflow patterns to be set among multiple small groups and that also allow these parameters to be changed quickly, with a minimum of software knowledge. These systems do not deliver the same functionality as a dedicated ACD, but in many situations that is not necessary. Departmental needs differ—for example, few need multisite routing—and department heads may need reports on sales and costs rather than call traffic.
It is interesting to note that many small "call centers" have not realized that they are call centers! Once they are recognized as call centers, these facilities, need the same kind of technologies that larger ones have been using for several years. After all, customers demand the same high service standards, no matter how big or how small the organization. The small-scale ACD solution allows small organizations to obtain a much higher level of customer relationship management at a reasonable cost.
One change in switching technology is the use of the network itself as a platform for queuing and routing even after a call has been answered. Call-routing systems that let the call center perform ACD-style call flow manipulations directly within the network are available from some vendors. This system works well with a variety of phone switches and carrier networks. It has the advantage of turning a collection of linked calls into a true, single "virtual" center. The switch data is processed by intelligent query services, which direct the carrier where to send the call before it enters the switchboard. Network-based call routing works in conjunction with routing schemes that may already be in use, such as CSR skills and time-based routing, ANI, or caller-entered information, just as if the CSRs were working with a single-site ACD. Networking also allows these techniques to be applied across varied and remote sites.
Another approach to networking ACDs is the use of software-based products with ISDN (integrated services digital network) to provide full ACD features to CSRs wherever they are required. This technology directs calls to geographically dispersed locations from within the public network and does not require dedicated T1 links or ACDs.
Carrier networks can provide many features, including off-site transaction processing and call routing. A long-term goal of carrier organizations is to replace on-premises equipment with network infrastructures that provide the same capabilities, thereby growing their business by making it possible for them to obtain additional revenue from the value added by network features.
Suppliers of switching and routing systems for call centers are numerous. Some of the major vendor organizations are listed in Appendix A, with special emphasis on those vendors that have established reputations for supplying reliable, proven call center products and for being market leaders, as reflected by their commitment to develop new features and seek out third-party partners. These organizations have also captured significant market share.
Among the capabilities offered are those that allow customers to use a broader range of software applications, including some that appeal to the smaller department or distributed call centers. These products enable the linking of multiple integrated application modules (IAMs) from the main unit to create a chain of interconnected applications, all processing customer communication in tandem. Some of these software products also provide a construction and maintenance tool that places call-routing templates on a single drag-and-drop desktop, including such things as IVR integration and call delivery channels from multiple media.
A newer tool that has come on the market for the growing e-commerce/ Internet call center activity is a real-time, browser-based information sharing tool that can be added to a call center for about $1,000 per CSR, including CTI connectivity. These products enable the person on either side of a Web transaction to navigate though different pages and allow the CSR to guide the customer through a series of screens according to a script. In this scenario, the product works through a choice of multimedia options, including a desktop IP connection, Web-based text chat, or a traditional two-line callback using the public network.
One of the most important aspects of some of the more recent call center products, from a user perspective, is that they are "open system" products. This means that they will work with other ACDs, interface on the network side with existing IT and telecom infrastructures, and are easy to integrate into existing systems. The advantage to "Webifying" an existing call center seat is that it allows the organization to leverage trained CSRs and equipment to sell existing products, no matter how complex, to a "Web lurker," who might not even have been an overt caller. Converting these Web lurkers into callers is the first step in turning them into customers.
Some vendor organizations are attempting to assemble an end-to-end, all-in-one call center system. The concept of the "call center in a box" has been popular for some time; however, the complexity and variety of call center technologies make it unlikely that a single vendor will be able to create and "shrink-wrap" a complete hardware and software application to meet all call center requirements. What has evolved in the marketplace is a collection of integrated applications from which to choose that are certified to meet the required specifications under the management and control of a single vendor.
Competition among switch vendors serving the call center market has created a growing portfolio of technology that is often very interesting and innovative but does not really meet real-world functional requirements and therefore has not become part of the established set of operational tools. Among the examples of this exotic technology are some that have been discussed previously, including skills-based routing and universal agent blending; "call-me" buttons on Web pages are also in this category. The more exotic technology has not found a place in call center operations because of the many operational and cultural hurdles to their implementation and application in real-life call centers.
The considerable degree of competition among vendors on product features and the high cost of development have also led larger companies to add value to their switch products through aggressive acquisition strategies. Small companies find a multivendor environment very costly; they must spend huge sums of money on marketing to bring their products to the attention of call centers. Under these circumstances, partnerships among vendors proliferate.