The significance of the integration of the computer and the telephone (CTI), is reflected in the growth of the communications market, around which CTI has been developed. Telephone call volumes are growing exponentially: In 1980, Americans made about 200 million international phone calls, and by 1998, that number had risen to 4.5 billion. The global fiberoptic networking market is expected to reach $52 billion in 2003, $25 billion higher than in 1999. The rapid growth of networked systems, and the increasing demand for more bandwidth have enhanced the importance of CTI as well, as illustrated by the sophistication of enterprise systems such as call centers. The impact of open systems, new technologies such as the Internet, VoIP, and wireless computing are altering fundamental business models. (see Figure 2.1)
Figure 2.1: CTI-An open architecture.
One of the overall design objectives of CTI was to enable better contact between companies and their customers through the seamless and intelligent integration of both technologies. It has been defined as a "loose but complicated amalgamation of interlocking technologies," a way of combining the two streams of information-voice and data-through open, standards-based systems. It has uses in many areas of today's technology-based business, but certainly one of its most significant applications is in the call center. In this facility, it provides opportunities to improve the way a company interacts with its customers, the key focus of any call center operation.
A brief review of the evolution of both the computing and telephony environments is provided in this chapter to give some background on the technological advances that define CTI and to the current prevalent "model" of computing-client/server architecture. An overview of telephony, the second of the two technologies that make up CTI, is also provided, describing the basic functioning of public networks and business telephone systems. Finally, the two technologies are brought together with the integration of computerization into the communication environment, illustrating how they maximize the benefits of both in the call center environment.
The distributed computing architectures that have become commonplace in today's business world began with the mainframe, a massive structure of processing and data storage elements. The mainframe environment provided centralized "host" facilities to run applications-users outside of the computing department used "dumb" terminals and cumbersome commands to access applications and request actions.
Mainframe computing platforms are still an integral element of many IS environments and are often referred to as legacy systems in reference to the legacies of information they still retain, the considerable investment they represent, and the role they play in today's computing architecture. That role is usually focused on the handling of record-intensive functions such as employee or customer financial databases (health care records, automobile licensing, inventory, etc.). (see Figure 2.2)
Figure 2.2: Mainframe architecture.
Rapid advances in processing technology and the demanding desktop/ workgroup requirements of the marketplace stimulated the evolution of the minicomputer in the late 1970s and personal computing-the ubiquitous PC-in the early 1980s. This widespread availability of relatively inexpensive computing power allowed new architectures to evolve. (see Figure 2.3) The architecture of choice in today's computing environment is client/server computing. In this model, an intelligent terminal (PC) is connected to various applications and services by a local area network (LAN), and in large enterprises users are usually connected to remote locations via a wide area network (WAN). These networks of computing power are commonplace in the business world of the 21st century.
Figure 2.3: PC architecture.
Today's typical office environment includes a variety of input and output devices-PCs, scanners, printers, and so on-all connected by a LAN. The client/server model extends "sharing" to files, databases, and more importantly additional applications by putting the shared elements into a shared PC (the server). By doing so, each desktop PC (the client) accesses the server to extract or input information. When users update a record, the server database is updated, so that everyone in the workgroup is sharing up-to-date information. Client/server applications allow users to configure their screens to meet specific needs and preferences, yet have the benefits of shared information. (see Figure 2.4)
Figure 2.4: Client/server architecture.
The capability of mixing and matching machines from different vendors in an open system environment is another feature of client/server computing. The user can select the server best suited to the task but choose PCs from a different vendor, based on a preferred graphical user interface (GUI) or other application parameters.
Most call center applications require a dedicated piece of hardware for pure telephony switching; however, all the add-on functions of value-the call center specific applications-can reside on a "telephone server" connected to the phone switch. One product that is commonly used in this application is a Windows NT box.
In addition to interoperability standards, there are other links in any data/voice application. "Voice," for example, could refer to different kinds of calls-traditional phone calls are one example, recorded calls in the form of messages, fax traffic, and even the digits callers enter when they pass through a voice response system are other examples of voice traffic. Data traffic originates with the host information in databases and includes the subset of host data that moves to the desktop and back, as well as MIS data that passes through the corporate LAN, through intranets, over the Internet (including company Web traffic), and e-mails.
Prior to the advances in network technology, it was relatively easy to isolate voice-form data streams; however, now a corporation's system might also be dealing with varying combinations of new technologies that include elements of both voice and data: voice over the Internet (VoIP), fax over the Internet, speech recognition, browser-based transaction processing, and "call me" buttons that appear on Web pages.
The switch technology resulting from the partnering of computers and telephony has resulted in the design and production of switches that contain CTI hooks built in and a suite of applications from vendors and their partners built to meet joint industry standards that take advantage of the interconnections between the computer and the telephone. When PBX vendors decided to make their switch technology freely available, a more solutions-based set of technologies resulted, largely due to the widespread adoption of technical standards for interoperability between vendors and applications industries. These standards included specifications for the operation of component hardware at the board level, as well as specifications from individual vendors that enabled applications to function correctly on particular board sets.
The computer software industry also created standards for the applications that work with operating systems. The key standards, TAPI and TSAPI, were set up by Microsoft and Novell, respectively, as a way to push the switch vendors into compatibility so that developers could use these operating system platforms as the basis for CTI applications.
Some of the new applications focused on call control-the movement and tracking of calls in a phone network. Many others were applications that took advantage of the growing LAN/phone system connections to bring data to the desktop at the same time as the phone call arrived. Wherever voice and data networks come together, standards are required to ensure that the integration goes smoothly.
The Internet has required the implementation of additional standards. Building applications combining call control and data manipulation became a lot easier with the adoption of Java and TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol), as standards for data communication. The development of standards to manage these combinations of "information traffic" makes it easier to move data and voice together. It has become irrelevant what form the information takes. What is more important is how that information is used and who has access to it.
CTI has become more precisely defined as "any technology that combines some form of real-time, person-to-person company communication with a background of data that adds value to that communication." CTI was first implemented in the mid-1980s in large corporate call centers. Since then, advances in public telephone network technology and computing have made CTI a powerful tool for businesses of any size. Along with technological advances have come reductions in the cost of implementation, making CTI available and affordable to a much broader range of organizations.
Computer telephony can trace part of its origins to the fact that adding to a typical office PBX required purchasing the add-on to the equipment from the original vendor through a third-party company that wrote to the PBX vendor proprietary specification. For most of the 1990s, this was the method use to install CTI systems-customization, with detailed on-site upgrading and continual fixing of both major and minor glitches to keep the system working. Current CTI systems have benefited from these early experiences and are now much easier to implement. They can now meet the requirements of both large and small companies, in relatively standard versions that require little, if any, customization.
The adaptation of CTI was further hindered in the early days of the technology by the fact that software companies were reluctant to develop add-ons because the cost of developing them for multiple switch vendors was prohibitively high. However, the more perceptive members of both the PBX and computer industries realized that their technologies were more alike than different. Switches were really high-performance communications servers, and if the specifications could be opened up and standards developed, both sides would benefit from the many application requirements that would be met by the combined technologies.
As noted previously in this chapter, advances in technology have brought sophisticated capabilities within the price range of even the smallest call centers, and switch-to-host integration has contributed most significantly to this change. Switch-to-host integration represents a total transformation of the capabilities of a call center. Small companies can now avail themselves of technology that takes advantage of a range of network-provided services to provide more options with each customer communication.
Voice response systems deliver recorded information to incoming calls and are an important element in any call center operation. Interactive voice response, IVR, is two-way: It responds with information when a caller enters digits on the touch-tone phone. The response information is generated from a database, and this application is one of the key functions of CTI. In the typical voice response application, this feature is available on a 24/7 basis, and customers can make a variety of inquiries regarding their accounts or order status. The IVR engine queries a database in the background and reads the information to the caller. This is a dynamic function and represents a much better form of customer communication than a canned, prerecorded response. When converted to an Internet-based operation, the utility to customers is expanded dramatically. Any visual or text image, from catalogs to product schematics, can be displayed on a customer (or CSR) desktop. Customers can help themselves when problems arise. From both the company and customer viewpoints, this feature has several benefits:
Customers learn about products before they buy.
They are better prepared to talk to CSRs.
Calls are shorter, more effective, more profitable.
Shoppers do their shopping without consuming valuable resources.
The buyer gets full attention.
Some of the specific applications for CTI in inbound call centers include
Synchronized voice and data delivery
Simultaneous voice and data transfer
Voice and data conferencing
Automatic retrieval from callers
Segmentation and prioritizing callers
Caller-specific messaging and routing
Enhanced performance reporting
On-line training tools
Enhanced marketing research
Automated switching between inbound and outbound (call blending)
Desktop-based productivity tools
Computer telephony surpasses the traditional limitations of both component technologies (phones and computers) and combines their best features to bring more information to the person on the phone and to make data more accessible and more useful to CSRs. Computer telephony adds computer intelligence to a phone call. Everything from simple screen presentations to predictive dialing is a CTI application. The capability of integrating the computer and telecom system brings customer phone calls along with data files right to the CSR's desktop as the call comes in. This translates to massive savings in 800 line charges and agent labor. In practice, implementing CTI has been a tricky proposition. In its early configurations, it was usually custom-made for a particular application. Companies used a systems integrator to pull together the necessary links, proprietary interfaces, and special connections to applications.
There are several issues related to the integration of CTI with other corporate systems. These issues include the following:
Linkages to multiple disparate data sources
Limitations imposed by vendor-specific protocols
Upgrades to attached systems that may cause changes in other systems or disable some functions
Combining standard and custom applications
CTI in the call center brings many benefits as well as changes to businesses, by changing business trends, reshaping the workplace, and providing opportunities for increased productivity, increased revenue, and ultimately, increased profit. The resulting changes in the corporate world are reflected in more horizontal organizations, high-performance workgroups, and empowered employees. CTI also changes the roles of call center personnel and requires skilled CSRs who can identify and resolve customer problems. Call center managers are required to coordinate and manage a broad range of activities and technologies.
The main focus of any organization should be its customers: fielding their calls, delivering service, ensuring orders are filled, and making sales. Customer databases are significant in the application of CTI, as the traditional computer and telephone are replaced by a single unit combining both communications devices. The easier it is for customers to communicate with companies, the better the relationship will be. Establishing and maintaining good customer relationships is one of the ultimate objectives of call center operations and a prevailing focus of this book. Companies that do the best job of opening the door to customers, making it as easy as possible for customers to find out what they need to know, are the ones that have the best track records in the long term. Small and medium-sized companies that have adopted customer-focused attitudes eventually become "giants" in their industry sectors.
Among the benefits that CTI brings to both businesses and their customers are the following:
Significant reduction in hold time
Fast transfer of information to the CSR's desktop, then to the caller
Reduction in telecom usage costs (the second biggest expense in a call center)
Most problems solved faster, on the first call
More sales opportunities
Capability to cross sell or upsell while building loyalty
Better use of staff
Enabling Internet or company intranet connections, offering a range of multimedia sales and service tools
A call center that uses computer telephony knows who its customers are and why they are calling. It knows what they like, what they dislike, and how much they are worth to the company. CTI lets a company respond faster to changing market conditions, but it must be implemented correctly with clear and ongoing support from upper management and a clear-eyed view of the company's goals for the technology.
Applications run on top of operating systems and are designed to perform specific functions (e.g., create spreadsheets, perform word processing functions, manage e-mail, provide contact management data, etc.). In single-tasking environments, such as DOS and Windows, only one program runs at a time; other programs are suspended until the user restarts them. In a multitasking environment-Windows, UNIX, or OS/2-multiple programs can be running with the user switching (or linking) between programs as required. One of the key elements of modern application development and design is the concept of an application programming interface (API). The API provides the defined interface between various devices or software layers in the computing model so that software developers can focus on the application. A printer API is a good example of this type of software. APIs are relevant to both desktop PC applications as well as server applications and are also an important element in CTI.
CTI is an information delivery tool that will assist CSRs to communicate intelligently and knowledgeably with customers by providing them with information they need to address customer needs. In addition to the information-handling features offered by CTI, this combined technology also provides the capability to perform quality control measurements in a call center, enabling calls to be monitored, recorded, and archived so that the CSR and the supervisor can review them and assess performance. The analysis process is made much more productive when it is augmented by the data that passes through the agent's screen during the call. A company record of every transaction can be kept indefinitely, providing an audit trail and a training aid.
Call center productivity improvements resulting from CTI include the following:
Reduces operating costs through staff reductions-more calls can be handled by fewer staff
Enables smaller companies to look like big ones-without sacrificing the personal touch
Enables companies to present an image of greater capability than they may possess-providing automated 24/7 response
A more detailed analysis of performance measurement techniques is provided later in this chapter in Section 2.3 under "Call Monitoring."