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Call Center Technology Trends: Views from the Experts

If you've been in the call center industry for a while, most likely you've been involved in a conversation about call center technology that started with a phrase like: "Wouldn't it be neat if…"

A few years ago, these conversations were a lot about wishful thinking and thehope that the technology would soon catch up with our imaginations. The good news is that we’re now at a point where most of the available functionality has caught up with us and, in many cases, we're playing catch up – moving our organizations in new directions to allow us to take advantage of what's out there.
This article focuses on call center trends that are on the immediate horizon.

We asked some of the industry's best to give us their opinions on where we’re headed in the next few years. Most agree that vendors are focusing on technology to make customer interaction easier for everyone involved – the customers, the agents and the supporting organizations. And it’s out there now – the technology is ready to assist us in making life easier while at the same time improving the operational efficiencies that directly impact the bottom line.

Whether you're looking to improve your call center operation, keep pace with the competition or offer leading-edge service options, be sure to keep the insights you'll read about in this issue on your short-term radar.

What will be the top call center technology trends in the next few years?

"At Vanguard, we see the following call center technology trends driven by the sometimes conflicting goals centers have to reduce costs, improve service, offer new services, and win over or retain more customers (and thus drive revenue). A solid business case is a prerequisite for these technologies to be pursued.
1. VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) isn’t mainstream technology yet, but there are now proven solutions in place. The vendors have shifted their R&D money and salesforce efforts to VoIP. Beyond often cited bandwidth and maintenance efficiencies, potentially compelling opportunities include seamless multisite, multimedia and business continuity applications.
2. Speech recognition technology price and performance have improved tremendously and, as a result, it is being more widely deployed. Its "wow" factor is so high for users that it will drive companies to implement the technology to compete. The shift from touchtone is on! Careful application design and usability testing are critical.
3. Reporting technologies – in the form of performance management, integrated reporting and analytics engines – deserve attention. Enlightened centers (and there are many) are seeing that they need more than just phone stats, and they need technology to help them pull together widespread information and analyze the business impact of call center operations.
4. Personalization in both self service and agent assisted service is a clear differentiator. Business rules engines, properly applied, can alter the sales or service experience in very positive ways.
5. Most centers still plan to create a true multimedia contact center with a blended queue. The technology to support this is a common routing and reporting engine. They'll do this along with other changes, and in the process shift their applications from proprietary systems to server-based platforms.
Given the current economy, these trends are not moving at a rapid pace, but every center needs to consider them in their planning and purchase activities."
 -Lori Bocklund, Vice President Vanguard Communications

"The traditional goals of call centers in the next two to three years will be the same as they’ve always been: to increase revenue, to reduce costs and to improve service. What will change is the way in which we will accomplish these goals.
The most significant trend to increase revenue will be the combination of e-technologies with the contact center's human touch. It is virtually guaranteed that the restriction on capital expenditures will continue.
Contact centers will extract every benefit possible from existing technology by implementing more of the functionality they have already purchased. Nearly one-third of the feature sets acquired in the last three years have languished as skills to use them and resources to integrate them were developed. Now they will be implemented, emphasizing business intelligence and data mining to leverage current data sets.
The most significant cost-reduction trend will be the application of the efficiencies afforded by Internet protocol. Over the next three years, VoIP will continue to develop, and its reception will increase dramatically as the quality and reliability improves. VoIP will reduce costs and simplify the integration of formerly disparate services and databases.
The most significant trend toward enhanced service will be integration of business intelligence and data mining efforts to create greater insight and understanding of customer behavior and needs. Contact centers will further develop their people assets and their quality assurance, and staff development strategies will increase significantly. Given the security issues since 9/11, there also will be a significant increase in recording/call-logging for security purposes, as well as for liability management. This will force a major rethink about offshore contact centers and the whole outsourcing issue.
Additional trends will result from recent legislative changes relative to telemarketing, which will become apparent as the full ramifications of the new laws are understood. Further legislative encroachment will probably occur in response to the public voice over telemarketing and outbound call center activities. There is a strong possibility of an increase in privacy regulation in line with the European Union model, as well."
-Peter Cassell, Executive Vice President, HigherGround Inc.

"A growing contact center trend will be the continued migration from multisystem CTI-based approaches to pre-integrated contact center suites. As organizations consolidate and refine their contact management processes, bundled contact center suites will be more aggressively deployed to help organizations remain competitive.
On a related note, many companies will take advantage of IP telephony implementation trends over the next few years to not only address the issue of communications convergence (e.g., putting voice and data on the same physical network) but to transform the way communications-based applications and processes are implemented. Putting key contact center functions –such as ACD/universal queuing, IVR, fax services, screen pop, inbound/outbound contact blending, eService functionality, contact recording/monitoring and even unified messaging – on a pre-integrated platform helps to justify the move to IP telephony, and also significantly reduces the total cost of ownership for the overall solution.
Using contact center suites, organizations can also gain the added benefit of meeting the enhanced communications needs of contact center agents and supervisors, as well as enterprise employees who are increasingly in need of more sophisticated communications tools. Combining users’ needs also helps to increase ROI for the final solution."
-David Fuller, Director of Marketing, Contact Center Applications, Interactive Intelligence Inc.

"The Web is making an impact on workforce managersand, just as importantly, on the agent population. WFMG views this as an increasingly important trend that will be a cornerstone of the operational tactics of workforce managers across all platforms. The focus on agent empowerment through Web services is streamlining process, increasing agent satisfaction, decreasing turnover and enabling managers and analysts to do just that.
The most-recognized providers – Aspect, BluePumpkin and IEX – have all developed agent "self-service" modules. Other players, such as SYMON Communications, offer a 100 percent Web-deployed solution and are leveraging Web technology to the fullest while trailing in overall features, but this gap will close. And let’s not forget the ASP model that is delivered by ISC and now from long-time workforce management provider Pipkins.
Agents are now able to access schedules, requestexceptions, complete schedule bids and "swaps" within the guidelines of their respective cultures. Previously this was a semi-automated or manual process that, in all likelihood, differed from group to group or business unit to business unit. There was a sense of "unfairness" about the process and at least a small degree of subjectivityapplied to exception requests, trades etc.
Inevitably, these requests would get to the workforce management team and be manually entered into the installed workforce management application upon approval. Now agents can self-serve themselves from their desktop, kiosk or from their home PC. So while freeing up the highly paid analysts to actually complete analysis is a huge gain, the agents are in control of their schedules and their lives like never before.
It is essential that the business managers define and document the processes and constraints that are associated with these new agent-empowering capabilities. The rules need to be clear and understood before deploying the strategy. What is the approval process for accepting or denying a requested exception? Who gets notified and how? How does the agent get confirmation? How many exceptions can be requested in a month, a quarter, etc.? Do new agents have the same rights as senior staff? How can we cross-check skills foragents completing a trade? Is that automatic? Lack of process design is the primary reason why workforce management technology succeeds or fails. The new agent empowerment tools force workforce managers to design and understand the processes before they can be freed from tedious data-entry administration. This opportunity to "push" responsibility and accountability to the agent population is revolutionary form and results in a new configuration for workforce management teams around the world.
Analysis and planning clearly will be centralized with the seasoned workforce management specialists. Large agent populations that previously had hundreds of exceptions per day funneled through the workforce analysts become an extension of the workforce management team. Suddenly agents are workforce managers!
The impact of agent empowerment will be with usfor years to come and will be shaping the resource teams that have responsibility for schedule optimizationand daily execution of workforce management plans. It is really exciting to see workforce management technologymake this giant leap."
-Daryl G. Gonos, Senior Partner and Co-founder, The WorkForce Management Group Inc.

"Providing good customer service is not a trend, it is a mission. However, the different channels used to delivercustomer service can begin as trends, and may reach the status of implemented processes. For example, speech recognition, passed up as unreliable a decade ago, today receives high marks for its high completion rate, accuracy and extensive vocabulary. Businesses are so confident of speech recognition’s power that it now manages customer service for many companies.
Speech recognition, the ability of computers to understandand process spoken language, is a smart and effective phone center service trend that is available at a fractionof the cost of a team of customer service representatives. When implemented, a speech recognition programcan cost 94 percent less than a human CSR. No, that isn’t a typo. Broken down by call, customer service costs$1.47 per call through a CSR, and 9 cents for a speech recognition port (16 times less expensive) – all for a service that 60 percent of customers say they prefer.
Over the past several years, speech technology hasevolved, and it continues to improve. Recently, speech recognition reached another level in its evolution: personalization. Through some simple programming and a good text-to-speech engine, callers will perceive that thesystem has been personalized specifically for them. With personalized speech recognition applications in place, calls are shorter and, therefore, more calls can be handled.
When it comes to customer service, customers want efficiency, speed, accuracy and convenience. Companies need cost-effective solutions that satisfy customerdemands. Knowing this, it looks like speech recognition will not only be a trend over the next several years forcontact centers, but an integral aspect of the business model."
-Paul Kowal, President, Kowal Associates

"The primary trend that we see is our clients moving from call centers or contact centers to customer interactionnetworks. Customer contact is becoming more distributed across an entire enterprise, and is encompassing remote agents, home-based agents, temporary agents and knowledge workers. A customer interaction network is a way of looking at your network that includes an organization’s internal talents and its outsourced resources.
Second, we see clients rethinking self-service and IVR – moving away from IVR, in a legacy sense (as a"box"), to IVR and self-service as another service in a customer interaction network. In this sense, call treatment, as well as speech recognition, takes place at the edge of the network, providing significant bandwidthefficiencies. Additionally, this new IVR model will enable organizations to leverage their IP network for call-switching across multiple customer contact sites, eliminating costly carrier take-back and transfer charges.
Finally, adoption of IP telephony for customer contact will continue at a robust pace, with leading vendorsproviding enterprises a smooth migration path from TDM (time-division multiplexing) to IP. Adoption ofthe IP-based contact center will be seen in the midmarket as well as in the large enterprise, and will be accelerated by leading service providers beginning to provide hosted IP contact center services on a managedservice or subscription basis."
-Barry O'Sullivan, Vice President/General Manager Customer Contact Business Unit (CCBU), Cisco Systems Inc.

"Following are the key trends I’m seeing in my client engagements:
1. Back to basics – Call center managers are looking for ways to increase productivity, so there is a very strong resurgence of effort in embellishing the planning process. We see a renewed interest in workforce management tools and especially add-ons like adherence modules.
2. Additional efforts to reduce errors and rework – We see many call center managers looking to their quality monitoring programs to identify these disconnects. Many centers have turned to automation solutions, such as Witness, Nice, Verint, etc., to assist in these efforts.
3. IP telephony – We are seeing some call centersbegin the transition to IP telephony solutions, especially in multisite applications. Most are being very cautiousand implementing a strategy that combines both IP and TDM (time-division multiplexing) components."
-David M. Peterson, RCDD, President PowerHouse Consulting Inc.

"Here is what we are seeing at WorkForce Technologies in terms of the top trends in research: Much of the emphasis today is on improving and expanding the reach of customer contact, as well as making customer care as affordable as possible. Customer interaction needs are growing across industries, and there is an increasing recognition that the human CSR and touchtone IVR are ineffective and frustrating solutions with limited cost, scalability and customer satisfaction benefits.
Furthermore, despite the widespread use of the Web, according to a Gartner Group study, customers still prefer to use the phone at a rate of 92 percent. We see a number of strategic and tactical solutions tothe growing problem of adequately servicing customers via the phone. The research shows that the addition of interactive self-service can significantly reduce per-agent costs and increase customer satisfaction. Also, in combination with self-service automation, the use of tools or processes that help with CSR training for non-automated calls are of primary importance to call center supervisors. IP telephony is an attractive route for new facilities or facilities looking to upgrade. The use of IP telephony can translate into a lower hourly or per-incident cost while, at the same time, eliminating the cost of paying to use the contractor’s switching and queuing equipment. Finally, in terms of current research trends, skills-based call routing is increasingly being seen as an underutilized strategy in the customer service industry."
-Jonathan Roth, Business Development Director, WorkForce Technologies

"Contact centers that have not implemented much technology over the past five years are going to spend the next one to three years trying to "catch up with the pack."
Companies that have invested in technology are going to spend the next three years focused on two primary tasks. First, they are going to expand the use of the technology that they purchased. Second, they are going to work on improving their customer’s experience.
Many contact centers now have the same tools (e.g., IVR, screen pops, etc.). The best contact centers are going to look for ways to use their technology more effectively and more efficiently to provide a better experience for the customer to set themselves apart from their competitors. This means that the opportunity for additional hardware and software sales will be small in these companies. While there will be opportunities for special, niche products, the bigger systems are already in place.
The real opportunity is to help contact center managers become "thought leaders" on managing the customer’s experience through better technology integration. Improving the customer’s experience through more effective use of the technology is where the leaders are heading."
-Roderick E. White, Independent Consultant