Unified communications (UC) pros have embraced the concept of session-based communications that allow users to traverse multiple modes of communication with a few clicks, but contact center managers have generally clung to the legacy model of transactional voice calls. They have been more conservative about executing UC call center strategies due to operational concerns. However, contact centers will have to adopt a new strategy as consumers demand the flexibility to communicate with agents over any medium and the ability to transition between different communications modes fluidly.
"Some of the biggest challenges [we face] have really just been around supporting our customers' desire to have alternate media channels," said Mike Taylor, CTO of Strategic Products and Services (SPS), a global systems integrator based in Parsippany, N.J. "They might be in an environment where they have two or three things going on and they can't pick up a phone to talk, but they can chat or email ... but if all of a sudden the issue gets a little bit more complex, they may want to then escalate that to a voice session."
Taylor supports a session-based environment for voice, chat and email, enabling agents to seamlessly escalate from one to another while the conversation history and reporting analytics follow. He expects it won't be long before social networking sites and video conferencing become equally important components of his UC call center strategy.
If we can deliver better service by being able to provide that escalation of communication ... it certainly makes customers happier.
CTO, Strategic Products and Services
Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is the "key enabler" for UC pros to transition call centers from transactional, telephony-centric environments to session-based ones that seamlessly glide between voice, video, text and social networking, according to Hyoun Park, research analyst at Aberdeen Group.
This transition is happening today. About 44% percent of IT pros currently use SIP in their contact centers, according to a survey that Aberdeen conducted in March and published in the report "The Business Value of a Cloud-Based Contact Center." Another 28% will implement SIP in their contact centers within the next year.
Traditionally, unifying these modes of communications and capturing the data gathered by those communications required a "phenomenal amount of integration" and scripting, said Jorge Blanco, vice president of product and solutions management for UC at Avaya. All of that integration and scripting could only deliver a fragile system that was prone to losing customers or dropping data between transactions, he said.
"It's not good enough that you're going to chat. It's not good enough that you're going to speak. It's not good enough that you're going to deliver social media," Blanco said. "You're going to have to connect the dots between all of these since they might all be in one session ... [because] the minute you disconnect any of those components of the experience, you've dissatisfied and lost them."
UC call center strategy: Context as important as multimedia
In addition to improving the session handoff, it's equally important for UC call center pros to ensure that the data gathered from each interaction is shared across multiple media, Park said. As agents transition between those sessions, customers shouldn't have to repeat their account information several times or re-explain their problem to three different agents, he said.
"[This shift] is definitely driven by the need for multiple touch points with [customers], and more important than the touch points is the need for ongoing conversation and context ... [so that] both the customers and the company aren't going into the conversation blind," Park said.
Maintaining context between multimedia sessions is critical, agreed SPS’ Taylor, an Avaya partner who uses the vendor's SIP-based UC/call center products internally in addition to reselling them.
"It's valuable because you're not forcing customers to put in extra effort and extra work just to support them in the way they want to be supported," Taylor said. "Ultimately, it winds up being a customer satisfaction issue. If we can deliver better service by being able to provide that escalation of communication—and by having them not do all these unnatural acts—it certainly makes customers happier."
A session-based UC call center environment affects more than a company's agents and customers. Skills search, presence and IM become integral to enabling agents to identify and add internal experts to a conversation for more complicated issues, according to Don Greco, director of the customer interaction practice at Siemens Enterprise Communications. This session-based approach ends the clumsy practice of giving a customer another number to call where the customer will have to repeat most of the information given to the first agent, he said.
"It's the Holy Grail. It's the ultimate in what we call 'first call resolution,'" Greco said. "Every customer that we have is trying their darndest to be what I would call the Nordstrom of their industry in that they're trying to use customer service as their differentiators."
Avaya adds multimedia support to UC call center suite
Heeding this call for tighter integration among UC, call centers and social networking, Avaya recently released a swath of updates to its contact center software suite, including a new version (6.2) of its SIP-based Avaya Aura Contact Center. The platform was introduced in July 2010 as version 6.0—a move meant to align it with the rest of the Aura nomenclature.
Both the old and new versions of the Aura Contact Center software enable call center agents to search for internal experts and use presence to see their availability, but the older version only did so via an integration with Microsoft's Office Communications Server (OCS). The newest version of Aura Contact Center integrates with Aura Presence Services (via Aura Session Manager), enabling UC pros to federate call centers with other presence domains and pull experts more easily into sessions.
Additionally, the Avaya Voice Portal—a services platform for orchestrating automated inbound and outbound calls and handing them off to a live agent—was rebranded as the Aura Experience Portal to reflect its new support for any SIP-based mode of communication. This will enable UC pros to create customized self-service call center applications not just using voice, but also using video and text. Previously available only as a physical appliance, the Aura Experience Portal will now be supported in virtualized environments based on VMware.
Avaya also highlighted the platform's social media capabilities—the ability to integrate social media feeds into the agent's desktop client, set and monitor specific keywords on consumer social networking sites, score the "sentiment" of relevant posts, and program suggested responses for agents in various scenarios. Avaya Social Media Manager can gather the data directly from sites such as Twitter and Facebook, or pull data from third-party social media monitoring tools.
However, those capabilities are not new. The features existed in the original version of the software but hadn't been publicized until now, according to a company spokesperson.
"This Avaya announcement will be very interesting to contact center managers, but it may fall outside of the radar of traditional telecom and social media managers. But it's really important for these communities to know about this," said Aberdeen's Park. "Telecom and social media managers need to understand that their worlds are increasingly coming into the contact center."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.