Saturday, January 29, 2005

Putting business in control of callflow

(This article appeared in Networked Comms Insight during 2003)

Once upon a time, business telephony was fairly simple. When you wanted to ring up a Company, you dialled their switchboard number and the friendly Operator put you through. Customers didn’t ring businesses that much as the standard response was often a request to put the query in writing anyway.

The arrival of DDI, ACD, Networking, messaging and CTI gradually led to more efficient call handling within the Corporate environment. Firms that could afford it were able to invest in powerful software based phone systems and train up staff to be able to match the business needs to the functionality available. There was an irony here- Businesses could do all sorts of clever call manipulation on-site whilst the public network was mostly constrained to delivering the calls to the targeted geographic number.

The rise of the large call centre must have put considerable strain on the local exchange- an average System X Concentrator serving up to 4000 users would generally have been served via a PDH 34 Meg feed and probably only had 8 E1 links back to the parent exchange. Even when provisioning was not an issue, filling the pipes efficiently has always been a challenge for more complex call centres, as well as number management as trading products are refreshed and replaced.

The first generation of non-geographic number services brought a major change of approach. The so-called “Intelligent Network” provided a mechanism for translating the number dialled into the number to be delivered to. Suddenly, businesses had the opportunity to get decisions taken in the network, rather than on their own switches. This enabled call distribution between sites based on ratios, time, date etc. Unfortunately, anyone who has had to manage call plans on behalf of business users knows that the results are based on what the Carrier software can achieve rather than what the user wants. Sometimes they are the same but not always so!

IN has gained in functionality through further developments in recent years and can now offer comparative sophistication in results. The main stumbling block, however, is that it is not particularly intelligent when it comes to understanding what is really going on in your business in real-time. Businesses that need to re-route calls elsewhere in anything other than broad brush rules have had to over-provision links and private circuits due to the tandeming involved.

The second generation of callflow functionality came with mechanisms integrated between the PSTN and local phone and IT systems. The best known solution arrived from a small Company called Geotel in America. This replaced the IN mechanism with a system known as Intelligent Call Routing, or ICR. With this solution, ICR has visibility of your systems and can make sensible decisions in real-time of which agents are free (or likely to become free) who are appropriately skilled to handle particular calls. Cisco bought up Geotel and developed it further to be more than just voice, renaming it Intelligent Contact Management, or ICM. Now most of the major carriers are able to offer a flavour of ICM, although it is probably a good idea to research it carefully as it can be a complex subject and there are different approaches taken providing subtly different solutions. The other thing that has to be understood is how well ICM integrates with your favourite PBX- sometimes it is call routing based on educated guesswork and doesn’t always do what you expect.

Rather than manipulate call flow in the core, an alternative approach has been to manipulate it at the edge, still on Telco property but with data links to the Customer IT. This works because there is still full visibility and access to C7 signalling at the edge of the network that is not provided via DASS or Euro ISDN on the private switches. Whilst there is some inevitable tandeming if there is a need to route calls elsewhere, it doesn’t impact on channels from the exchange to the PBX. Gematech have some interesting solutions to this but it does require co-operation from your carrier. Of course, as this type of solution generates extra minutes of traffic, this is something that a lot of carriers like!

There are two pitfalls with these second generation solutions that increase risk to business. Firstly they are based on proprietary solutions so further developments depend on the success of the product and the business drivers to enhance it. Secondly, it makes the business somewhat beholden to the carrier involved, moving business is considerably more complex than simply porting the number as the implementations vary.

What Businesses really want is for the solution to be based on business rules, not Telco ones. Let us imagine a third generation solution of the future.

Someone, somewhere, wants to contact our Company and has dialled one of our numbers. In real-time, over a high speed data link, we learn of this. The Carrier sends us as much information as is available about this particular call which at a minimum is the target number called. Based on this information, we make an intelligent decision. The calling number is recognised as Mrs. Wilson who called yesterday for a quotation. The called number and IVR data-capture is recognised as the “hot quote” number allocated to Mrs. Wilson. She talked to Sue Jones who is working today and likely to become available in the next 45 seconds. We make a decision- play Mrs. Wilson a “thank you for calling back” message, tailored as to Sue’s availability and the option to wait, queue jump or get an immediate callback. We also prepare our systems to flag Sue’s queue for a priority call until we get a Mrs. Wilson update.

The next call that arrives is recognised as Mr. Hughes who also called yesterday. However, this time, Mr. Hughes is calling the number for an allied product. We decide that he is simply shopping around and downgrade his priority, based on the current call answering performance which is a little below par at the moment- there is a major team brief happening at site one and site two has an ongoing (false) fire alarm situation. It will resolve in five minutes.

Meanwhile, Mrs.Wilson has decided to talk to the next available Agent. There are four overflow home workers available and Ruth Coshak is chosen as having the personality style most closely matching Sue Jones. The call is presented to Ruth along with a brief “whisper” prompt whilst Mrs. Wilson is thanked for her choice. Ruth also gets an account popup showing clearly what the call is about. (Ruth also gets an indication 30 seconds into the call that Sue is now available, however she chooses to cancel this as she has started to develop a rapport with Mrs. Wilson.)

The key differentiator in these scenarios is that the Telco reports the call details and the Business tells the Telco what to actually do with the call. This is not just setup- it could include subsequent segments of the call where it is modified through a “take back and transfer” basis, something of a holy grail for Call Centre Telecoms Managers. What we need is what the software guys call an API, or application programming interface. Most PBXs have APIs for Computer/Telephony Integration but an API for the Business to control the PSTN is what we want.

Is this a pipedream? No, not at all. The Parlay project is intended to offer this functionality and rather a lot more- it isn’t just about voice but embraces multiple contact channels and applications. The Parlay API has been specified and updated, what we need now are some real products and participating Carriers. There are some interesting names on the list but quite a few are conspicuous by their absence. Will this functionality appear on the PSTN, or do we have to wait for the Business Internet? Will it feature in UMTS?

Some questions remain to be answered. Can businesses be trusted to manage callflow without safeguards? What happens when the disgruntled employee arranges to deliver 300 Erlangs of traffic to the local Pizza Hut? We all know Back-office applications are as tetchy as a class of stage-school infants and will sulk for almost any reason. How do we integrate in the face of unreliability? How do we pay the carrier for it all?

These are all challenges and I don’t envy the early adopters for getting the bugs out & getting to grips with doing it well. However, this is certainly a route to competitive advantage & making the most efficient use of resources and technology. It also needs a change of mindset within both IT and the business teams, anything becomes possible, provided we plan and implement it well enough.

Find out more about Parlay at

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