Computer Telephone Integration: What It Is and How To Use It
by
Charles E. Day CMC, FIMC, President, Charles E. Day & Associates
for
Customer Inter@ction Solutions 
May 2002

Computer telephone integration (CTI) systems are becoming increasingly more prevalent and powerful in business today. They provide sophisticated call center environments with expanded capabilities. Here is a look at popular CTI applications, missed opportunities, potential trouble spots and operating performance and cybernetics considerations.

CTI 101

First, what is CTI and how has it evolved over the past several years? In its simplest form, Computer Telephone Integration (CTI) is the ability to pass data from a telephone network and PBX/ACD system as received from an integrated services digital network (ISDN) to a database/computer processor for the purpose of retrieving appropriate customer information and correctly connecting a telephone call. Conversely, CTI can enable teleservices organizations with outbound functionality to better control outdials, including predictive dialing in a shorter period of time and without potential errors by agents. To accomplish the interconnectivity between these two technologies, voice and data, programming interfaces have been developed to ensure the appropriate communication.

Call centers benefit from Computer Telephone Integration applications with the increased speed and capability to determine the reason a customer calls. Teleservices organizations involved in marketing research, information technology help desk, catalog order entry, customer services and inbound/outbound telemarketing are examples of business functions and organizations that can benefit from CTI.

Established Link Interfaces

Companies such as AT&T, Northern Telecom (NORTEL), Rockwell, Technikron InfoSwitch, IBM, MicroSoft, Novell and Digital Equipment Corporation contributed to the initial development of Computer Telephone Integration (CTI). Their contributions have made way for the following CTI applications:

Telephone Manager (Apple and Partners)

CallPath (IBM)

CSTA (ECMA)

TAPI (MicroSoft and Partners)

TSAPI (AT&T, Novell, and Partners)

CTI Encyclopedia (Versit and Partners)

The three phases in CTI technology development include custom systems, application programming interfaces (API) and system protocols for use of API applications. Custom systems were developed between specific computer companies and telephone system manufacturers to obtain a specialized or proprietary product that is a specific CTI interface. This interface was developed around specifications for the way a computer could be attached to the telephone system for purposes of handing off and receiving data. Next came the API link development that was more generic and somewhat independent of the telephone switch. With a smaller number of operating systems to support, developmental platforms provided application developers the necessary software components to build a more complete solution without being dependent upon one another. Finally, standardized CTI protocols developed for the API links provided a more ubiquitous capability between dissimilar voice and data systems for the purpose of passing and receiving data.

CTI today is still relatively confined to call and contact center environments due to its high cost for initial installation. It is largely propelled by the Web-enabled, e-commerce and customer relationship management (CRM) offerings and initiatives. Even from its infancy, CTI offered important and fundamental applications that have come to be expected in progressive contact center operations today with more advanced uses still evolving.

Popular Applications

Here are some of the most notable applications that have been developed and evolved around the capabilities of Computer Telephone Integration. Many have been implemented in varying degrees with wide variation directed toward improving overall service to customers and staff utilization. A fit with customer relationship management (CRM) software functionality in quickly identifying customer profiles and more effective agent information support tools contributes significantly to the growth of some applications.

Automatic number identification and dialed number identification services. Perhaps the most commonly used application for inbound call centers is the ability to derive the number from which a consumer is calling and which 800 or local number has been dialed.

Automatic dialing. Outbound centers have benefited from CTI in more accurately having computer systems perform the automated dialing routines to ensure numbers are dialed correctly, and, in the event of advanced dialing, accomplish progressive or predictive dialing routines which are not possible without automated systems and computer telephone integration.

Call transfer and queuing. The call transfer and queuing capability with CTI allows a call to be placed on hold with the customer record and usually some notation as to why the transfer is occurring without the first agent remaining on hold with the customer. This arrangement also precludes the customer from having to re-explain the purpose of the call and why they were transferred.

Screen pops. One of the most popular applications for CTI is the ability to use ANI, DNIS, and/or DTMF input such as account and invoice numbers while on hold, so that this information is passed from the telephone system to a computer processor, enabling the call and relevant screen information to appear simultaneously at the teleservice representativeís workstation.

Blended applications. Software to determine when to move outbound or e-commerce agents automatically to inbound positions, allows for balancing traffic and improving overall customer service.

Interactive voice response interface with data systems. When IVRs are interfaced with the telephony and database systems, callers have an option to perform some functions directly such as hearing the hours of operation, hearing account balances and entering account information while in queue.

Callbacks and overflow. Customers can leave their telephone numbers and what time to receive a call back versus waiting on hold.

What Can Go Wrong

Although there are many benefits to CTI, there are some issues that affect maximum performance. They are:

Capacity of a telephone system

Number of concurrent line connections

Number of ports available

Network facilities

Too many lines

The dynamic allocation of the appropriate number of channels is critically important in meeting high-level call center standards. Another area of concern is with over automation. Over automation refers to the problem of offering too many choices on the automated attendant or the inability for customers to press zero or stay on the line to speak to a live agent.

These are a few of the areas to watch for in designing and engineering a fully integrated call center using Computer Telephone Integration. Some of the problem areas can occur without the use of CTI but are more exaggerated problems when they occur as a result of more tightly integrated arrangements between telephony and computer processing.

Overlooked Opportunities

In advanced call center operating environments utilizing CTI, there are several opportunities that could better extend support capabilities. These include:

Web enabling. The concept of companies developing Web sites with call back or e-mail type capabilities runs counter to the spontaneity exhibited by many consumers. An opportunity exists to have calls immediately transferred from Internet and World Wide Web to a contact center terminating.

Potentially less expensive staffing. If staffing is done correctly, it may be advantageous to invest more heavily in a tool for more precise scheduling of representatives.

Transfer to queue and consultation. This application is a significant missed opportunity in most telephone call centers. The ability to queue a call with notes on a second agentís screen frees up the first customer services representative for other work and bridges the information gap in transferring customers.

Voice mail and call backs. With use of CTI or simple access to voice mail, the option for ACD processors to give callers a choice of leaving a message with telephone numbers for a call back instead of waiting on hold, is quite often ignored.

Credit collection alerts. When consumers are calling to place orders, retrieve information regarding product use, or something other than reviewing the status of accounts and invoice status, it may be appropriate to use CTI features to examine the records for special notations of delinquencies, orders waiting or special items of note which need to be discussed with the caller.

Interactive Voice Response Applications

A number of interactive voice response applications that have been developed in conjunction with CTI order entry capabilities are among the most popular applications using IVR and CTI. Other applications are possibly less known but demonstrate additional opportunities for maximizing CTI to the benefit of both customers and call centers.

CTI can be used to identify the called number and calling party in retrieving the customer record and queuing the record for the last agent contacted by that customer. Inventory related applications, such as class and convention seminar registration and on-hand inventories for field sales reps, are additional examples of how CTI can be used effectively. Another application tracks the status of shipments. Federal Express currently uses Web-enabling software that invites customers to retrieve information about the status of a package by using routing and account numbers.

An infrequently used application is customer satisfaction interviews and questionnaires. A second option is to have calls transferred by way of networking facilities to a remote center along with relevant customer information.

Operating Performance and Cybernetic Considerations

With the increasingly more sophisticated operation and integration of technological systems, the level of complications for users and maintainers will likewise increase. It is important to include sales, marketing and consumer representatives in the design and engineering of complex system functionality from the outset instead of by engineering design preferences. Many, particularly the younger segment of the American society, have adapted to interacting with machines, called cybernetics or man/machine interface. There are others who remain uncomfortable using machines for interactions formerly carried out by people. For such consumers and customers of organizations, it is important to develop empathetic systems where lack of skill and discomfort do not inhibit a positive interface in doing business with teleservices organizations.

Customer service must remain the primary goal, always seeking the most effective results for customer and company. There are, therefore, some simple rules and guidelines that may be helpful in order to accomplish that goal and, at the same time, to avoid over-investing. Sensitivity to these issues insures maximum benefits of using CTI or achieving interoperability of any advanced call center technologies.

Simple is better. Using a voice message approach, voice recognition, or a live agent as the first routing point is probably the simplest and easiest user requirement in interfacing with teleservices organizations. To begin with more complex functionality may result in overwhelming those who should be the recipients of improved service and an acceptable interface experience. Menu choice on auto-attendants and IVR equipment, utilizing CTI capability, can also be overdone. It is far better to limit the number of choices on recorded prompts to three or four and layer questions to no more than two additional levels to identify the purpose of a call for routing purposes. If the objective is to process 80 percent of the calls in 20 seconds and two minutes of time is consumed by pressing one and two, it stands to reason that customers would experience frustration and annoyance at an impersonal system.

Use a phased approach to introduce technological changes with CTI and other computer based applications. Measurement of benefits and customer satisfaction programs are ideally important. Objective assessment of results before moving forward will help. For example, it may be better to have customer service representatives use automatic number identification (ANI) information from the LCD display or telephone consoles to retrieve records as opposed to engineering system facilities outright in effecting this design change.

Select specific business functions as a starting point. This may prove valuable in introducing interoperability in the call center. Rather than applying fully integrated functionality to order entry, customer service and technical support all at once, it may prove beneficial to select one or several specific applications to evaluate the experience internally and with callers prior to rolling out more extensive application of CTI functionality.

24/7 accessibility for leaving messages or querying accounts in the absence of a live agent or as an overflow during peak periods may have far greater benefit to a call center than replacing live agents with a pervasive automated system up front. Callers are still more emphatically impressed when a representative of a company answers a call with a smiling voice within one or two rings, versus being answered before the completion of the first ring cycle and being greeted by an automated announcement and prompt.

Blended agent capability is not for all customer service representatives. A select group of individuals are probably cut out to switch from outbound application to handle inbound callers. The outcome of selecting staff based on their desire to do both types of calls and rewarding them accordingly is far more positive than insisting on a universally blended operating environment based on the new found benefits of CTI, predictive dialers, IVRs and other advances.

The Right Balance

Finally, the overall operating performance in a CTI environment can vary substantially depending on volume, time of the year, time of the day and skill levels afforded the operation. It is important to benchmark first for results, track usage, determine abandonments and conduct customer satisfaction surveys to assess initial customer feedback and perceived and measurable benefits in using advanced CTI applications. When the goals of the organization are balanced with the needs of callers and advanced technology integration is applied in the manner and areas where it is most acceptable, the experience and benefits of the new technology are the most rewarding. To accept less is to sacrifice customer relations and full return on investment in integrated computer and telephone technology in the teleservices environment.

 


 

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