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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Consumer UC and Multimodal Customer Assistance

Copyright © 2006 Unified-View, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

September 30, 2006

Planning for the Future –

Consumer UC and Multimodal Customer Assistance

By Art Rosenberg, The Unified-View

Now that the telecommunications industry has moved beyond “VoIP” network infrastructure and IP telephony to “unified communications” (multimodal business process applications), enterprise organizations have to prepare for “Consumer UC” and the multimodal customer that will be supported by carrier services. With the flexibility of UC, live customer assistance will be able to dynamically accommodate the needs of a customer, regardless of the initial mode of contact initiation.

Such flexibility will also mean that the concept of a “blended” agent, who must be able to handle all forms of interaction with the customer, from voice to text messaging to “escorted” browsing, will become key to both staffing efficiencies and customer satisfaction. Let’s not confuse the new communication alternatives for customers who need help as being “collaboration;” its still good old customer assistance, even if internal staff may “collaborate” amongst themselves in assisting a customer!

Device-independent Live Assistance

Customer assistance contacts don’t go directly to a particular individual in the enterprise, they go through an automated business process first that can identify their needs and find available resources. That’s what legacy call centers did with telephone callers and what the new generation of “virtual,” IP-based contact center technology will continue to emulate for multimodal customer contacts. However, with the expanded capabilities of web-based, online self-service applications, coupled with text messaging communications (email, instant messaging), customer contacts will access live assistance in new ways. The limitations of the telephone interface for application self-services will shift the role for live assistance accordingly.

“Consumer UC” will enable customers to initiate access to the enterprise automated business processes (self-services) from a variety of communication devices via any of the following communication modes:

· Voice calls from wired desktop, kiosk telephones (TDM, IP “hardphones”)

· Voice calls from desktop IP screenphones

· Voice calls from “softphones” on desktop PCs and laptops

· Voice calls from handheld mobile phones (Cellular, Wi-Fi)

· Voice calls from mobile “smart\phones”

· Email messages from PCs and handheld devices, wired and wireless

· Instant messaging contacts from PCs and handheld devices

· Video contacts from desktop and handheld devices

I have specifically identified the various devices that a consumer might use in the future to initiate a traditional voice call, because, depending on the type of device capabilities, the call handling options for providing live assistance can vary. Multimodal devices will not only give customers more initial choices in contact initiation with the enterprise for 24x7 information access and self-service applications, but will also provide flexibility for accessing live assistance.

It has long been recognized that traditional “skills-based routing” routing (SBR) can be more efficiently qualified by information acquired from automated self-service applications (IVR), rather than simple caller identification and CRM customer history. As I have stated in past articles, all self-service applications are really also intelligent gateways to live assistance. However, because text messaging is already displacing many voice calls and driving the rapid consumer adoption of mobile, personalized, multimodal communication devices, screen output will be exploited by self-service applications to provide more information faster than speech output from self-service IVR applications.

The Mobile Caller and Live Assistance

As consumers continue to adopt personalized, multimodal mobile devices for both voice calls and all forms of messaging (voice, email, IM, SMS), enterprise customer contact activities will shift to support such flexibility. Calls requiring live assistance that are initiated from personalized mobile devices will need to be treated differently than traditional wired phones or desktop PCs in the following ways:

· Waiting in queue for assistance may be difficult for a roaming caller, both from a cost perspective as well as a connection coverage perspective. Higher priority might have to be accorded such a caller.

· On the other hand, an immediate callback based upon the estimated queue position wait time, may be an option offered to the caller, since the callback number is going to be personalized contact device, not a shared number as with a residence phone. Because it is wireless, it will be “always on,” making the customer accessible wherever they may be, not dependent on their location at the time of placing the call.

· The initial live response to the incoming call may not necessarily be a voice conversation. A quick text “chat” option may be more immediately available than a voice connection to a mobile user equipped with a smart phone.

· On the other hand, callers with handheld devices can’t be expected to benefit from escorted web browsing, “pushed” documentation or visual information, or extended text chats as online users sitting down at PCs or laptops with large screens and keyboards.

The Online Caller and Live Assistance

I have previously discussed the live assistance needs of the online customer as being as important, if not more so, than the traditional telephone caller. In particular, I pointed out, for example, that online shoppers who have a question, are only “a click away” from a competitor’s web site. As I headlined in my last article, the online customer who needs live assistance will the new “son-in-law” that your telephone caller “daughter” brings home.

However, the online shopper is not like a traditional telephone caller and doesn’t always need a voice connection for live assistance. Depending on the urgency of their needs, email responsiveness, text chat, and callbacks can all be exploited. With UC technologies, online customers can quickly shift to real-time live assistance, creating a dynamic source of demand traffic contact center support staff. With the more complex mix of skill and responsiveness requirements, the CRM priorities of the traditional call center get to be more complex. Not only will “apples and oranges” have to be evaluated in terms of queue priorities and skills-based routing assignments, but the subtleties of switching modalities will also have to be considered as part of the planning for next generation customer support strategies and associated technologies.

The “Blended” Agent Meets the Multimodal Customer

Jumping to the other side of the customer assistance communication space, we have to look at UC from the perspective of customer-facing staff. With consumer UC, customers will initiate contacts for assistance in a variety of ways. The challenge will be for customer-facing staff to respond to any mode of request that is required at the moment.

In the early days of telephone call centers, call center staffs were divided into two types, those who could handle incoming calls (customer service) and those who were proficient at outbound calls (solicitations, collections). Because outbound calls, unlike inbound call traffic, could be controlled, the concept of “blending” agent activities to let outbound call agents also take higher priority incoming calls whenever necessary. This “blending” approach was taken for handling other lower priority activities ranging from internal desktop tasks to customer email processing and provided an efficient source of “overflow” call handling.

Now that UC technology will enable agents to dynamically handle all forms of customer contact and interaction, efficient staffing will be maximized when every agent can deal with all modalities of customer interaction. There may be other forms of business process expertise that not all customer-facing personnel will possess, but that has always been a traditional call center organizational challenge that won’t disappear.

The challenges for contact center managers in a UC world will include:

· Training agents for handling multimodal contacts

· Determining if there is a loss of efficiency when switching between different modalities of customer contact, and applying routing logic to offset such problems

· Reevaluating queuing priorities and callback strategies for both online and mobile customers

· Revaluating outbound dialing applications in light of “Consumer UC,” federated presence, and staffing skill requirements

· Monitoring the impact of multimodal traffic on force scheduling and customer satisfaction

· Exploiting multimodal interfaces for self-service applications

· Exploiting presence and IM for collaborative customer support between enterprise personnel

· Consolidating and evaluating agent performance statistics across multimodal contact activities

· Developing consistent self-service business applications across multiple modalities of customer contact

· Evaluating migration alternatives for the “unified” contact center capabilities between traditional CPE, managed on-site technology, or hosted, off-site services.

· Reevaluating your legacy call/contact center tools and technologies to see where they will fit into your UC migration plans

The Bottom Line

Customer contact activities for any size enterprise will be affected by SIP-based “Consumer” UC devices and services that will be replacing legacy telephones. Moving to VoIP and IP telephony in the enterprise is only a lateral step in being able to support the new opportunities for efficiently handling customer contacts that are not going to be all telephone-initiated voice calls. Therefore planning for a graceful migration to the future must consider the changes that “Consumer” UC will bring to traditional call center procedures and strategies.

New Objective Resource For UC Migration Planning – UC Strategies Web site

Since technology and service providers are still defining and developing the various components of ”UC,” it is difficult for enterprise organizations to keep up with the reality of today vs. tomorrow’s needs. I have joined with a group of knowledgeable and objective industry experts, who have helped pioneer many of the new concepts of “unified communications” technology.

To learn what is happening with new UC products and services, the impact on business processes including customer contact applications, and how your organization can more efficiently migrate to the UC future, visit our web site at:

My articles on customer contact technology are also now being published at CMP Media’s Call Center Magazine web site:

What Do You Think?

Let us know your opinion by sending us an email at, or by commenting to our new blog. (

Some other exclusive customer contact insights may be found here:

Smarter Call Center IP Telephony Routing

Stop Guessing! The Five Real Reasons For Migrating Your Call Center to IP