1998 Mar 01
Telemarketing Software
David M. Raab
Relationship Marketing Report
March, 1998
The telemarketing industry is huge, and tracking all of its software is a task to make Sisyphus weep. Just describing the basic technologies could easily fill a column of this size: you would need to cover predictive dialing (computers that dial the phone and pass to agents only calls that have been answered by a human); scripting (presenting agents with a list of things to say), automated call distribution (sending an inbound call to an agent who is available and, in some cases, has a relevant set of skills), interactive voice response (allowing the caller to provide and receive information without talking to a human), and computer telephone integration (managing phone calls and accessing call-related data with a computer). Then you’d want to describe specific applications, such as fax-back, trouble ticket management, knowledge-base access, order processing, contact management, campaign analysis, call center management, and agent monitoring. And you still wouldn’t have touched on integration of new technologies, such as e-mail, Web pages, kiosks, video, speech recognition, and remote access by work-at-home agents.

Ah, the perfect topic for a multi-part series! And so it is, but not in this publication or by this author. If you need in-depth coverage of telemarketing technology, Call Center Magazine (800-677-3435, www.callcentermagazine.com) is my personal favorite and the source for most of what follows. Having abandoned any claim to thoroughness, this is a somewhat random look at what’s new and interesting.

The first great area of excitement within the telemarketing community is the Internet. Every other industry is also excited by the Internet, but it is particularly important to telemarketers since it represents a fundamentally new channel for inbound and outbound contact. The challenge is not just sending mass e-mails–which anybody can do with a $99 piece of software and the necessary lack of conscience. Rather, the challenge is integrating the Web with more traditional call center applications, so the two media do not reside on separate servers humming next to each other in an equipment closet. Specific functions now being offered include ways for Web users to automatically dial an inbound call center or receive a call from an outbound agent; to set up online chats between agents and Web users; for agents to view the same page as a Web user; and, for agents to transmit Web pages for the Web user to view. Products providing some combinaton of these capabilities include Edgewater Technology WhiteCap (617-246-3343; www.whitecap.com), Lucent Technologies Internet Call Center (908-953-5370; www.lucent.com/callcenter) and Internetworks Internetwork Support System (516-468-9000, www.iworksys.com).

More specialized tools include Melita WebContact (770-446-7800; www.melita.com), which can feed Web-generated callback requests into a conventional telemarketing callback queue, and Mustang Software Internet Message Center (805-873-2500; www.mustang.com), which distributes e-mail messages to different users based on the subject heading and can track how quickly responses are produced. Perphonics PeriWeb (516-468-9000; www.peri.com) creates Web pages out of messages in an interactive voice response unit. This is particularly intriguing because it addresses the vexing challenge of maintaining consistency across multiple media, which will become more important as companies learn how to tailor contacts to individual customers. The more effectively the messages are targeted, the more valuable it becomes to deliver the intended message regardless of the contact medium.

Of course, message translation is just one of the challenges to be solved to keep the humming closets from bursting with too many incompatible systems. At a more basic level, several vendors are attempting to let different media share databases, hardware, phone lines, agents, electronic in-boxes, and other functions. Vendors including CellIT (305-436-2300), MediaSoft (514-731-3838; www.mediasoft.com) and Interactive Intelligence (317-872-3000; www.inter-nitelli.com) all provide software that manages multiple media on a single physical server. Some of these products appear to offer little more than one cabinet holding independent plug-in boards for the various functions. Others promise a more significant degree of shared data and switching. But seamless integration among all these media is apparently not yet available.

One area that is almost surprising in its absence is video. Although business-to-business videoconferencing is a well established market, call center software providers don’t talk much about it. Some work has been done in two-way kiosks, particularly for remote bank locations that replace conventional bank branches. But widespead adoption has been held back by the lack of common standards, incompatibility with most existing networks, and the poor quality of low-cost solutions. While Internet-based video may some day provide a viable communications medium, today it is mostly limited to jerky images dancing inside postage stamp-sized frames. This is not useful enough to justify incorporating it into a call center infrastructure.

If any other technology gets as much attention today as the Internet, it is “knowledge management”. Grandly defined as accessing an organization’s collective intelligence, it usually boils down to searching databases of business rules and information. These are cleverly called “knowledge bases”. It so happens that call centers have been doing this for long time. The classic application is technical trouble shooting: help desk agents enter the symptoms of a user’s problem into a computer, which searches its database for problems that match the description and recommends appropriate solutions. The same approach can be extended to solving other types of problems or managing other interactions such as configuring a complex piece of equipment. Vendors including ServiceWare (800-572-5748; www.serviceware.com), Software Artistry (800-795-1993; www.softart.com), Advantage kbs (732-287-2236; www.akbs.com) and IntelliSystems (800-637-8400, www.intellisystems.com) provide systems to serve this market. Most now offer Web-based access so that customers can answer their own questions without involving call center personnel directly. Other vendors in this group, including Inference (800-322-9923; www.inference.com) and Magic Solutions (800-966-2442; www.magicrx.com) have also created systems that can direct queries to external databases, including the Web itself, if an answer is not found within the system’s internal knowledge base.

It’s easy to forget, but not everything is related to the Internet. Telemarketers are making increasing use of speech-related technology, which includes speech recognition, speech generated from text, and text generated from speech. Much of the development is going into improving interactive voice response (IVR) systems so a user can speak rather then press a touch tone button to communicate with the system. Periphonics, InterVoice (972-454-8862; www.intervoice.com) and Applied Lanaguage Technologies (617-428-4444, www.altech.com) have extended the usual menu-based approach to allow natural language spoken queries. IntelliSystems offers an interesting combination of technologies, allowing knowledge base searches through an IVR interface.

Apart from natural language recognition, much of the effort among IVR developers goes into making it easier to build and modify the menu structure presented to callers. Given the range of tasks IVR systems are asked to perform, this is not a trivial problem. Neuron Data (800-876-4900; www.elements.com) promises perhaps the ultimate solution: a system that lets consumers actually design their own IVR processes. Or maybe the ultimate solution is a system that remembers what you usually do and automatically presents that as a default option. I’m not aware of a system like that, although one may exist. To repeat the opening cautions, this is a huge industry and this column can barely scratch the surface of what’s available.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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