If you thought computer/telephony integration (CTI) was all about modems, think again. The modem is only the tip of the CTI iceberg. For most large businesses, the real opportunities come from integration of the company's internal telephone exchange (PBX) with computer systems.
Broadly, there are three things you can do with CTI. The first is to take existing business applications and tie them in with telephony. Got a purchase order system? Why not provide links so that outgoing calls can be automatically dialled and staff handling incoming calls can have speedy access to the appropriate information.
Other companies go a step further and set up a call centre - any operation dedicated to providing a telephone-based customer interface. Typical call centre applications might be help desks or telephone sales.
Finally, CTI can impact every desktop. It is increasingly common to have telephone-aware desktop applications, at least to the extent of being able to dial a number automatically. However, CTI can offer much more.
Coming of age
We're not talking about hot new technology. Switches have been computers in their own right for a long time. Facilities like caller ID have blossomed all over the place. Yet it's only recently that CTI came of age. It used to require massive proprietary solutions with horrendous integration problems.
It was an expensive, difficult approach, only justifiable for huge applications.
As interfaces become more standard, the features more easy to use and generic software more readily available, CTI has become a technology accessible to any corporation.
Having said that, no-one would describe CTI as plug-and-play. However, it is now a practical proposition without a NASA-sized budget. David Mackenzie, managing director of the call centres division of Royalblue, a UK-based call centre specialist, is optimistic. "Until recently CTI involved big systems integration projects. Now there are some true products with prices to match. You can install a CTI solution in about a week," he explains.
Of course, CTI is only a technology, but it can generate cast-iron business benefits. Ovum's report Computer Telephony Integration, from call centre to desktop lists three principle benefits: better service to customers; increased effectiveness and reduced costs. CTI can deliver on these, says Ovum, by bringing six key functions:
Automatic provision of data - information about the caller and call hitting the screen as soon as the phone begins to ring.
Intelligent routing - getting the call to the right department or individual.
Call management - giving the agent the ability to manage and re-route calls.
Voice and data synchronisation - enabling information to accompany the call as it is routed throughout the company.
Automated dialling - scheduling and make calls without finger trouble.
Call monitoring - improving management information and ensuring calls don't slip through the net.
A seventh function with a mixed reception is text-to-speech. Some calls can be handled entirely automatically if the computer can read information down the line. This is cost effective, and can result in very quick service, but has to be handled with care as most customers prefer to talk to a real person.
Ovum emphasises that CTI isn't totally dependent on caller ID. Caller ID (CLI) will always be limited because telephone numbers aren't personal, it's possible to withhold the information and many exchanges aren't capable of giving out the direct dial number of extensions.
Mike Malaure, marketing director of call centre systems supplier Mosaix, emphasises the need to handle CLI with caution. "All CTI solutions must allow for occasions when no CLI is provided, or where the number is ambiguous and could refer to multiple customers," he warns. Other mechanisms like IVR (the familiar voice menus asking you to press the keypad) and voice recognition, can go a long way towards substituting for CLI when it isn't available.
The easiest CTI benefit to quantify is cost saving, but this doesn't mean it's the most significant. Bob Mann, support manager for IBM's strategic CTI middleware CallPath, stresses the importance of customer retention.
"CTI is all about the interfaces a customer has to the business," he says.
It costs six to eight times as much to get a new customer than to service an existing one - improved customer retention has a huge payback. Historically, telephones weren't recognised as a shop window; things are very different now."
Systems that manage the day-to-day running of the business, whether personnel or sales, often have logical links to telephone calls. Much modern software is CTI-enabled, while older software can have CTI grafted onto it, using a middleware application that sits between the legacy system and the switch.
The business requirements for supporting CTI in a legacy system may not be as clear as in a telephone-focused area such as a call centre, but the opportunities are there. In the past, the emphasis has been on making outbound calls easier, combining automated dialling with better control of telephone features. Increasingly, legacy systems can also interact with incoming calls, performing sensible routing and providing "screen pops" which provide instant access to data linked to the caller.
Call centre connection
Call centres are nothing new, but it's hard to imagine setting one up today without CTI. IBM's Mann says: "it's a no-brain decision. We have customers who have recovered the cost in weeks." The reasons for call centres - efficient use of telephone agents' time and good customer service - are a perfect match to CTI's benefits.
As Mackenzie points out, CTI enables a change in orientation for the call centre. "With the old ACD technology everything was done from an agent viewpoint. CTI provides a customer viewpoint, letting the information follow the call."
If you are setting up a call centre from scratch, it's important that support for CTI is a prime criteria in selecting hardware and systems.
Furthermore, the existence of CTI can influence how your call centre is set up. CTI makes it possible to consider more flexible approaches, be it centres located anywhere in the world, a virtual call centre based on homeworking, or a whole organisation treated as a call centre.
Everyday desktop tools can also benefit from CTI. Most people struggle with the user interface of conventional voice systems. It's not surprising with unfriendly commands like *67*number. CTI can put a friendly front-end onto the voice system, and integrate it with other messaging facilities.
Similarly, CTI can use PIMs such as Organizer and Outlook to improve an individual's contact management, delivering CTI benefits to the personal level. It's unlikely a full-blown CTI implementation will be justified purely for the desktop, at least until costs come down, but there's often an opportunity to piggyback on a business application or make use of CTI features that are thrown in for free.
"The effect of CTI on personal productivity tools which are part of a corporate solution is significant," says Malaure. "For example, the ability to redirect calls when an individual is not available, using rules set up by the individual themselves, allows callers to be dealt with promptly and successfully."
If CTI seems attractive but fraught with danger, there's ACTIUS (the Association of Computer Telephone Integration Users and Suppliers). For an in-depth analysis of the CTI market and the business potential of CTI, Ovum's report is an excellent source.
Those who have taken the plunge find that payback is quick and the benefits hold up. A few lessons crop up time and time again. It's crucial to involve users and make sure business requirement rather than technology drives the development. It's worth trying to start with a pilot project, keeping the expenditure down and the implementation simple. Bringing in external expertise will usually be necessary, at least initially. As Mackenzie points out: "There are loads of things IT people don't know about voice and vice versa." With these lessons to the fore, CTI has come of age.
ACTIUS (Association of Computer Telephone Integration Users and Suppliers) - ring Brian Robson on 01491 575295, or visit www.actius.org.uk
Ovum report Computer Telephony Integration, from call centre to desktop"-0171 255 2670, or www.ovum.com.
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