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Presence in a call center

A Texas school-support agency looking to upgrade to a call-center system with presence-management features eventualy had to lobby an equipment vendor to build one scaled to their modest organizational size. Was it worth it? You bet!

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted Apr 12, 2005
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One of the more intriguing value adds with IP telephony is presence management—the ability to see the status of other people in the organization that you might want to call or collaborate with online, and to manage your own status and accessibility. Is the other person on the phone, away from their desk, out of the office?

Enterprise IP phone systems don't have a monopoly on presence management. Web-based instant messaging, for example, is the most familiar presence-aware application. In fact, some VoIP systems don't have presence features at all. But those that use SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), monitor and transmit the status of connected devices, automatically providing some of the most important information needed for effective presence management.

If used properly, the technology can save much telephone tag and e-mailing. It means employees can more easily find decision makers when they need them. And it allows members of distributed work groups to see when other members are available for ad hoc meetings.

This may sound generally beneficial, but doesn't appear to offer much in the way of a quantifiable return on investment. However, as the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) discovered, presence management features built into SIP-based call center solutions such as Siemens' HiPath ProCenter Agile, can deliver not only important customer service benefits but also direct cost savings.

Insuring good schools
TASB, a non-profit organization, provides a variety of services to 1,044 school districts in the state. One of those services is insurance—property, casualty, employee health, and workman's compensation. The TASB insurance operation was founded in the 1980s when schools were finding it difficult to get coverage from commercial insurers.

As part of the insurance operation, TASB maintains a call center. It's a relatively small one, with 42 agents. In the last 12-month period before it installed the Siemens Agile product, the call center handled about 150,000 calls—from schools reporting accidents or damage, from health care providers and pharmacies wanting to get approvals and from school board employees requesting details of their coverage or with questions about open claims.

The call center had been using a "good, basic, plain vanilla" ACD (automatic call distribution) system from Siemens to route incoming calls to agents, explains telecom manager Rick Tillotson. But by mid-2003, management and agents both had begun to realize that larger call centers were using significantly better new tools and could provide better customer service as a result.

Customer satisfaction challenge
"We like to think that exemplary service is one of the hallmarks of TASB," says Tillotson. "We pride ourselves on going above and beyond. But our agents didn't quite have the tools they needed to provide that exemplary level of service."

One problem was the center's "first-call resolution" rate—the proportion of first calls on which agents or second- or third-line support personnel are able to resolve a customers' issues so they don't have to call back. The first-call resolution rate effects not only customer satisfaction levels but also overall call center efficiency and direct telecommunications costs. "It's huge," Tillotson says.

If a teacher calls in, for example, and wants information the agent doesn't have, or a decision he's not authorized to make—such as extending a prescription or authorizing new therapy—the agent has to transfer the call to a supervisor or an employee outside the center, such as an adjuster. The objective is always to make it a "warm" transfer—to find the other person the caller needs, introduce them over the phone and then drop off the call.

Finding the right help
Before the Siemens Agile system, agents might have to place several calls to find the appropriate second- or third-line support person, or stand up and shout over their cubicle wall, or put the caller on hold and go and look for the person they needed. While warm transfers were always the objective, in practice it often didn't work out that way. The agent would end up doing a cold transfer to the extension of the person the caller needed. If that person wasn't at his desk, the call would go to a secretary or receptionist, or to voice mail.

"Agents did what they could, but they had to balance the needs of other callers still in the queue with the needs of the person they were on phone with," Tillotson says. "They hated it. They knew it was lousy customer service."

A caller who left a voice mail for an adjuster might not realize the individual was off work that day, in a meeting or on training. When nobody returned their call, they would phone the call center again, sometimes several times. "It was frustrating for the callers and frustrating for the agents too," Tillotson says.

Killing two birds
At the same time as TASB was realizing it had fallen behind in providing call center agents with the best tools, the organization was beginning to plan its transition to IP telephony. While it wasn't ready yet to make that transition, it knew that if it purchased new call center technology, it would have to support VoIP.

Tillotson and his team quickly discovered there were call center solutions from companies like Avaya and Nortel with the advanced presence and collaboration features they wanted—but they were only available for large call centers with many more seats than TASB's. Tillotson, a long-time member of the Siemens user group joined other small call center operators in lobbying the German telecom equipment maker to offer a product that would suit their needs.

Siemens eventually responded with HiPath ProCenter Agile, which Tillotson purchased soon after seeing a demonstration in late 2003 and implemented in February 2004. Agile was ideal for his purposes. It's a SIP-based product but could run as an overlay on TASB's existing ACD. And with an IP bridge to the PBX, it could also work with the association's existing TDMA-based phone system until the planned migration to VoIP.

Power to the people
"All the call control now comes from the [agent's] desktop [PC]," Tillotson explains. "The Agile server is on the [IP] network and the PBX is [connected to] the network [through the bridge]. Calls come in, Agile pops a screen at the agent's station and he accepts the call. He hardly ever touches the TDMA phone anymore."

The agents were already used to the concept of logging on and off to indicate their availability. With Agile, they could now indicate with a few mouse clicks precisely where they were. They took to the Agile software easily, and the SIP features automatically provided the information about whether they were on or off hook.

Now when an agent has to escalate a call, he can look at the Agile client software on his PC screen and see colored icons representing other agents, supervisors and adjusters—as many as 25 other people. The colors indicate their status. Poeple outside the call center, such as adjusters, use a lite version of the Agile client to indicate their status. The agent can see at a glance who is available to take a call—in the office and not on the phone—and quickly do a warm transfer.

Proof in pudding
That's the theory, anyway. Tillotson wanted proof, so he compared call statistics for the months between July and November 2003 to the same period in 2004, after the Agile system had been in place for a few months. The numbers tell a compelling story. First of all, the number of abandoned calls—where callers never even reach an agent or give up after being re-queued when a transfer goes awry—dropped by 61 percent. In 2003, abandoned calls represented 4 percent of the incoming total, in 2004 only 2 percent.

Because agents can now more efficiently handle the calls they need to escalate, they can move on more quickly to the next customer in the queue. So callers don't have to wait as long and aren't as apt to get frustrated and hang up.

More impressively, the total volume of calls to the center dropped by an average of 2,195 per month or 25 percent. The presence management and collaboration features mean agents are more likely to find the right person for the caller to talk to so the issue is more often resolved on the first call. And that means customers don't call back.

Bottom-line benefits
Since TASB pays its telecom provider 5.5 cents a minute for incoming calls on its toll-free lines, the organization is saving some direct costs—assuming three minutes per call, about $360 a month.

Tillotson was also able to show that with the labor savings from the reduction in incoming calls, TASB could have reduced head count in the call center by two, which is significant in such a small group. The organization decided to assign some call center agents new duties instead.

Because TASB was one of the first customers for the Agile solution, it paid less than the rack rate, Tillotson says. He won't say what he did pay. Siemens also assigned more resources than it would normally to the implementation, which went very smoothly, he says.

Smooth transition
"One of the things we worried about was whether it was going to take forever," Tillotson says. "But we installed it on a Sunday, populated it on the Monday, trained supervisors on Tuesday, trained agents on Wednesday and Thursday went live. With small call centers, taking even two or three agents away [for training] really hurts. So you have to move quickly."

While agents were already used to the concept of logging on and off to show their availability, the adjusters resisted at first. "Their exact words were, 'It feels like big brother watching over us. We don't understand why we have to do this.'" He had to enlist management support to force them to use the Agile client to indicate their status, but eventually they began to understand and appreciate the benefits.

More satisfied customers
The Agile product provides a raft of additional soft benefits. Callers are now told how long they'll have to wait and can leave a message rather than waiting if they want, which improves customer satisfaction.

The Agile software shows agents detailed performance statistics in real time—how long they're spending on each call, for example, how long they're logged off for various reasons. So now they can compare their stats against call center objectives and current staffing levels and adjust behavior accordingly. And supervisors can see in more detail and in real time why agents are logging off—the Agile client lets them choose one of ten different reasons—and adjust schedules if necessary.

Presence management has long been considered a technology that only offers soft benefits, but at least in the call center environment, as TASB's experience demonstrates, there is the potential for solid hard-dollar cost benefits.

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