Not all of today’s contact center capabilities are new; what’s new about call-center technology is the ability for these capabilities to be quickly and inexpensively integrated. “Small businesses have always needed call center technology,” insists Chris Lyman, CEO of Fonality. “They’ve just never been able to afford it. Not just the call-center technology, but tying it into your back-office systems has been heinously expensive.”
Twenty years ago, telephone company equipment was proprietary — both the hardware and software were created solely for the use of the telephone company, so that when you wanted to integrate computer equipment with telephone equipment (known as computer-telephony integration, or CTI), the costs were exorbitant because the computer systems were probably proprietary as well, so you needed programmers who understood the intricacies of not one but two arcane systems.
In recent years, considerable change has taken place. Call center software runs on industry-standard servers, just as databases do; integrating applications is much simpler than it used to be. Even more important, most telephony systems now also run on industry-standard servers, rather than on proprietary hardware.
Finally, the convergence of voice and data networks — on which voice transmissions use the Internet protocol — makes call-center integration even less complicated, and less expensive to implement.
At the same time that voice and data networks have converged, specialized call-center capabilities have been integrated as well. At one time, you may have had to separately purchase automatic call distribution (ACD) software, which distributes calls into queues for agents, and integrate it with IVR software, which, as noted, routes calls to the appropriate department. It seems silly now, but Bern Elliott of the analyst firm Gartner notes that a major shift in the last few years has been for vendors to offer a full portfolio of such products. “The differences between the products have been reduced, and people want to get them through a single vendor or through a partnership,” he says.
“Any vendor that you select now comes with the complete package,” notes Dan Coen, vice-president of call centers for CallSource, which offers call-center services on an outsourced basis. “You should be leery of a niche player, not because they won’t do that particular thing well, but because they can’t scale” as you need to add capabilities.
And that integration, insists Bern Elliott of the analyst firm Gartner, is what a call center is about. “It’s people supporting people. All you really need is for the most basic call center is a person and a phone. People get so caught up in the technology that they forget what’s important.”