From the monthly archives: October 2010

bnnlogo I will be on BNN Wednesday the 17th at 11:30am ET. (Re-aired at 10:30pm.)

For my American readers, think of BNN as roughly a Canadian version of CNBC.

If you are in Toronto, tune in to Rogers channel 57. In Ottawa, Rogers channel 58. In Calgary, Shaw channel 89. In Vancouver, Shaw channel 58. For other Canadian cities see here. For readers outside of Canada  (this blog is read in over 30 countries*) you will be able to watch online the next day.

I was on BNN last year (video) and I am looking forward to returning. Hope you can tune in!

* I’m guessing.

 

adam-eve-garden-of-eden-b Everybody hates waiting on hold.

In the days of the Garden of Eden, there were enough agents at every call center that no one ever had to wait. Of course, there were only two people in existence, so that wasn’t very challenging. (Those two also got excellent cell coverage.)

In the real world, there will always be times when there are more callers than agents, even when companies have the best intentions. So does that mean that waiting on hold is inevitable?

Not necessarily. There is an alternative called “virtual queuing”. And even if you’ve never heard that term, you’ve probably had the thought yourself: Give the company your phone number and they’ll call you back when an agent is ready.

You can also think of Virtual Queuing as the “take-a-number” approach where you can keep your place in line. In the real-world that means you can go sit down, relax and wait for your turn to be announced over a loudspeaker. In the phone world, it means you can hang up, go about your day, and wait for the call-back.

take-a-num-1b

It’s been a long wait

As I discussed last week in When will we stop waiting on hold?, both consumers and call centers have longed for this solution for years, but the traditional approach with on-premise integration has proven too cumbersome to be widespread.

There has been renewed excitement in this space with the a few start-ups that are tackling this problem from a different angle. Instead of adding equipment to the call center itself, calls are redirected through the cloud and the “smarts ” for the call-back are added there. I called this approach “cloud-based virtual queuing” in my post here: Is the secret to virtual queuing in the cloud?

Hold-for-me: Taking calls right now!

Meanwhile, the Fonolo team has quietly been perfecting our own such solution called Hold-for-me that takes the best of both worlds. As you can guess by the way I’ve been beating this drum on the ole’ blog lately — we have some news around this feature.

Our solution is actually deployed right now and taking calls from the public, but I don’t want announce exactly where. (I don’t want to skew the call metrics.)

Why is this hard?

Those of you who have used our consumer service will already be familiar with the Fonolo experience, so it is not difficult to imagine how virtual queuing fits into it. In fact it might seem that, compared to Deep Dialing, virtual queuing should be less challenging. What makes it hard is the behind-the-scenes work required to “play nice” with a call center.

I think our approach is a real breakthrough and look forward to sharing more details with you very shortly.

 

image If you’ve been following the story, you know that the Fonolo team spent most of 2009 creating an enterprise solution based on our ground-breaking (and patent-pending) Deep Dialing technology. After we got it launched and started actively selling it, we knew we needed someone with expertise in enterprise sales.

Selling to large companies requires a unique skill set and is not for the faint at heart. The process is always lengthy, with the complications of internal politics, budget schedules and competing interests. And if you are a start-up selling to large companies, the work is twice as hard.

Luckily, we have found an enthusiastic, experienced and savvy guy to fill the role: Chris McLean.

Chris has over 10 years experience in software sales, with time spent building an account development team, an inside sales team and mentoring a growing enterprise field sales team. Prior to joining Fonolo, Chris was a Senior Security Sales specialist at Watchfire (an IBM company) where he helped integrate the newly acquired Watchfire sales team into the larger IBM Rational sales process.

Chris has the ability to focus on customer needs and requirements, and has successfully helped companies of all sizes achieve their goals both on a technology and business level. With his attention to customer service, Chris will drive the Fonolo sales team to excel in providing a value filled process centered on clients success.

 

Cloud-and-angels-1 In my last post I talked about solving the “waiting on hold” problem using “virtual queuing”. That’s the industry’s term what seems like an obvious solution: If all agents are busy, take the caller’s phone number and call him back when it is his turn. The wait may not be any shorter, but it is less wasteful: The caller is not tied to his phone and the company is not paying to keep the lines open. It’s win-win.

Sadly still rare

Companies have had the option of adding virtual queuing to their call center for years. Yet, most of you reading this have never had this experience. Or, if you have, only sporadically.

What’s the hold-up?

Here’s a short answer: Call center complexity makes adding such a feature too costly and time consuming.

Here’s a slightly longer answer in 3 points:

1) Call center equipment is proprietary

Unlike the web world, which has flourished on open standards, the call center world has dug deep into proprietary trenches. On your website, if you want to add a blog, or a Google map, it is quick and painless. But changes to the call center experience are each custom projects with big budgets and long timelines.

2) Call centers are multi-site

Many companies have their call traffic split among different sites. Unless all those sites have exactly the same configuration, the integration complexity grows.

3) Call traffic is outsourced

It is rare to find a large company that is not outsourcing at least some of its call traffic. The economic benefits are too large to ignore. But when company “Alpha” sends some of its calls to outsourced call center “Bravo”, who is also handling calls for many other clients, Bravo can’t be expected to match any customization done by Alpha. So either Alpha has inconsistent features depending on where the call is routed, or they stick with lowest common denominator.

The call center has become a “black box”

All of these points serve to create an environment that is very resistant to innovation. Now add the organizational silos that commonly isolate the “call center folks” from “customer experience” folks – let’s just say, they don’t usually sit together in the cafeteria.

The net result: From the business’s perspective, the call center is a black box with a phone line going in:

image

Cloud-based virtual queuing

Recently a new approach has emerged that can add this feature without the integration hassle. I guess you could call it “virtual virtual queuing”. But I’ll call it “cloud-based virtual queuing” for two reasons.

First, cloud-anything is trendy and, lord knows, this blog needs the traffic. (See “link bait”.)

Second, it is a somewhat accurate description. Essentially, “cloud-based” is code-word for “nothing needs to be installed”. As I mentioned above, it is precisely the installation difficulties that have been the main obstacle to wide spread adoption of virtual queuing.

Hold-for-me

To my knowledge, Fonolo was the first to offer virtual queuing with our “Hold-for-me” feature, which I described during my presentation at ITExpo in January 2009. It has been part of our enterprise product since its launch, although we have not pursued any buzz for it (yet).

Lucyphone

Plenty of buzz was generated, though, by new entrant Lucyphone. They launched earlier this year and received a tremendous amount of attention from both industry blogs (GigaOm) and the mainstream press (NYTimes). Their approach is cloud-based (the company being called does not install anything). Just as importantly, their approach is unilateral from the consumer side. That is, the company being called is not involved in any way. (Fonolo’s consumer service, which lets callers bypass phone menus, is also cloud-based and unilateral.)

Now things are getting interesting

Perhaps the log-jam on virtual queuing is finally starting to move.

 

GlossyGuy-on-the-phoneHere’s something we can all agree on: Waiting on hold sucks.

It is one of the most hated parts of the call center experience. Even more hated than phone menus (and I know a lot about how much people hate phone menus).

An unfortunate remnant

The system of placing callers “on hold” is an unfortunate remnant of the way the phone system was designed decades ago. It is a very poor use of resources: the caller pays for his phone time while the company pays to keep a line open. As the minutes tick by, the customer’s mood worsens and the eventual agent conversation starts off on the wrong foot.

Technology alone can not reduce the actual wait-time. That boils down to a business decision balancing the cost of more agents with customer satisfaction. What technology can do is make the waiting process more painless.

An obvious solution

The obvious alternative to waiting on hold is this: If no agent is immediately available, the company should offer to call back the customer when an agent is ready. In this way, the customer is reserving a place in line. The wait may not be any shorter, but it is less wasteful: The caller is not tied to his phone (and is not incurring any per-minute charges) and the company is not paying to keep the lines open. It’s win-win.

Such “virtual queuing” systems are offered today by a number of companies such as Virtual Hold Technologies (VHT), Netcall and Interactive Intelligence.

But still not widespread

This approach seems like a “slam dunk”: happier calls and lower telecom costs for the company. So why isn’t it part of every company’s phone system? VHT has had a product on the market since 1995 and is widely regarded as an industry leader. Today, they can boast over a hundred installations (including IBM, Bank of America, T-Mobile, and Aflac) but this is still a small fraction of the market. Where’s the stumbling block?

Call centers are not easy to update

The main barrier to adoption is integration difficulty. With all of the solutions listed above, a company must install and integrate new hardware at the call center. Because of the proprietary nature of call center equipment, that type of installation is complex and custom to every call center, which drives up deployment costs.

When multiple call centers are added to the mix, the difficulty of getting an integration project to work across all of them increases exponentially. Finally, the widespread practice of outsourcing call traffic often means any customization of call center equipment is simply out of the question.

A 2006 Yankee Group report summarizes this point:

Most midsize to large contact centers are based on complex and unstable architectures … This results in a high cost of maintenance, upgradeability and testing across all the integration points … applications that span components have been very expensive to  implement, thereby limiting their deployment across the marketplace

(Emphasis mine.)

An unmet appetite

Yet, there is a clear appetite for virtual queuing among the public – even if they don’t know what to call it. When mobile operator Wind announced their entrance to the Canadian market in 2008, they asked the public for input on how to improve customer service. Of the many suggestions posted on their website, some variation of “call me back when an agent is ready” was the top request.

Furthermore, virtual queuing is a frequent request we hear from users of the Fonolo consumer service.

Closing remark that is an obvious set-up for next blog post

So this is where the industry has been stalled for years: Both companies and consumers want virtual queuing. But companies won’t deploy it if integration is required at the call center. The situation cries out for a new approach.