Water-drop-3 (240px wide)This is the third post I’ve written looking at the debate on how best to add the much-desired feature of virtual queuing (VQ) to the call center experience. (Virtual queuing in a nutshell: The company will call you back when an agent is ready, rather than asking you to wait on hold.)

This series of posts was prompted by an essay posted by Eric Camulli of Virtual Hold Technologies (VHT) called “I applaud the concept, but Lucyphone could be hurting more than helping”. Lucyphone’s CEO posted a response in the comments. Both are worth reading.

Quick recap

  • VHT, Lucyphone and Fonolo all offer Virtual Queuing solutions, all with different approaches.
  • VHT follows the traditional approach of installing and integrating at the call center. In an earlier post, I explained why there is a dramatic advantage to delivering this service without needing new equipment in the call center: Is the secret to virtual queuing in the cloud?
  • Lucyphone is “cloud-based”, i.e. nothing installed at the call center. Furthermore it is a consumer-driven service, i.e. the caller decides that he wants to use it before dialing the company. Lucyphone adds the virtual queuing option without needing any cooperation (or permission) from the company being called. I call this a unilateral approach.
  • Fonolo’s offering, which we call Hold for Me, is also cloud-based but is bilateral. We feel this is the best of all worlds, and this series of posts is part of our effort to explain why.

Now back to the debate. The first point raised in Eric’s post was privacy and security, which I discussed a recent post.

The second concern related to call center operations, which I discussed in my last post.

Missed opportunity for savings

Eric’s third point…

…while Lucy waits on hold instead of the caller, toll minutes are still being accrued. When an integrated virtual queuing solution is used, no toll minutes accrue during the wait for a return call.

Some background on this: Companies pay more for calls that come in on a toll-free number. How much more? Well, the cost of inbound toll-free varies greatly. I’ve heard as high as 6 cents a minute and as low as 2. But even at the lowest end, this is double the cost of a regular call*.

To put it another way: not only is waiting on hold a poor experience for the caller, it also wastes money for the company. The traditional approach to queuing is simply “lose-lose”.

How VQ saves money

When companies replace hold-time with virtual queuing, they get savings in two ways. 1) During hold-time, they don’t pay for inbound minutes on their toll line and 2) After hold-time, the company connects to the caller through an outbound call, which is cheaper than having the call be inbound on the toll-free line.

With LucyPhone, all the telco charges remain. Their CEO responds in the comments: “Our efforts are always aligned with maximizing the efficiency of contact centers and leveraging VoIP technology to achieve telco savings, thereby creating ROI.” I’m not sure how they do that, but I’m looking forward to learning more.

How does Fonolo’s hybrid approach measure up? With Hold for Me, the entire call is handled as an outbound call to the consumer, so no toll-free charges are incurred. Unlike VHT, Fonolo does have to maintain a connection during hold time so not every penny is wrung out of the process. The majority of cost savings remain, though, and the dramatically lower cost of implementation more than compensates for this disadvantage.

* Telco folks: Yes, I know the math isn’t this simple and that, at high volume, there are different ways to factor calling costs. No matter how you slice it though, inbound toll-free calls cost more.


Water-drop-2 (240px wide)In my last post, I quoted from a post written by Virtual Hold’s Eric Camulli talking about Lucyphone. It was titled “I applaud the concept, but Lucyphone could be hurting more than helping”.

Both companies offer virtual queuing, which is the idea that the company will call you back when an agent is ready, rather than asking you to wait on hold.

One idea, three approaches

Virtual Hold represents the traditional approach — installing hardware and software at the call center. Lucyphone represents a disruptive new approach — based in the cloud and “unilateral” (i.e. not requiring any cooperation from the company). My company, Fonolo, also offers virtual queuing, using an approach that is a hybrid of the two.

The first point in Eric’s post concerned security, and my previous post added some thoughts on that. Here’s his second point:

Messing with agent performance metrics

To an agent, this [call-back] process is falsely accruing as ‘talk time’ — a metric by which many agents are measured to ensure high performance. So, is it possible that Lucy is skewing agent stats and affecting agent performance bonus? Yes, it’s possible…and not fair to them, either. … It’s possible that by skewing this data, Lucy may result in poorer customer service in the long run.

This is a concern we have also encountered in talking to companies about Fonolo’s virtual queuing service, Hold-for-Me. The only solution here is to work through these issues with the company, specifically the call center managers. The internal metrics used at the call center might have to be adjusted, depending on how they are set up.

There are also issues around workflow: How long does an agent wait during the callback for the customer to answer? What if that call goes to voicemail? What if the line is busy?

And finally, some small amount of agent training is also required.

Everyone has to bend a little

Yes, this pops the bubble of the pure “no-touch” installation that makes the cloud-based approach so attractive. But it is still a fraction of the effort compared with installing hardware at the call center. And our early results indicate that there is still very good ROI for the company. I hope to share some of those results on this blog in the near future.


Water-drop-1 (240px wide) Excitement is brewing over how best to eliminate forever the phrase “please hold for the next available agent”.

To recap:

Virtual queuing, the idea that the company will call you back when an agent is ready, has been available for over a decade. But because it requires equipment to be deployed in the call-center, its popularity has been hampered.  I discussed this here and here.

Virtual Hold Technologies is the leader in this traditional approach of deploying virtual queuing solutions into call centers. If you’ve ever been offered the option of a call-back while on hold, it was probably VHT’s technology at work.

Lucyphone appeared a year ago with a new approach and clever use of social media. They received tons of press which is a testament to how badly the public wants this solved.

Fonolo, which is best known for tackling the annoyances of phone menus, added a virtual queuing solution called Hold-For-Me in 2009. I wrote about it here.

VHT applauds Lucy, but….

Recently, Virtual Hold VP Eric Camulli wrote a commentary on LucyPhone titled “I applaud the concept, but Lucyphone could be hurting more than helping”. Eric has several concerns, but he spends the most time on the privacy issue:

Lucy makes the call on the consumer’s behalf [then] he is directed through your company’s IVR menus where a PIN code, claim number or credit card number may be required to proceed. What happens to this information? With Lucy basically conferenced into the call, is it possible that she’s collecting and storing this private information? Is the consumer knowingly or unknowingly trading privacy for convenience? [When Lucy] calls back the customer and patches them through… does Lucy drop off the call? Or is Lucy listening and recording everything being said?

OK, there are really two separate issues here. LucyPhone differs from VHT in that it is a) cloud-based rather than on-premise and b) unilateral vs bilateral.

Cloud-based vs on-premise

The fact that Lucyphone is a 3rd party handling customer calls should not be alarming. Almost all large companies today outsource some of their call traffic to 3rd party call centers. Some companies also outsource call recording (either for quality monitoring or compliance reasons). In all cases, those 3rd parties have the power to abuse the information that can be extracted from the audio. This hasn’t stopped anyone from outsourcing.

Unilateral vs bilateral

The real issue is their unilateral approach. What I mean by that is that Lucyphone is used by the consumer without any cooperation from the company. (As opposed to VHT which is a solution purchased by the company.)

Tom Oristian (Lucyphone founder) responds in a comment to that post:

As our privacy policy states, Lucy is not listening to or recording your phone conversations. The core mission … is to empower the consumer in their customer service dealings. We would be foolish to undermine this core mission…

Certainly, we have no reason to suspect bad motivation from Lucyphone, but they are indeed in a position to exploit sensitive information (or be infiltrated by a hacker who wants to do so). The same could be said about any 3rd party provider that has access to the audio stream (such as a call center or call recording service). The difference with the latter case is: The 3rd party has some a business arrangement with the company, probably including a confidentiality provision. Thus there is opportunity for oversight and, if needed, enforcement.

Hey, wait a minute!

If you are thinking “Isn’t Fonolo in the same position?” you are correct, astute reader. Glad you’re paying attention.

The consumer service that we launched in 2008 (which has now done millions of calls to hundreds of different companies) is also a cloud-based unilateral service. So, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this issue. In fact, it is one of the main reasons we launched our enterprise service in 2009, which is also cloud-based but not unilateral. Because we work with the company, they can satisfy themselves that our approach to security meets their requirements.

Another big reason is business model. Companies have money to spend if you can improve their call center by either reducing cost, improving the experience, or both. Getting consumers to pay for an improved calling experience… well, that’s more unclear. Not impossible, but certainly unclear.

It seems Lucyphone is thinking along the same lines. From a story in the NYTimes: “The way that LucyPhone aims to someday earn revenue is for those companies to pay to feature a LucyPhone widget on their own sites, so their customers can use it without leaving their sites.”


BNN - The Pitch - Snapshot

Last week, Canadian TV network BNN invited me to appear on their new show “The Pitch“. I presented Fonolo to a panel of potential investors and got some terrific feedback.

The panel included:

I must say that those three were the most insightful, wise and handsome fellows I’ve ever met. And I’m not just saying that because they might write us a cheque.

Condensed version of the video is embedded below (about 10 minutes long). Full version here.

To see my my one-on-one with Andrew Bell from last year, click here.


Front-page-persp-2The all new Fonolo website is now up! It reveals more of the details about our enterprise product than ever before.

The Fonolo consumer service (that lets anyone Deep Dial to any of the 500 companies in our database) continues to work as before and is still completely free. We’ve just moved it to http://consumer.fonolo.com so update your bookmarks. Our iPhone app continues to work as before.

Focus on features

At the new site you can read details about the four features that have become the centerpiece of our service: Visual dialing, virtual queuing, pre-call questions and post-call surveys.


Live Demos

You can also try live demos of the Fonolo interface in both web and mobile scenarios.