Meet the Next-Generation Informal Call Center

22 Dec 2014

In this Executive Insights podcast, UCStrategies' Jim Burton welcomes Tom Minifie, CTO of AVST. The discussion focusses on AVST's TeamQ™ informal call center solution.

Jim Burton: Welcome to UCStrategies Executive Insights. This is Jim Burton, and I am joined today by Tom Minifie, the CTO at AVST. Tom, there is a lot of products that AVST has, but I want to get into something that you have recently announced. It is a product that you have called TeamQ, as an informal call center. And I have heard the term "informal call center" for years, I have heard it used a lot of different ways. Could you explain what an informal call center is and how it differentiates from a formal call center?

Tom Minifie: Sure. Thank you, Jim. I think most people are familiar with call centers or contact centers that are considered formal, where you look at the members or agents of that call center. And that is what they do all day long is take calls, and they do nothing else. It may be so structured that they are reading from a script, and depending on how the caller answers a certain question, that guides them through the script. But everything is oriented toward that call, even to the point of the objective of the call center is to try to handle more calls than they normally would. So they invest in technology to try to help with that objective. So slice a few seconds off of each call so that each agent can take one more call a day than they normally could, that sort of thing. So that is the formal call center.

However, there are similar needs within a company that are much more informal where you look at the agent or the person associated with an informal call center, and yes, they take calls, but they tend to do a lot of other things as well. They are doing research, they are helping people face-to-face within an organization, they are walking around and communicating with folks or participating in other activities. Their entire job is not just to answer the next call. So you have got packets of people within an organization where there is still a group, maybe there is five people that all handle the same sort of call, but they do other activities as well.

So what we have done is put together our TeamQ solution to try to help that sort of group within an organization and make them more efficient and enable them to make decisions on how best to use their time and better serve their customers, if you will. So that is how we really distinguish between formal and informal call centers, are 100% of the time you are answering calls versus it is just part of your job and you have other responsibilities as well.

Jim Burton: What is interesting, it seems like over the years, one of the challenges has been the technology available to help deliver information to this work group because they were not part of that $5,000-a-seat contact center, but they had the same kind of needs. But what are the groups that you are finding are benefiting most from this type of TeamQ approach?

Tom Minifie: It is fairly early for us with the product, we have just announced it and started to get it out into the market. But in talking to our customers and prospective customers up front where we have seen some real interest and commonality across customers is with IT. Help Desk is a great example where you typically have a smaller group of people within your organization that handle IT tasks. And they handle the help desk, they are walking around helping people with their desktops, maybe they are remoting into a desktop and making a configuration change. They are doing research, they are installing new software on servers, and answering calls is just one thing.

So IT Helpdesk is one, Technical Support Groups - they are supporting their callers, their customers, their internal constituents whoever it may be, but they are doing research, they are closing out logs or writing knowledge based articles, whatever it may be. Sales support tends to be where you have got these tasks that involve phone calls, but they are not so structured that every call is the same. It is more that they have to knowledgeable enough to know how best to service that call. So those are a few examples of departments within an organization that tend to look for this type of functionality. And as you mentioned, they may not be able to justify the $5,000 a seat or even $1,000 a seat for those people, but they could justify something much less than that.

Jim Burton: I agree. I think that the need within organizations to have people involved in more calls has been something we have been talking about for years. And there is certainly a new generation of worker out there that is more used to that type of thing. Where there is the kind of contact that they have. But I think the most critical component to me is the reason we have not had these informal contact centers the way we have had in the past, are the features and the functionality that get delivered to someone so they could actually feel like they are a contact center. So what are some of the capabilities that are built into TeamQ?

Tom Minifie: With the TeamQ product there is kind of two sides to it. One is the upfront identification of the caller where there is an interrogation process of trying to determine who is calling, why are they calling, how should I route this call, into which team should they be assigned sort of thing. So you do have the people that are qualified to handle certain types of calls and the challenges, how do you match up the caller with an appropriate person to handle that call? So all of that upfront identification and queueing mechanism, and then what do you do when that call is in queue, do you want to share information with the caller in terms of how many people are in front of them in queue? How long should it take before somebody can handle their call? What other options do you want to offer them? Do you want them to be able to leave a message, do you want them to be able to bounce out of queue and talk to somebody else? That sort of thing.

And then from the agent perspective, it's all about having visibility into what is happening within their group or within their team. How many calls are currently in queue, who is it, and what are they calling about? How best can I help that caller, what are the other people doing within my team?

So Jim, if you and I are both on the same team, it is helpful to know is Jim available to take a call or is he on another call? How long has he been on a call, does it look like he is about to wrap up, that sort of thing. So we have those kinds of features to help both the caller experience as well as the agent experience. And then you go further down into how can you monitor the health of this technology from an administrative point of view. Are there reports that can be run that indicates the productivity of the agents, or what is happening within the queue? How do you want to overflow from one queue to another, those kinds of things? So we have really got a pretty full-featured application here or solution, but it does it a little bit differently where we do not try to get tied really close into the PBX, we are actually depending on the capabilities of the agent to dictate when they are available for the next call and that sort of thing.

Jim Burton: Well, it is an interesting departure from a traditional call center where everything is so well managed and mapped out and the agents get fed things. In this case where you are allowing people to poll that information or to look at that information and make decision. So the agents end up being the call control component of that. I think that is really interesting. Could you expand on that a little bit?

Tom Minifie: You bet, and that really is Jim, in my mind, the real differentiator. From a technology perspective, you look at what a formal call center wants and it is all about the process, it is not about the agent. It is about the process and trying to make that as efficient as possible. Whereas with informal call centers, you are trying to service a different group of people, where there are knowledge workers within these informal call centers, and you are really trying to enable them to make the best choice possible. So they get to decide, how is my time management going to be processed here, and I am going to decide that on my own, what is the best use of my time. Is it to take that next call, is it to take a specific call, or is it to do something else? And the only way you can really make those decisions is if you have visibility into what is happening within your group. And that is visibility and how many calls are coming in, as well as visibility into what your coworkers or teammates are working on.

So what we have done is kind of reversed the normal call flow here where in a formal call center, it is very common that as soon as an agent becomes available or if multiple agents are available, which one has been available the longest, that is where the next call gets routed too. We are reversing that and saying the agent gets to decide which call is going to come to them, so they are actually pulling calls toward them. And that can be based on who is calling and what they are calling about. So for example, if I see that Jim, you are calling me, and you and I just talked 30 minutes ago, I know exactly why you are calling back; I am the best guy to handle your return call. So I am able to reserve that call. Say that I am on an existing call, I can actually reserve yours so that instead of you routing somebody else that is going to have to start over with you, I reserve you so that as soon as I finish up my current call, you are going to get pushed to me and I can help you very quickly.

So it is reserving a call, redirecting a call, taking a message, pulling a call down, you are enabling the agent to actually have that type of control, rather than the system saying, "I know what is best and Jim is getting the next call because he has been idle the longest."

Jim Burton: So it sounds like you do a lot and so it brings up the question of cost. Is it cost effective, and if it is, what are you doing that is different than what a big contact center and the reason they charge so much money is for some of that functionality.

Tom Minifie: Yeah, good question. We have really targeted this to be an additional module onto the CX-E platform. For our customers that use CX-E today, they are using it for enterprise class messaging, whether it is voice messaging or unified messaging, auto attendant capabilities, speech based auto-attendant, personal assistant functionality, IVR capabilities, that sort of thing. So once you have invested in our platform, TeamQ is just another module that you can enable on an agent basis or a supervisor basis, and we have really tried to make it very economical, where it is more online with a unified messaging seat cost versus an ACD agent seat would cost on the market.

One of the ways that we have been able to drive costs out, some of it we control obviously where it is our license and we have chosen to make that very economical. But the other cost components are really what is required within the environment. And most ACD solutions would require a CTI link off of a telephone system. And the reason for that is they want to monitor the status of that phone, the agent's phone. They want to know exactly when the agent hangs up so that they can send that next call as quickly as possible to the agent's phone. We do not care about that, so there is no CTI link involved with this. And because of that, we can deliver TeamQ into any PBX environment, it really does not matter, as long as we can transfer a call, we are good.

So you start carving out some of those costs, there is nothing special on the PBX side, so CTI links are involved. Our licensing is much less expensive, and the whole purpose of it is we are trying to deliver this to an underserved market, which is that informal call center where they have needs for some of this technology, they just cannot justify it based on typical ACD costs.

Jim Burton: Well, in prepping for this call, I was sent a white paper, and it goes into this a little bit, so we will post that as part of this podcast so people can have access to it. Because I think, it helps a lot in discussing what it delivers and the ROI that it provides. One of the things that I know everybody wants to know about of course is how many agents does it support?

Tom Minifie: Yes, so out of the gate, we have elected to support up to 250 agents and up to 50 teams. I would be very surprised if somebody had a single team with 250 agents that chose to use TeamQ for that. That is really more of the size of what a formal call center would consist of and they use the ACD functionality that is prevalent in the market today. However, what we envision is that you will have multiple teams and they will have half a dozen people within that team or 10 people within the team, and you can have multiple teams. But we think with 250 agents and 50 teams, that will serve our target market very well, but it will be carved up into smaller informal groups throughout the organization.

Jim Burton: Well with 50 teams, it is likely that they are in different locations so you can support multiple locations as part of the offering?

Tom Minifie: Yes, the agents can be remote, it does not matter where they are. What happens functionally is we will display the incoming calls on their desktop and as long as they have an internet connection they are going to be able to see that. But then we can ultimately deliver the call to any phone they want, so it could go to their mobile phone, it could go to their remote office, home office, whatever it may be. So location does not really matter with this, we actually use this internally within our tech support group. And we have tech support agents all over the world, but they are all being fed through these TeamQ solutions.

Jim Burton: One of the things that you mentioned working with your existing product, I know your existing product interfaces with just about everything. In fact, I have been to your facility up in Bothell and was just amazed. There are PBX systems I know you interface with that I have forgotten even exist out there. So where does this fit into, what systems do you support?

Tom Minifie: Yeah, this really is PBX agnostic, just like everything we do we try to deliver in an agnostic fashion, so that if the customer still has an old TDM solution that we are integrated via analog, in-band integration or something like that, it is perfectly fine. So it is TCM, it is IP, it is hosted, it is at the customer pram, it really does not matter. Our only requirement is actually far less than some of our other applications. Our only requirement is we are able to have a call directed to us and we are able to transfer that call, and that is it. So there is nothing special as I mentioned in the earlier part of this discussion, we do not have to have a CTI link or anything like that, so it is literally, we need dial tone and we need the ability to transfer a call and that's it. So every PBX we have supported from day one to now, is a viable candidate for TeamQ.

Jim Burton: Well I am sure you are going to do well with this product. As I have said, we have talked about informal call centers in this industry forever, and no one has been able to deliver and it makes a lot of sense that you could, because you have got a platform that can do some of the underlying things already built into your product. So it kind of makes sense that you would be the people to deliver this, maybe even opposed to some of the more formal calls center providers. It sounds very exciting, so Tom, is there anything you would like to say in closing what people should consider, and what are the options that they may want to consider as they are looking at your informal contact center?

Tom Minifie: My final comment would be more of a generic one, which is if you, as an organization have taken a look at call center technology and you have eliminated it from certain groups within your organization where you simply could not justify it from a cost perspective, with this solution, I think you can revisit that decision. What we have built here is a lot of call center functionality that you are familiar with, that you may have deployed within your organization already within your formal call center groups. Well now you can revisit and go, hey here is a way to deliver some of that same technology, some of the same functionality and benefit from the technology. We can now address groups that we just could not address before because it was just too expensive.

So take a look at it, it is pretty full featured, we are not trying to compete with the ACD solutions because we really view it as a different paradigm, but we are trying to deliver a lot of the same functionalities. So if it is ECD like functionality, if it is UCD like functionality, we can deliver it, it does not matter what your environment is, we will be able to deliver it behind your existing voice infrastructure. So we encourage our current customers and prospective customers to take a new look at TeamQ. We are pretty excited about it. We just concluded a road show where we were meeting with customers and our business partners, and TeamQ was by far the number one topic of conversation. So we think we have hit a real home run with this, and we are excited to talk to our customers in context about it.

Jim Burton: Well, it sounds very exciting and I would love to follow-up with you in say six months to find out how things have gone and some of the lessons you have learned, because the market has been looking for this for years, and it is great to see that you have delivered it. Tom, thanks a lot today, I appreciate it, and look forward to talking to you again soon.

Tom Minifie: Great, thank you Jim.



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