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Contact centers turn to unified communications with IP technology

Eastman Chemical, a longtime SAP customer, turned to its enterprise application provider to build out its unified communications technology in the contact center.

When Eastman Chemical launched a customer value creation program, its executives knew they'd need to learn a few...

things about their customers first, and that meant some changes to the contact center.

That involved more than just turning on the SAP CRM licenses the company had ready to go; it also meant deploying unified communications in its contact center.

"We started with a customer value creation program. Not just SAP CRM but an entire program creating value for our customers," said Russ Hickman, senior systems associate with the Kingsport, Tenn.-based company. "We had not used any of the CRM modules at all until about two years ago."

Eastman, a longtime user of SAP for its back office operations, was able to leverage SAP's May 2007 acquisition of Wicom, an Internet Protocol (IP)-based contact center provider. Eastman launched SAP CRM 5.2 in the first quarter of 2008 and went live with Interaction Center, the call center application, in mid-March 2008.

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More and more organizations are shifting to IP-based contact centers, according to Ian Jacobs, senior analyst for customer interaction technologies at Datamonitor, a London-based research firm. Jacobs recently wrote a report on IP-based contact centers. In fact, the very definition of IP contact center is a bit outdated. All contact center vendors provide some form of IP technology, allowing both voice and data to be routed to a customer service agent with access to an IP connection. This has meant that companies aren't ripping out their old contact center infrastructure; rather, they are adding it piecemeal.

"Much of the sales volume these days is not new, greenfield opportunities, it's augmentation of existing systems or rationalizing different systems after acquisitions," Jacobs said.

Like Eastman, many companies are interested in contact center unified communications as a way to improve customer retention rather than customer acquisition. The recession has led to this shift in strategy.

"If budget is no object you're probably an enterprise on Mars," Jacobs said. "But some enterprises have really bought into the importance of customer experience and building customer intimacy-- effectiveness metrics rather than efficiency. For enterprises very serious about focusing on those, the conversations are very different. Cost is a significant factor but you start to see features and functions as well as conceptual approaches being the primary drivers."

And while much of the business for IP contact center technology is going to established infrastructure vendors, some firms, like Eastman, are turning to their enterprise application vendors.

"SAP is sort of taking the Wicom technology apart and enabling all these business processes they have with telephony," Jacobs said.

Eastman Chemical, for example, still has a Nortel switch that's integrated with a gateway device that sits between Nortel and the BMC server, Hickman said.

"The way we're using the Interaction Center is different than the way some would think," he said. "We don't run a large, high-volume call center. Right now, we only have it deployed to about two dozen CSRs [customer service reps]. And we plan to deploy globally."

There are two types of CSRs on SAP's Interaction Center at Eastman. One is a more traditional contact center role where the CSRs handle a specific product line and get calls or email routed directly to them. The second is the one-touch service team where CSRs are paired with large customers they've been assigned to specifically.

"We're really new at this and didn't have a good model when we went in," Hickman said. "We had CSRs taking calls on an 800 number and connecting them to the right team. Quite often, those CSRs have to deal with others in the company -- shipping, manufacturing. You really don't want those people using the same line the customer is on."

CSRs at Eastman are using two lines -- a customer line and an internal plant line. Both are VoIP. Eastman had to delay its implementation as it waited for SAP to build out a call waiting feature that would allow the reps to make customer calls a priority if they were already on an internal line.

SAP's acquisition of Wicom was fortuitous for Eastman because it had already been considering Wicom's technology.

"We were able to incorporate that directly into our ramp-up and had support all the way through," Hickman said. "It hasn't been without difficulties at times."

The call-waiting capability was the biggest hurdle, he said. But the company also found some Internet browser challenges.

"Moving from the SAP [graphical user interface] to an application running inside Microsoft Internet Explorer has been challenging," Hickman said. "You have to be very careful with the options and settings in Internet Explorer. CSRs have to be careful in how they use Windows. Our analyst who supports this turned off the ability to do tabbing. Getting some of the settings correct and the CSRs to understand they shouldn't change font size has been as big an issue as some of the technical issues."

Jacobs recommends looking across three axes when purchasing IP contact center technology.

"You have to look for features and functions relevant to where you are now, as well as the ability to scale up in the future, both in terms of size of operation, as well as features and functions you may want in the future," he said.

Larger contact centers have the ability to take a best-of-breed approach to unified communications and contact center applications, he added. Voice routing and the interactive voice response can come from different vendors, and voice self-service can be different from the workforce management, which can be different from the agent desktop knowledge base.

"It is possible to get all of those from one vendor, but what usually happens is you get good enough functionality, but not great functionality," Jacobs said. "The difference between choosing vendor A and vendor B rarely comes down to which technology provider can implement specific-agent recall routing rules or which one has a scripting engine for canned email responses. It is crucial for enterprises to consider technology alongside other factors, such as a vendor's reputation among its customers and its position in the market."

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