Computer Telephone Integration

CTI is inevitable: Telephone services and computer systems are becoming intertwined, and the advantages can be very great.

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Most telephone equipment today (switches, PBXs) is just specialized computers. Inevitably, these are moving to open architectures so they can be integrated with other computer systems - and computer systems are moving in the opposite direction. Soon they will collide and you won't be able to tell them apart.

CTI was one of the hottest topics a couple of years ago, with the technology press promoting it relentlessly as the "next big thing". Since then, it has faded severely from the spotlight, but it is still inevitable. Computer networks and telephone system are headed for merger.

What's holding CTI back?

  • CTI vendors are nearly all focused on one market - large call centers. Hardly anybody is paying attention to small business.
  • VARs are hesitant to commit to CTI, fearing that if it becomes widespread the telephone companies will take it over and destroy their investment.
  • Harry Newton, who controlled most CTI magazines, promoted Windows NT for CTI as if he got a commission on every sale (hint). Systems that actually worked fell from favor, stalling the whole shebang.
  • Reliability: the Intel based PC, especially combined with Windows NT, is perceived as unreliable compared to normal telephone equipment.
  • Harry Newton isn't promoting CTI anymore, so it's become dull.
  • Everyone is concentrating on the Internet right now.
  • Vendors keep trying to make systems closed and proprietary.
  • Business managers have been unimaginative in applying CTI, and haven't yet been forced to do better by their competitors.
Low cost 2-line and 4-line voice response and fax cards, and easy to use scripting languages, make it possible for smaller businesses to deploy customized voice and fax systems tailored to their exact needs. It's time to start thinking about it (and perhaps doing something about it) before competitors do.

We recommend all business managers consider how CTI might make operations more efficient. CTI encompasses many applications. Some of the most popular are:

  • Voice Response - Voice answers to customer's telephone queries
  • Fax Response - Fax answers to customer's telephone questions
  • VoiceMail - Auto attendant and voicemail boxes, as simple, or as complex as you need
  • Telemarketing and Surveys - Predictive Dialing, Call Distribution, Autodial, AutoFax, Call Recording, Session info and Follow-up ticklers, Adaptive Scripting, Screen Pops from prospect database and much more
  • Customer Support - Database screen pops, Call distribution, Auto voice/fax
  • Computer PBX - Private Branch Exchange

Voice Response

"Press (or say) 1 to be put on indefinite hold"
"Press (or say) 2 to leave voicemail that will be ignored"
"Press (or say) 3 to hear an advertising message"
"For an immediate response, please call our competitor"

This is the CTI application we all love to hate, because it is so often done poorly. Done right, it can save time for everyone and is the entrance portal to all other CTI applications, but there should always be an easy way to reach an actual person. Even the best design can't cover all possibilities.

Voice response systems used to be very expensive, rigid and difficult to change, but today, easy to use scripting packages make it affordable and easy to customize, modify and integrate with other applications.

Fax Response

The objective of fax response is to make it easy for people to obtain documents from your business at any time of day or night, and without labor and/or postage costs for you, and without big racks of flyers and brochures (where you are certain to be out of the only one anyone wants).

One nice trick is to coordinate the fax response system with the business' Web pages. Web pages are translated into fax documents for the benefit of people who are not currently using the Web, but do have a fax machine.

Voice Mail

This is one CTI application that is already fairly widespread, because even telephone equipment makers could appreciate its value. Once you get beyond two people, answering machines just don't do the job and voice mail becomes essential. Every person (and every department) can have his own mail box. Today's hard disk sizes make message storage a non-issue.

If you opt for a computer based voicemail system, make sure it is easy to integrate with other CTI applications you may wish to add, even if it means paying a little more. If you are contemplating any other CTI application, make sure voice mail can be integrated into it.

Many telephone systems now have voicemail as an option. Given the telephone equipment makers' penchant for reliability, these are usually based on OS/2 rather than Windows NT. Computer based voicemail is also available running on OS/2, Unix and QNX for those who don't want to have to reboot their voicemail system every so many days.

Telemarketing

Telemarketing is one of the two applications CTI vendors are really interested in (the other is customer support), because big telemarketers are willing to spend big dollars to cut down their labor costs. Even at minimum wage, all those bodies add up. Many applications may be combined in a telemarketing system.
  • Automatic Dialing: The telemarketer needn't dial phone numbers. Autodialers do it by "point and click" or just by going down a prescheduled list, dialing the next number every time the telemarketer tells it to.
  • Predictive Dialing takes autodialing a step farther. The telemarketing department has a single autodialer which is made aware how many people there are to answer phones and how long it takes to finish the average call. The dialer dials every time it thinks a telemarketer will be ready by time someone answers.
  • Automatic Fax allows the telemarketer to fax marketing information right from within the telemarketing session without having to go to a fax machine. All the documents are in a database and the telemarketer just gives the system the fax number and document numbers.
  • Call Recording allows telemarketers to accept legal commitments by customers. It can also allow supervisors to review performance and allow lawyers to find supporting evidence should a dispute go to trial.
  • Call Distribution is used where significant incoming traffic is handled. It is kind of the reverse of predictive dialing and tries to rout incoming calls to a group that is ready to answer.
  • Session and Follow-up information can be recorded at the keyboard as the telemarketer talks to the prospect. Follow-up calls are scheduled right then, along with pertinent information on what to say.
  • Adaptive Scripting provides a sales script or survey script right on the screen. The telemarketer recites a script step and enters response from the prospect. The script then branches to the next step appropriate to that response. This greatly reduces the skill and training required of telemarketer and survey personnel.
  • Screen Pops from the prospecting database appear on the screen, including records of previous calls keep the telemarketer informed and ready. If the call is incoming, the screen pop can be launched by caller ID.
Small telemarketers may use programs like GoldMine, Act! or Telemagic to provide many of the benefits enjoyed by large telemarketing operations using custom fit software.

Customer Support

Customer support is the other application CTI vendors are interested in. Again, very large customers are willing to spend a lot of money to cut down their labor costs, and here the labor is likely to be well above minimum wage.

The needs of a big customer support department are pretty much the same as for a telemarketing operation, but differ in emphasis (and predictive dialing won't be needed). Scripting will be for trouble shooting rather than marketing, and database screen pops will relate to trouble tickets.

Computer PBX

If a PBX (Private Branch Exchange) is simply a specialized computer, why can't a standard computer act as a PBX, making it easier to integrate other CTI applications than when dealing with a proprietary PBX? In actuality, it can. Several companies now make PBX stand-ins.

Computer PBXs are properly based on highly reliable industrial grade PCs, rather than the kind you buy at the local Office Depot.

©:Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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