ACD's For The Twenty-First Century

BY RICH TEHRANI


The Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) is the call center equivalent of the mainframe. Typically expensive to purchase and maintain and relatively difficult to work with, ACDs have been around for decades and have, in fact, changed little during that time. The death of the mainframe and the death of the ACD have been predicted by many. The reality is that neither of these products will really die: They will evolve.

In the case of the ACD, we have seen PC-based ACDs from companies like AltiGen and network (ATM)-based ACDs from companies like CellIT. These are forward-looking products that merit some serious consideration before you purchase an ACD. It is truly quite mind-boggling to see such ingenuity in a product category that has otherwise remained stagnant for years.

And, just when I thought that the innovation in the ACD market had finally subsided, I was overwhelmed by two recent ACD announcements that are incredibly unique.

ROCKWELL’S TRANSCEND
Transcend, from Rockwell’s Electronic Commerce Division (ECD), is a PC-based ACD running Microsoft Windows NT that conforms to the ECTF S.100 specification. Transcend represents Rockwell’s initial entry into the small call center market.

Rockwell has recently become as nimble and quick as any small CTI company in the industry. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to think of another company of Rockwell’s size and product breadth that has come up with as many useful, leading- edge CTI products of late. If ever there was a legitimizer for the entire PC-based PBX and ACD product category, it is Rockwell’s Transcend. Known as an ultra-conservative company, Rockwell is putting its latest mission-critical ACD on a PC running Windows NT. This is the turning point for which the PC-PBX industry has been waiting for over a year. If any PBX or ACD vendor is not working on a competitor to Transcend, I believe they will be in big trouble.

Although PC-based ACDs have been around for a few years, most have limited feature sets and reporting tools, primarily because these new vendors are not experts at ACD development. In fact, even many large PBX vendors supplying ACD software usually don’t match the power of Rockwell’s Spectrum ACD which is designed for the largest and most sophisticated call centers. The good news is that the Spectrum interface (including reporting and monitoring features) is available in Transcend.

CT Media
Transcend uses Dialogic Corp.’s CT Media as middleware and Oracle’s universal Data Server as the database. CT Media is a resource management software tool that makes it possible for multiple applications, developed to standard APIs like ECTF S.100 and TAPI, to share a common computer telephony (CT) server, along with all the existing technologies.

CT Media streamlines applications development by handling the details of media resource control and functions internal to the computer telephony server; it manages system resources while grouping and providing them to handle application tasks. Furthermore, it transfers calls and resources among multiple client applications. By abstracting these low-level functions, developers no longer need to manage these functions from within their applications. They can now focus entirely on the requirements of application development and integration.

S.100
In the February 1998 issue of CTI , I predicted that the S.100 specification would be one of the hottest technologies of 1998. S.100 allows truly open mix-and- match client/server CTI solutions. Adhering to standards-based call hand-off, best-of-breed applications from different vendors can interoperate while making use of same resources such as fax and voice boards. Visit our Web site at www.ctimag.com for a detailed explanation of S.100 in the February 1998 CTI Publisher’s Outlook. An extremely in-depth document on S.100 in general and specific APIs is available on the ECTF Web site at www.ectf.org as well.

In the days of DOS-based computing, software developers supplied programs with hundreds of printer drivers encompassing every popular printer at that time. Developers could spend half of their development effort writing drivers for each printer. Ingenuity suffered as a result of this wasted programming manpower, and printer prices remained artificially high as it was difficult to break into the printer market unless drivers for your printer existed. Windows abstracted this programming effort, allowing a developer to develop a single printer driver that would conform to the specification of the OS. Programmers could now write to the Windows printer API once and let the OS handle each specific printer.

Akin to the Windows analogy, S.100 allows multiple applications from different vendors to share a single computer telephony server, reducing cost and extending system value for the system owner. The many proprietary hardware APIs of the past are represented as a single API. The many types of potential resource conflicts are taken into account and handled seamlessly by the specification. Application developers can now build products that are more portable and can reach broader markets as they run seamlessly on a larger number of hardware platforms.

Moreover, using S.100 allows upgrades to be seamlessly performed, including the addition of new technologies and additional capacity without the need to rewrite applications. As long as new hardware products adhere to the H.100 specification, they can be added into the system without undue work or reprogramming. The net effect is lower cost and greater owner investment protection.

CT Media’s open interfaces for call control extensions allow applications developed to standard APIs like TAPI to access the same CT server resources used for media applications. This will reduce hardware cost and allow for development of call control applications like switching that tightly integrate with media processing services like IVR, messaging, fax on demand, and others.

The full benefits of Transcend will only be realized if others decide to jump on the S.100 bandwagon. This is the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. Some other major telecommunications players have announced S.100 development, and only time will tell how this shakes out. Rockwell is busy building a distribution channel for Transcend. Please feel free to contact them directly for more information, either as a reseller or an end user at www.ecd.rockwell.com or 630-227-8212. Pricing was not avail-able as of this writing.

AN IP-BASED CALL CENTER SOLUTION
It was bound to happen. First a PC-based ACD from AltiGen, CellIT releases an ATM-based ACD, Rockwell throws their hat in the ring with an S.100 PC-based ACD, and now Netspeak releases — what else — an IP-based ACD. Netspeak’s ITEL Call Center is a turnkey IP-based Web-enabled call center solution. A software-based ACD server is supplied, so a traditional ACD is not required. As in a typical Internet telephony gateway, voice and video are digitized, compressed, and transported on a packet network such as an office LAN, an intranet, or the Internet.

Some of the features this software-based call center solution provides are screen pops, database lookup, video calling, Web integration, IVR, agent splits, supervisory control, call tracking, and reporting. The feature list is pretty complete.

The Netspeak ACD server routes calls to call center agents equipped with Netspeak Webphones. Netspeak’s Webphone is a software-based telephone that can be connected to a headset or handset through a PC’s sound card or equivalent. When an incoming call is initiated on a network such as the Internet, the IP packets are simply routed by the software ACD. In the case of a call originating on the PSTN, a Netspeak Webphone Gateway Exchange (WGX) converts these calls to IP for routing to agent’s desktops.

Ubiquitous packet networks — in the form of intranets and the Internet — guarantee that the virtual call center is now a reality. As long as an agent is logged onto the network, calls can be routed to them regardless of their physical location.

Another interesting twist that this product provides is the tight connection between the bundled IVR system and the ability to push URL pages onto a caller’s browser. Assuming an incoming caller waiting for an agent has a Web browser available to them, the IVR system could help answer any questions the caller has by displaying the appropriate Web page corresponding to the question.

The flexibility inherent in an IP-based call center solution should be readily apparent. Extending the traditional ACD beyond the walls of the physical call center allows companies to manage their call center costs more effectively. Physical call centers set up in expensive offices in areas such as New York can be staffed by less costly agents in rural America. If your call center outgrows your office space, you can keep adding agents in a second location without having to move. Companies with multiple call centers can easily route call traffic from center to center as capacity limitations dictate. Multilingual call centers can be set up inexpensively with agents located in their native countries.

Sincerely,

Rich Tehrani
Publisher, CTI magazine