What to look for when buying – an ACD

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Automatic call distributors are so much more sophisticated than the technology of old. No wonder, then, that we’ve asked three specialists – Apsect Software, Sabio and Storacall Voice Systems – to detail exactly what you should think about when buying an up-to-the-minute ACD.

Buying an ACD that’s built to last

By Isabel Montesdeoca, senior director of marketing – Europe and Africa – at Aspect Software (www.aspect.com)

Research shows that the telephone is still Europe’s most important customer contact channel. The  2006 Aspect European Contact Center Satisfaction Index” interviewed 1,000 consumers across Europe and found that the phone accounted for 66% of their last customer interactions, compared with 33% by e-mail and 2% using web chat. Among UK consumers the phone was even more dominant, accounting for 72% of customers’ last interactions. Efficient call routing, queuing and contact management is clearly a key business tool to improve customer satisfaction, reduce expenses, gather market data and increase revenues. Key things to look out for when buying an ACD include:

1) A user-friendly and intuitive developer interface

This is important in order to rapidly create, deploy and modify applications to meet changing business needs – and also to create sophisticated routing scenarios as needed.

2) Sophisticated call routing options

This enables you to route contacts based on agent skill sets, real-time conditions in the contact centre, priorities that your business managers define, data delivered from the network, information entered by callers, data in enterprise customer databases and so on.

3) Flexible voice processing

This enables you to route calls based on caller input – using dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) or speech input, as  appropriate – as well as provide interactive voice response-based ‘automated’ phone services as customer needs dictate.

4) Real time and historical reporting

Look to combine this function with tools and templates that allow you to create standard or bespoke reports, and display stats on screen or distribute them to users anywhere on the corporate network in order to effectively measure and improve performance.

5) Network-agnostic functionality

It is important to have the ability to operate in a proven, mission-critical time division multi-plexing (TDM) environment and an Internet protocol (IP) environment. Equally, you will want to be able to migrate from TDM to IP as business requirements demand.

6) Virtual contact centre support

The ability to run a multi-site operation – possibly involving home-based workers – using the same business rules that apply to a single site operation is pretty important nowadays, as is the ability to centrally manage that multi-site operation with robust system management and administration capabilities.

7) Flexibility

Providing scalability (up or down) as well as the ability to incorporate or manage any outsourced functions as part of a central operation, should the need arise, is a good thing to look for. Think, for instance, how useful this will be when seasonal outbound activity increases.

8) Advanced queue management

ACDs that provide customers with estimated wait times and offer up a queue management system, such as scheduled call back, are also incredibly useful.

9) Business continuity features

These should take advantage of redundancy options, such as a hot stand-by server, redundant shelf controllers, and  extended battery back-up, as well as offering remote performance notification. However, make sure they run on a scalable, secure and reliable platform – one capable of supporting mission-critical operations.

10) Simple management and administration tools

These make it fast and easy to manage hardware, agent groups and team assignments, system functions and settings, call routing administration details and alert messages.

11) Standards support

Ultimately, these help to protect your investment. Does your chosen ACD use an industry-standard operating system such as Windows? Does it support simple network management protocol (SNMP) to help you manage each contact centre system as a node on your network, as well as monitor ACD status and activity? These two questions should be seriously considered when purchasing an ACD.

Finally, remember that your ACD should do more than simply ensure calls are delivered to the right resource, quickly and efficiently. It should also enable you to: develop call-routing applications quickly and modify them on the fly as business needs change; deploy agents cost-effectively, independent of location; scale easily as your business grows; and manage IP-based and public switched telephone network (PSTN)-based agents from a single ACD platform.


The questions that are most critical for your purchase

By Adam Faulkner, founding director at Sabio (www.sabio.co.uk)

At Sabio we’re finding that many of the organisations who bought a new ACD system, or who upgraded their existing technology to get through the Y2K crisis some six to seven years ago, are now finding that their current ACD systems are holding them back in terms of their ability to
improve customer service levels.

A lot has obviously changed during the intervening years, not least the widespread deployment of IP technology and the advent of new developments such as virtualisation and emerging  technologies like session initiation protocol (SIP). Given that most organisations’ investment in their existing ACD technology has now been written down, many businesses are now looking again at the ACD market and considering their options.

When it comes to optimising the performance of key peripheral solutions such as interactive voice response systems (IVRs), diallers and multimedia systems, it’s important for contact centres to be at least running current ACD software versions to make the most of the latest versions of these peripherals.

While earlier generation ACDs were typically dedicated boxes that would be installed either on their own or ‘piggybacked’ on to a company’s telephone system, today’s ACD systems come in many different guises and are generally moving towards a software-based product that acts as a hub for a range of different contact centre solutions. There’s a broad range of different ACD technologies available, from traditional TDM solutions, through to application-based ACDs and the latest IP-based systems.

Look for deep contact centre experience

Before considering technology issues, it’s important to establish that any ACD vendor you work with has both the capabilities and experience needed to work in the specialist contact centre sector. That sounds obvious, but ACDs are all about handling business-critical calls from your customers, so it’s simply not smart to underestimate the importance of a vendor’s proven capability and their ACD’s reliability. This means finding a solution that offers 5×9 levels of reliability, and a vendor with the pedigree to match.

You first need to establish that the ACD solution you’re being offered can actually give you the business benefits you’re after. Has the vendor implemented the same solution for other similar-sized organisations in your market sector? How long have they been in the contact centre sector? They may have strong IP expertise, but contact centres demand deep voice and applications capabilities – your vendor needs to demonstrate both.

Also, how many agents do they actually have already successfully using the solution that you’re about to invest in? If the answer to any of these questions seems vague, just walk away.

The next major consideration depends on the type of contact centre you’re currently operating. If you’re building a new contact centre in a green-field location, then you’ll get better scalability if you go for a purely IP-based ACD approach. If, however, you’ve got an existing contact centre infrastructure with an ACD in place already, then you need to find out whether your ACD vendor offers a hybrid approach – combining TDM and IP technologies in a single environment – that would allow you to share some of the benefits of IP while still retaining your existing ACD investment. This is a key issue, as some vendors don’t offer this flexibility.

You should also check that your ACD vendor offers a clear, forward-thinking technology roadmap. Technologies such as IP are still evolving so, for example, you need to find out where your vendor stands on open protocols such as SIP, and gain an understanding of their attitude to future technologies.

Accommodating trends such as virtualisation

IP isn’t just a technology, it can have a fundamental impact on how your business operates, effectively allowing you to virtualise or pool staff resources across your organisation – whether they are contact centre agents, branch workers, back-office staff or home workers. A new ACD solution will play a key role in managing this shift towards virtualisation, and you need to ensure that your ACD technology partner is able to help you take advantage of this shift.

It’s also worthwhile understanding some of the major technology shifts that are currently driving change in the ACD sector. You can now download an open source, SIP-enabled IP telephony server, load it on to a standard PC and attach an IP handset that you can buy at Tesco or PC World. Technically, that’s an IP phone system with routing capabilities –
admittedly not one that could run an enterprise contact centre – but the fact that this technology exists can have an impact on your negotiations for a new ACD system.

The decision to upgrade or exchange your ACD should depend on the future roadmap of your existing ACD, your relationship with your solution provider over the lifetime of your ACD and, most importantly, whether or not it can manage your organisation’s future growth plans. This has always been true, but now pressures from open source and IP-based solutions are leading to a highly competitive ACD market with extremely attractive pricing. And that means there’s a lot of smart buying opportunities out there for informed ACD customers.


Everything you need to know on ACDs

By Andy Cowhig, sales manager at Storacall Voice Systems (www.storacall.co.uk)

An ACD is a specialised telephone system that is designed for the rapid answering of a high volume of inbound calls in to a company. It differs from a typical telephone system or ‘PABX’ as used in the office, in two major ways:

1) A PABX is designed to have one or a few operators/receptionists who answer all incoming calls and direct them to the right person. An ACD is designed so that all the users or ‘agents’ are put in an answering group and are fed incoming calls, thereby relieving the bottleneck associated with having an operator having to answer all calls first before transferring them to the right department.

2) The basic assumption in a PABX is that only a small proportion of all the PABX extensions will require an outside line, which is why a typical office PABX could have 50 extensions but only 12 outside lines. An ACD is the opposite in that the assumption is that not only will ALL the agents be on the phone at the same time, but in order to use the advanced  queuing features of an ACD, there will be more outside lines, or ‘trunks’, provided than there are agent positions. Although there are many variations, a good rule of thumb is that one should provide 50% more trunks than there are extensions. So
in a 50-seat call centre, installing 75 trunks would allow all 50 agents to be talking on the phone, while allowing 25 additional calls to queue within the ACD.

So, what questions should you ask of your supplier? This will depend primarily on the nature of the business, the size of the call centre and the number of different services that are managed on the ACD. Naturally, an IT helpdesk of ten agents will tend to have a different requirement to a 30-seat customer service call centre, which may differ again from a 300-seat outsourced call centre. In order to assist someone in defining their own requirements, I suggest that you ask yourself the following questions:

How large is my call centre now and how large is it likely to grow over the next three to five years?

This is an important question as some ACD systems are primarily designed for larger call centres and require a significant amount of initial investment in the main system ‘tin’ compared to an ACD designed for smaller call centres. Conversely, some smaller ACDs cannot expand beyond a certain number of users. Therefore, ask your supplier what their typical system size is and ask to speak to three references of the same size.

Aside from cost of initial outlay, the size of a call centre also defines the tools required to manage the call centre. A large call centre will have a large number of agents that require managing and monitoring. The supplier should be asked about how many simultaneous supervisor screens can be provided, and what additional tools can be used with the product to assist in managing the call centre, such as real-time displays, wallboards, and tools to aid staff rostering. (See “Will I be able to use third party products?” below.)

Who is calling me and why?

A call centre that is handling sales calls from prospective customers will have additional requirements to that of an internal IT helpdesk. For example, if a customer is ringing around for a quote on their car insurance, they may only give your call centre a limited time to answer the call before abandoning it and calling the next number on their list, whereas an IT helpdesk for internal staff is more likely to be patient and await an answer to their problem – even if they have to
wait for five minutes or more. For this reason, companies often adopt a service level that is appropriate for their business.

For companies that require a particularly good service level, ask the supplier about what indications there are to show when callers that have been waiting too long, such as alarms – either visual or audible – that can alert the supervisors to enable them to react in time to prevent the caller abandoning the call. Some ACDs can indicate this using wallboards or, more common these days, plasma screens that change colour when certain thresholds are exceeded.

Will the system allow me to add additional functionality and capacity?

Investing in a small ACD system for your department may have been fine when you initially purchased it for your internal helpdesk. But what if the company requires you to take on additional services – for example, handle calls that were previously handled by the Slough office? Can your system be expanded in capacity? Can more agents and more telephone
lines be added?

Also be sure you understand the upgrade costs before investing in a new system as many suppliers will charge you significantly more to upgrade once you have their product installed, on the basis that you are unlikely to throw theirs away and will therefore pay whatever the supplier is asking for the upgrade. In addition, think about adding additional  functionality, such as call recording. Some ACDs require a separate box to be added; in others it is simply a software feature that can be either included in the system or charged for with an additional licence fee.

Will I be able to use third party products?

This is particularly important in a larger call centre where the business may require a particular functionality to be available to the call centre which is not provided by the ACD itself, or where the solution proposed by the ACD supplier is not the preferred solution. Is the ACD based on open standards so that the call centre user can be confident they have not chosen an ACD which is difficult and expensive to integrate with third party products?

Typically, the ACD supplier will have their own preference for third party products and will partner with other suppliers so that the ACD supplier can provide you with specialist functionality, such as workforce management, call recording, quality monitoring and so on. But do your research and see how many third party suppliers include your preferred ACD in their list of ACDs they integrate with. This will stop you having to limit your options later.

What demands will be placed on me for statistical reports?

Ensure that it is easy to customise or create new reports easily. Even a small call centre can receive a demand for the unexpected when it comes to reports that go to management. This is particularly important if you provide call centre services to other clients, as in an outsourced call centre, as no two people will require exactly the same reports. Ensure you understand how easy it is to create new reports and that they can be exported to other packages for presentation, such as Excel and Crystal Reports, for example. Also, some ACDs restrict you to a set of data that you can report on,  whereas others allow you to chose any data stored in the ACD’s database.

Will I require non-ACD users to be able to log in as agents remotely?

The ability to have external users logging in and taking calls is important for three reasons:

  • To help manage peaks of calls.
  • To provide a disaster recovery plan in crisis situations, such as building evacuation.
  • To be able to have staff working from home. Ask the ACD supplier how this is achieved and what tools are provided to manage the remote workers.

Will I have technical staff available to perform all the administration of the system?

A large call centre will often have dedicated technical staff to make changes to how the system works, but a smaller call centre may not. Ensure that changes can be made easily and quickly and ask what skills are required to do so. A smaller call centre should be able to make any changes to call routing, change announcements and add services without having to rely on the ACD supplier to send an engineer.

If the IT infrastructure changes, will I be have to throw the ACD away and buy another one?

If the company moves premises, or decides to change its IT infrastructure, will the ACD be able to move with those changes? A good example might be that the ACD was originally purchased using analogue lines, but now is required to work with ISDN lines or voice over IP (VoIP). Ask the supplier what type of lines it supports and what is involved if your
infrastructure changes.

What about support?

Most call centres, particularly customer-facing call centres, have very little tolerance for downtime. Be sure that your maintenance contract is suitable and ensures you are covered for at least your hours of opening. Also ask your supplier to be very clear about their definition of ‘response times’. If the unthinkable happens and your ACD has developed a terminal fault, now is not the time to discover that when they quoted a four-hour response, they did not mean that an engineer will be with you in four hours, but merely that they will call you back within four hours.

Author: Jonty Pearce

Published On: 28th Jun 2006 - Last modified: 23rd May 2017
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1 Comment
  • Another important part of buying an ACD is the ability for the ACD to communicate accordingly with key external systems. These include customer databases, intelligent routing platforms, call recording solutions. Some ACD’s are restricted in how many external links can exist.

    iisas 13 Sep at 17:11