03 March 2008
Consider a conventional switchboard situated at reception. While the telephone is being answered visitors may be waiting impatiently, and when the receptionist deals with the visitors, callers hang up. Flexible working often means individuals being called are on the road, at home or on their mobiles, and to track them down the receptionist may have to consult numerous lists. Result; further delays to everybody, and a poor advertisement for the organisation.
Chris Barrow from the Solutions Marketing Group at telephony supplier Avaya believes that your telephone system should work for, not against, you. And while you might put up with delay in a social context, in the business context, lost calls mean lost business.
"Intelligent telephony" is a phrase coined for newer systems designed to address these shortcomings, but what is it?
Paul Robathan is an experienced technology strategist, and visiting lecturer in FM at the College of Estate Management at Reading University. He explains intelligent telephony, in basic terms, as "the delivery of enhanced voice services over the internet".
But Robathan argues that intelligent telephony is so much more and can combine all forms of electronic communication. He also sees huge potential, saying, "with systems designed for the internet and the integration of mobile devices into the wireless networks, the access and control of intelligent telephony extends potentially everywhere."
So intelligent telephony uses your existing IT network as a platform to run your telephone network. How and why should this be an advantage?
Jayne Dimmick, product marketing director at software based telephony supplier Swyx remarks, "there is so much that cannot be done with traditional telephony. One of the reasons I moved to this company is that the solution is software based and you can do so much more with software".
So, intelligent telephony links into your company databases, and in most employees' details are usually held in the email contact list. The switchboard can then draw on this information and it becomes an enabler for single number contact for your people. By setting up a system of hierarchies, the system will "find" the number that will be answered. The added benefit for the organisation is that it gives an element of control over mobile workers. All mobile calls will go through, and be logged by the office system; this affords a degree of anonymity and protection to the worker in the field because their mobile number need not be given out.
What users want
For users there are other advantages. Dimmick explains, "Our product is PC-based and can be tailored for individual users. The monitor can display a traditional telephone layout if that's what the user wants. The advantages come with the functionality. The screen can show up to 100 names and show who is available to take calls. The receptionist can then use their knowledge to direct the call to the most appropriate person if the first choice is unavailable".
The task of ensuring a high level of customer service is placing an increasing demand on the resources of the organisation, especially handling incoming telephone calls. A user-friendly switchboard is one way of speeding up incoming calls, but what else is on offer?
Swyx's system is compatible with MS Outlook, and if the intended recipient's calendar is marked as busy the call will be transferred to a delegated alternative number preset into the system. When the switchboard is unmanned the caller is presented with a synthesised voice asking for a number which the caller can then key in to get connected.
Of more direct benefit to the caller, incoming call recognition can allow for the display of their history to an operator allowing personalised, and appropriate, greetings, or the routing of important calls direct to managers.
Simple voice processing systems have been used for some years, but Barrow believes that many have become discredited and are seen as a barrier to customer contact. Callers are obliged to select from a number of options and in the event of being passed to an operator have to repeat the information already input. Newer, more sophisticated systems store this information and display it to the operator to prevent repetition.
Voice recognition software can replace the receptionist altogether and recognise the name or department requested and then transfer the call automatically. Speech output can allow for many customer questions to be answered without the need for a human interface.
As a final measure the system can produce performance data, including such details as average wait time before pick up and transferred or lost calls. Armed with this data the organisation can target actions designed to improve telephone responses to drive up customer satisfaction indicators. Hard data shows the measures' effectiveness.
Any intelligent system will select the cheapest network available, routing all calls, including those made by mobile users, to existing computer networks where possible. Calls will break into, and out of, networks to minimise costs, so that even international calls can be made at local rates.
Implementing a new system can present challenges, but the key to making it acceptable is to make it accessible. A high level of computer competence is now commonplace in many workforces and linking the telephone system to IT simply draws on that skills base.
There are, of course, caveats and Barrow says that some user education will be necessary. The key must be that the system should be simple to use, a point agreed by Dimmick. The line between computer and telephone communications is becoming increasingly blurred. The challenge is to harness this flexibility to improve business communications in a way that will benefit both business and customer alike.
On this point Barrow has some final advice for the FM "Don't think about your switchboard, telephone system in isolation," he says, "plan your communications network as the most important part of the business."
Guy Moody is a freelance journalist