Why is VDI such a hot topic in the Contact Center?

Today I have the privilege of introducing to you our newest guest blogger: Mike Harwell. Mike began his career as a contact center agent working in a variety of sales roles. He has 17 years of product management experience and earned his MBA in Management of Technology from New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2006. Mike has spent the last 7 years in Contact Center Product Management and Solution Consulting with Avaya with a focus on Agent Desktops. Today, as Sr. Product Manager, Avaya Contact Center Client Applications, Mike is responsible for defining and executing on Avaya’s Contact Center Client Applications strategy.


As promised to those of you who attended our session on this topic at IAUG CONVERGE2013 last week (and thank you for coming!), we are happy to be providing more details via this blog.

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I’m contacted everyday with questions about Avaya’s VDI strategy. These are important questions as VDI, and virtualization as a whole, are huge concerns for every enterprise. With analysts like Gartner projecting that VDI will be used to deliver client computing capabilities to greater than 77M users by 2016, up from 18M users in 2012, the topic deserves some attention. One of the biggest challenges in having this conversation is that everyone has a different idea of what VDI is. If you are like me your first stop will be to Wikipedia so I won’t attempt to delineate VDI from related technologies here, instead I’ll address Desktop Virtualization and why the enterprise, and specifically the Contact Center, should care.

Part of the confusion, or at least ambiguity, around this topic comes from the term “desktop”. Are we talking about the full desktop environment we’re all familiar with from a Windows PC, or are we talking about a specific application that the contact center agent uses to handle work? The truth of the matter is that it can be either or both. The virtualization platform providers like Citrix and VMWare provide a whole portfolio of desktop virtualization, remote desktop services and application virtualization technologies. With desktop virtualization the user typically has a dedicated desktop operating system running their applications just as they would on a physical desktop; the only difference being the operating system is running in the data center. With remote desktop services the application can be run on a server operating system in the data center, and the UI can be delivered to the endpoint through the use of virtualization technology. IT typically bundles all the necessary applications together to create a virtual desktop. An estimated 15-20% of Avaya’s contact center customers use some flavor of desktop virtualization today. While the technologies are continually evolving, the foundational elements have been around for many years. So why is this such a hot topic today?

The answer is voice and video; the termination of RTP streams. The simplicity and cost reduction promised in a fully virtualized deployment is obviously very attractive but there are some real technology challenges. Real-time Transport Protocol or RTP is used in both SIP and H.323 and combines a control protocol (RTCP). RTCP provides Quality of Service (QOS) feedback which is what enables high quality voice even in geographically dispersed environments. Desktop Virtualization technologies work very well for transmitting monitor, keyboard and mouse signals, which is good enough for 99% of the applications out there. However, virtual machines executing applications are not optimized to relay real time media and the virtualization protocols don’t observe QoS. The virtualization platform vendors are continually looking for ways to improve on this process, but if the media is passed through the virtual machine there will be delay and voice quality will be degraded. Additionally the resource intensive processes required to terminate RTP streams are perfect for a distributed environment where we can take advantage of the processing power of the PC, but they are not well suited for virtualized environments resulting in scale concerns. Coupling the variable quality with a lack of scale and performance is not a recipe for success especially in the quality-demanding, cost-conscious contact center.

The solution to this Desktop Virtualization challenge is three-fold:

First, as I mentioned, many customers virtualize their client applications today. The flexibility of Communication Manager (CM) in combination with the Contact Center desktop applications allow a single client to register in any of three connection modes. Both the Shared Control and Telecommuter connection modes enable the RTP stream to be terminated on a phone. In Shared Control the phone would be an Avaya phone registered to CM. In Telecommuter mode CM can redirect the RTP stream to any addressable endpoint over the LAN/WAN or PSTN providing toll-quality voice. While there is some additional costs associated with these connection modes, they can usually be justified as part of a Virtualization, Remote Agent or Outsourced Agent business case.

The second phase will be characterized by a lightweight “media player” that will run local to the endpoint while the majority of the signaling will be transmitted over the virtualization “pipe”. H.323 versions of this media player, often referred to as VDI-Agent, will be available for Linux and Windows later this year.

The third phase will utilize WebRTC to enable termination of voice and video on a much wider set of operating systems and devices. Avaya is heavily involved in the maturation process of this emerging technology and is investing to ensure its applicability in the contact center.

Regardless of the phase, in each of these options the media bypasses the virtual machine removing a step that can only degrade and delay the media. Contact center and IT Management should take comfort in the fact that these Desktop Virtualization phases are mutually exclusive. They are additive and will allow the enterprise to start to take advantage of the value virtualization offers today while enabling a technology moving forward without negatively impacting the contact center agent’s experience.

Stay tuned!! Be sure to continue to visit this blog for more on this topic in the future! And we would love to hear your perspectives/ideas on the subject!

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How to Make Your Self-Service Experience More Customer-Friendly

This post concludes my recap of a three-part podcast series on self-service design with Judi Halperin, principal consultant in speech engineering at Avaya. In two previous posts, I related Judi’s observations on designing a user-centric and user-friendly self-service experience and on capturing the benefits of self-service while providing a superior experience. In this installment, she talks about the role of language in designing more natural, or rather, more human self-service experiences.

Click here to listen to the full conversation.

What does “more customer-friendly” really mean? First and foremost among guiding design principles is to minimize your customers’ effort. For instance, if we’re talking about the caller experience, customer effort could refer to how much information your callers have to retain and use in order to have a self-service interaction, or how much information they have to provide just to get started.

Today though, let’s focus on a commonly broken rule. When you call a company for customer support and the IVR offers you 10 menu items, by the time you get to the last item, can you remember what the first one was? Remember that callers have to keep all of the options in their heads, a much more difficult task over the phone than on a website, a mobile app or via webchat.

So how can you make it a better experience for your customers? First, do some analysis and prioritize options based on popularity. A similar principle applies in website, mobile app and webchat design–you want to keep your most popular choices above the fold. At the same time, limit the options that your customers have to remember: generally five to seven items per menu as a guide. Also, allow your callers to start talking as soon as they hear the option that interests them.

Stay mindful of the recency rule. Again, most people tend to remember best what they heard last. It may be useful for the self-service system to offer a prompt right before the customer is asked to respond. This can help guide your customers to make the right response needed to serve their needs.

It’s also important to factor in the role of language in self-service design. For instance, consider implementing yes or no questions where it makes sense, as they are much easier interactions for callers. Also, if universal commands such as “agent” are used, be consistent; don’t substitute “operator” or some other alternative in a later menu.

Prompt structure matters too. For example, leading with “Which could I help you with?” implies that a list of options will follow. This type of prompt tends to be more straightforward to customers than the more open-ended “What can I help you with.”

Regarding speech recognition, the software-based recognizer can only listen for items that are in its set of established grammars and is predisposed to assume that the caller is going to say something it expects to hear. Also, a recognizer can get only so much information from a person’s voice, so it is important to provide acoustically different options that the recognizer can clearly distinguish between. Avoid such combinations as the classic (well, classic in the world of self-service design) “repeat” and “delete,” which differ only by a consonant sound.

Self-service systems can be powerful tools for businesses. Designing a system with customer-centric, natural language principles can go a long way toward the success of your self-service experience. Do you have some thoughts to share on self-service design? If so, we’d love to hear them.

Are You Missing Customer Expectations? Probably!

We all know that consumers are more demanding and more powerful than ever before. Consumers are spoiled for choice, with more information and a stronger, wider-reaching voice in the marketplace.

But have you ever stopped to consider how well organizations are coping with these demands? No? Well, here at Avaya we wanted to know the answer, so we commissioned a global research study* and asked consumers and companies from around the globe. The simple answer: Not very well!

We have produced the results of the study on a simple, interactive hub, where you can also learn more about how to solve for customer engagement with the consumer in mind. Let me take a moment to give you a few highlights from that research:

Consumer Expectations are High

The research showed that 70% of consumers expect unique treatment, with offers tailored to their specific requirements, while 92% expect organizations to be proactive in their engagement with them. Perhaps most significant of all, 87% of consumers surveyed said they would rather spend money with organizations that are easy to do business with than those that aren’t.

Organizations are Failing to Deliver

Although customer expectations are high, 83% of organizations surveyed said they could not deliver all the requirements for completely blended customer experience automatically and in real time. And–despite its importance with consumers–only 48% of organizations have initiatives in place to reduce overall customer effort. Perhaps more worrying, only 31% of managers believe customer effort significantly impacts spending, customer satisfaction and retention–a significant gap when compared with customer expectations.

It’s Not Easy!

There is no doubt that organizations are beginning to recognize the importance of the customer experience. However, a staggering 82% of organizations surveyed claimed to have CEM initiatives that failed in the last three years, with 66% of those claiming to have wasted money because of their efforts. Failure to modify processes and lack of employee buy-in were cited as the primary culprits (31%), followed closely by being misaligned to customer preferences (30%).

Persevere–The Benefits Are Worth It

For organizations that persevered, their efforts were rewarded. 80% of organizations claiming significant profit increases said they had a CEM program in place. Furthermore, organizations claimed higher levels of customer satisfaction, loyalty, retention and repeat purchasing than those without a program.

Where Does the Contact Center Fit?

For the skeptics out there questioning the future of the contact center, the contact center was seen as a key contributor to the success of an organization’s Customer Experience Management program. The research highlights that more companies who have enjoyed significant profit increases (54%) say the role of the contact center is extremely important to CEM program success, compared to those whose profits have stayed the same (17%) or decreased (10%).

Want to know more? Don’t miss this opportunity to look at this research in more detail by accessing the new Avaya Interactive Hub.

*Conducted by Dynamic Markets, commissioned by Avaya, 2014

The Role of Proactive Customer Engagement is Changing… Are You?

If you’ve worked in the contact center world over the past few decades, you’ve undoubtedly seen firsthand the evolution of how customers engage with organizations–from voice calls to IVR to email, text, webchat, video and more. You may also have witnessed that contact centers typically saw division of labor into inbound versus outbound. Even contact center technologies were broken down into inbound and outbound solutions.

As customers increasingly expect an omnichannel experience, how can organizations continue to evolve their outbound operations along with their inbound capabilities? What role does outbound or, as we like to call it, proactive customer engagement, play in delivering on business needs and outcomes?

To address these questions, I sat down for 7 rounds with David C. Martin, Managing Principal in Avaya Professional Services and Portfolio Leader for Automated Contact Center solutions, to get his expert thoughts on the role proactive engagement plays in the changing world of customer engagement.

LB: What are the key economic benefits that outbound dialing and proactive communications can provide to an organization?

DCM: As with most automated solutions, economic benefits can be found in cost containment and revenue generation. But, with today’s outbound solutions seamlessly integrating across the contact center to care for the holistic customer relationship, proactive communications drive customer satisfaction and ongoing revenue streams. Organizations need to be leveraging these solutions across long-term strategies made up of multiple integrated touch points versus one-time discrete contacts.

LB: That’s a great point, David. Regarding your comment on how being proactive drives ongoing CSAT and revenue streams, we did a study that showed 92 percent of customers expect advanced notification, and that 88 percent would rather spend money with companies that made it easy to do business with them.

You marry that together, and it’s clear that companies that are proactive in using customer data to offer up relevant new offers and service updates are more likely to capitalize on cross-sell opportunities and retain customers going forward. My next question is, how is the emergence of multimedia channels (SMS, live chat, automated chat, email) helping to drive cost, efficiency, CSAT or revenue up or down?

DCM: The power of multimedia channels is customer empowerment. We all carry devices that allow us as customers to choose how we want to interact and when. Where a customer is at [in] time and what they’re doing can affect whether they want to interact with the organization. Customer engagement drives the tone and success of the proactive communication.

Less-intrusive communication channels, like email and SMS, can be more effective in engaging the customer when their attention is somewhere else and when they want to control their responsiveness to the outbound communication. But, on the same note, a customer’s level of urgency may dictate their need to have instant response from a live agent, possibly using chat, video, or even voice. Customer empowerment is closely aligned with customer satisfaction.

LB: What are some key infrastructure considerations that organizations should be aware of when building their proactive communication strategy?

DCM: The technology’s ability to seamlessly integrate with internal and external endpoints such as point-of-sale, Web and mobile applications, loyalty programs, etc., whether internal or 3rd party, is key. Disparate data sources that become obsolete or blind to other real-time customer interactions shatters any level of customer confidence in that outbound communication. Remember that the customer doesn’t typically delineate between inbound and outbound, as it is all part of their engagement with the organization.

LB: What are some key process considerations that organizations should really be aware of when building their proactive communication strategy?

DCM: Organizations should consider the consistency of data across the contact center and throughout the enterprise. Customers see one organization that they are interacting with, but [oftentimes], the organization itself is disjointed in terms of sharing information across the enterprise. This segmentation undermines consistent management of customer data. While inbound customer interaction is driven by the customer, proactive communication is driven by the data it’s supplied. Poor data sets the foundation for poor outreach.

LB: What are some key organizational considerations to be aware of when building a proactive communication strategy?

DCM: Similar to ensuring processes for consistent data, the organization needs to build a consistent customer management strategy. The theme of enabling a seamless and complete customer journey should always be the primary focus. Even with what seems like a discrete activity such as collections, integrating all communication channels with consistent data will draw customers into recurring engagements.

Before reaching out to customers, organizations should leverage the data to understand such things as what is driving this proactive communication, what touch points has the customer had with the organization in the past, and on which channels that the customer prefers to be served.

LB: What can organizations do to make it easier for their outbound-focused agents to deliver the same quality of service as their inbound agents?

DCM: Training and access to reliable data. When an organization takes the lead in proactively engaging a customer, the organization has the responsibility to serve that customer intelligently. Agents must be trained to anticipate how the customer accepts the proactive engagement and to build a level of confidence with the customer, supported by authentic information, of course. With an integrated solution, the agents have access to this reliable data instead of legacy disparate databases.

LB: David, in your experience, what is a key takeaway organizations should consider when it comes to outbound dialing and proactive communications?

DCM: In today’s world of engagement, it is imperative for organizations to use accurate and timely data in driving proactive communications so as to ensure a level of customer confidence and satisfaction. Customers do not delineate between inbound and outbound communication. It’s all about seamless engagement with the organization when it comes to serving their needs and nurturing the relationship. When one of those interactions is supported by inaccurate or obsolete data, customer confidence and satisfaction is damaged.

Be sure to tune into our Feb 10 Get Smart customer webinar at 9AM PST | 12 noon EST on “The Economics of Proactive Engaging Customers”.