Open Predictive Dialing: What Can Your System Do Now?
BY DAVID M. FRIEDMAN
If you have considered any new technology for your call center in the last few years it is likely you have heard about the great benefits of "open architecture." If stuff like: API, OLE, ODBC or TCPIP doesn't ring a bell, the task of product analysis has probably been delegated to an MIS manager. If you're not interested in "technical details," delegating to an expert is a good idea. Although the "open revolution" has opened up a wide world of possibilities for automation and integration within your center, it could also open a Pandora's box of incompatibility, delays and budget overruns.
This article is a primer for management's analysis of open architecture in general and predictive dialers in specific. Open architecture is a good thing, but with the added power it provides comes added responsibility for its user. Don't get scared yet. Consultants and system integrators can shield you from the big "I" (integration), when you want the best but don't want to get your hands dirty.
Why do you need an open predictive dialer to, have the best? Because what's best for you is not what's best for other users or the vendor who is building the system. You can eliminate competing interests from the purchasing process by doing the following:
1) Formulate a sort of call center utopia definition for your company (data and call flows).
2) Identify the underlying functions you will need to achieve this (both computing and telephony).
3) Choose a preferred computing platform (hardware, OS, database, application language). This is key. It may be a system you already own or have a heavy investment in. It may be the latest and greatest brand new network. Whatever the case may be, the MIS environment should drive all other solutions. Everything in the business will potentially be tied to the MIS platform you choose. Managing multiple MIS platforms within one enterprise is a hassle and an expense most companies prefer to avoid if possible. Truly open systems will work smoothly with virtually any system you have.
4) Identify vendors who offer the various components in number 2, which are not directly addressed by your decision in number 3. Get information on each unique solution and ask tough questions.
- Is the open architecture they are proposing a new feature added to an existing product or part of a product's original design? (Good clue as to ultimate flexibility and performance.)
- Exactly what hardware and software are they adding to your network and/or switch?
- Exactly how will the product connect to your MIS environment?
- Which functions do they perform, what is the responsibility of your MIS or other vendors' systems?
- Do they have other customers doing the same or a substantially similar thing?
Here's the analogy. Once there was one phone company. Remember those days when you were first starting out or maybe hadn't even gotten into telemarketing? There was one phone number to call for lines, long-distance bills, equipment and service. There was also one price - too high. Then there was divestiture - separating this integrated monopoly into separate and distinct components. Theoretically each had competitive counterparts in the marketplace (other equipment makers, other long-distance carriers, etc.).
Well, what happened after divestiture?
· Competition = lower prices, better service, other perks and incentives.
· Creativity = Better products, better services, interoperability.
"Technological change has been pretty unbelievable. When Microsoft got started, computing was a million times more expensive than it is today. Computing was simply a central tool for keeping track of business accounts or reservations. Only the largest organizations could have this tool. In fact, it was a clear advantage for very large companies." -- Bill Gates
Think of computing relative to my Ma Bell analogy. Not too long ago the market for hardware and software was dominated by just a few powerful companies. The advent of the modern PC yielded vast development of complimentary hardware and software products hailing from a wide variety of vendors. It also made custom application development less costly and time consuming, greatly empowering users to create and manage systems themselves, without being "held hostage" by the vendor.
As the solution landscape resulting from standardization and deregulation in the computer and telecommunications markets has matured, a new emerging niche has evolved - computer-telephony integration (CTI). CTI is home to many of the products our industry has come to know and love - the ACD, voice mail, IVR, predictive dialing. Now that the industry has gotten its feet wet with these great productivity-enhancing applications, it is now ready for open CTI systems - in particular, predictive dialers.
Back To The Analogy
Before Open - Like the old AT&T Conventional CTI systems are proprietary or "closed." Although they may be built using modular components from the computer industry, telecom industry or both, the implementation is usually fashioned with the objective of providing a turnkey call center solution which the purchaser need only plug in and turn on. Because these are relatively specialized rather than mass market applications, and because of the great return on investment they provide, selling prices have been rather steep. Once a proprietary system is purchased, there is no choice as to who will service, maintain, upgrade or reprogram it. One number to call, no competition, no lower prices, no innovation.
After Open - Like divestiture Open CTI systems or predictive dialers are designed to include universally accessible interfaces. These interfaces may he physical hardware or software links that permit easy and cost-effective integration with hardware and software provided by third parties. There is no standard for open architecture. The methods used to offer open architecture and the resulting flexibility of systems vary greatly. Caution: Buying decisions should be made only after analyzing the specific open interface(s) offered on a system and their compatibility with your near- and long-term implementation plans.
Definition: True open architecture allows a product to be tightly integrated with a wide variety of third-party products, regardless of operating system or hardware platform, easily and efficiently.
Common "Open" Scenarios
As mentioned, open architecture does not always mean the same thing. This goes for technical details/interfaces as well as the final result (what you can actually get the system to do). Since the basic benefit of "open" is flexibility in what you can do with the system, independent of the vendor, let's look at how flexibility is usually provided.
Customization of user screens, reports, management parameters and scripting should he standard on any system, even a turnkey. How robust these features are, and correspondingly, what they actually permit you to do will vary substantially from system to system. Although some of these features may be touted as "open architecture," they really don't qualify if the system doesn't meet our definition. True open architecture is required if you are seeking a high degree of user screen/script customization, real-time database access or enterprise workflow automation.
Remember that there are no rules governing open architecture. What you can do and how you can do it ultimately determine whether the system meets the definition we have set forth, and whether it is suitable for your call center.
Some systems will let you link their user interface to your database directly (good). If this is done through a hot key and two separate applications, it's not really open architecture. If they let you write your own database interface, but still read and write to their file format, that's good. If you can only develop the interface using their proprietary development language or via customization of their existing interface, that's not open architecture.
When considering the telephony portion of the system, think the same way. The more options you have as to switch, hardware, links and the way it integrates with your MIS, the better off you are. Even if a system works with what you have today, think about what might be the case tomorrow or next year. Computers change, databases change, companies merge, hard ware becomes obsolete, support options become limited and expensive.
Cost alert: Double and triple check all costs involved with each vendor. A vendor supplying a software application that is compatible with a certain switch probably will not provide the switch options required to support their application and may not provide the computer system that runs the application either.
The two most important considerations when evaluating "open" systems are:
- How is open open? (What are the physical and software interfaces? How do you connect?)
- How open is open? (What can you actually do with the system? Limitations?)
Getting straight answers to these questions is critical to your success. You may not be able to get the full detail from the vendor either. A member of your staff, a third-party vendor or a consultant likely will have to evaluate the specs provided by the vendor in question I, apply to your scenario, and determine the practical answer to number 2.
David M. Friedman is the founder of Calltrol Corp. Caltrol is the developer of OAPDE (Open Architecture Predictive Dialing Engine) and OTS (Object Telephony Server), a truly open inbound/outbound call-processing platform.
Reprinted from Telemarketing (R) & Call Center Solutions(tm) magazine, Volume 16 Number 4, dated 10/97, published by Technology Marketing Corporation, One Technology Plaza, Norwalk, CT 06854 USA. Copyright (c) 1997 Technology Marketing Corporation, all rights reserved. Subscriptions: $49.00 domestic, $69.00 Canada, $85.00 foreign. To order, call 800-243-6002 or 203-852-6800 or visit the publication's Web site at www.tmcnet.com