A recent break on holiday, and working abroad, have provided a rest from the bulletin for a while, but there should now be regular fortnightly contributions for your delight.
This week I would like to cover the changes that are taking place to ACD technology. For those of you that are less into the technology, ACD stands for Automatic Call Distributor, and is the telephony device that enabled modern call centres to function.
Before the ACD there were PBX (Private Branch Exchanges) which when routing calls to groups of people provided two main possibilities:
The first was ringing many phones at once - also known as “First Person Pick Up”. Sometimes this was enhanced by phones that had multiple keys and lights for different lines, where you could see that a line was ringing from the flashing light, and by flicking a switch you could connect to that line. This technique worked well when there was an office environment as individuals could cover for each other’s calls, however once you have more than about three call centre agents this technique breaks down, as many agents try and select the same call and calls are not equally divided.
The second technique was the “Hunt Group” where all calls were allocated in the same way, going first to one individual, then, if they were busy, going to another and so on. This routing technique is again fundamentally unfair as the first person would be busy all the time and the last person would be rather quiet. I have seen this work with three agents when the individuals swapped seats every hour to try and equalise the load.
An ACD directly links a call with a specific agent, normally using the technique of “longest idle” so that the individual who has had the longest break gets the next call. One type of ACD now also has the concept of “most idle” so that total time on the phone is used to calculate who should receive the next call, and this is undoubtedly fairer.
The other key feature was real time information on agent and line performance. Until ACDs were introduced, the prototype call centres that existed had no idea how many calls they were losing because they were generating engaged tones or were keeping customers waiting so long they hung up.
These small changes in call routing and MIS really built the whole call centre industry. ACDs also acquired other features, such as really comprehensive performance measurement, call queuing functionality, Computer Telephony Integration and so on.
All this functionality was built, not on a computer as we would recognise it, but on a switch, with the intelligence written in microcode on the cards themselves. Modern ACDs have, I believe, millions of lines of code, most of which is to ensure reliable operation.
In fact ACDs have been astonishingly successful devices. They really enabled profound business change. They needed very little support, and worked virtually out of the box with minimal configuration; perhaps a couple of weeks at most. They have, largely speaking, been very reliable, far more so than even “non-stop” computers. One limitation however, which we will return to, is the fact that all the agents had to be physically quite close to the ACD.
There are perhaps two important points about ACDs that bear remembering. They were born in the United States, which has a large population, and the approach was based on inbound calls. Fundamentally ACDs take advantage of Erlang Theory (this can be summed up as “growth in size produces disproportionate gains in efficiency within inbound call centres”). ACDs in their current form were designed to meet the needs of large call centres
On my recent break I was in Dubai, with a population of less than a million, or less than half of one percent of that of the US. It is clear that for the largest organisations there a 50 seat call centre would be a useful and important business tool, but for most companies 5 to 10 seats would be ample. This type call contact centre does not have its needs well met by traditional ACDs.
One of my recent pieces of work is with an organisation that performs much of its “customer” contact using outbound calls with very skilled and experienced nurses. Is the ACD the key source of MIS on those individuals? – No.
Even really good ACDs (with almost no exceptions) have very limited (or even no) facilities for measuring outbound calls, and all cost a disproportional amount for small centres.
There is also the connectivity issue. Initially ACDs had analog links, and then they developed digital connectivity using T1 links, EuroISDN, DPNSS, DASS2 and so on. All of these are voice only protocols. Now we have Voice over IP (VoIP) which is really a symptom of the changes that we have seen in computer technology in the last 20 years. VoIP lets voice travel over bandwidth that was designed for data. In so doing, it enables companies that have a well-developed Local and Wide Area Network to free themselves of the classic constraint of distance in building call centres.
Virtual Call Centres can easily be constructed using this technology provided the bandwidth is in place. I can easily have 2 individuals in one office, 3 in another and 10 somewhere else. The technology allows it. For organisations that do not have the bandwidth, (and most do not) VoIP is not a significant development.
There is another issue as well, which is management, control and motivation. The real time management information provided by ACDs is shown on a supervisor screen. This is used by a team leader to monitor staff performance, make sure they are focused on appropriate tasks, and so on. Team leaders also have important roles in monitoring the quality of telephone calls and assisting with the difficult ones. Typically team sizes are between 8 and 16 agents with the lower numbers being associated with sales centres and the larger numbers with service calls.
Creating a plethora of very small call centres makes the supervisor role very difficult, and new techniques for monitoring and encouraging people have to be built.
Enough for now.
As an after word I would like to say that if any of my readers were around in the mid 80’s and earlier when ACDs began to be built I would love to hear of their experiences.
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