|Computer Telephony for SMEs in Central and Eastern Europe
|Executive General Manager
Computer telephony, CT, results from the convergence of computer and telecommunications technologies; it provides a range of “intelligent” communications applications. CT’s use is growing in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE.) By using experience from other parts of the world, and user-friendly development tools, solutions have been implemented with new functions tailored to local needs. Implementing CT on VoIP networks lets calls foreign branches be inexpensively and “invisibly” transferred to help desks in other parts of the world.
In trade, the ability to communicate effectively is undoubtedly a necessity of existence. Information has become a valued commodity, and the Internet – the worldwide web – has become a multi-billion dollar market place that can hardly be ignored. The technology boom, which shook the developed world during the last ten years has indelibly marked the way people in all walks of life, in countries all around the world, live and work. The performance of today’s personal computers (PCs) far exceeds the performance of the computers that controlled the first rockets into space and, in many parts of the world, even children bring mobile phones with them to school. Standardisation has become the common denominator of this technical evolution and has helped developers in their efforts to rationalize daily work to the maximum extent. One result of this booming technological development, of the convergence of several technological advances, is computer telephony, CT, which recently has begun to awaken the interest of a wide professional public. The use of computer telephony is growing throughout the world including in many countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Although few such systems are in use yet in this region, the commercial potential is considerable; it is a “green-field” market opportunity. The latest technologies usually arrive at CEE with some delay. This allows companies to take advantage of the experience of users in other parts of the world and to develop winning strategies, based on proven systems, for Eastern and Central European markets. SMEs using CT solutions for the first time, then, can reap substantial benefits from the customary delay in introducing new technologies. Today, when xDSL (Digital Subscriber Loop), for example, is being introduced in CEE, the situation can be compared to that, years ago, when ISDN (Integrated Digital Services Network), was introduced to the region. At that time, using the experience gained in other parts of the world, companies using CT technology that had access to ISDN were able to successfully implement an impressive number of systems previously not seen in the region. Generally speaking, cost savings greater productivity and enhanced cost benefit ratios are but some of the many reasons why companies throughout the region are increasingly seeking computer telephony solutions. What is computer telephony? Basically, it refers to the convergence of computer technology and telecommunications technology to provide a range of “intelligent” communications applications. This convergence brings many benefits, amongst which, for example, are easier system administration, and scalability but also lower set up and operating costs for a series of applications. Thanks to computer telephony, small and medium sized enterprises can significantly streamline their operations and, above all, can simply, and at no great expense, offer their customers a wide range of value added services such as help desks. A typical application of computer telephony, which is finding use, in many medium sized companies, is the call centre; it will serve us well as an example to illustrate what computer telephony is all about. At first glance the equipment, the heart, of a typical call centre looks like an ordinary server computer. This, additionally, is fitted with hardware for computer telephony – generally several types of computer cards – which provide the communications interface with the PSTN – Public Switched Telephony Network – and workers, so-called agents or operators, at the call centre. The basic functions provided by such a system, ideally, match the functions provided by the branch exchange – PBX. That is the system accepts and connects calls, sets up conference calls, etc. However, in contrast to a “normal” exchange it offers a number of advantages that will be mentioned later. Collecting information about customers is a vital part of successful sales campaigns. When a customer calls a call centre for the first time it is the IVR system (Interactive Voice Response) that handles the call. There are several forms of IVR – they range from a simple automatic operator to a sophisticated and complex system such as those used by phone banking systems. After connecting the call an IVR system stores information about the caller, together with his/her telephone number, in the caller information database. If at sometime in the future this customer calls again he will not have to repeat his name or the name of his company, instead he will be connected directly to “his” salesperson. Employees of companies equipped with a call centre are generally given basic information about the caller via the client application or a web browser on a pop-up screen. During the conversation with the customer the operator may enter additional information into such the database browser concerning, for example, the type of goods the client is inquiring about. If the same database is connected to the accounting and warehousing information systems the types of problems call centre can deal with, its flexibility, is increased. The screen-pop function provides an invaluable service, for example, to companies that operate a help-desk. Resolved problems can be posted in the database with several attributes, which can make the customer care system more effective. For example the call centre can have several technicians, each a specialist in a different operating system. By using a routine that directs calls, questions concerning specific operating systems can be routed to the appropriate specialists. The same sort of routine can be used to control the distribution of calls, as part of the help desk system, so that VIP customers can have their own “personal” sales representative, technicians, etc. assigned to them. An integral part of communication over telephone lines is naturally the sending and receipt of faxes. Within the call centre it is of course possible to integrate the fax server Thanks to the scalability of the computer telephony solution it is possible to have up to 30 fax lines in one single PCI slot. Companies can achieve significant savings through the use of VoIP -Voice over IP – technology. Calling within the IP network is currently the cheapest form of voice communication; the savings can be quite significant for small and medium-sized companies. Imagine a company that has a smaller, perhaps 2 to 3 employee, branch office in another country. To provide services comparable with those provided by the home office can mean significant investments in equipment and personnel, particularly, for instance, if the company needs to operate a help-desk in both countries. Other costs are incurred through the parent company needing to communicate with the subsidiary, not only via e-mail but also by voice and fax calling. If the distribution of products offered by such a company is handled centrally from the headquarters it is often necessary to link the accounting and warehousing system of the parent company to the foreign branch. Typically, companies have used VPN (Virtual Private Networks) that have been implemented using leased data circuits. This sort of solution provides a large committed information rate and guaranteed QoS (Quality of Service). Maintaining VPNs can often be a complex and costly venture. In many instances, a VoIP based system will work as well, more cheaply and be much easier to maintain. Employees at the individual branch offices will be able to communicate amongst themselves via IP. Customers calling the subsidiary for technical assistance can then be easily connected, free of charge via VoIP) to the parent company’s call centre in another country. An IP gateway, a server connected to the standard PSTN by means of a digital or analogue interface, and to the IP network by means of special IP cards, can be installed at the foreign branch office. The gateway converts the digital or analogue voice or data signal into IP packets. To a caller routed via such a connection, it will appear to be a standard call. The caller will not know, unless he is so informed, that he is speaking with an employee in another country over an IP network. Needless to say most call centres have a web interface at their disposal or can quickly and cheaply install one. By using a Web interface, customers can easily contact call centre operators, without charge via the World Wide Web. Conclusion The possibilities for the use of computer telephony are inexhaustible. Users are not limited to ready made applications. User-friendly development tools exist for most of the standard call centre software thanks to which the creation of computer telephony applications is quick and easy. With the help of these tools, companies can themselves implement solutions which most meet their needs or extend already existing systems by introducing new functions tailored to their needs.