Can you phone a Web site?

Companies have been trying to marry the computer and the phone in the past few years, but the relationship is fraught with...

Companies have been trying to marry the computer and the phone in the past few years, but the relationship is fraught with difficulties, says Danny Bradbury.

What is CTI?

CTI stands for Computer Telephony Integration. Computer data and voice telephony have historically been separate issues within an organisation, but in the past five or six years, companies have begun to tie them together. Many people think that CTI simply involves pushing a voice signal (in data form) and application data along the same network, therefore decreasing voice telephony costs. That's certainly part of it, but it's only the basis for a host of applications.

What are the applications?

Traditionally, applications have focused on issues such as screen pop-ups. This links the PABX - the switchboard at the front of your company - into your computer servers using a special switch sold by CTI vendors. When a customer dials in, the switch feeds the caller line identification (CLI) data (that's the data that tells a telephone what number is calling it) into the server. The server then uses the number to look up a customer's record, enabling it to pop that customer's calling history up onto an operative's screen. One newer application is unified messaging, which enables all of a person's incoming communication - e-mail, voicemail and faxes - to be received via a desktop PC. The person can select a voicemail that is listed on their PC and then listen to it, either through a PC headset or through their telephone handset.

What does any of that that have to do with e-commerce?

CTI is meant to revolutionise the callcentre, turning it into a multi-media communications resource. The idea is that customers should be able to communicate with a company in any way they want, whether it be phone, fax, e-mail, videoconference - or even a combination of them. If you integrate your telephone system with your data network, it suddenly becomes possible to request a voice conversation with an operative via your headset while browsing their Web site. Another CTI application, called the "call me" button, enables you to schedule a time on the Web site for a callcentre operative to telephone you to discuss the company's products further, and perhaps take an order. This sort of dual voice/data application can be useful if the sales process for your product is complex, such as a mortgage or pension scheme.

What are the obstacles?

The main obstacle to Internet-based phone conversations with call centre operatives via a Web site hookup is the lack of bandwidth in the UK.

I've heard it linked to CRM - why?

Because the telephone is the main communications medium between many companies and their customers, linking it with computers presents companies with the opportunity to gather more data about their customer.

How is it evolving?

Traditionally, CTI technology is sold as an add-on to the conventional PABX, which is a proprietary technology. As PC technology becomes more reliable and performance increases, companies are starting to replace the conventional PABX with a "soft" PABX, located entirely in software. Who are the major players?

The big network companies are getting in on the convergence act. Firms such as Cisco, Lucent, Nortel Networks and Alcatel are very enthusiastic about the convergence of voice and data.

Why isn't anyone actually using it?

CTI has generated a lot of talk, but very little action to date. Most callcentres have veered away from sexy applications such as call-me buttons, Internet telephony and videoconferencing. One reason for this reluctance is because the benefits are not always easily quantifiable.

Using this technology, it's possible to route calls through to the correct department based on an analysis of a customer's calling history. So, if the customer's record shows that they have asked for the technical support department the last three times that they called, your system could automatically route the call through to a technical support person who will then be aware of the customer's problem. But this is an older application.

Most consumers are still using analogue dialup modems, which restrict the quality of Internet-based voice conversations.

Convergence, whether it's the convergence between personal digital assistants (PDAs) and mobile telephones, or voice telephony and computer networks, generally creates technology hotspots with lots of opportunities for new products that will benefit a business.

The CTI Skills Shortage

CTI projects are thin on the ground these days, and one reason for this is the lack of skills in this area. Companies with good computing skills are relatively common, and telephony experts, while priced at a premium, are still possible to find if you need them. The problem is that very few people have managed to acquire the necessary technical skills in both areas, which is necessary if they are to work competently in the CTI field. Even the telephony service providers have been slow on the uptake, according to some end-users and product vendors, who recount tales of telephony engineers arriving at a site knowing less about the subject than the customer. Until more people make the investment in straddling this skills gap, the likelihood is that CTI projects will be too expensive for many companies to justify.

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