All posts in Mary Cook

Disruptive Technology - How Siri has Changed Call Center Automation


Disruptive technology is not a breakthrough innovation. Though, it does make good products a lot better -- transforming what was historically so expensive and complicated that only a few people had access to it and making it affordable and accessible to a larger population.

Think back to the first mainframe computer. It cost millions of dollars to buy and it took years of specialized training to operate it. Only the largest corporations and universities had the luxury of owning one.

A few years, a few bright minds, and a few disruptive technology revolutions later, voilà -- the desktop PC is available to the masses. Then came the laptop, the tablet and the smartphone, which has brought technology to even the remotest corners of the world.

One of the latest trends to dominate the market is Siri (Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface), an intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator that works as an application for Apple’s iOS. The application uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations and perform actions.

What Does this Mean to Call Centers?

Consumer technology is changing the customer experience landscape for enterprise contact centers.  Your standard inbound automation may not be good enough anymore. Consumers are expecting a “Siri-like” experience – a natural-sounding conversation when they call their service providers.  So what are you doing to make your inbound speech experience better?

Did You Say “Egg Freckles?”

  1. A famous Doonesbury cartoon from 1993 shows Mike using the handwriting recognition feature on his PDA with hilarious results. Don’t risk an “Egg Freckles” experience with your call center automation.If you are still using DTMF (Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency, or touch tone) IVRs (interactive voice response), look at the business case around using ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition). If you don’t know where to start, email me.
  2. If you are using ASR, is it conversational? Are you able to ask open-ended questions? Do you ever have to repeat questions to your consumers?
  3. And, if you are deploying a conversational ASR, consider taking it up a notch and deploy silent guides to improve your IVR containment, opt-out and completion rates.

PCs, PDAs, Smartphone, Siri. What do these disruptive technologies have in common? They’re personal and customized to the user. Do the same with your call center automation and you can’t go wrong.

The Humanity in Automation

People often ask me why I left a swashbuckling life of consulting around the globe to come lead Varolii’s Call Center Practice. Varolii is a Software as a Service (SaaS) company that provides cross-channel customer interaction management solutions for the digital world. A far cry from building call centers.

When I joined Varolii almost three years ago, we specialized in outbound proactive communications– automated messaging, if you will. I had never used automation before, so Varolii intrigued me. But what made me fall in love with Varolii was the quality of our interactions. Through using carefully crafted messages, combined with ten years of best practices and using communication methodologies such as the science of influence, Varolii was really holding “conversations” with their customers. We weren’t just blasting messages; rather, we executed interactive dialogue with customers. To add to this, Varolii possesses an interaction design department that employs professional studio voice talent. So Varolii’s outbound communications sound amazing, as well. Not to mention, the patented technology that is behind all of this automation wizardry is a blog on its own...

Why I fell for Varolii
So, here is the kicker. I fell in love with Varolii because, to me, we offer an amazing product that, although is an automated interaction solution, focuses on what is most important – the humanity of it all.

The most important element in the call center is our agents. Human agents. And although Varolii specializes in automation, we focus on quality automation. To me, our outbound interactions are like having a bunch of perfect call center agents – always on time, always in the top quality ranking, easily re-trained, and measureable. Furthermore, when companies use our outbound interaction solutions, not only do they get these perfect “avatar agents,” but they actually reduce resource requirements for their own human counterparts in the call center – which leads management to either free up some operating expenses or reallocate resources for other queues.

How we kept it fresh
Most recently, we launched a new product called Varolii 360, a product I am personally very passionate about. Varolii 360 offers a seamless end-to-end experience across both outbound and inbound channels (voice, text, email and smartphone) with personalized interactions, consistent branding, self-service options and complete reporting and analytics.

Varolii 360 combines automation with human-assisted speech recognition for a more efficient interaction. Silent human “guides” direct the automation in real-time, correcting misheard responses or redirecting the ASR. Guided speech is more affordable than full time agents, provides more efficient self-service options, and reduces customer frustration and opt-outs.

Through our conversational customer interaction management system, we deploy a unique hybrid model combining the best of two worlds: automated and human. Our Guided Inbound feature combines automated speech recognition with real-time, invisible human intervention for superior accuracy and caller experience. And we bring all of the same interaction design and media talent to the table on our inbound solutions as well.

Varolii realizes that automation is an important call center technology that can make a difference in contact centers. But what they REALLY understand is that automation must provide the most meaningful, human-like interaction as possible. They understand that, in order for automation to work, they need to focus on the conversations themselves and the quality of those conversations. Albert Einstein once said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” I think Varolii got it right – we made sure humanity is imbedded within our technologies.

Varolii Interaction 2012 - Get in the Loop


Varolii’s user conference, Interaction, is a week away. This is my third trip to Interaction, and I cannot tell you how excited I am to be heading to Las Vegas. Plus I needed an excuse to play the slots, and now I have one.

In addition to flirting with Lady Luck I fully intend to get ahold of every juicy morsel of information that is being presented this year. I am really looking forward to Closing the Loop — Varolii 360 and Let’s Make this Clear: The Power of Guided Speech to Transform the Customer Conversation. I’ve written a lot about the technology being used to change the customer’s call center experience and I can’t wait to share its magic with you in person.

Varolii Interaction 2012 is being held March 5th to 7th at Loews Lake Las Vegas.  The conference will be filled with valuable insight that can be used to facilitate better and more forward-thinking customer interaction management strategies.

Here are a few of the sessions that I can’t wait to attend:

  • Mobile Matters: Maximize Your SMS & Smartphone InvestmentMobility is becoming ubiquitous in the minds of consumers. If you are still viewing SMS and Smartphone as alternative technologies, you’re missing huge opportunities to connect with your customers.
  • Peak Performance: Better Insight, More Control. You asked for it. You got it. Varolii’s dynamic duo, Performance Insight and Performance Manager, give you the campaign controls and analytics you need to monitor, manage and evaluate your customer interactions more effectively and efficiently. Learn more about the powerful controls, monitoring and custom reporting that PI and PM offer to help you drive greater value from your interactions and use this knowledge to shape a profitable engagement strategy.
  • Engaging Today’s Mobile Customer – Integrating Text & Smartphone into your Customer Interactions. You know that contacting customers through their mobile devices is critical to the success of your communication strategies, but how do you start? Learn why reaching consumers on their mobile device is critical to improving your communication performance, the legal hurdles you’ll need to overcome, and step-by-step instructions on setting up an opt-in consent program for contacting customers on their mobile devices.

I have some last minute packing to do before jet setting to Vegas. I hope that you’ll be able to join us at Varolii Interaction 2012. You will walk away from the conference with a greater understanding of how to deliver a better customer experience within your call center interactions.

Scrum-ptious: Agile Development = Happy Customers

Anyone who knows me knows I am a fan of Forrester research. So a recent Forrester Blog, entitled The Top Thirteen Customer Management Trends for 2012, warmed my Customer Experience heart. It spoke of many of the trends I am personally following, including Agile development processes. Varolii is a cloud services provider that practices agile methodologies. So, this means our customers get faster product updates which allow them to be nimble in their customer interaction strategies, as well. Agile methodologies can help facilitate and support new, state-of-the-art, and leading-edge processes and best practices (many more benefits of the cloud can be found in my blog, The Cloud - What Is It? Should My Call Center Be There?).

In Forrester's blog, William Band spoke eloquently to Agile:

“Agile implementation approaches will take root. Companies want to become more flexible, and they are increasingly adopting Agile project management and software development methodologies based on the principles of iterative development, where requirements evolve through collaboration between a self-organizing cross-functional team. Pure waterfall and big-bang approaches to CRM technology deployment approaches are declining and being replaced with ‘Water-Scrum’ and ‘Scrum-Fall.’”

After reading Bill’s predictions, I realized that many readers may think ‘Water-Scrum’ is a nasty bug that requires a prescription of Ciproflaxin. So, I decided to define Bill’s thoughts a bit further so we can all follow this Hot 2012 Trend.

Agile Project Management

Defined: Agile Project Management is a method used by engineers and IT personnel. It allows development projects to be highly flexible and interactive. It uses supplier, customer, and employee input. Agile techniques are best used in small-scale projects. Elements of wider programs of work, or ongoing projects that are difficult for the customer to understand also utilize this methodology of management.

Benefits: Mistakes can be easily corrected. Projects are easier to maintain and improvise. Progress can be verified by internal teams and outside consultants. Agile projects can be delivered in an efficient manner depending on the situation and what it requires.

Example: Scrum is an agile process that has three roles: There is the Product Owner, the ScrumMaster, and the team. The Product Owner oversees the product. He or she makes sure that it’s the right product and it is being built in the right order. The ScrumMaster oversees the people in the project. He or she makes sure that they are on target, overcoming obstacles, and tracking progress. The team assumes responsibility for achieving project goals. They determine which people work on each task.

Agile Software Development Methods

Defined: Agile Software Development Methods have requirements and solutions that evolve through collaboration between cross-functional teams. In addition to being self-organizing, these groups of individuals must be skilled in adaptive planning, rapid responsiveness to change as well as evolutionary development and delivery. This type of methodology promotes foreseen interactions that take place throughout the development cycle.

Benefits: Documentation saves time because it is streamlined and crisp. High quality software ensures the least possible time duration and the most satisfied customers. Agile's business benefits can be realized as faster time-to-market, increased business value, and improved flexibility and responsiveness.

 What Is Scrum – And Does It Live In Waterfalls?

Scrum Blog3 Scrum ptious: Agile Development = Happy Customers

Iterative Development, Where Requirements Evolve Through Collaboration between a Self-Organizing Cross-Functional Team

And remember – a cross-functional team can help customers redefine standards by identifying what needs to be done in the first place. This helps avoid a situation like that in Figure 1 below, courtesy of  The Project Cartoon:

Figure 1

Why I am in Business Scrum ptious: Agile Development = Happy Customers

The Cloud - What is it? Should my call center be there?

Cloud computing is a groundbreaking technology that has made possible the provision of computing as a service, as opposed to a product. cloud computing The Cloud   What is it? Should my call center be there?

This can be described with the help of an example that has become somewhat cliché, but is nonetheless a fairly good one - especially when it comes to explaining to a newbie the concept of Cloud computing.

In Cloud computing, software, information, shared resources, etc., are provided to end users in a manner similar to that utilized by utility companies to provide a utility (e.g., electricity) to their consumers. A network (usually the internet) is used for this purpose in a fashion resembling an electricity grid.

Applications are made available for access by the Cloud computing providers through internet. It should be noted that the software and data is stored at, and is retrievable from, a remote location. Therefore, these applications can be accessed through desktop PCs, mobile devices, etc.

Now - the million dollar question: Why are companies (of all sizes), businesses and other organizations switching from traditional computing to Cloud computing?

And why should others follow their lead? Let’s discuss. . .

What are the advantages of switching from traditional computing to Cloud computing?

The primary advantage of Cloud computing is that it enables companies, businesses and other organizations to reduce spending and save money by minimizing inherent IT and support costs.

This might not be the biggest advantage offered by Cloud computing, but it is undoubtedly the most sought after advantage, especially in the case of relatively smaller enterprises.

Other advantages of Cloud computing include its ability to meet business demand for speed, better security, scalability, ease of access, and better disaster recovery.

What is the difference between SaaS, PaaS and IaaS?

What exactly is SaaS and in what manner does it differ from PaaS and IaaS?  One is bound to encounter these terms while reading about Cloud computing, and the seemingly slight difference between the three can make it tough to tell one from the other.

saas paas iaas The Cloud   What is it? Should my call center be there?

As we briefly discussed earlier, a Cloud computing system generally offers three kinds of capabilities to its users: namely, computing, storage and management:

Computing: A Cloud computing system has a lot of computing power at its disposal, thanks to the costly high-end hardware (processors, etc.) procured and installed by the Cloud computing provider.

Storage: A Cloud computing system also allows users to store their data onto its hardware.

Management: A Cloud computing system provides various Application Programming Interfaces and other management capabilities to enable users to specify, organize and queue various tasks for processing.

Now let’s see what IaaS, PaaS and SaaS really are.

IaaS, or Infrastructure as a Service: In IaaS, the Cloud computing provider only supplies the necessary infrastructure or hardware (servers, storage disks, etc.) and the users are responsible for installing the necessary platform.

PaaS, or Platform as a Service: In PaaS, the Cloud computing provider supplies the necessary infrastructure, as well as the necessary platform(s) to the users.

SaaS, or Software as a Service: In SaaS, the Cloud computing provider not only supplies the necessary hardware and platform, but also provides various sorts of software.

Call Center SaaS or Cloud-based Call Center Systems

Nowadays, numerous companies, businesses and other organizations are switching from on-premises call centercloud 5 The Cloud   What is it? Should my call center be there? systems—commonly referred to as “brick and mortar call centers”— and other traditional systems to cloud-based call center systems.

The primary motive behind such migrations is a financial one. Cloud-based call center solutions are not only relatively cheaper but also much more cost-effective and cost-efficient. Nevertheless, call center SaaS has numerous other advantages too.

Advantages of Cloud-based Call Center Systems

Call centers are multifaceted, with multiple technology layers, multiple communication channels, multiple business processes and functions, different agent skill sets… we are again, complicated. And sometimes, what we think of as a simple change in one call center process or system has a “ripple” effect across all of these existing layers. So we are sometimes cumbersome. We therefore are often unable to either adapt or expand quickly enough to support our always-evolving customer experience journeys – especially with the innovations in the mobile market.

Many cloud-based call center systems provide all-in-one call center solutions that include essential software such as IVR, IP-PBX, ACD, call recording and monitoring, workforce management, performance management, outbound messaging and delivery of reporting to management in a highly integrated fashion.

Scalability and flexibility are two inherent advantages of cloud-based call center systems. These include the ability to add or remove agent seats and the ability to enable or disable certain applications or certain features of an application within seconds. Many companies are moving to cloud applications to help them respond to the rapid advances in today’s market environment while simultaneously removing many of the high costs and hassles of maintaining complex internal systems.

Cloud-based call center solutions are often not only comprehensive, but they also are state-of-the-art and can support new and leading-edge processes and best practices. Many come with pre-built API interfaces to common CRM and other software solutions.  Naturally, the benefit of minimal hardware and software costs is a plus for companies, as well. Along with no up-front capital investment, it is clear why many executives are looking to cloud solutions.

As Richard Bach said, “A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and at such a speed... It feels an impulsion... this is the place to go now.  But the sky knows the reasons and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons.” So don’t be afraid to reach for the skies in your operations and land on a cloud.

HTML5 - What is it and what does it mean to me? Apps not required?

Even if you're a Web novice, you may already have heard the term “HTML5” by now. You can almost feel the buzz amongst designers and web users!

Google, Apple, Facebook and others have been constantly in the mix -- and they're all pulling their socks up to maximize the benefits of this exciting new platform.

Even if you're not a web designer, you may get the feeling that HTML5 will be the next big thing when it comes to meeting the demands of the modern Web.

Should you care as an internet user (or a designer for that matter)? Yes!

HTML5 – what is the big deal?

The big deal is that pretty soon, you’ll find it everywhere on the web!

pic one1 HTML5   What is it and what does it mean to me? Apps not required?You know that with HTML4, websites usually have to depend on Flash or Silverlight plugins to show and play a video file (you may have observed this in video sharing sites like YouTube).

The DISADVANTAGE comes in the smart phones, iPads and iPhones.

Take Apple as an example. They had to drop support for HTML4 plugins to optimize the battery power of their phones. The lack of HTML4 support made much of the rich media (like video content), plainly inaccessible through these phones.

With HTML5, web designers can directly embed media with simple HTML tags like “<video>” and “<audio>” – thereby eliminating the need for plugins.

Facebook and HTML5 – How do they mix?Facebook1 HTML5   What is it and what does it mean to me? Apps not required?

Facebook has also launched its HTML resource center in an attempt to help designers build, test and deploy web applications.

As you may know, Facebook has an excellent platform on mobile; it's evident that it is pushing ahead to encourage designers to create applications with HTML5 on mobile phones.

Facebook is predominantly using HTML5 in its specific mobile products, as this makes the access to other various interrelated devices much simpler.

Amazon Adds HTML5 to Updated Kindle E-Book Format

kindle HTML5   What is it and what does it mean to me? Apps not required?With the launch of the fire tablet, Amazon has also sprung up a new book format that provides crafty designers with an opportunity to access a variety of updated features, including HTML5.  In August, Amazon also released its Kindle Cloud Reader which is an HTML5-based reading application.

Along with that, Amazon’s KF8 is a new HTML5 kindle book which is designed to enable publishers to create picture books, graphic novels and comics – all done thanks to the HTML5-rich formatting capabilities and elements of design.

Brightcove and HTML5HTNL5 HTML5   What is it and what does it mean to me? Apps not required?

Brightcove, a leading worldwide provider of cloud content services, has also announced their rousing new features that come with their video cloud online- platform smart players.

These smart players help beat a lot of discrepancies and inconsistencies when it comes to HTML playback. Moreover, the integration with the HTML5 also enables reliable reproduction with both the analytics and integration with the third party services -- take ad serving solutions for example.

The Bottom Line

future HTML5   What is it and what does it mean to me? Apps not required?The bottom line is -- as a web user and designer, you would be benefiting a lot from HTML5 without even realizing it. Popular web browsers like Safari, Chrome and Firefox all have support for at least some elements of HTML5.

Through Chrome or Safari, you can check out some of the experimental versions of YouTube that makes use of HTML5’s video features.

Google reader and Gmail also have embraced some parts of the standard. Additionally, any site which is listed as being “iPad ready” is sure to be opting for considerable use of HTML5. Take examples of the New York Times, CNN and CBS.

Yes, Flash may not be going anytime soon of course, as it is still extensively used and supported. The flash games which we have a definite affection for are still impossible to recreate from HTML.

So when you hear the term “HTML5”, more than anything, it refers to the future of the World Wide Web.

In Conclusion – What does this mean to me?

HTML5 essentially brings application capabilities to browser capability and the web experience, so the big news is that HTML5 could render mobile apps obsolete. No more downloading and parking app icons on your mobile device. You get that functionality through a browser experience. So what it means is that the communication between businesses and their customers could change radically. But you need someone who understands what this means for the patient experience in healthcare, or the consumer in finance, or the passenger in airlines (and all sorts of other customers and companies). Furthermore you will need to understand how to get the most out of your customer experience communication strategy - which means you may need a trusted vendor advisor…with knowledge and experience…like…like…Varolii!

So – Call us. 800-206-2979. Or email me, tweet me, respond to my blog, or send me a smoke signal.

References Used

What's New in HTML-5?

Amazon's new e-book format brings HTML5 support to your Kindle library

Facebook launches HTML5 Resource Center

The Present and Future of HTML5 Video Experiences