Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Video and contact centre - some thoughts

On Friday, I promised a more serious discussion about video and contact centre. The challenge is that video (especially over IP) is such a new technology that most statements will be predictions rather than facts.

I'll start with a general principle from Niels Bohr, who thought about time, technology and the future far more than this blog intends to,

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."

Therefore, rather than looking at what technology can or could do, I'd suggest thinking about video from the perspective of end-users. This is where video gets a lot more interesting. The first is understanding that the growth of 3G for mobiles and video calls on Skype is user driven. I believe video is an inherent part of the move to voice over IP. If you can send packets of voice across a network, then sending packets of video is a logical next step and restricted more by bandwidth limitations (which are ever reducing), than it is by technology capabilities.

When users define how they use video, all sorts of interesting (and unexpected) uses occur. A good example of this is 'Ambient Skype'. The term isn't mine, I've borrowed it from Roo Reynolds who has a good post on his blog from earlier this month. He describes well how he has been using Skype not just for conversations but for just staying in touch with home when on business trips. I used to work with Roo at IBM Hursley labs and he is always a good person for advice on where technology might be headed.

At the moment bandwidth restrictions prevent this sort of usage of video being widespread, but there are key groups for whom video is very important regardless of bandwidth constraints. One of these groups is sign language users who are unable to use the voice medium. The experiences of this group of users shows how video has been driven in the past and what needs these users (or government regulation) might expect commercial organisations to meet in future.

I touched on an example briefly back in November in the post "SOA - bringing CRM, telephony and business together? part 2, voice portals".

Significan't is a UK government initiative to allow sign language users to access local government services. The idea is very simple, the sign language user books a session at a video enabled end point, often in their local library. This then connects to a sign language interpreter and then to the local government service the sign language user wants to access. This makes a huge difference to the deaf and other groups who previously had to book a sign language interpreter, wait up to two weeks for an interpreter to become available, and only then be able to resolve their question or issue. You can imagine how unfortunate this delay could be if this was a housing or council tax payment issue.

The only way a video call centre like Significan't can work is if it has the right technology platform. Integrating TDM voice and video was historically challenging and the move to Internet Protocol (IP) removes many of the challenges. The network environment is only part of this. To run video contact centre, the contact centre technology itself needs also to support video. Significan't use the Cisco platform, and this is one of the strengths of an IP Contact Centre. For those interested, this whitepaper from the Cisco website sets out the Significan't technology in more detail. It is this sort of experience and market demand for video that has lead to the Cisco Voice Portal (CVP) 7.0 being built to support of video interactions as well as voice interactions with features such as video while on hold and video menus. Customers expect consistent levels of service regardless of both channel and the medium in which they are served.

What I find particularly interesting about this is the way the end-user device is potentially so limitless. The assumption historically has been that a voice self-service environment will be accessed by a telephone. In some ways, this is similar to the experience of internet portals, when web enabled devices like phones and PDAs arrived, it meant that a PC was no longer the only way of accessing a web site. Video makes things even more complicated. A video call might be made from a PC to a contact centre (with or without Skype), but it might also be made from a 3G phone, and the user may (or may not) have access to the web portal for simultaneous data presentation. Video calls might also be with a TV set top box (who said a video call had to have two way video?) or be on a more specialist device, perhaps for providing remote second line support to an on site technician.

The key to this is all those possible interaction types will succeed or fail based on user acceptance. It's the users not the technology that will probably determine how video is adopted in the contact centre. That's as close to prediction as I feel comfortable with, anyway!

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