Call Center Commander Opens Telephony Architecture

Companies shopping for an internal telephone call-switching system can currently choose between the common, tested, rigidly wired PBX and the more rare, flexible, immature so-called un-PBX. A recent announcement by a middle-of-the-pack call-center vendor combining aspects from both the PBX and un-PBX ends may signal the shape of the market to come.

Mitel Corp. (Kanata, Ontario, recently announced Call Center Commander, which integrates an existing PBX, customer databases and newer messaging technologies such as e-mail through a server running Windows NT. Call Center Commander is also compatible with front-office applications such as helpdesk, customer service, order entry and sales automation, according to Mitel product literature.

Mitel claims to hold sixth place among call-center vendors with 3,000 North American customers. Company officials are hoping Call Center Commander can help vault Mitel to third place in the market by 2000, behind only Nortel Telecom (Santa Clara, Calif., and Lucent Technologies (Murray Hill, N.J., Analyst Blair Pleasant of the Pelorus Group (Raritan, N.J.) predicts that the new product will help Mitel’s market position. "It’s not like Nortel or Lucent making the announcement. But it sounds like a terrific product, and I’m glad to see it. It will make Mitel a more important player," Pleasant says. "It's a more complete solution rather than piecemeal."

Pleasant sees the Call Center Commander shift toward Windows NT as part of a coming industry trend. "Everything’s going to be able to run off of an NT server," she says.

Mitel spokeswoman Kris Sherry’s comments confirm Pleasant’s view. "We’ve started to port everything to NT servers," Sherry says of Mitel products. "Voice is just going to become another application that runs on the LAN infrastructure." Already Call Center Commander reflects some of that direction; the product is identified in Mitel literature as becoming an "advanced customer interaction center" because it adds e-mail, Web interaction and chat capabilities to traditional call-center functions. "Customers don’t just telephone an organization. They can send an e-mail or a fax," says Terry Brown, Mitel product manager for call-center solutions.

While Mitel is early among larger PBX vendors to offer integration on Windows NT and the company is advocating shifting toward Windows NT environments, the company has not conceded superiority to the un-PBX products, which are farther along. Un-PBX vendors plug telephone lines directly into the server or desktop computer, bypassing the PBX altogether to allow voice traffic to pass over the LAN. "We’re using established PBX," Brown says in a statement that reflects both the company’s assertion that un-PBX is less reliable for voice quality and the company’s strategy of selling the new products to its current PBX customers. "By offering out-of-the-box integration with their current telephony hardware and database applications, Mitel Call Center Commander allows customers to leverage the investments made in their existing call-center infrastructures," Mitel says in a company statement.

Surrey Metro Savings Credit Union (Surrey, British Columbia) is one of those customers. The credit union chose Mitel in the mid-1990s as a single-source vendor for replacing an old PBX network spread over 22 locations and for the creation of a call center, says J. Patrick Hagan, a vice president for information systems with the credit union. "We knew what we wanted ultimately," Hagan says of the call-center functionality the credit union had expected to set up. "We waited patiently along with Mitel to make sure the solution that both of us chose was going to do the job. On paper, we’re very pleased with what the Commander project will do, and the project is on track."

Mitel turned to Apropos Technology Inc. (Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., for some of the technology in the Call Center Commander. "Apropos allows us to bring mixed media, queuing and reporting into a call center," says Mitel’s Brown. Call Center Commander consists of four components: Commander Server, Commander Agent, Commander Supervisor and Commander Report System.

Commander Server, the center of the system, can be installed as a single server or networked with several others. It can be configured for six to 1,000 agents and supports automatic caller identification, integrated voice response, intelligent call distribution, screen pops, call blending, voice messaging and recording, and fax-on-demand/fax-back.

Commander Agent gives agents visual access from their desktops to screen pops with detailed customer information; automated wrap-up to generate a fax, letter or e-mail to follow up on an interaction; and an abandon call-back feature that allows agents to redial customers that disconnect. Commander Supervisor gives supervisors real-time information about agents’ calls and interactions, allowing immediate adjustments to increase efficiency. Commander Reporting System returns information to managers about call volume, agent performance, call types and other events.