CTI stands for Computer Telephony Integration and it refers to any type of technology that allows a computer and phone central functionalities to be interconnected resulting in an added value service portfolio.
In the beginning of the telephony era, you were not given the chance of dialing; you would simply “signal” a call center and a human operator would ask you what you required. Then, once you stated you wanted to call someone, that human operator would establish a point-to-point connection between your terminal equipment (phone) and the destinations.
The funny thing is that nowadays, when you ask your smartphone’s personal assistant to call someone, the process as perceived by us humans is, in fact, the same, and we like it better than having to dial the number or look for the contact.
Phone Centrals have become Computers instead of the long-gone PBX backbones, nevertheless the integration of such computers (which perform the role of phone centers) with terminal equipment’s which are in fact computers (like smartphones) and computer software like CRM and ERP Servers or Cloud based App Services has made the CTI concept more relevant by the day.
Over the years, and prior to the birth of computers, a voice communication network was established having grown to the point of Global coverage, which is called the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). You can look at this as “the dedicated Internet for phone calls”, the place where phone calls are routed across the world.
In fact, the way to reach the Internet in the early 1990s was over this network with data routers, … very, very slow data routers.
The PSTN architecture is very similar to a data network, with your traditional phone line physically connected to a Central Office that covers your city or neighborhood (think of it as a Data Network Switch with lots of ports).
Now all the Central Offices will be connected while obeying by the NADP (North American Dialing Plan), which is the dialing routing protocol that univocally identifies each terminal extension in the U.S. (each traditional phone line).
Within the initial architecture, each phone would be connected via a “Trunked” line (bearing one specific phone number), which means over that specific physical line, only one phone call could be established at a given point in time. This is why initially, companies had to buy several lines, enabling them to have several simultaneous incoming and outgoing phone calls.
If we think of a company, back in the 1950s that would have 5 trunk lines connected to its PBX, and those would correspond to the numbers ranging from 555 232 through 555 236, the evolution of Phone Centers and PBXs (Private Branch Exchange – in fact, and to make things simple a telephone server), made possible to have the Central Offices instructed to perform sequence forwarding over the range of numbers allocated to this company, independently of the number that was initially dialed. So regardless of which company numbers had been dialed, the Central Office would keep forwarding the call over the existing range, until one line was available.
This was, in fact, the 1st form of CTI, although the “computer” was a mechanical machine at the Central Office.
The following CTI form was in fact launched by the PBX manufacturers as a separate “appliance” and that is the “Voicemail”.
And that leads us to CTI example number three, the “Auto attendant” or “IVR” (Interactive Voice Response) functionality. When you dial a company and a voice tells you: “for sales dial 1; support dial 2, … and if wishing to speak to an operator wait on the line”, the message that you hear is stored on the Voicemail, but all the routing is done by the PBX according to the rules you have defined.
In any telephony infrastructure, every asset has an extension, meaning:
So, once you have set up your business telephony logical infrastructure, you need to define the range that will be allocated to each of the asset groups previously mentioned, like:
I have 20 employees with access to phones, therefore let me reserve a range of 100 extensions for telephones and intercoms, so I may have “space to grow”, therefore, the extensions from 200 to 300 are reserved for phones and intercoms.
Extensions from 400 to 500 will be dedicated to Admin purposes, meaning: Hunt Groups, Call Groups, and Auto Attendant (not extensions to be dialed by humans but by the PBX itself).
Voice Over IP
IP stands for Internet Protocol, which is to say the way in which data packets are exchanged over the Internet.
Now, in the PSTN, the voice is modulated over electric waves with a given frequency that acts as the “carrying vehicle”. In a VOIP (Voice Over IP) context, the voice is converted into data and the resulting data packets are forwarded under the IP protocol known and TCP-IP.
To accomplish this, the PBX has evolved to become a VOIP Server, which is a computer system that converts and manages Voice Communications over IP protocol, while enabling easy integration with other computer based resources, communication means, and features, therefore resulting in the “Unified Communications” concept.
The first optimization point resides in the fact that instead of having two physical networks, one for voice communication and another one, TCP-IP based, for data communication everything will now be interchanged over the TCP-IP network.
On one hand, this requires proper dimensioning, redundancy implementation, and an accurately planned layout that bears proper prioritization, since the number of resources over one given infrastructure will rise; yet, on the other hand it also represents a high synergy as well as cost reduction potential with regards to running software, support teams and necessary equipment/ infrastructure components.
Last but not least, having a server (a computer), now responsible for the voice communication exponentially facilitates the establishment of CTIs between the IT Landscape existing systems and Applications and the Voice Service component.
In a VOIP context, the terminal points (telephones) are in fact “clients”, like any workstation. However, the VOIP Server adds a layer of flexibility by enabling you to both use your Desktop or Laptop as a client while emulating a phone as it also allows you to connect a “traditional” phone if required (through a physical adaptor).
Having a VOIP Server provides yet another layer of flexibility, by enabling either to have it within your facilities while connecting the traditional trunked lines to it, plus a Data Link which allows VOIP communication over the Internet or, by having your VOIP Server bought as a CLOUD based service, where you just need to define what you need and have an agreed pricing model on potential growth and a services provider will make all the traffic reach your facilities through the existing Internet Data Link.
CTIs with higher leveraging potential
Besides the previously mentioned CTIs that bear high potential towards improving your operation, here are the remaining top ones:
Call Routing/ Transfer
On any given PBX, you program responses to incoming calls with “Call Paths”, which are instructions on how to proceed every time a given extension is called.
Let’s think about someone from the outside that calls the generic company number (extension 200), so the call path will be:
Step 1 – activate Auto Attendant. Then the person calling chooses option 1 which is the sales department (which is extension 220).
Step 2 – let the phone on extension 220 to ring 3 times.
Step 3 – if no answer after the third ring, forward the call to “Call Group” Sales. Call Group Sales are extension 410 and it automatically routes the call to all the phones from the sales area, which are extensions 420 through 435 and let them ring 3 times.
Step 4 – perform an “out call” to extension 411 which forwards the call to the Sales Manager Cell Phone number and lets it ring 3 times.
Step 5 – if no one answered by now, go to extension 412 which will trigger the voicemail.
Another useful call path functionality that PBXs allow is direct Out Calling, meaning, if someone is out of the office but working, all the calls to his/her phone extension will be automatically routed to their cell phone number.
Now, this used to pose a potential risk as someone could be out of the country incurring considerable long distance charges. However, one major CTI that assures the functionality yet with the potential of significantly lowering the communication costs is the integration with VOIP services (e.g. SKYPE).
Coming back to the previously explained trunk lines concept, when “out calling” over the “traditional” voice infrastructure, the PBX will be occupying two lines simultaneously. The one used by an external person to call the internal extension and a new one that the PBX is using to forward the call to the user’s Cell Phone. If instead the “Out Call” is done through a VOIP protocol, the communication will be established from the PBX to a Webserver which will connect with the SKYPE Server via a Data Line.
Cost and resources optimization are the main leverages.
A softphone is a piece of software that once installed on your workstation (desktop or laptop), smartphone or even existing network servers allows telephony communication and integration with the VOIP Server and service.
One trend at the moment is the link to AIs that act as a Cloud based service and can answer your incoming phone calls while enabling a “human like” interaction. So, those AIs act as a human attendant who can establish a dialog and trigger instructions to both the VOIP Server or even other network based servers (e.g. CRM, ERP and more).
Active Directory integration
Once you have your active directory profile configured under a single sign in policy, when you connect through your profile at any place in the world to your IT Landscape (independently of having VOIP as a Service or in-house), it is the same thing (in terms of available resources) as if you were standing at your desk in your office.
By the way, in terms of Active Directory, your entire profile is made available to you “on the go”, therefore, not only your phone number and functionalities but all your authorized and assigned resources.
Corporate Systems Integration
Your prospects and clients’ profiles should be stored on your CRM and ERP systems and one of the Data Fields pertaining such entities are known Phone numbers. So once a call comes into the Call Center or even your own desk, you may get through a CTI all relevant client information shown on your computer screen or smartphone, via an Auto generated web page that is created according to your profile within the company.
Let’s say you’re from the technical support team, in that case, the VOIP Server will instruct the CRM to gather Tech Support profile information while connecting you with the incoming client call. Once you pick up the call, you will get on your screen a Web Page that will show you valuable information like:
Client company name
Contract Status: active contract/ inactive contract/ payment issues
Interaction History: known problems and dates; last incidents and dates (incident/ resolution), short one sentence report on the last status (any pending issues or know client miss handling of services or assets)
Other relevant info…
All this information, if shown in a user-friendly and intuitive manner will allow a prompt and assertive response towards the person “on the other side of the phone line”, while making the support team work easier and much more effective/ efficient.
The same applies in the case of a Sales/After Sales team or any other area within the company.
The displayed information will most certainly come from several systems, like the ERP in case of invoicing data or the Technical Systems in case of registration log.
There are CTIs that allow the establishment of conferencing or even video conferencing by “one-click” transferring and join action over both the call participants and required additional attendants to a Cloud based Service. So, it is possible to easily transform a standard phone call into a video conference if such need arises.
A relevant CTI, which currently we take for granted as a common feature is the ability to speed dial from almost anywhere, from a corporate system to a web page by just clicking the phone number that shows on the screen.
This is nevertheless a very relevant and efficient optimization functionality.
One major leverage of CTI is the integration with georeferencing tools and search engine features, for it will allow your operator to immediately access information about the physical location as well as data pertaining a contact established by anyone who is not registered in your corporate systems.
So, even if someone calls you out of the blue, it is possible (if geo-referencing is not blocked) to get available online information on the caller.
As mentioned previously, humans love to speak with another human rather than a robot that makes their process take longer.
Haven’t you ever lost your temper with an Auto Attendant that had you either waiting for endless minutes or going around in circles, before getting an effective answer? If any at all?
AI bears the potential of establishing a friendly conversational tone while “understanding” and directing you towards the fastest way to a satisfactory answer that solves your need.
There are already some Cloud based AIs (like J.A.R.V.I.S or x.AI) that can perform tasks like scheduling a meeting between you and another person at a schedule that best suits both, via a conversation that you may not perceive to be held with a machine.
As an example, you can configure an AI that upon a call from a client in distress over a given problem will:
Check the client’s name on a corporate system, versus the number calling and address him/ her by it, recognizing in advance if a male or female voice and in case the person on the other side of the line says he/ she is other, “understand” it and address the person by newly conveyed name from there on.
Check if the client company, has any “security key/ password”, in case someone with a name that differs from the registered one or a different gender than the one pertaining to the registered name is calling, asking for the security key/ password, prior to proceeding forward. All in a human like tone.
Check if the client company has any pending payments towards on-going services. If there are pending issues, forward the call to a human attendant with the detail information about why the person is calling and why it has been forwarded (in the case an invoice not paid).
Understand the conveyed incident or problem, cross check it with the corporate systems registry and take action, either through advice towards completing an action to be taken by the caller or by activating a tech support team member.
Upon the Technician “Ok”, inform the client that X person from the technical department will be arriving at the client’s office within Y minutes or the call will be immediately transferred to that person.
AI is the future of service assertiveness and optimization, bearing the capacity to deal with simultaneous calls from different clients.
Last but not least, since Phone Centrals are now dedicated computer systems they allow “Advanced Reporting”, meaning through the CTIs that connect to other corporate systems and the reporting features of the Phone Server you can extract detailed reports about what happened or where did a given phone call led. This gives managers, directors, or any supervisor the ability to perform analysis that will help to improve their service over the phone while speaking to prospects, clients or business partners.