How do employees spend most of their time? What are their least favorite tasks? Where could efficiencies save time and money?
These questions are daily challenges for business managers. To those leading sales teams or overseeing bustling call centers, even partial answers can yield tangible, bottom-line results. For outgoing calls, quicker dialing may allow representatives to reach more potential clients each day. Automated dialing may eliminate dialing errors.
For incoming calls, smart routing may get clients to the right person more quickly, reducing effort and frustration on both sides. And, at the end of the day, managers with access to call logs and aggregated data have the potential to make objective, data-backed decisions.
While realizing these answers may still be hypothetical for some organizations, the technology to actualize them—computer telephony integration—is very real. Pairing CTI with an Asterisk phone system can help connect the critical data points that turn these theoretical improvements into realities.
The Promise of CTI
In 1997 researchers Michael Cox and David Ellsworth, perhaps unwittingly, coined a phrase that remains at the center of modern enterprise thinking: “Visualization provides an interesting challenge for computer systems: data sets are generally quite large, taxing the capacities of main memory, local disk, and even remote disk. We call this the problem of big data.”
They wrote about the organizational and technological challenges of managing massive amounts of information around the same time Cisco took the first steps toward VoIP phone systems, a critical innovation that makes CTI possible. Advancing beyond traditional PBX phone systems and integrating with cloud-based or locally hosted CRMs has, in the case of CTI, turned the “problem” of big data into the opportunity of big data.
These are the big data problems CTI can transition to opportunities:
Problem 1: Agents fielding calls do not know enough about callers. Simple caller identification offered an initial step forward, but modern CTI promises so much more. For example, Asterisk integration can pull relevant client data—such as name, title, and organization—from a CRM in real time. The moment a representative clicks to answer, that agent already has an idea of which questions or issues might come up, and how to craft a persuasive response.
Problem 2: Clients have trouble reaching the right representative. This shortcoming can occur many ways. Human error by a secretary may route a call incorrectly, or budget constraints may not allow for enough human transfers during peak hours. Alternatively, an endlessly branched automated menu may frustrate a client and take up far too much of their time.
A third solution, sending all calls to any available representative, is a blanket approach that asks agents to develop broad expertise and multitasking abilities. That may lead to more customers stuck on hold while an agent asks a colleague for insight. Smart routing, a key CTI component, offers a fourth path. CRM data, when paired with brief menu automation, can take callers to the right person on the first ring more often.
Problem 3: Call centers are viewed as fixed, unwanted cost centers by upper management. For bookkeepers, the math is simple: A profitable business takes in more than it spends. Every cost center is a liability; every profit center a golden goose. Call centers, at least those focusing on customer service, may never become profit centers, but CTI provides data that can make them more efficient.
Potential efficiencies—better service for better retention, quicker service that requires less staff, analytics-based schedules to handle peak periods—rely on data gleaned from call logs, which CTI can shape into easy-to-digest charts and graphs. Those visualizations empower managers to make better decisions and to justify their decisions more effectively to those above them.
Where Asterisk Fits In
Asterisk is unique among business phone systems. With its code available free of charge, Asterisk is “an open source framework for building communication applications.” Asterisk is ‘sponsored’ by Digium, whose founder, Mark Spencer, developed the solution after failing to find a flexible, affordable solution in the marketplace for his own needs.
Digium uses Asterisk as the framework for Switchvox. Switchvox is Digium’s unified communications solution that includes out-of-the-box VoIP phone systems with cloud-based or on-premise hosting. Digium also develops products and services to support companies’ independent use and development of Asterisk-based communications systems.
As of 2017, more than 1 million phone systems used Asterisk, spanning some 170 companies. The list of Asterisk adherents includes most of the Fortune 1000. The ability to customize Asterisk software has made it a favorite choice of large companies and their development teams. Still, even small businesses can deploy Asterisk with the support of Digium’s ready-made solutions. The potential for ongoing customization also ensures unmatched scalability for fast-growing businesses.
Asterisk CTI: Features and Benefits
Asterisk CTI includes three interfaces, as well as outbound call spooling, with technical details defined in the Asterisk Wiki, the community-managed knowledge base for the Asterisk platform:
- Asterisk Gateway Interface. “AGI provides an interface between the Asterisk dialplan and an external program (via pipes, stdin and stdout) that wants to manipulate a channel in the dialplan.”
- Asterisk Manger Interface. “AMI is intended for management type functions. The manager is a client/server model over TCP. With the AMI you’ll be able to control the PBX, originate calls, check mailbox status, monitor channels and queues as well as execute Asterisk commands.”
- Asterisk REST Interface. “ARI is an asynchronous API that allows developers to build communications applications by exposing the raw, primitive objects in Asterisk—channels, bridges, endpoints, media, etc.—through an intuitive REST interface.”
The list of Asterisk CTI features includes dozens of vital call management tasks, from a simple Asterisk dialer to complex Interactive Voice Response menus.
Core Asterisk CRM integrations and call management features include:
- Feature Code Call Transfers. Asterisk supports blind and attended transfers. Blind transfers pass callers along without checking in with the transfer recipient. Attended transfers ensure the transfer recipient is present and prepared before completing the transfer. Asterisk also allows for three-way bridge transfers that enable all parties to communicate simultaneously. Answer timeouts return calls to the original answerer if the transfer recipient does not respond.
- One-Touch Features. One-touch features in Asterisk include call recording, call disconnect, and call parking (allowing a call to be answered on one phone then rerouted to another).
- Call Parking. Call parking is a CTI solution for flexible office environments in which an employee may often be away from their desk if they have an assigned desk at all. The recipient of the call can hang up the initial call, then retrieve it from any phone by entering the “parking space,” or extension, of the original call.
- Call Pickup. Call pickup represents the inverse of call parking. It allows a representative to transfer and answer another ringing phone to a more convenient device.
- Video telephony. Asterisk integration includes video telephony, which is part of its core infrastructure. Video recording, playback, and even video voicemail are supported by Asterisk.
- Voicemail. Asterisk supports standardized or custom voicemail messages as well as voicemail retrieval using a PIN. This ensures team members can check voicemail while in the office or on the road.
- Conferencing. Basic conferencing features with Asterisk serve most user needs. Advanced conferencing features, including ConfBridge, serve large virtual meetings of dozens or hundreds of participants. ConfBridge enables some organizations to replace their use of third-party meeting software.
Asterisk CTI reporting offers customizable insights. Developers can cherry-pick the data most valuable to pass along while leaving unimportant data points behind. Analytics metrics can include caller, call source, destination, time of call, duration of call, and whether the call was answered, ignored, or returned a busy signal. Developers can also define other custom variables.
Asterisk Integration for Custom CTI Solutions
For small organizations, the thought of a custom CTI solution may seem overwhelming. Not every organization can hire and retain a team of developers to implement a unified communications solution tailored for a single business. For those clients, Digium’s supporting products and services may be part of a successful integration.
For enterprise clients, however, access to an open-source library of code and cross-organization developer knowledge sharing promises more value from existing internal and client data. More efficient call centers with lower expenses and full prospect knowledge for sales staff can help capture the opportunity, rather than the pain, of big data.
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