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Video Contact Centers
Dr. Ramanujan Kashi
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Video is fast becoming a popular methodology for communications. A big boost to video in general has been due to the proliferation of numerous cell phones with inbuilt cameras.

Simultaneously there has been adoption of 3G networks around the world to provide the necessary bandwidth to support video and other forms of visual communications. Globalization, cultural and social shifts create more demand for collaboration, which results in video becoming core to enterprises’ contact center environments.

Traditionally video has been used extensively in enterprises to provide video conferencing, where there is sufficient control over the networks and uniformity in the devices. An area that is gaining traction is in providing rich customer service through video. There is significant business value of adding video to contact centers. Video extends customer reach and touch. It is one of the richest electronic mediums. It facilitates business that requires a) Trust relationships (financial, pharmaceutical), b) Time-saving information transmission (menus, product displays and demos, virtual tours). c) Translation services for the hearing impaired. Customer service in most parts of the world has been through voice. In several countries, including India, SMS is also extensively used for customer service. With available bandwidth and easily accessible endpoints, video contact centers will soon be popular. The four most common ways today for a customer to interact with agents in a contact center through video are 1) Customers with 3G endpoints in 3G networks. 2) From video phones where service providers or large enterprises wants to provide new services in order to retain customers 3) Specialized video endpoints such as kiosks: Provide expertise on demand to remote branches and allows to extend services time coverage without the need of people presence and finally 4) Allowing customers to get a video experience from home through the internet.

The service that the customer can experience can be one of two types, video self service and agent assisted video service. In video self-service, which is also called Interactive, voice and video response (IVVR), the customer would typically interact with a system through key presses (touchtone), speech inputs or through pen inputs and the system responds through voice & video. Solutions exist today that will push dynamic content that is generated on the fly through customer interactions. Compelling use cases exist today for video self service where customers can be shown multiple choices quickly, show complex choices and show possible experience such as preview hotel rooms, seats in a stadium, virtual tours of places etc.

In retail scenarios, there are numerous examples of providing video based customer service through agent support. Typically sales people on the floor will not have all the necessary technical information of the product that they sell. In such cases, the sales associates typically walk the customers to the nearest kiosk on the stores and initiate a live 2 way video conversation with an agent who may be available. Typically in such scenarios, the agent has the ability to push content video along with their camera video for better customer service.

There are interesting challenges when deploying such video contact center solutions. Repurposing the video content in real time depending on the phone can be computationally expensive. There are privacy concerns in sending video from the camera connected to agents. Using avatars or synthetic images or talking heads have also been used instead of sending the video from the agent’s camera. Synchronizing with audio has been tricky in such cases and providing a compelling user experience to the customer is challenging. Today there are automatic text screeners to screen text that is being typed out by the agent. Similarly automatic speech recognition and word spotting is extensively used to monitor the agents.

However, an automated mechanism to understand video is quite a challenging task. A major usability issue in video is the eye-to-eye contact between people in a video session. Typically the cameras are installed on top of the screens and the agent (customer) tends to look at the screen that shows the remote video or for retrieving data that is shown on the screen. This leads to poor eye contact with the customer, which does not give a great experience to the customer. There are various techniques used to help alleviate this problem from using beam forming techniques to computational vision models to correct the images being sent out. Training the agent to look at the camera more often would of course be an inexpensive solution but the usability from the agent‘s perspective is not the greatest. Careful consideration should be taken while designing the layout for the video contact centers. Adequate illumination, plain and smooth background would be ideal to better compensate for coding artifacts.

Video is just a small subset of visual communications. Sharing documents, co-browsing with customers and interactive graphic displays commonly found in digital signage are other modes of visual communications that are being used to enhance customer service applications. With the advent of IPTV and high bandwidth to the home, the applications of two-way video from the consumers to the enterprises are bound to increase. The availability of 3G in India and elsewhere along with affordable cell phones with video capability will certainly spur the growth of video based contact centers in the years to come. Finally with video, the promise is to enable enterprises to increase business agility, lower costs and increase collaboration in a locale-independent manner. Further it helps to maximize potential across all customer contact leveraging experts across the enterprise.
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