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Labs On-Site: A call center system exploits an infomercial service firm's resources.

When full-service infomercial service provider ITV Direct was looking for a way to turn inbound calls into sales, it turned to Interactive Intelligences Customer Interaction Center.

Since 2000, ITV Direct has grown from a small four-person call center located in rented space above a garage to a 300-employee company that films and distributes infomercials, as well as handles all the sales and distribution of products pitched in the infomercials. At any moment, ITV Direct is airing between two and seven infomercials using a network of 600 television stations and cable outlets.

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As part of that growth, the company has been increasing its call center operations from a copper-based system that routed overflow to outsourced call centers to a digital infrastructure that can balance call loads across the companys three locations.

The move from copper happened in July 2005, when ITV Direct moved its headquarters to a new building in Beverly, Mass., said ITV Direct CIO Christopher Meusel. Since that time, ITV Direct has bought two companies, with locations in Biddeford, Maine, and Chicago.

During eWEEK Labs visit to ITV Direct, Meusel said Customer Interaction Center simplified the process of adding the Maine call center to existing operations and will provide options for bringing the Chicago office into the mix, which will take place in the coming months.

The new call center system affords the company a visibility and flexibility not available with the older PBX system, said Meusel. With the old phone system ITV Direct used, no one could determine the number of calls getting through to the PBX or how well sales representatives performed on key metrics such as abandoned calls, talk time and pickup rates. With the new system, the company can monitor these metrics as well as perform call routing based on agent expertise and availability.

Architecturally, ITV Directs phone system starts at the DS3 line connected to the companys headquarters. A Quintum switch converts as many as 960 inbound calls to SIP (Session Initiation Protocol). The calls then pass to the Interactive Intelligence SIP proxy for load balancing of calls between headquarters and the office in Maine.

The calls are routed through two quad-processor Dell 6800 servers running Intel NetStructure HMP (Host Media Processing) software. Meusel said the four-processor systems are key to the stability of the call center: "[With four processors,] each server can handle 240 calls on the phone and 240 in queue; with only one processor, we saw [the system] would crash at 120 calls."

Customer Interaction Center handles call routing based on an 800-number and the skills of about 300 available sales representatives. ITV Direct has 4,000 800-numbers it can use.

Using software included with Customer Interaction Center, Meusel wrote custom handlers to manage call-routing logic using ANI (automatic number identifier) information. Each 800-number identifies a specific product being pitched in an infomercial, so the 800-number is used to route calls to reps who have been trained to sell that product. The handlers also automatically drop known crank callers.

The Interactive Intelligence system also has reduced to almost zero the number of abandoned calls ITV Direct experiences, Meusel said. Customer Interaction Center has call processing logic that allows ITV Direct to use the time that calls remain in the call queue to manage load balancing.

Calls that remain in the queue for more than a minute are routed to a customer service number, but customer service reps answer the phone only to take a callers information and pass it on to the sales reps.

In addition to the custom handlers Meusel has written, ITV Direct has taken advantage of Customer Interaction Centers customization by integrating voice recording with ITV Directs unified messaging system.

Each reps calls are recorded because of regulatory requirements involved with selling nutritional supplements, one of the goods sold in the com-panys many infomercials. Calls are recorded at the desktop through Customer Interaction Center, but Meusels team wrote custom code to also route the recordings through a unified communications system using e-mail, with the recordings eventually stored on ITV Directs media servers.

This call-recording capability alone has saved ITV Direct between $17,000 and $25,000 per year, said Meusel, because the company no longer needs to outsource the function.

In the future, Meusel said, ITV Direct is going to migrate from the proprietary Lasso-based sales application to a custom-built browser-based application that ITV Direct has deployed internally to beta users. The new application will tie in to Customer Interaction Center using a calls ANI data to pop up a browser session prepopulated with caller information. Meusel said he is also looking forward to using the speech recognition features in Customer Interaction Center to handle call processing for free offers.

Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at

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