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Contact centers and the hurdle of legacy application integration

As call centers modernize, they face serious challenges in terms of legacy application integration with new systems.

As technology has evolved, so have call centers, transforming into contact centers to meet the demands of customers connected to the enterprise through an increasing number of touch points.

But with modernization comes the hurdle of legacy application integration with new systems to better understand customers. To succeed at contact center integration, experts and veterans advise understanding the benefits of upgrading and choosing the right software -- and sometimes leaving legacy systems in place.

But, of course, updating CRM systems to accommodate the modern functionality of newer CRM systems can be the ideal. Modern contact center software packages have four distinct advantages over pure legacy systems: universal communications, call flow tracking, customer relationship management and analytics, according to Jeffrey Bolden, partner at Princeton Junction, N.J.-based systems integrator and data conversion firm Blue Lotus SIDC. Adding these features allows contact centers to answer questions faster, evaluate where calls are being routed, create a centralized contact repository and conduct business intelligence activities such as optimum hold times, he said.

Modern systems offer modern communication methods

To succeed at contact center integration, experts advise choosing the right software -- and sometimes leaving legacy systems in place.

Universal communications is advantageous to companies because of features like telepresence, which allow agents to pull in experts that aren't on the call but can answer the customer's question, Bolden said. "They can, for example, [instant-message] a systems analyst who really is an expert on the subject, get a three-sentence answer, and get the [query] completely resolved without having to go through a formal meeting process," he said.

Lacking access to quick answers not only frustrates customers but also the agents themselves. Lompoc, Calif.-based dental products company DenMat Holdings LLC used a 32-year-old enterprise resource planning system with a green screen, which made it difficult for their sales, customer service and consulting departments to exchange information while helping current and prospective customers, according to Jonathan Green, DenMat's former vice president of information technologies.

"We had a very high turnover rate," Green said, attributing the employee exodus of 23% to the outdated contact center software.

However, with the installation of a cloud-based software package that included a library of plug-ins, the turnover rate has decreased drastically, to 7%, and call-resolution times have gone from four days in the most difficult cases, such as consulting on a dental product with a dentist's office, to three hours, according to Green.

DenMat consolidated the three contact center groups onto one software platform, allowing any agent from any department to view the customer's full history with the company. They also implemented an instant-messaging plug-in so that agents could initiate chats with experts in other departments and receive answers instantaneously, eliminating the need for a callback, Green said.

Analytics, call tracking stimulate sales

Analytics and call tracking are two other components that keep contact centers competitive, and modern technology allows users to simultaneously forward calls and keep track of them so that customers aren't being pushed to the fifth person with no resolution in sight, according to Blue Lotus's Bolden. Analytics also allow companies to collect feedback on agents, such as whether a particular script results in satisfied or annoyed customers, he said.

Cleaning data is the most time-consuming, aspect of modernizing the contact center system.

Additionally, using analytics in their modern system has allowed Cincinnati, Ohio-based relationship aid network marketing company Pure Romance LLC to understand issues with its products proactively. According to Chris McIntire, vice president of business development, the company relied on its customer service agents to alert them to product issues. But because many of the executives travel, unless they checked in with customer service regularly, they would be unaware of problems.

As a direct sales company with a Tupperware party-type model, Pure Romance also needed better tracking to properly reward its top sellers and to ensure that its VIP consultants could reach the same contact center agent and identify up-and-coming VIPs. They selected a new software package, but they also had to transfer their legacy data, according to McIntire.

Deciding how to move data into a new system can be a challenge, but Pure Romance chose a software package that allowed the company to migrate several data sources into its main CRM package using Web services, McIntire said. "There was some data we had to clean up, and it was definitely a process," he said. Cleaning the data is the most important and probably the most time-consuming aspect of modernizing the contact center system.

Modernization isn't all-or-nothing

Integrating legacy applications into modern ones is not only feasible but advised, according to Blue Lotus's Bolden. However, companies need to avoid a 50-50 hybrid of old and new technology that can result in a piecemeal system, he said.

Instead, Bolden advocated an 80/20 model: either 80% legacy and 20% new, or vice versa. In the first situation, retaining a legacy contact center application that works well but needs updates, like modernizing the call flow or integrating Web forms, allows companies to go after smaller, low-stress, high-value improvements, he said. "That's ideal because frequently, legacy systems have evolved and everyone has been trained on them. From a budgetary standpoint, you don't get the most bang for your buck, but you get a lot of bang for very little buck," he added.

The flip side works well for companies that have a very complex legacy system without any capacity for the Web, according to Bolden. Instead of building a brand-new system, Bolden advised using the legacy system as a subsystem that provides information to the new software. There may be a six- to eight-second delay when retrieving information, but it offers the most value for the legacy system, he said.

Ultimately, integrating legacy contact center systems successfully requires knowing what the company needs before choosing new software. "We know how to run our business; we needed someone to assist us with the technology," Pure Romance's McIntire said.

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