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The Many Tele­com Ap­pli­ca­tions of As­ter­isk

Over the course of the past few ar­ti­cles in the se­ries, we got familiar with the gen­eral As­ter­isk en­vi­ron­ment, the typ­i­cal hard­ware in­volved and the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a ba­sic IP PBX, which is the most im­por­tant As­ter­isk ap­pli­ca­tion. In this ar­ti­cle, the a

- The au­thor is the founder and CEO of *astTECS, an As­ter­isk soft­ware based com­pany pro­vid­ing IP PBX, call cen­tre di­allers, etc. He can be con­tacted at d.kurian@asttecs.com. Tech­ni­cal queries/ sup­port for top­ics de­scribed in this ar­ti­cle may be ad­dressed to

As­ter­isk has been con­cep­tu­alised as a generic switch­ing plat­form, on which a va­ri­ety of tele­com ap­pli­ca­tions can be run. Let’s list and de­scribe th­ese.

IP PBX (IP Pri­vate Branch eX­change)

IP PBX is IP based equip­ment, which can be used for in­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tion within com­pa­nies (com­monly known as an in­ter­com) and for em­ploy­ees to com­mu­ni­cate with the out­side world. The tele­phones in the com­pany are con­nected to the PBX to en­able in­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Trunk lines, which could be ana­logue, dig­i­tal, GSM or IP, will be con­nected to the PBX to en­able ex­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Over the pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cles, I have mainly fo­cused on As­ter­isk as a PBX, and there­fore fur­ther elab­o­rate de­tails have been avoided here.

IVR (In­ter­ac­tive Voice Re­sponse)

To­day, it is com­mon to ob­tain a menu when we call our bank or in­sur­ance com­pany. A recorded voice will ask us about the in­tended trans­ac­tion, per­sonal de­tails, etc, and pro­vide us ap­pro­pri­ate in­for­ma­tion or di­rect us to­wards a hu­man agent.

A com­mon IVR is the wel­come menu at most com­pa­nies. When a cus­tomer calls the cen­tral num­ber, the IVR is ac­ti­vated. As first, it plays a mes­sage like, “Wel­come to *astTECS. Please press 1 if you want to talk to a sales per­son, press 2 for tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance or 3 for any other mat­ter.” The num­ber the cus­tomer presses is trans­mit­ted as a dual tone multi­fre­quency (DTMF) sig­nal from the phone to the IVR server. Depend­ing on the in­put, the call is trans­ferred to the ‘Sales’ queue, the ‘Tech­ni­cal’ queue or the ‘Ad­min’ queue.

Many com­pa­nies have re­duced their man­power re­quire­ments by de­ploy­ing pow­er­ful IVRs. The call cen­tre IVR for banks is a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple. Most of them play the wel­come mes­sage, ask users to se­lect the lan­guage, carry out the au­then­ti­ca­tion in the se­lected lan­guage and connect to the re­spec­tive depart­ment. In many cases, where the cus­tomer re­quires just the ac­count in­for­ma­tion or card sta­tus, the process is com­pleted with­out any man­ual in­ter­ven­tion. The IVR script it­self will query the data­base

and pro­vide the in­for­ma­tion in a recorded voice or a textto­speech (TTS) en­gine.

A typ­i­cal IVR, as in a com­pany’s wel­come script, is static—in­clud­ing the voice record­ings. Dy­nam­ic­ity can be brought in with the in­te­gra­tion of the fol­low­ing com­po­nents. Data­base: The IVR script can query a data­base as well as store in­for­ma­tion into a data­base. Based on the data stored, the flow can be con­trolled or dif­fer­ent in­for­ma­tion can be pre­sented. The ac­count sta­tus of a par­tic­u­lar cus­tomer can be pre­sented, af­ter query­ing the data­base. TTS (text-to-speech): TTS en­gines help to read out the texts or num­bers ob­tained from the data­base. Voice recog­ni­tion: It is cum­ber­some for cus­tomers to type in all the num­bers re­quested by the IVR, es­pe­cially in the era of mo­bile phones. In the case of desk­top phones, the process is man­age­able, as the num­ber pad is in front of the user on the desk and only the head­set is near the ear. With voice recog­ni­tion, users can voice their choices, and the voice recog­ni­tion en­gine will trans­late the voice to com­mands or in­for­ma­tion and con­trol the flow. As the world moves to­wards in­creased au­to­ma­tion, the trend is to deploy more and more IVRs for all types of ap­pli­ca­tions.

Call cen­tre di­allers

A di­aller is an­other strong ap­pli­ca­tion based on As­ter­isk. To un­der­stand how it works, let’s imag­ine a call cen­tre in which mul­ti­ple agents are seated, di­alling thou­sands of cus­tomers. Typ­i­cally, the team lead will pro­vide them with a list of num­bers and the agents will try to call each one of them. Most of the num­bers will be non­reach­able, busy or may not be picked up. Nor­mally, a call cen­tre agent needs to at­tempt at least three num­bers to make one suc­cess­ful call. As­sume that each at­tempt takes 30 sec­onds, and the suc­cess­ful call needs 60 sec­onds of talk time. To­tal time for one call = (3×30) + 60 = 150 sec­onds To­tal talk time = 60 sec­onds Ef­fi­ciency = 60/150 = 40 per cent

It’s clear that 60 per cent of the agent’s time is be­ing wasted in non­pro­duc­tive work. For a call cen­tre with 100 agents, 480 man hours are wasted ev­ery day, as­sum­ing an eight­hour day. With the av­er­age salary of an agent be­ing Rs 10,000 per month, this amounts to a pro­duc­tiv­ity loss of Rs 600,000 ev­ery month.

The di­aller helps you save this huge wastage. How? The num­bers can be up­loaded into the di­aller data­base and the di­aller soft­ware will make the calls. The sys­tem au­to­mat­i­cally de­tects con­di­tions like ‘not reach­able’, ‘busy’, ‘net­work con­ges­tion’, ‘not an­swer­ing’, etc. In case the call is es­tab­lished, the line is con­nected to a live agent.

Au­to­matic an­swer­ing ma­chine de­tec­tion is also in­cluded to avoid agents be­ing con­nected to an­swer­ing ma­chines. If there are five agents, the sys­tem will send out 20 calls, so that the idle time for agents is re­duced. The key is to find the op­ti­mum ra­tio, so that less man­power is wasted wait­ing for con­nected calls. The op­ti­mum ra­tio de­pends on mul­ti­ple fac­tors like lead qual­ity, the day of the week, the time of the day, etc. Di­aller soft­ware also en­ables re­di­alling the un­suc­cess­ful calls, based on the rea­son the call failed on the first at­tempt.

Di­aller soft­ware pro­vide a lot of re­ports, which help the man­age­ment to ef­fi­ciently run the call cen­tre. Agent­wise re­ports give an over­view of the time utilised by each agent, in­clud­ing talk time, wait time and pauses. Sim­i­larly, we can also get data like the suc­cess rate with each list of num­bers, av­er­age call du­ra­tion and dis­po­si­tion sta­tus. Vi­cidial is the most popular open source di­aller, which can be down­loaded from vi­cidial.org.

ACD (au­to­matic call dis­tri­bu­tion)

While di­allers are used in out­bound call cen­tres, in­bound call cen­tres use ACD sys­tems. The agents are con­nected to the ACD and seg­re­gated into dif­fer­ent groups. The in­com­ing call can be dis­trib­uted among th­ese groups of agents in mul­ti­ple ways: Lan­guage: A sim­ple IVR may help the cus­tomer se­lect the pre­ferred lan­guage and based on the se­lec­tion, the call is for­warded to the re­spec­tive lan­guage group. Skills: The agents are di­vided ac­cord­ing to their skillsets, and the calls routed based on the skillset re­quested. SLA: The group­ing of agents will be based on their ex­pe­ri­ence lev­els and the rout­ing can hap­pen based on the SLAs (ser­vice level agree­ment), like plat­inum, gold or sil­ver. Re­gion: The caller’s re­gion can be as­cer­tained based on the caller ID and routed ac­cord­ingly. De­mog­ra­phy: Callers may iden­tify them­selves and the rout­ing can hap­pen depend­ing on their de­mo­graphic at­tributes. Sim­i­lar to out­bound call­ing, in in­bound call­ing also, mul­ti­ple re­ports are gen­er­ated like agents’ oc­cu­pancy, call wait­ing times, and so on.

Voice blast­ing

Voice blast­ing is the method of call­ing a list of num­bers and play­ing a pre­recorded mes­sage. The sys­tem will call each num­ber, and if the call is es­tab­lished, it will play the pre­re­corded mes­sage. The sys­tem also keeps track of the call sta­tus of the un­suc­cess­ful mes­sages and tries a con­fig­ured num­ber re­peat­edly to de­liver the mes­sage. De­tailed re­ports of the com­plete sta­tus are pro­vided.

Voice blast­ing with IVR is quite a popular tech­nique for hot lead gen­er­a­tion. The sys­tem will dial the cus­tomer and the IVR will ask if the client would, for ex­am­ple, like to buy a car. Upon get­ting a pos­i­tive re­sponse, the IVR can ask about the client’s bud­get. Based on the an­swers, the sys­tem can gen­er­ate hot leads for var­i­ous car man­u­fac­tur­ers at dif­fer­ent price ranges.

Voice log­ger

The con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the em­ployee/agent and the cus­tomer may be recorded for the fol­low­ing pur­poses. Qual­ity mon­i­tor­ing: The com­pe­tence as well as com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills of agents need to be checked from time to time. Train­ing: The agents need to be trained based on the sam­ples gen­er­ated. Spy­ing: Em­ploy­ees need to be mon­i­tored, to pre­vent them from pass­ing on con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion. Suc­cess­ful calls: Call cen­tres need to keep track of the suc­cess­ful calls and pass on the voice record­ing to end cus­tomers for pay­ment­set­tle­ment pur­poses. Proof of trans­ac­tion: Call cen­tres, like share broking agen­cies, need to keep record­ings to have proof of trans­ac­tions, in case of dis­putes later. Voice log­ger soft­ware en­ables record­ing of con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen­ing in the sys­tem, based on the con­fig­u­ra­tion set. The record­ings will also con­tain in­for­ma­tion about source, des­ti­na­tion, time, dis­po­si­tion, etc. A graph­i­cal user in­ter­face (GUI) is nor­mally pro­vided with which users can fil­ter the files re­quired and lis­ten, down­load or delete them.

Be­ing a generic switch­ing plat­form, mul­ti­ple ap­pli­ca­tions based on As­ter­isk are pos­si­ble. Mark Spencer, the founder of As­ter­isk, has pro­vided many generic in­ter­faces to en­able devel­op­ment of a se­ries of ap­pli­ca­tions. The com­mu­nity has gone ahead and de­vel­oped all th­ese ap­pli­ca­tions, which helped Spencer re­alise his vi­sion of rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing the tele­com world with As­ter­isk.

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