At our company, we decided to look at reengineering the way we handle initial contact from our existing and potential new customers. We were changing the name, launching a new website and a whole new look and feel as we re-tooled and re-branded.
I am not going to sugar coat it, I am sure that if “Customer Care” is your “thing” that probably would excite you, but I think most people would look at the task of creating a customer service center and call center as being right up there with root canal and dinner with the in-laws on the excitement scale.
When you think about what you do today as a business, and try and fit your existing actions, process and procedures into the mix, the task starts to look very complicated, and the headache starts to grow… you feel a touch of the “PTO’s” coming on.
But wait! – there is hope!
I read that Amazon had started a new web services component called “Connect.” As someone that has built a 60 person call center, I was initially skeptical of anything that claimed to be a quick fix for Customer Care and contact centers. I know how complicated it can become, and did not want to start a new initiative trying to replace an aging system and process, with one that had limited functionality, or worse, locked us into a new and crippled process. The last thing an IT guy can get away with these days is a “Look I created a new system for you” – that is promptly met with a “But it doesn’t do what the old one did.”
Now, as if I would do that … [smile].
I probably would not have paid so much attention to the article, had it not been about Amazon. However, having a pretty good understanding now of how Amazon thinks, I look at their new product offerings with a great deal of respect, because I know that some brilliant people think the product through from beginning to end and pay great attention to the details.
Care Analytics is an AWS partner.
Obviously from the outset, I knew I needed one or more 800 numbers for customers to call in on, but I also knew that I had to route those calls based on a number of factors including differences in branding and messaging that you want to apply as you age and when having to deal with different companies.
I initially spent a few hours looking into everything that Amazon Connect had to offer, and to see where the shortfalls were. I also figured that it was possible to interface what Amazon had built to some scenarios that I could think of, as an Amazon Solutions Architect, like the ability to play back custom messages that were either part of Connect, or was in S3 buckets where we could have pretty granular control on changes and new messaging.
At the end of my investigation, I was pleasantly surprised at what Amazon had come up with. Certainly, all the components were there to build a customer service center in the cloud, or appeared to be at first glance.
I was already familiar with another of the Amazon components, Lambda, which enables you to write small pieces of serverless code that interact with other components within Amazon Web Services. I could get my mind around custom code that you can write in Lambda, but I was not sure how that would interface with Connect, although I read that it did.
The thing that I found most exciting within Connect was Amazon’s inclusion and their use of Lex, which is another new Amazon component in AWS that is a text to speech engine. With Lex, you can type your call scripts, and have them played back in your call flows via synthesized voice, like Alexa that Amazon uses for their Echo units. You can also record customer voice messages to text as a reverse of that functionality.
I could see that you can route calls to different queues set up for different times of the day, obviously handy for after-hours messaging being different than business hours. You could even route the calls to your support team’s desk phones during the day, and their cell phones at night. This was something that we were looking for, to support a medical company customer that we had recently engaged and that needed a 24 x 7 contact solution.
I could also see that you can record your prompts and then route the incoming calls to those prompts. I have always thought that you needed professional recording though I was pretty sure that we could either find the prompts in wave files out on the Internet or perhaps as I have done before, which is to have one of our office staff record the messages in a quiet room environment. I have done some of this in the past for my call center, and there are also paid services out there that will take your uploaded text scripts and send you professionally recorded wave files very inexpensively.
You need hold music, and it was there, that is a given, but Amazon has allowed you to upload your music, so some of this appalling elevator music can be avoided, something I confess I always found a little annoying when being kept waiting for 40 minutes on hold, usually by a telephone or electricity company. No one else is that bad.
The actual contact center functionality and configuration files for Connect are all stored on an instance, which in Amazon speak is a compute instance similar to how they assign EC2 instances, basically a computer running in the Amazon Cloud.
You are allowed up to 10 contact numbers for your call center, and you can use either local numbers in a selected area, or as I did, use an 800 number for my contact number, the entry point for my call center options.
Any calls that come into your call center via this number are recorded if you set that setting and all calls are then recorded to an S3 bucket.
Amazon offers all sorts of templates that you can use for basic call flow and control, it would seem that you could probably get up and running with the templates, but we modified or created our call flows, which was easy to do within the Contact web administrator’s dashboard. Contact flows are created in the contact flow editor using action blocks arranged by dragging and dropping them onto a grid. The contact flow configuration is grouped into blocks. Each group represents a particular action, and each block has editable conditions related to the group’s action or behavior. It took a little getting used to, but after 10 or 15 minutes you get the hang of it, basically drag and drop.
When the call comes in, you can set up some options, and you can record the voice, listen and translate it to Text using Lex, play a wav file based on voice input or capturing digits the user keys in on the keypad. You can transfer using call queues to levels of Agents and whisper the Agents as the call is being transferred. You can set up a whisper to tell the Agent that the customer being transferred is a VIP. You may have to write some custom code to use Amazon’s Lambda functions, which is VB Script to access a database to see if the customer was a VIP – but you get the idea, I thought that was pretty neat.
When a customer is on the call, you can select to record only the customer, only the Agent or both, which is pretty handy, as most systems don’t offer that choice usually it is two way only, sometimes you only want to records one side, and with Lex you can transcribe what I said to text and store that text to be emailed to your support Team.
After spending a little time with Connect, seems possible to assemble a comprehensive collection of small pieces of the puzzle that makes up a good Automatic Call Distribution System, the call details and stats are collected in an S3 bucket, as are the recorded calls themselves.
I have not yet investigated the reporting functionality that Amazon also has as part of Amazon Connect, but if the rest of the product is anything to go by, it will likely have functionally easy to use and quick to learn. As the data is collected and stored, even of the reporting system facet does not give you all the queue and Agent management reporting that you need, it would not be a difficult task to use your reporting tools like Qlik or Tableau, and use the data collected by Connect to create your own sophisticated presentation layer.
In summary, I thoroughly recommend anyone looking for an inexpensive option to some of the expensive call center systems that are in the market today to look at Amazon’s Connect product. It is easy to use and could be set up my most small companies to very quickly hit the ground running with what appears to the customer, to be a professional call center.
If you need professional support as you investigate your own customer service center in the cloud, we are available to help. Contact Us today.
~ Mark Richards
AWS Solutions Architect – Care Analytics