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Living With Lync: In the Contact Center

Microsoft Lync includes a response group service that queues incoming voice calls and routes them to groups of agents. At a basic level, a Lync response group acts like a PBX hunt group ringing multiple people based on specific rules.

Besides routing calls to multiple people based on presence, Lync response groups include many other capabilities:

  • Basic interactive voice response (IVR) branching based on touch-tone key presses or speech recognition. (Interactive workflows support up to two levels of questions, with each question having up to four possible answers.)
  • Business hours and holiday schedules
  • Music on hold (based on a static file)
  • Text-to-speech or prerecorded messages (.wav files)
  • Queue timeout actions such as routing a caller to voice mail or another queue after a specified period of time
  • Basic reporting using the Lync Monitoring Server reports (specifically the Response Group Usage Report)
  • Basic interactive voice response (IVR) branching based on touch-tone key presses or speech recognition. (Interactive workflows support up to two levels of questions, with each question having up to four possible answers.)
  • Business hours and holiday schedules
  • Music on hold (based on a static file)
  • Text-to-speech or prerecorded messages (.wav files)
  • Queue timeout actions such as routing a caller to voice mail or another queue after a specified period of time
  • Basic reporting using the Lync Monitoring Server reports (specifically the Response Group Usage Report)
  • Lync response groups are a useful, and very economical, solution that can meet the needs of internal help desks or small customer service groups.

    When Response Groups Are Not Enough
    Lync response groups provide basic call-routing capabilities for use in a number of situations; however, response groups suffer from several significant limitations, making them unsuitable for more advanced contact center applications.

    • Response groups can only route voice calls; they do not handle instant message (IM), email, or social media queuing.
    • The architecture response group service uses to connect
    • calls to agents can introduce long delays between the time an agent answers a call and call connection. These delays are often between 4 and 10 seconds; the longest delays typically occur when using Lync Phone Edition endpoints.

    • They lack real-time contact center statistics and provide only very basic historical reporting.
  • Response groups can only route voice calls; they do not handle instant message (IM), email, or social media queuing.
  • The architecture response group service uses to connect
  • calls to agents can introduce long delays between the time an agent answers a call and call connection. These delays are often between 4 and 10 seconds; the longest delays typically occur when using Lync Phone Edition endpoints.

  • They lack real-time contact center statistics and provide only very basic historical reporting.
  • For a recent client, we needed more capabilities than response groups would provide. Specifically, we needed:

    • Advanced, bilingual call handling, such as the ability for callers waiting in queue to press a key and leave a message for a callback instead of continuing to wait
    • An easy way to play special announcement messages for callers in queue
    • Real-time call queue statistics (callers in queue, longest wait time, etc.)
    • More detailed call reporting, including detailed abandoned call statistics
  • Advanced, bilingual call handling, such as the ability for callers waiting in queue to press a key and leave a message for a callback instead of continuing to wait
  • An easy way to play special announcement messages for callers in queue
  • Real-time call queue statistics (callers in queue, longest wait time, etc.)
  • More detailed call reporting, including detailed abandoned call statistics
  • Many on-premises and hosted contact center applications work with Lync. We ended up choosing ComputerTalk's ice Contact Center. For this specific situation, the enterprise-grade feature set and flexibility of ice, plus ComputerTalk's concurrent agent licensing model and its commitment to meet our aggressive timelines, best met our needs. While ice Contact Center is available via an on-premises or hosted model, we choose an on-premises deployment implementing two ice servers (active, passive) in order to provide the desired redundancy.

    I have written about Lync as a platform, and the ice Contact Center uses Lync's unified communications managed API, or UCMA, to leverage the power of the Lync platform operating as a native managed UC application. A native-Lync contact center such as ice extends the value of the Lync investment. The ice Contact Center can work with any PBX and for organizations that are not using Lync, ice includes an embedded version of Lync and leverages the power of the Microsoft communications platform to provide services such automatic speech recognition, text-to-speech, video, audio record and playback, DTMF, call control, IM, Web chat and presence information display, even if agents are using non-Lync endpoints (Cisco, BroadSoft, Mitel, Avaya Red/Blue).

    For agents, ice Contact Center installs the iceBar application on their PCs. IceBar provides agents access to all of the advanced agent functions, such as detailing not-ready reasons, queue management, and quick queue stats.

    This is different from other Lync contact center applications that use only the native Lync client; however, the iceBar approach is familiar to most contact center agents and maintains a consistent approach for organizations using other VoIP endpoints for their agents.

    Truthfully, the ice Contact Center includes many features we did not initially require for our specific situation. These include centralized queuing of IMs, emails, and social media feeds; skills-based routing; call recording; automated caller surveys; virtual on-hold support; and detailed not-ready reason codes. Ice also offers far more scalability than we would ever need (scaling to as many as 1,000 agents). Ice's power brings with it some complexity, especially around its programmable central workflow engine; however, ice's extensibility means the client will not outgrow the solution even as it brings on additional contact center modalities, like chat, and even if business users demand sophisticated inbound or outbound call handling.

    Several years ago people debated whether Lync could truly act as a PBX replacement. The answer that clearly emerged is "Yes." Today, if you are evaluating your contact center solution, I would argue that experiences such as the one detailed above prove Lync deserves consideration as a platform for enterprise-grade contact centers.

    If you are interested in learning more about Living with Lync or Succeeding with Skype, join me on Tuesday, March 17,, at 1:30 p.m. at my Enterprise Connect Orlando 2015 session, "Living with Lync." Many leading contact center providers will be participating in the Enterprise Connect expo. Please comment below, or connect with me on LinkedIn or via Twitter at @kkieller.

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