E-tales: Call minding

With awards being dished out in Auckland last week for the country's best contact centres, we thought we'd conduct an informal survey of the state-of-the-art of telephone answering services.

With awards being dished out in Auckland last week for the country’s best contact centres, we thought we’d conduct an informal survey of the state-of-the-art of telephone answering services.

Going right to where we figured the action would be, we called the Sydney number of Martin Conboy, a contact centre market analyst and keynote speaker at the TUANZ Contact Centre Conference (where the awards were dispensed). With the words of another of the conference keynotes (Jon Anton) ringing in our ears -- "Contact centres will ... become more and more the frontispiece of customer service" -- we had great expectations.

Alas, the experience was worse than we could have imagined. The phone rang several times then a voice said "Your call will be attended shortly; please hold the line", before switching to muzak. We can’t remember the tune, but it wasn’t one you’d hum along to. In the interests of investigative journalism, we hung on and hung on -- despite racking up international toll charges -- and fully four minutes later a brusque Aussie told us she worked for an answering service, Mr Conboy wasn’t available, and no, she couldn’t suggest any other way of contacting him.

So much for that. Next up we called the number of a local PR bloke, who had asked to be phoned “ASAP" to confirm willingness to interview one of his customers. This time we got a robotic voice: "Hello, we are not available now. Please call again." Why would you? No opportunity to leave a message; no cellphone number to try.

We can only conclude that there are plenty of opportunities yet to be exploited in the contact centre market.

Guts for Gartner

One letter can make all the difference. That's what a mild mannered Computerworld reporter found out last week when he went to Gartner's website, www.gartner.com. Arrghh! A typing mistake meant he was directed to www.garter.com, a rather unsubtle (are they ever not?) porn site. Needless to say, our reporter was shocked to see human flesh in abundant quantities. All he was after was some analysis of Oracle's swaggering bid for PeopleSoft.

From San Jose to San Quentin

A former Cisco Systems vice president is to begin a 66-month prison sentence for embezzling millions of dollars worth of shares and funds from the networking giant and insider trading involving Cisco stock. Robert Gordon, dismissed by Cisco in April 2001, pleaded guilty in December to transferring $US35 million of Cisco funds to an offshore bank account in the Bahamas. He has also admitted making $US3.5 million in insider trading profits and an additional $US5 million by inducing Cisco to send money to an affiliate start-up, Spanlink. As well as serving time, Gordon has been ordered to repay Cisco $US27 million and the US government $US5.58 million.

Live in person

Audiences are getting a bit weary of live actors interacting with cartoons and even computer-synthesised creatures like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy; it's looking old-hat. The Next Big Thing may be live actors performing on the same virtual stage, when in reality they may be hundreds of miles apart.

UpStage is a collaborative software development project between artists Helen Varley Jamieson and Vicki Smith and technologist Douglas Bagnall, that aims to create a web-based venue for -- cyberformance.

MediaLab South Pacific, which helped develop UpStage (the site will eventually be www.upstage.org.nz), says the project will offer opportunities for collaboration and communication between artists. The project has received a $44,000 grant from the Smash Palace Collaborations Fund (remember Bruno Lawrence?) to develop new cyberformance software. UpStage, we are told, "beat off competition from over 21 rival bids" to secure the one-off funding. Smash Palace was set up by Creative New Zealand and the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology "to encourage initiatives between New Zealand’s artists and the scientific community".

We trust the web environment will let us recreate our favourite theatre -- if only so Wellington acting troupes can follow a download of UpStage by uploading Downstage.

Scotch mist

By the time British Telecom discovered that Scotland's Bruichladdich distillery was on the island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides and not somewhere in Renfrewshire, it was too late -- the broadband contract was signed. As a result, Bruichladdich's broadband service is beamed in by satellite from Edinburgh via Northern Ireland and back again, says the Guardian Online.

As a result Bruichladdich, the only independent distillery on Islay (website tagline: "The independent Scottish company owned by real people NOT anonymous corporate conglomerates") which has seven distilleries, but only 3000 people, is to offer monthly virtual tastings and show off its production methods via webcams. Bruichladdich says the online tasting sessions -- you have to stock up first -- are partly a practical solution to a problem, as it constantly get requests from whisky groups all over the world to come and give them a tasting and a talk. Slainte mhath!

E-govt P/L

There could be merit in our relatively cautious approach to online government. The UK government, which pushed for all public services to be available electronically by 2005 at a massive cost of £7.4 billion, may have to wait more than a decade for its e-govt investment to start producing savings.

IT analysis firm Kable predicts the costs of making services available over the phone and internet will outstrip any savings until at least 2012. The trouble is, says Kable, unlike the private sector the government can't quickly cut physical access to services and staff for those on the far side of the digital divide. According to the company's report, E-government Cost Savings, Whitehall's investment in IT will yield average savings of £165 million a year at both the central and local authority level.

Young fogies

Ageism is getting younger. A UK survey by recruitment firm Maturity Works found that one in 10 workers who considered themselves victims of ageism were between 35 and 40. A surprising 13% have experienced workplace ageism under the age of 40, while 61% experienced it before they reached 50. The survey suggested that some sectors may be especially prone to ageism, particularly "young" areas such as IT.

Ripping yarns

The RIAA is going to have a hernia. The New Scientist reports that an internet connection so fast it will allow whole movies to be downloaded in just five seconds could soon be a reality. A team at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena have developed a system called Fast TCP that promises to be 6000 times faster than today's broadband links and run on the normal internet infrastructure.

TCP, the traffic protocol on the internet, breaks down large files into small packets. The sending computer waits for a signal from the recipient of the first packet's arrival before sending the next. If no receipt comes back, the same packet is sent at half the speed of the previous one and gets slower each time until it succeeds, reports New Scientist. Fast TCP uses software and hardware on the sending computer to reveal delays and predict the fastest transfer rate.

A test between California and Geneva saw the average transmission rate at 925Mbit/s, compared with 266Mbit/s for ordinary TCP.

"By ganging 10 Fast TCP systems together, the researchers have achieved transmission speeds of over 8.6Gbit/s, which is more than 6000 times the capacity of ordinary broadband links," says New Scientist. Imagine the JetStream download fees.

So, like, whatever

The FBI has recruited three girls to teach its agents how to pose as teenagers on the internet. The San Francisco Chronicle says for the past year the trio have been teaching agents how to communicate like young girls, by using written quizzes on celebrity gossip and clothing trends.

The training is part of the FBI's Operation Innocent Image, which aims to track down those who prey on teenagers on the internet.

Gary Bald, special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office, said: "We can teach agents how to be careful and make sure they're following the law and how to arrest people. But how to convince people they're a 13-year-old is something we need help on."

All the agents failed the first quiz they gave, answering that Justin Timberlake was more popular than Destiny's Child and that Led Zeppelin just wasn't cool.

"They, like, don't know anything," said Mary, 14, giggling.

"They're, like, do you like Michael Jackson?" said Karen, 14, rolling her eyes.

Edited by Mark Broatch.

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