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Thanks to Chunghwa Telecom, if you're looking for a nearby restaurant that is open at midnight, the operator can find one. You don't even have to know where you are
Taiwanese drivers need not worry anymore when their vehicles break down in an unfamiliar area. Chunghwa Telecom's 1288 operator assisted yellow page service can locate the driver, even if he does not know his exact location.
On top of that, the system can direct him to the nearest place he can get aid, such as a highway call booth, and it can also show him where the closest car repair workshop is.
Until Google came along, search engines were tyrants. Unless the user types the exact spelling and right search operator syntax, they gave you nothing.
Most telephone directory services, by and large, are stuck in the pre-Google era. You may be speaking to a human call center operator, but he is probably accessing a database that requires precise search terms.
Furthermore, even if you succeed in finding the business you are looking for, you can't get much more than a phone number and address. Directory calls can be frustrating because a misspelled letter can mean being given the wrong answer or no answer at all.
Recognizing this a few years ago, Chunghwa, Taiwan's largest operator, set out to make its yellow pages business directory more forgiving, and more importantly, more useful.
Where's the value?
In the original "104" directory service, a subscriber was required to provide as much precise information about the merchant as possible. The subscriber then had to jot down the merchant's phone number.
When you call the directory service today, you can start with a vague description of an address or product, and thanks to its rich data set, the operator will help you narrow the alternatives. Or, if you happen to just need a nearby restaurant open at midnight, the operator can find one for you. You don't even have to know where you are.
According to Dr Chih-Chen Chien, director of the operator's call center department, "the subscriber can then choose to have the information sent to him on his mobile device or via email. If the subscriber needs immediate assistance from the merchant, the system can transfer the call directly to that merchant."
The result is "convenience and instant information at all times," said Chen.
Realizing that the more information a customer agent has at his fingertips, the higher the probability of him getting a correct hit from scraps of details provided by the caller, the project began with a massive information upgrade of the yellow pages database of thousands of business subscribers.
All commercial fixed-network subscribers' data were placed into 14 data fields, such as a merchant's addresses, list of outlets, website, email addresses, phone numbers, operating hours, services offered, payment methods, and other facilities and promotions.
The system also captured information such as the nearest parking lots, valet services and access routes via different forms of transport.
Then, by combining the records with various technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) and location-based services (LBS) systems, a rich picture emerges.
The entire 1288 system melds several disparate technologies to locate the caller, and also identify what merchants are in the caller's area, which are open and the special services they offer. And to make sure that no calls are left unattended, a "call complete" feature tries various means to address the caller's needs. Portions of the technology were provided by Microsoft.
The system taps on information collected by stores, hotels and restaurants that contain geographic or spatial reference, such as a store address or customer zip code captured at the point-of-sale.
The service also uses both the LBS and GIS to get a position on the caller. This positioning function allows the call-center agent to locate merchants in the vicinity of the subscriber. The system then ranks the merchants based on the distance from the caller's position.
And to make sure calls are attended to in the most efficient manner, a "complete call" function can transfer the subscriber to an interactive voice response (IVR) or voice recognition system to provide the information. This also allows agents to concentrate on the more difficult calls.
Via a multimedia message, the system can send information to the subscriber and guide him to the identified merchants that are labeled on an electronic map.
The system also can connect the subscriber to a merchant directly. If the number is busy, the system can try others. This gives the subscriber access to the right information, and opens a potential sales opportunity for the merchant.
Since 1288 was launched, it has resulted in a shorter call handling time for the customer service agent, from 26 seconds per call to 20 seconds, said Dr Chen. It has increased the number of inquiries responded to per agent, from 110 per hour to more than 135.
Over 24,000 merchant advertisers have signed up, and the numbers are increasing by 10% each month.
The service runs from three service centers. During the trial period, 30 customer service agents were able to handle a total of 60,000 customer calls a month.
Judging from its popularity, Chunghwa expects to increase staff strength to more than 600 by next year to cope with the projected one million calls a day.
Dr Chen described how, in the early stages of the project, the team had to spend a lot of effort defining the scope of the system with the aim of making it scalable, feature-rich and robust.
The systems team spent one year integrating the internal integrated content center (ICC) system of Chunghwa Telecom to obtain the latitude and longitude information of merchants. The spatial information would be crucial to the location services, said Dr Chen.
Next, said Dr Chen, the team had to handle the massive volume of data generated by the merchant information upgrade, none of which had ever been collected before.
The data also needed to be relevant.
"Data mining was especially challenging, as the team had to sift through copious amounts of information to evaluate what valuable information should be stored into the ICC," recalled Dr Chen.
Governance was another hurdle. They had to ensure all parties were comfortable with the level of information required while adhering to regulatory, legal, security and privacy standards.
"Chunghwa understood that technology by itself was not the solution; the greatest impact on any business is people, enabled by effective solutions that deliver results," said Dr Chen.
He also believed that by investing in innovation and technology, the company has reaped benefits in operational excellence and customer intimacy.