John Fike is director of the Center for Telecommunications Technology Management in the Texas A&M University department of engineering technology and industrial distribution. Here is his answer:

John Fike
John Fike

Computer telephony integration (CTI) means coordinating a computer with a telephone system, and using the computer (perhaps even a desktop machine) to perform the call control functions usually associated with a PBX or Key System (key systems are sometimes called "six-button telephones"). If your telephone allows you to select the line you want and lights up when in use, it is a key system.

So the computer can answer calls, play recorded messages, re-route calls, recognize incoming callers (using caller ID or similar services) and bring up screens showing callers' accounts, order status or any other information in the database. Then the operator (customer service representative, order taker) can converse with the customer and have all pertinent details at his or her fingertips.

Systems that perform these functions in order-processing centers, reservations centers and so forth are called automatic call distributors," or ACDs. CTI allows less expensive computers to perform many ACD functions, thus opening up the technology to much smaller firms. The places where these activities take place are known as "call centers." When you call an 800, 888 or 877 number to make a reservation, you are calling a call center. Innovations helped create these customer contact centers.

One of the newer trends is to merge Voice (800 calls) and Internet orders into one center. CTI is the natural way to accomplish this goal. Customer contact centers use a range of technologies and services such as websites, fax libraries, computer telephony applications, skills-based routing and interactive voice response (IVR) systems to more effectively automate the process of providing information to callers. Center agents inevitably will spend some time on the telephone with customers. Through effective use of technology, however, time on these calls can be decreased, thus making the agents more productive.

Another way to think about it is CTI gets all of your technological communication devices to talk to each other. This includes your telephone, cell phone, voice mail, pager, fax machine and e-mail program. CTI allows listening to e-mail messages, forwarding e-mail messages to fax machines, responding to e-mail messages with a voice message and forwarding and deleting e-mail messages over the telephone. Ideally, a state-of-the-art CTI system would give you control over your communications environment with easy, single-point access and control. Some more examples of this control include a fax-on-demand program that allows outside parties to dial in and select documents for faxing to their own machines, as well as cellular digital phones with voice messaging and paging services as part of the phone service.

Even the basic telephone needs to be simpler and better integrated. How many of us can set up a conference call without the manual or help from Bobby down the hall? Users must be able to dictate how incoming messages, calls and faxes are handled; which calls should be forwarded to a cellular or home phone when they are out of the office; when e-mail and voice messages should be sent to a pager. CTI brings access to all your media--including an integrated warehouse for all your e-mails, faxes and voice messages--in the form of a global in-box.

Interactive voice response (IVR) systems, for example, will provide methods for a customer to use touch tones on the telephone to steer through a company's personnel directory. Telephone control from the desktop PC includes answering calls or hanging up, transferring, forwarding, conferencing, or placing calls on hold. Integrated telephone and PC features will insure that users always know who is calling, even when they are already on the phone, because all calls show up on their PC screen. Conference calls will be a simple matter of dragging the icons representing different callers on a PC screen onto an existing call icon.

New CTI applications will allow a user to send documents to anyone by initiating faxes and e-mails simultaneously with live conversation, using simple drag-and-drop techniques. They will also enable the PC to notify a pager of incoming e-mail or voice messages. By bringing voice mail to the desktop, users can control voice mail functions via a graphical user interface. In addition, voice messages can be managed like email, with accompanying notes and organizing folders--a great aid for people who receive a lot of daily voice messages. CTI improves your ability to get connected to the people most important to your business success or your personal life.

R. Brough Turner, Chief Technology Officer at Natural MicroSystems in Framingham, Mass. and columnist for CTI Magazine, gives the following definition:

Computer telephony integration, or CTI, has at least two meanings--one rather focused and one more general. In its most common and most focused meaning, it means connecting a general-purpose computer system to a telephone switching system so that programs running on the computer can monitor and control telephone calls that are handled by the telephone switching system. The most common application for this kind of CTI is automating the operations of a group of telephone sales people or customer support agents.

For example, many companies advertise an 800 or "free phone" telephone number for customer service. They employ a group of customer service representatives, or agents, to answer calls and assist their customers. Incoming calls come to a specialized telephone switching system called an Automatic Call Distributor (ACD). The ACD routes calls to free customer service agents so each customer gets answered and the agents share the work load. If a call arrives when all the agents are busy, the ACD plays a recorded announcement and queues the call until someone becomes free. Typically, each agent also has a computer terminal. When they answer a call, the first thing they do is ask for the customer's name. They type this into their terminal so as to find this customer's account in the company's computer database.

With CTI, this lookup can be automated. There is a link between the ACD and the company's computers, plus there is additional software on at least one of the company computers. When a call arrives, the ACD passes a message across the CTI link to the computer, which includes the Caller's ID (the telephone number the call is coming from). The CTI software at the computer end looks up this customer's records using their telephone number as a key into the database. Then, based on that customer's records, the computer may instruct the ACD to transfer the call to a particular agent (for example, an agent that speaks the caller's language or one that has spoken with this caller before). In any event, as the ACD is switching the customer's call to an agent, the computer displays the customer's records on that agent's computer terminal, thus saving many seconds of the agent's and caller's time.

General-purpose computers are flexible tools--much more flexible than the typical telephone switching system. As a result, in most computer telephony integrations, the computer software is in control and it instructs the telephone switching system how to route each call. This flexibility has engendered an entire industry as people are continually thinking of new applications that are possible when they can directly control the routing of telephone calls.

In the narrow or focused meaning we've discussed so far, CTI implies a computer, a telephone switch and a "CTI Link" or connection between the two. When combined with mainframe database access and software to automate a specific company's call center, CTI projects can be quite large and quite expensive. At the other extreme, there are desktop CTI arrangements where the CTI link goes from the desktop telephone to a PC and allows PC phonebook software to automatically place calls when the user clicks on a name on their PC screen.

The term CTI is also used in a more general sense, interchangeably with the words "computer telephony" to refer to any kind of computer-mediated telephony. This definition includes cases where the computer doesn't have a "CTI Link," but merely answers a telephone call and then transfers the call by simulating what a human does to transfer calls. And it includes cases in which the telephone switching function is done by extra components inside the general-purpose computer.