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May 1999


The Uncentered Call Center: Building Distributed Or Virtual Call Centers With CTI And Internet Telephony

BY TERRI GHIO, COSMOCOM

When you fantasize about the call center of your dreams, what does it look like? Is it a physical location or more of a concept? Do you imagine sufficient parking -- or no need for parking at all? Do you see rows and rows of headsets, all in simultaneous use -- or a large map studded with headset-shaped push pins?

If your imagination runs more toward the latter concept, your ideas are not as fantastic as you may think. The call center of your dreams is a virtual call center. If your dreams include the former concept, but include several locations working in synchronicity, you are envisioning a distributed call center. While there are many similarities between the two, they are not the same thing. Although, as neither is a single central operation, they are both "uncentered"; that is, call centers without "centers."

  • A distributed call center uses network-based routing to connect disparate locations. These multiple call center sites are then managed as a single entity with universal call transferability. This concept may consist of many small centers or a few large centers, according to a company's needs.
  • A virtual call center uses location-independent agents who telecommute from individual locations such as their homes. In a virtual call center, agents can work anywhere there is a Web-enabled PC and a headset, and supervisors can monitor these agents' productivity and efficiency just as well as agents in any other call center.

Just as the physical set-up of both types of call centers differs, so do the advantages. The issues that might motivate you to consider a distributed call center include:

  • Load sharing. You can redistribute calls from a busy call center to less harried agents at a center that is having a slower day -- and reverse the flow on the next day.
  • Redundancy and back-up. If there is a flood or a power failure, or a server goes down, the calls intended for the affected center can be transferred to another center without the need for callers to be aware of the situation.
  • Skills allocation. You can shift calls from one location to another on the basis of "skills required versus skills available." If a call requiring a certain type of expert comes into a call center where all those experts are busy (or there are none), the call can be seamlessly transferred to an available expert anywhere in the organization.

The advantages of a virtual call center can go steps further than those listed above:

  • Facility cost savings. People who work from home do not require parking lots, restrooms or lunchrooms; in fact, they do not need buildings at all. As a result, a virtual call center eliminates the need for maintenance staff for snow removal, cleaning, landscaping, etc.
  • Expansion of labor pool. There are many people who would make great call center agents; however, they only want to work part-time, cannot travel to the office or want a more flexible schedule. When companies can offer the work-at-home option, they have a much deeper labor pool from which to draw hires.
  • Piecework compensation. People who work from home need not be compensated in the same way employees who travel to a central facility for X number of hours per day. The law allows employers to compensate these workers for piecework -- a certain amount of money for each call they handle. In addition, the benefits savings are enormous for workers who are not full-time employees.
  • Specialization. With a virtual call center, companies can provide callers access to experts of all types. By allowing everyone to be an "agent," companies can assure their customers that they will always have the information they need, when they need it. Even if a particular "agent" is only called into action once a week or once a month.
  • Increased morale and motivation. This is especially true for "technology" people who might be specialized agents or flex-time workers and who often require special attention within an organization. With this approach, companies can meet their needs without upsetting the equilibrium of the entire call center.

In both cases, companies can eliminate the need for overtime by moving the calls with the time zones. If all inbound calls after 5:00 p.m. EST are handled by a Midwest call center (or Midwest location-independent agents), East Coast operators can go home on time. The switch occurs again for the West Coast and, if a company operates internationally, it can keep moving west until it gets back to the eastern U.S. without ever having to pay extra for a night shift.

Following is a more in-depth explanation:

Let's begin with the call center (the group of agents together). The first difference is not immediately apparent. There are computers and headphones. What you may not notice right away is there are no phones. The agent has only one appliance -- a networked PC. The headphone is connected to the PC and all the information the CSR requires is provided via "screen pops" or text and graphic information blocks that pop up every time a call comes in. These screen pops tell the agent who is calling, what the call is about, what type of call it is (PSTN, voice-over IP, chat or a message) and display whatever historical information the center's database has on the customer. This subtle change affords myriad advantages to all types of call centers.

Staying inside the call center (regardless of what it looks like), let's look at the servers. There is a virtual ACD, housed in a PC, for automatic distribution of calls. The ACD (automatic call distributor) is the brains of the virtual call center. (In the interest of brevity, I will be using this term to cover all IP-based call centers for the remainder of this explanation.) The ACD collects all incoming communications and, using its inherent intelligence, places them into orderly queues and routes them to the appropriate agent based on the priorities, skills and other factors the call center requires.

There are also Internet, message and telephone connection servers. In a small virtual call center, these can be housed in one PC. The architecture scales well and in a larger configuration, there can be separate servers, as shown in Figure 1. The number of incoming communications determines the hardware configuration. These servers collect the Internet (voice-over IP and chat) calls, the telephony (PSTN) calls and the messages (voice and e-mail) and route them to the ACD for queuing and distribution.

In a traditional packet-switched telephony-based call center, calls come in and are connected in a direct connection between caller and agent. This is a point-to-point connection and one agent can only have one call at a time -- other callers hear busy signals or are placed in a holding pattern. It is very difficult to get any information from one of these calls to the agent. To make the PSTN call "talk" to the call center's computer system, a complex system of CTI (computer-telephony integration) must be jerryrigged to enable two inherently incompatible systems to communicate.

Unlike some CTI systems which convert all incoming calls to telephony calls (thus eliminating all the advantages of the multimedia-rich Internet environment, the opportunity for computer-to-computer collaboration and the change for agent-led browsing), a true virtual IP multimedia ACD converts all incoming PSTN calls to Internet calls. This allows the agent to access the screen pops, knowledge base, skills-based routing options and location independence offered to Internet-protocol (IP) calls, even when the incoming communication is a telephony-based (PSTN) call.

Now let's consider the VPN (virtual private network). If the ACD is the brains of the operation, the VPN is the heart. It is there (even though in reality, no "there" exists) that all the calls are circulated. When a call comes into a virtual call center, whether it is from a telephone caller, Internet caller with multimedia capabilities (voice-over IP) or Internet caller using the chat in real-time option, it passes through the appropriate server (or gateway). The call enters the VPN and passes through the ACD to be queued, routed and distributed through the VPN to the appropriate agent, who may be located in the next room, the next state or the next time zone.

Now that we have covered the virtual call center's operations from the inside, let's consider the operation from a human perspective. If you were an agent in this call center, your experience might look something like this:

1) You log onto your computer, put on your headset and immediately receive your first call. A screen pop informs you that this is a PSTN call and gives you the caller's name and the nature of the call. It has gleaned this information from the customer's responses to IVR prompts, combined with what the CRM (customer relationship management) software has mined from the call center's database.

2) You speak into your headset, addressing this valuable repeat customer by name and offering assistance with her specific concern.

3) While you are speaking with Caller A, a new screen pop informs you that an Internet-based call is coming in. You click on the call service button and type a greeting.

4) The Internet-based caller (Caller B) receives your personalized greeting, complete with your name and photo, and expresses surprise that you know not only his name but what is in his shopping cart and the item he was looking at on the Web site when he called.

5) You complete your conversation with Caller A by transferring her to a specialist in another city. You are confident that the information you added to her record during your conversation will arrive with the transferred call and this valued customer will be given the personalized treatment she requires, without her having to repeat information to another agent.

6) You ask Caller B if he wants to escalate from chat to voice-over IP. He does, and you click on the escalate button on your screen. Now you are speaking to him on your headset while viewing his information on your screen.

7) You suggest that there is a better quality item available for only a small price differential. He is skeptical, but you click on the "push URL" button on your screen and provide him with an explanation about the picture and description he now sees on his screen.

8) Before closing the sale, you check your database for this caller and find out that he is entitled, as a first-time customer, to a special shipping rate on orders that total only slightly more than the order he has just placed. You mention this to him, while sending him a picture of an accessory for the product he just purchased. The total will now put him over the spending mark for the discount.

9) He asks you to put this item in his shopping cart and you push him a copy of his final invoice and complete the transaction.

All the circuit switching, the queuing, the call routing for skills and availability and the transfer to the needed expert are transparent to the caller. It does not matter if the caller is placing a PSTN call or an Internet-based call; the amount of information about the contact and the level of customer service remain equally high.

As you can see, whether your fancy runs to connecting several disparate call centers into one distributed IP call center operation or connecting scattered individual agents into a virtual call center, the advantages are numerous and the technology is currently available to make your call center dreams reality.

Terri Ghio, CosmoCom's vice president of sales, is responsible for sales strategy and management of the company's sales team. She has over 20 years of sales experience and a successful track record for building winning sales teams and selling high-end IT products. Her expertise includes both brick and mortar and electronic retailing and the transition from one to the other, as well as selling on the Internet, merchandise planning for the Internet, Web-based customer service, transitioning CSRs from telephone to Internet sales and customer support, maximizing agent productivity and developing customer loyalty.


A Network-Leveraged Future For Call Center Services

BY JAMES SWINGER, LUCENT TECHNOLOGIES

Network leveraging is one of today's most exciting developments in the application of IN (information network) technology, enhancing the solutions that network service providers (NSPs) can offer to solve some of the toughest problems faced by enterprise call centers.

Network leveraging extends the virtual call center concept by making the capability available from NSPs as a service, eliminating the need for premises-based call-by-call routers and reducing the need for other premises-based systems such as IVRs. Network resources are used for multiple enterprises and as needed to facilitate dynamic call-by-call routing to the most appropriate available call center agent. This is the wave of the future in NSP call center services and it is a wave that is already breaking over the enterprise telecommunications operations market. International Data Corporation (IDC) projects that the market for network-leveraged call center services, which IDC refers to as NSP-managed call center services, will grow from $591 million in 1998 to $6.03 billion by 2001 in the U.S. and Canada alone.

The network-leveraging phenomenon is an international trend, important not just in North America, but also in numerous international call center markets such as those in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. This market segment has become very active in the past year, as some NSPs abroad have increased their offerings of network-leveraged services to customers. Other NSPs are showing a great deal of interest, as well.

Problems And Solutions
Although premises-based virtual call center solutions are readily available today, the added investment in the sophisticated technology needed for a premises-based virtual call center exceeds the budgets of all but the largest enterprise call centers. As a result, call processing at many enterprise call centers is still done on a post-call-delivery basis; that is, routing of calls among multiple sites is done primarily on-premises by transfer after the call has already been completed from the network to the enterprise. Because the call is delivered to the premises before the most appropriate available agent has been determined, premises-based resources are used in making that determination.

With access to virtual call center technology through a NSP, enterprises can reduce the need for intersite trunks among multiple call center sites because calls can be routed more accurately on the first try. This is important in an industry where multiple-site call centers are a growing trend.

In the network-leveraged future of call processing for call centers, the steps of collecting information, accessing relevant enterprise data, routing the call to the most appropriate available agent, etc., will be done dynamically, call-by-call, within the network before the call reaches the enterprise. Caller-related data from enterprise databases that is needed to route the call to the most appropriate agent can be stored by the NSP in the network. NSP intelligent peripheral resources can be used as needed for IVR to collect caller-entered digits, offsetting the need for IVR units on the call center premises.

In addition, with network-based call-by-call routing, the enterprise expense for actual service and connect time is reduced. The network does not route the call to the premises until after digits have been collected from the caller, caller-related data has been accessed and the most appropriate available agent has been selected. If an agent is not immediately available, the call can be queued in the network until one becomes available.

A New Revenue And Service Opportunity
It is a new revenue and service opportunity for NSPs, a way of enhancing their intelligent network-based, advanced 800/888 service to make it even more attractive to enterprises that use call centers -- especially those enterprises that are more geographically dispersed. It also makes call center technology more affordable and less risky for a wider range of companies. It can lower the on-premises equipment investment threshold for call centers and provides them with NSP technical support. Smaller call centers, or small- or medium-sized companies, often have difficulty in affording on-premises equipment. The cost/benefit equation can be no less daunting for large call centers that want to expand to smaller or medium-sized locations. With a network-leveraged solution, however, companies can simply subscribe to the service from the NSP.

We envision this capability allowing call centers to be expanded by making greater use of home-based agents, or those based in small offices of three or four people. This seems to be what call center managers are looking for nowadays as a better way to manage the cost of the overall service operation.

Technology And Market
The rise of network leveraging is a story of both technology and market. The virtual call center solutions prevalent today are based overwhelmingly on on-premises equipment that interacts with network-based services using a NSP-specific, basic query-response protocol. At Lucent, we are working with industry partners who are now offering systems that work in the carrier network as adjuncts to service control points (SCPs) through a mediated access arrangement. The systems are designed to support multiple enterprise customers from the same platform, to use network rather than premises resources in selecting and determining the availability of the agent most suitable for each call and to designate to the SCP the network routing number that will connect the call to the agent.

NSPs and both network- and premises-systems suppliers must partner in providing network-leveraged call center services beyond what may have been traditional in the past. This network-oriented solution requires a merger of different technologies. Enterprise call centers will be best served by a cooperative relationship among NSPs and systems suppliers.

Changes set in motion by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 are leading to greater competition in NSP markets. This is already becoming the case in the local exchange services market and might be the case soon in the long-distance services market, especially for in-region, inter-LATA long-distance calling, where regional Bell operating companies are expected to have regulatory permission to operate in the future.

Network leveraging is an exciting new solution for the enterprise call center market, and more NSPs are either offering or planning to offer this service. In February 1999, for example, Sprint announced an agreement that allows it to become the first U.S. NSP to deploy the GeoTel Network Intelligent CallRouter as an adjunct to the proprietary Sprint intelligent network to offer a fully managed, network-based solution. At about the same time, Genesys announced that Primeco had selected the company to provide network-based, advanced call center products for the Primeco network, including the Interaction Router with network interface option. In Europe, BT and France Telecom have also announced the availability of network-based, call center solutions linked with their own INs.

In this environment, NSPs are increasingly recognizing a need to compete by offering value-added services that enhance their ability to attract and retain enterprise call center customers. Lucent's response has been to offer a commercially available, IN-based solution for NSPs that want to compete without having to invest in their own proprietary development.

Provisioning
Provisioning is an important factor. One reason call center managers build their call-processing systems on-premises is that they want to have direct control over them. A natural concern among these managers is that in moving to the network, they might lose control over important functions.

To address this concern, look for a vendor whose IN platform and service packages provide the network with a secure, PC-based graphic user interface that allows the enterprise to specify those same functions to the network elements providing the service. Call center managers can specify the routing decision trees to be created to their specifications from a pallet of decision nodes and store those in the network for their use. They can similarly specify their premises routing scripts and skills-based, call-handling strategies. The PC-based graphic interface allows for the provision of plans to handle emergencies and other exceptional conditions; if a call center loses power due to weather, for example, that call center could be eliminated from the routing plan and calls routed to other available call centers.

These advantages are achieved through IN capabilities. Rather than being limited by a fixed set of options, as call center managers might fear, they will have the same level of control -- if not more -- in using the network elements.

Market Drivers
Many forces are driving the rise of network-leveraged call center services. Call centers are growing in strategic importance to all enterprises, and network-leveraged services especially match the competitive needs of small- and medium-sized companies. They will appeal also to enterprises affected by changes such as corporate restructuring, mergers or acquisitions. If companies are merging, for example, network leveraging will provide an opportunity to blend together diverse call centers into a single virtual call center with a smooth transition and a reduction in overall costs.

Network leveraging meshes well with the current trend toward reengineering enterprise telecommunications operations based on integration of voice and data communications, and with the need to accommodate the complexity of managing voice and data integration amidst the uncertainties of technological evolution. Network leveraging is evolving as well, with such future developments as support for Internet protocol (IP) telephony, voice-over-IP and IP client sessions, as well as fax and e-mail. With all these media, call centers still have the same problem of routing to the most appropriate agent. They need a comprehensive set of strategies to handle all of the media efficiently and effectively.

Perhaps most important, now and in the future, network-leveraged call center services can enhance the ability of enterprises to focus resources on core business rather than on infrastructure, and to build improved customer relationships.

James Swinger is product marketing manager for Intelligent Network (IN) products at Lucent Technologies' Communications Software Group.







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