Service And Reducing Costs With The IP-Based Virtual Call Center
By Steve Kaish, CosmoCom
As businesses worldwide struggle
with a lackluster economy, intensified competition and the tentative buying
habits of customers, a new mantra is sounding: 'It's all about the
customer.' Companies have experienced first-hand that excellent service
attracts and, most importantly, retains customers. As a result, customer
service excellence has joined cost reduction and new revenue-generating
services at the top of their list of winning business strategies. It's not
simply the strategy du jour. An Information Week study in late 2003
indicated 90 percent of surveyed managers said that improving customer
service is a primary concern. Major telecommunications companies are putting
their money where their mouths are, with BusinessWeek Online estimating that
$5 billion was spent on call center and billing-related technology in 2003.
Call Center Priorities To Meet The Challenge
Now the heat is on for call center managers to deliver the customer service
excellence strategy. They are challenged to increase customer satisfaction
and reduce costs, while still managing complex day-to-day operations. To
meet this challenge, most organizations have identified the following as the
' Move offshore as much as possible. According to a study by Deloitte and
Touche, by 2008 telecom will outsource 275,000 jobs offshore, many of them
call center agent positions. Datamonitor predicts that 43 percent of
financial services agent positions will move offshore by 2007.
' Transform multiple standalone operations, including offshore operations,
into a single virtual call center for maximum efficiency, consistency and
' Reduce the application integration backlog that slows down agents and
' Provide unified, universal customer access via telephone, e-mail and
Internet to open less costly or more convenient interaction channels, while
preserving quality and consistency across all.
The primary theme of this article is to explore the benefits of
virtualization. An IP-based virtual call center addresses all of these
priorities, helping call center managers achieve their complex goals and
deliver service excellence. In the above list of four priorities,
virtualization is only one. But as we will see, virtualization actually
touches on all four of these major themes.
Virtualizing The Call Center
Creating a virtual call center is one of the most effective ways to
accomplish both of the seemingly contradictory objectives of service
improvement and cost reduction. With a virtual call center, an
organization's agents can be located in multiple locations while managed and
utilized as a single entity. As a result, staffing resources are optimized
and experts are available to any caller via location-independent
skills-based routing. Also, the mergers and reorganizations that are so
common today are less painful and costly on an enterprise's call centers
with a virtual call center infrastructure in place.
The virtual call center model also assists with employee retention and
satisfaction, thereby reducing recruitment and training costs. Using this
model, it's not uncommon for an organization's employee turnover to decrease
by 80 percent or more within one year after moving to a virtual call center.
Furthermore, 90 percent fewer calls are escalated, and as many as 30 percent
more inquiry calls can be converted to orders. The virtual call center
clearly benefits management, but it also benefits agents. Because calls are
disseminated among the entire pool of agents, rather than to geographically
specific ones, the workload is more equitably distributed, resulting in more
manageable workloads. Additionally, busy signals and wait times are reduced,
tending to decrease the caller negativity that can wear down even the best
But virtualization itself requires an investment that must be justified.
Virtualization is more cost-effective and easier to justify with the
inherently virtual IP-based architecture than with any other technology.
It's also easier to deploy because IP is based on software that runs on
commodity servers and workstations, and the only equipment an agent requires
is a standard PC, headset and Internet connectivity. As a result, IP-based
solutions are affordable, and fast-deploying virtual call centers, in which
multiple agent locations, agents at home, even follow-the-sun agents, are
all managed and utilized as parts of a single system image.
Virtualization And Offshore Outsourcing
Perhaps the most powerful example of the need for virtual call centers is
the trend to outsourcing agents offshore ' which, according Deloitte and
Touche, will be further fueled as more data-oriented services are offered.
This study also indicated that while the cost reduction opportunity was
significant ' with early adopters reporting initial savings of 20 to 30
percent ' it also raised significant concerns regarding control loss and
operational complexity. Creating virtual call centers with IP mitigates
these concerns because it enables managers to retain complete operational
visibility and control of activity across the globe via Web-based
administrative and reporting tools. It also allows agents to be located
anywhere, while still providing 100 percent feature functionality, including
PSTN voice, and enables seamless call routing within global organizations.
Customers can reach the most cost-effective and appropriately skilled agent
without losing access to onshore specialists, when needed.
Most call center agents interact with multiple legacy applications. For
example, telecommunications agents face an average of seven different legacy
applications, and for some it's as high as 15. This situation translates
directly into cost factors: agent time for navigation; training time and
cost; agent churn and the cost of the inevitable errors in lower customer
satisfaction. But progress to overcome this challenge is slow because of the
high cost of integration with legacy call center technologies.
IP solutions often take a unified approach, incorporating ACD, IVR, CTI,
multimedia recording, predictive dialing and administrative tools onto a
single platform. This automatically eliminates a significant amount of
custom integration. For multisite contact centers, it also eliminates the
need to acquire and maintain duplicate equipment. Furthermore, IP-based
solutions often include integration tools based on open standards, which are
easier to use, quicker to implement and less costly to maintain when
compared to CTI.
Where does virtualization come into the application integration picture?
With virtualization, you integrate once for all locations. This can be an
enormous source of savings.
As organizations provide more messaging services and Web-based customer self
service, it becomes increasingly important to transform the call center into
a contact center ' one that supports every contact channel in a unified way
to maximize productivity, minimize response time and provide customer
interaction history across all channels. IP-based solutions facilitate this,
as all channels can be accommodated through the IP architecture. All
interactions can be tracked in a unified way, CRM screen pops can look the
same for all channels and customer interaction history and agent reports can
include them all.
Consider, for example, a company that serves millions of customers via
hundreds of agents in four different locations that have always operated as
independent contact centers. Direct employees might staff some of these
locations, and outsourcers might manage the other two. Each contact center
houses and manages its own ACD with its own queuing patterns, routing rules,
administrative tools and reporting. Therefore, any change would require four
separate adjustments to four different systems by four different people who
might be operating in four different conceptual paradigms. This alone makes
the environment inefficient and error-prone. Furthermore, with four separate
systems, the cost of obtaining reports on the entire operation is
prohibitive. This company would have no way to monitor its outsourcers'
operations beyond a few periodic summary reports.
Adding to these inefficiencies is the fragmented way in which the
organization handles different contact types. The call center might use
three channels to communicate with customers: telephone, e-mail and fax.
Each channel is handled and tracked separately. For example, e-mail may come
to a single mailbox shared by all agents. Fax is a completely paper-based
process: time-consuming and prone to error. The company may, for example,
wish to add Web chat to the mix in the near future but is reluctant to
fragment the situation further.
In addition to an ACD, the company's headquarters houses two CRM systems:
one from a third party and one developed internally. To enhance customer
service, the company may want to integrate the CRM systems with the call
center systems, providing screen pops of customer data based upon
information from both the incoming call and the IVR. The organization begins
integration within the headquarters location, but after six months of work,
integration between the ACD and CRM system is still working inconsistently.
This company needs a solution that will streamline its customer care
organization into a unified, coherent virtual contact center that operates
through a single back-office integration, uses the same business processes
across all locations and enables monitoring and management of any agent in
any location. The company may also wish to channel all customer contacts,
regardless of type, into a single queue, automate the e-mail and fax
processes and enable chat as part of a new, unified paradigm. Finally, the
company needs to reduce agent talk-time by providing screen pop integration
with third-party and proprietary CRM systems.
A company with these issues might choose a unified IP contact center suite
that includes multichannel ACD, e-mail response, IVR, CTI, predictive
dialing, multimedia recording and administrative tools.
Since an all-IP platform frees call centers from physical constraints, the
company is better able to create a virtual call center with multiple
locations managed and operated as a single entity. The four physical call
centers, including the outsourced operations, can serve one set of queues
and use the same business rules. Administrative tools enable the staff to
configure and manage the virtual contact center, including any changes to
personnel, skills, queues and groups. Changes can be made on-the-fly to
quickly respond to the changing environment.
Managers can share administrative
functions with the outsourcing partners and have access to real-time and
historical features that reflect activity across all locations, both
features available regardless of the outsourcer's location.
Multichannel capabilities allow the company to handle all customer contacts,
regardless of type, through one system. The platform can support all current
channels, as well as chat, and can track all in one system with universal
queuing. E-mail can be distributed directly to the desktop, rather than to a
shared mailbox, helping create greater efficiency and reduce response time.
Faxes can arrive in electronic form, allowing agents to respond from their
desktop rather than a physical fax machine, also replacing paper archives
with electronic storage.
The organization can integrate its third-party and proprietary CRM systems
to the contact center system. The IP solution can simplify this
traditionally expensive and time-consuming process for two reasons. First,
much of the functionality that must be done as custom integration in a
premises-based environment is built into the platform. Second, the solution
can include an out-of-the-box integration enabler for packaging the solution
with both out-of-the-box and homegrown CRM applications. Using this tool,
the company will be better positioned to integrate both CRM systems in a few
hours, creating a screen pop based upon information collected from both the
incoming call and the IVR.
An IP-based contact center platform can enable this company to transform its
multiple operations into a single virtual call center. A solution of this
type can support all required contact channels in a unified way and
streamline the e-mail and fax processes. Finally, the company is able to
more easily integrate both of its CRM systems with the solution and deliver
an informative screen pop to the agent's desktop. As a result, the company
can improve efficiency and control, increase agent productivity and enhance
An IP-based virtual call center helps call center managers reduce costs and
increase customer satisfaction by addressing their four major priorities, as
' Multisite call centers, including outsourced and offshore locations, can
be managed and utilized as a single entity with unified queues, routing
rules, administration and reporting, maximizing efficiency and enhancing
' Such systems are affordable and easy to deploy, allowing call center
managers to more rapidly take advantage of offshore outsourcing.
' Integration is done once for all locations, which can significantly reduce
' IP-based solutions facilitate support of all contact channels in a unified
way to maximize agent productivity and minimize response time.
As a result, call center managers are able to achieve their complex goals
and deliver the customer service excellence strategy.
Steve Kaish, CosmoCom's vice president of sales, Americas and Japan, has
extensive business and technical leadership experience in the
telecommunications industry. Prior to joining CosmoCom, he was Telcordia's
director of product management for the industry's first production Class 5
softswitch. Prior to Telcordia, Kaish managed a number of architecture teams
launching innovative service offerings at AT&T's Bell Laboratories,
including the AT&T WorldNet Internet access service, as well as AT&T's first
network-based call center service.
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