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Call Center/CRM Management Scope
October 2004


Remote Agents: The Challenges Of Virtual And Distributed Contact Centers

By John Kim, Five9

With the growing trend of agents working from home and the consolidation of several disparate locations managed as one 'virtual' enterprise, the technical challenges of setting up and maintaining such a contact center model can become overwhelming over time. Fortunately, many of these potential pitfalls can be avoided with proper planning and due diligence before the virtual contact center's launch. Now is the time to become familiar with some of the benefits of going 'virtual' ' technology and connectivity options for remote contact centers and agents, elements of PSTN versus VoIP for agent connectivity and security issues with both technology and agent management.

Benefits Of Going Virtual
Much has been written about the benefits of virtual agents and distributed contact centers, and the pros and cons of this model are well reported. To summarize the various findings, there is validation on many fronts about the real cost benefits of centralized management for multiple location enterprises, service and productivity levels of the workforce, as well as reducing overhead operating costs. In addition, there are other benefits seen with distributed workforces, such as improved security and reduced agent turnover.

Technology Platform Options
Fortunately for contact centers, there are a variety of options for those who are migrating to a distributed or virtual way of doing business. De-pending upon budgetary requirements, one can decide to subscribe to a hosted service (often called an ASP) or purchase a premise-based system.


Hosted systems allow annuity-based payments for a contact center infrastructure and do not require any hardware or software. Maintenance of hardware is typically conducted by the hosted vendor ASP (application service provider), and many now provide round-the-clock support, which is especially critical for inbound and help desk contact centers as well as outsourcers. There are two types of contact center ASPs emerging: those that offer their services over the PSTN and those that offer them via VoIP.


While ideal for virtual agents and multi-location centers, the ASP model does place a contact center's information outside of the firewall and at the premises of the vendor; therefore, due diligence on the security of the ASP platform must be done. It is interesting to note, however, that there are some IT managers who refuse to employ a hosted system out of fear of putting their sensitive data outside of their premises. Yet many of the largest financial institutions have been doing it for years, safely and securely, using services from companies such as ADP. The truth is, a hosted ASP can offer better security mechanisms than many small and medium-sized businesses can afford or want to afford ' only if the network planning and set-up is done correctly.

 

For premise-based systems, many vendors now offer a migration path to a VoIP platform on their current PSTN-based systems. Other vendors have built VoIP systems from the ground up, and these systems can, like hosted products, offer excellent support for virtual agents and distributed centers. Although the cost of premise-based IP contact center systems may be higher than that of traditional TDM-based systems, numerous studies and articles published in this magazine and elsewhere have shown that the ROI on premise-based IP systems is considerably faster than premise- and TDM-based systems. Premise-based IP systems require the skills of a knowledgeable network engineer prior to the hardware and software installation. Fortunately, many premise-based vendors offer professional services divisions that can accommodate such needs.

Connectivity Options And Costs
Once the choice to move to a virtual agent or centralized management model has been made and the corresponding technology platform atop of which to ride has been selected, the next technical decision should be whether to ride atop a PSTN or VoIP network. Depending upon the scenario of a business' distribution schema, this decision can have a significant impact on the bottom line.


For a virtual agent workforce that is going to be located within a local calling area, the PSTN option may be the most cost-effective, as there is the possibility that the call from the data center (where the call control servers are located) to the remote agent may be free of per-minute toll fees. If the agents or other contact center locations are spread out in areas that are not completely local to the data center, then going VoIP is the most cost-effective option because it eliminates 'double-leg billing,' the term used when a contact center in essence incurs double the long-distance charges ' one from the data center to the virtual agent/remote contact center and one from the data center itself to the customer.


It has often been said that unless one is passing a significant amount of voice calls between branches of an enterprise, VoIP does not offer significant cost savings on long-distance charges. This may be true in a strictly PBX-reliant enterprise or a single-location contact center model, but in the virtual or distributed environment, third-party verifications between agents and locations, double-leg billing between data centers and virtual agents, and the wholesale buying power of hosted ASPs (application service providers) can offer significant reductions in long-distance bills ' especially for small to medium-sized enterprises.


What is the wholesale buying power of ASPs? Because some ASPs aggregate many contact center customers into one bill that they, in turn, pay to their own carrier, a decent-sized ASP that has many customers can obtain wholesale long-distance rates that would normally not be accessible to contact centers with less than 100 agent seats. Some of the larger ASPs pass off the cost of their wholesale rates to even their smallest customers as part of the monthly service plan, allowing many of their customers to save anywhere from 10 percent to 60 percent on their long-distance bills. Obviously, the smaller the contact center, the higher the long-distance rates one would normally pay to a carrier, magnifying the savings these types of centers get by moving to such a hosted ASP.

Security
When setting up any distributed workforce, especially over an IP network, security must be addressed. Agents handling sensitive information, such as social security numbers, account numbers or credit card information, are all potential victims of the numerous types of security breaches prevalent in our digital age. Even remote workforces riding atop PSTN networks face this issue, for often such sensitive information is not only iterated over the phone but entered into CRM applications that pass these data over the Internet. Therefore, whether on PSTN or VoIP, security must be addressed.


Ever wonder about the plethora of 'free' programs to download on the Internet? Why on earth would someone spend all that time to create a software program only to give it away? Many do it for benevolent purposes. But some of these programs secretly install software, commonly called 'spyware,' that can do anything from install viruses, to record every keystroke entered on a user's computer. This is not exactly comforting to a business that has remote agents handling credit card information from their homes. So the first step in the security process is to run an anti-spyware program on every agent's computer. A number of low-cost, high-quality products are available that can detect if someone has secretly installed harmful software ' and then remove it for you.


The next security measure for the distributed or virtual contact center is the firewall. Although Windows XP does come with some firewall features, it is always a good idea to invest a little bit of money for a hardware-based switch/router combination that comes with built-in firewalls. Although not completely true across the board, hardware-based firewalls tend to be a bit more robust than software-based ones at the lower end of the price scale. Do not rely on the small router that is provided to remote agents by their local ISP! Spend a little bit extra now and avoid a potential disaster later.


In addition, make sure the latest virus scan software is loaded onto each remote agent's computer and that it is either a subscription-based service (in which case it is updated automatically) or one that comes with consistent updates.
VPNs, or virtual private networks, are an added measure of security. While they do take up a bit more bandwidth, they can offer an added level of protection that can keep most ill-intentioned hackers out. There are numerous low-cost options for VPNs today, and whichever product you choose, ensure that it has triple DES security.


Finally, it never ceases to amaze that more often than not, security leaks come not from improper management of technology, but from a contact center agent who has decided to run off with credit card or Social Security numbers ' surprisingly, more from on-premise contact centers, as opposed to distributed centers with remote agents. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that there are far more on-premise contact centers, or that those who employ a remote model have less security threats, due to lower agent turnover. If the latter is true, it would be yet another benefit of moving to a distributed model where high-caliber agents who stay in the business for substantially longer than the industry average provide not only a higher level of service and cost-effectiveness, but they also provide an added measure of security as well.

Redundancy
For those centers that have decided to embrace the cost and productivity benefits of IP, the two different scenarios for distributed contact centers are, a) when on-premise contact centers in different geographic locations are managed as one entity, and b) when the agents themselves are working remotely from home offices. For multiple location centers, it makes sense to have redundant carriers at each location for fail-over purposes when going IP. For remote agents working from home offices, this may not be possible because there may be only one carrier available to a particular home. In this instance, an analog PSTN line can act as the fail-over voice line; however, no data connection will be present, so this must be taken into consideration as a risk factor when moving to a model in which a majority of a center's agents work remotely from their homes.

Overcoming The Challenges Has Big Pay-Offs
While there certainly are technical hurdles as well as security and fail-over elements to consider when moving to a distributed model, proper planning and due diligence before the virtual contact center's launch can help any 'virtual' enterprise avoid the pitfalls. As many contact centers have experienced, the benefits in terms of lower costs, higher productivity and improved security far outweigh the initial investments. As further evidence of this, it's not uncommon to hear about businesses that have outsourced offshore and subsequently decided to bring back their contracts to domestic outsourcers or bring the contact center back in-house. In contrast, very few businesses that have adopted a virtual or distributed model abandon this way of doing business in favor of reverting back to a purely on-premise enterprise.

John Kim is the founder and chief evangelist of Five9 (www.five9.com), a provider of hosted VoIP contact center systems.
 

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