This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Customer Inter@ction Solutions
If you had walked into a contact center five years ago, chances are that you would have seen agents sitting at workstations with PCs, phones next to the monitors and wearing corded headsets with supervisors listening in from their posts: perhaps on raised turrets overlooking the call floors.
Today those desktop phones are disappearing, being replaced by applications running on agents’ PCs while coaches and managers walk around to their cubes and pods, listening in and interjecting their advice via wireless sets.
Not too far from now, the PCs will be gone too, with the information transmitted to agents on thin-client applications housed on specialized appliances or stripped down computers, fed by virtualized servers situated either per-premise or on corporate one-to-all sites’ boxes or by suppliers’ or third-party-hosted software.
This is the contact center endpoint evolution, driven by technology advances and productivity needs. And almost every contact center is at some point on it.
Nick Eisner, director, global product management-corded professional products at Plantronics (News - Alert) has seen some of the future at a large financial services corporation’s Manila, Philippines contact center on a recent visit. He saw the agents wearing corded headsets plugged into the Ethernet with all of the voice and data processing being done in the cloud.
“[What is driving this evolution] is the happy marriage of customer service with efficient low-cost desktops, enabled by the introduction of VoIP infrastructures,” explains Eisner.
Hearing the Evolution
The symbol of contact center endpoints: the headset is changing to reflect the evolution of contact centers from cost to profit centers where excellent service is not just “a nice-to-have” but is central to business strategies as the key tool in retaining invaluable customers. Service that can make the difference between making them fans who praise firms they do business with on Facebook (News - Alert) and TripAdvisor, and with this keeping and growing sales: and losing them and others by seeing them write angry posts for their followers and the world to see, and talk about.
The smart firms that get it are spending more to recruit, train and retain the best staff and are equipping them with better quality headsets that minimize painful and attention-requiring neck injuries and reduce harmful acoustic startle and listening fatigue. Continued enhancements in digital signal processing (DSP) algorithms optimize intelligibility of audio stream, relieve strain on agents, boost the effectiveness and accuracy of information exchange, “and improve the experiences for the customers,” reports Eisner.
The Plantronics’ director also points that Australian and European countries’ laws protect employees against high noise volumes based on amount of time while exposed, which have required headset manufacturers like his firm to develop products that step down the volume during the work period. At the same time litigation and fears of the same in the U.S. are prompting employers to look for those sets that can cut down on spinal injuries.
Bottom line: investing in high-quality top-performing headsets that enable agents to carry out their tasks more comfortably and effectively without pain and discomfort pays off in improved productivity, shrunken costly turnover, reduced healthcare outlays and avoided legal expenses.
“If contact centers have invested in a considerable amount of training in an agent they certainly don’t want to face the 50 percent turnover rates that used to be fairly standard in the industry,” explains Eisner. “That means contact centers must be more willing to invest in the comfort and efficiency of their agents via the headsets. And with every repetition and every ‘I’m sorry’ mistake in data entry adding to the costs it is absolutely crucial then that agents be able to hear every single word as clearly as possible.”
One of most visual changes with headsets is the advent and spread of wireless models. They look and are cool as well as provide employee workplace mobility. Thanks to DECT (1.9GHz) technology that have been incorporated into many models, staff now have ranges up to 300 feet from the bases compared with 33 feet for Bluetooth and 100-150 feet provided by older 900 MHz and 2.4GHz -based units. DECT also uses different frequency from wireless data networks, which avoids interference from and with them.
Yet should contact centers adopt wireless sets? The general consensus is yes for supervisors who need to move around the call floors to talk with agents, into conference rooms and offices for meetings and training rooms to check on and chat with existing and new staff. Yes also for agents carrying out specialized functions such as in-center and field support or for frequent collaborating with colleagues and customers face-to-face. No though for agents who do not need to leave their workstations. Cool has a price for which for them there is no appreciable ROI; wireless sets cost $200-$300 apiece compared with up to $100 for wired sets.
“You have to buy headsets that make sense with the different roles each staff member is playing,” explains Daryle Lamoureux, product marketing manager, VXi.
The advent of IP-enabled unified communications (UC) is changing headset functionality. UC via presence permits agents to transfer calls to the right available individuals; it also provides agents and supervisors one-click access to callers and make one-click outbound calls to names in databases and lists. To make this happen more headsets are being optimized via drivers for particular vendors’ UC software to tap those functionalities. This avoids obtaining, at added cost, specialized adaptors to connect those designed for one UC solution to be used for another supplier’s product.
For example, Plantronics’ UC headsets are now integrated with Cisco’s UC applications including Cisco Unified Personal Communicator 8.0, Cisco UC Integration for Microsoft Office Communicator 8.0, Cisco UC Integration for WebEx Connect and Cisco IP Communicator. Cisco customers now have access to features such as remote answer/end, mute and volume control so that users can easily control calls directly from the audio devices supplied by Plantronics.
Yet the UC headsets being worn by non-agents are typically wireless, lightweight and versatile as these workers typically move around the offices. Plantronics’ Savi series of wireless ‘set products offers multiple simultaneous connectivity with PCs and desk phones and they permit easy adding of supervisors or colleagues to call through simple proximity pairing without need to conference in using telephony interfaces.
Headsets are becoming easier to adjust thanks to more functionality being installed on USB cords, rather via keyboards or appliances. VXi’s X100 USB Adapter is an entry-level cord that provides basic plug-and-play capability and includes inline mute and volume; the X200 USB Adapter which offers echo cancellation and DSP to enhance the audio experience.
Jabra’ (News - Alert)a Jabra GN1216 integration cord makes corded headsets compatible with Avaya’s IP solutions and phones, including the contact center-suitable 1600 series, which provides the business communication systems’ customers with a wide selection of microphones, wearing styles and single or dual earpiece options.
The new cord features eight microphone volume settings, ensuring proper audio levels regardless of which Jabra headset is selected. Agents connect the cords to their headsets and adjust their microphones according to headset models and personal preferences.
Coming down the pike for endpoints is HD voice, which promises a higher quality calling experience and satisfaction resulting in shorter calls and fewer repeated ones, thereby leading to greater productivity and lowered costs. HD Voice, delivered via IP extends the bandwith to 50Hz at the low end to 7 kHZ at the high end from the 200Hz -3.2/3.4kHz in PSTN.
Andrew Nicholson who is a product manager at Aculab explained in his TMCnet blog “HD Voice - how much bandwidth do you need?” reports that addition of the higher speech frequencies gives improved ability to discern, for example, between 'p' and 't', 'm' and 'n' and 's' and 'f'. At the same time the extended lower ranges provide increased presence and comfort and a more natural conversation.
Yet HD voice depends on end-to-end IP connections which while possible internally—including to home-based agents over high-QoS residential IP-- is some years off for many customer interactions. There is still a large amount of copper-transporting PSTN while HD is “getting there” in VoIP softphones and desk phones as well as in mobile says Lamoureux.Headset manufacturers are anticipating need by coming out with HD-enabled units. Yet with the units’ life ranging from two to three years in the intensive contact center environments, the question arises when should centers buy them?
“If you have to pay for HD features then a HD-enabled set may not be the right thing for you,” says Lamoureux, whose firm is rolling its HD line with that capability as standard in 2011. “Yet if it is rolling in with the same features and quality at the same pricepoints as non-HD sets then having that capability is great to have.”
The Softphone Switch
There has also been a gradual switch from desktop phones to softphones. Softphones offer numerous advantages including lower upfront hardware and ongoing support costs, easy integrated on-screen control, less desktop real estate, the ability to be deployed on laptops and remote devices and to integrate easily with other UC functionality such as instant messaging, e-mail and presence.
“When softphones first came onto the market, companies were hesitant to use them, as there had been concerns about reliability,” explains Lamoureux. “As technology and connectivity have improved, softphones are proving themselves to be a viable option. People don’t think twice about using them whether in a dedicated workplace, at home or mobile.”
Charles Lee, senior product marketing manager, Genesys (News - Alert), an Alcatel-Lucent company is seeing most of his firm’s customers choose soft phones for their contact center agents, citing a sizable 50 percent or more cost advantage plus flexibility for customization not present in hard phones.
Venky Raman, ShoreTel’s senior product manager for contact center solutions isn’t so sure about soft phones. His firm still sees desktop phones predominantly used in contact centers since they provide the best customer experience.
“Soft phones are good on their own standing; however as soon as you have softphones running in a machine that is sharing resources with other applications that agents use i.e. CRM, ticketing, e-mails, file downloads the experience can really vary and this is something that most call centers want to avoid,” explains Raman. “We do have some call centers that are ready for softphone only environments: but they are either very basic call centers or some call centers where the call volume is not too big. “
Desktop PCs: Going, and Gone
The agents’ desktop endpoints are evolving from having PCs at each workstation loaded with applications to having this software sitting on on-premises servers (known as desktop virtualization) or on OEM or third-party hosted servers, accessed by “dumb terminals, “dumbed-down” PCs, thin-client appliances or for high-end support staff, laptops.
The gains from this evolution include lower IT costs: hardware, software and support, and as reduced facilities expenses from shrunken power consumption both directly from the units and indirectly via less demand on ventilation and air conditioning systems; PCs produce a lot of heat.
Ncomputing, which makes thin-client appliances, estimates end-users such as contact center agents typically only utilize five percent of the capacity of typical desktop PCs. Yet contact centers are paying as much as a guesstimated $600-$700 per CPU – as opposed to as low as $70 for its units – and which last only half as long: three years to six years while consuming 90 percent more energy.
Riding on such units are desktop virtualization software that can deliver contact center applications to the agents. The Citrix XenDesktop supports complete Windows desktops and applications for up to 500 users per server. Companies can license Citrix desktop virtualization solutions on a per-user, per-device or concurrent user standpoint. The only software that resides on the workstations or other endpoints is a universal software client called the Citrix Receiver, which gives users access to their desktop and applications. Users can also access their virtual desktop and apps from web-based log-in screens.
Citrix solutions also provide secure access to corporate data and applications using any device, whether desktop PC or laptops, such as by field support reps who are occasionally in the office. Once logged in to their virtual desktop, users cannot copy or download information and software and cannot surf the web depending on the policies set by IT.
Yet one doesn’t necessarily to have to recycle PCs to obtain many of the benefits of desktop virtualization; instead these computers can be stripped out and repositioned as appliances. Solutions such as RingCube’s vDesk can run on them, which saves on buying separate hardware while maintaining the familiar boxes. RingCube also helps lower storage costs and deliver a complete desktop experience for firms who use desktop virtualization software from VMware as well as Citrix two of its larger such partners.
The Home Endpoint
Where the greatest calls are for such secure access is at agents’ homes, which is the ultimate contact center endpoint evolution by leaving the formal centers altogether.
Going home can create benefits for organizations: up to $20,000 per employee/year reports the Telework Coalition in reduced facilities costs and improved productivity. Contact centers that have gone home say they have experienced greater flexibility and have attracted higher quality staff while lowering turnover and at the same time shrinking their environmental footprints by reducing commuting.
The success of work-at-home programs requires though that home agent performance be as equal if not superior to their counterparts in traditional centers. Top of mind is security. Citrix’s solution provides locked down desktops on individual employees’ home PCs. With more home agents living beyond practical access range of contact centers, the old practice of supplying and supporting them with their own PCs is no longer practical.
With home agents there is arguably a greater need for headsets that reduce echo and which have noise cancellation than for those working in traditional centers. The first feature is often needed because residential VoIP lines, while they may have greatly improved qualitywise over the past few years may still not have the bandwidth as inside typical formal contact centers, resulting in occasional echo and latency on the voice lines.
Noise cancellation is essential for while there may not be the high constant background noise at homes as there is in a formal contact centers there are often sharp sudden sounds that must be filtered out. One such set is Plantronics’ SupraPlus Wideband with the M22 audio processor. It uses same approved equipment as inside employer-provided contact centers to assure maximum agent uptime.
“These noises: a car driving past, a dog barking someone at the other end of the line would notice; they can be more distracting than steady background noises like people talking,” explains Neil Hooper, senior marketing manager, Plantronics. “You still want to take them out because they affect intelligibility.”
With VoIP is the ability to utilize softphones. Yet with many homes still connected only by PSTN/TDM, supporting desk phones is still a necessity. Fitting home agents with the same sets used in the contact centers may not be practical, Genesys’s Lee points out as they are behind the PBXes, which means those phones are not compatible with residential PSTN lines. Therefore in most cases, home agent phones are different than those in the contact centers.
To ensure that home agent performance is akin to that of their in-center colleagues he recommends developing a short spec (or vendor/model) list for the home agent phones. Specs may include ports for headset connection, hold and mute buttons and price range.
“In general, home agents do not require high end phone as customer service information is displayed on the agent desktop application on PC and call features (such as conferencing and transfer) are supported by system in the contact centers,” says Lee.
And while home-based agents may be tempted to want to have the more costly wireless headsets, manufacturers do not see contact centers permitting them as they fear they will wander away from their desks. And there is a risk of poorer voice quality if agents are being asked to buy their own headsets unless centers specify the features and requirements.
“You need to have standardized headsets for uniform experience regardless of agent location,” says Lamoureux. “You want to keep the headsets affordable yet have the agents sound like they are in a professional environment.”
The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:
Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi