(This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions)
A decade or so ago, contact centers’ carrier needs and purchases were fairly simple. They sought – and carriers focused on – delivering predominantly voice traffic, with a small amount of e-mail, at low volume rates from regional or nationwide carriers for single or networked multiple locations. The calls mostly terminated and originated at ACDs and predictive dialers housed on switches and boards at formal employer-owned facilities. Work-at-home for agents was in its very early days.
Today, contact center environments and needs are much more complex. Chat, e-mail, SMS/text, IVR/speech recognition, and video just over the horizon, driven by wireless devices and social media are adding to the complexity and are slowly supplanting live agent voice. Agents and supervisors are working from home and remotely, connected via landlines and/or mobile phones. There are now many more choices and options available to contact centers for carrier services.
The IP Shift
One of most important communications options for contact centers is whether to go with VoIP through SIP trunking and away from circuit-switched TDM (a.k.a. PSTN or POTS). SIP is being offered by specialized carriers, such as AireSpring, Broadvox, and Cbeyond (News - Alert), and by established carriers, like AT&T, PAETEC and Sprint. SIP carriers are hungry and are competitive.
Peter Radizeski, founder and CEO, RAD-INFO, a telecommunications consulting firm, sees three key drivers to IP/SIP. The first is that with SIP, contact centers can buy “all-they-can-eat” plans, meaning they can oversubscribe on the numbers of lines they need, giving them cost-effective flexibility to handle call spikes and limited-length inbound and outbound programs. In contrast, they have to purchase TDM-based PRI circuits, one line or bundle of lines at a time.
The second push is cutting outbound predictive-dialed calling costs prompted by when established carriers began assessing surcharges for attempted but abandoned calls. There are reports that carriers are experiencing traffic congestion as a result of them but, because they fell below the standard six-second billing increments, this led to lost revenues. Contact centers, on the other hand, saw these fees as added costs for uncompleted calls from which they derived no benefit.
The last key motivator is that SIP/IP gives contact centers more flexibility, both cost-and- rate-wise, in supporting home-based agents and satellite offices than TDM. Contact centers incur long distance charges on TDM when inbound calls are routed to home agents outside of local calling areas from the switches, and outbound calls made manually or by hosted dialers.
AT&T sees significant adoption of SIP trunking into contact centers using its IP toll-free services, reports spokesperson Jenny Bridges, driven by them wanting to converge voice and data traffic over a single network, and also to support home and small offices at a reasonable cost, versus doing so in a TDM environment. Also, the common denominator of the SIP protocol opens the door to many applications that may have been prohibitively complex and/or expensive in a TDM world to another tier of users that may have not have the staff or expertise to deploy those applications in a TDM environment.
SIP trunking is also becoming more versatile. Verizon’s IP Trunking is now qualified for Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2. Businesses employing Microsoft unified communications (UC) software can now combine its capabilities with Verizon VoIP, achieving cost savings and improved IT telephony resource management.
“By using our WAN and Verizon SIP Trunking capabilities integrated with Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2, we have reduced telephony circuit costs by more than $350,000 per year,” reports Jamie Ryan, chief information officer at Aspect (News - Alert).
So is there any reason for contact centers to buy TDM as opposed to SIP trunking? Only in environments where there is a need for consistently very high call quality and where the callers expect it and the consequences are lost revenues and customers, such as direct response infomercials and high-end sales, says Radizeski. Even then, TDM/PRI can be a backup to SIP trunks or vice versa.
Carrier-Hosted Contact Center Services
There is a big shift underway to move contact center applications, including inbound and outbound routing, IVR, dialing, workforce optimization and e-learning/training, to the cloud. While most carriers have tended to shy away from app hosting – Radizeski explains their culture is to sell their traditional services rather than new software that must be supported – those that offer them are boosting their offerings and are demonstrating their worth.
Qwest, which has been acquired by CenturyLink, recently added Qwest iQ On Demand IVR service to its Qwest iQ Contact Center suite. The solution, powered Angel.com’s core technology, includes IVR enhanced with voice mail, speech rec, call recording, and reporting and analytics. With Qwest iQ On Demand IVR, contact centers can deploy fast, affordable and customizable automated voice applications on a pay-per-use model.
AT&T’s Hosted Integrated Contact Services includes the flexibility to design, deploy and change speech applications and routing plans through a simple Web-based customer interaction portal. It also allows customers to add more agents or phone ports on demand, and it can automatically increase capacity up to 20 percent above installed levels to handle unexpected bursts of traffic.
Telus provides a comprehensive array of hosted contact center applications, along with voice, data, conferencing and business continuity services. It also provides home-agent/teleworking and UC solutions.
Telus has firsthand knowledge of what goes into a successful home agent program. It supports teleworkers corporate-wide, including its contact centers, following a stunningly successful pilot. In it, attrition rates dropped by 20 percent and 82 percent of participants said teleworking had an impact on their desire to stay with the firm. Teleworking enhanced agent productivity by 25 percent and lowered absenteeism by 60 percent, while saving agents 13,865 hours of commute time and $125,000 in fuel and car maintenance costs. The program also cut CO2 by emissions by 127 tons and air pollutants by over four tons. Many of Telus’ Vancouver, B.C., Canada staff worked from home during the 2010 Winter Olympics held in that city.
Are Toll-Free Numbers Going Away?
In 2008, New Jersey Transit, the third-largest transit agency in the U.S., disconnected its toll-free customer service numbers, except for TTY access. It, like many public agencies and private companies, has been diverting calls away from live agents through the Internet, including a mobile-enabled site, and with proactive means such as automated outbound text alerts. New Jersey residents, like many others across North America, have been switching from TDM to VoIP, making long-distance charges irrelevant. Also, North Americans are becoming used to paying per contact, as their counterparts in other parts of the world have long done, through their text messaging rates.
As with many private firms, NJ Transit is cash-strapped, and needs to devote its limited resources to maintaining product quality. Yet, firms need to balance costs with attracting and retaining customers.
Moreover some of benefits of toll-free numbers are being offered by lower-cost alternatives. Verizon Business has bolstered its IP capabilities with a new local origination feature, which enables businesses using local telephone numbers to benefit from the same intelligent routing and call management capabilities traditionally available only with toll-free numbers.
Does this mean the end of the line for toll-free? Not yet. There has not exactly been a rush of other organizations to follow NJ Transit’s lead.
Peter Radizeski thinks there is still a clear path ahead for toll-free services for cultural and practical reasons. Customers expect no-charge calling. Toll-free numbers are also effectively used in business-driving branding, such as 1-800-FLOWERS.
“Companies no longer have to have toll-free numbers, but they are not going to get rid of them and they are not going to miss an opportunity to grow and retain customers,” says Radizeski.
Mike Giulivo, InfoCision’s (News - Alert) supervisor, I3 Support Call Center Technologies, is not seeing any fading away of toll-free numbers, at least not yet. If anything, his firm is managing an ever-growing list of numbers as clients use toll-free numbers to track responses to and effectiveness of particular advertising.
“However, as the use of other media expands, such as the Internet and company websites, as well as applications such as text, chat and e-mail, the ability to manage these contact streams becomes important for a company like ours,” says Giulivo. “As the use of cell phones expands and more people abandon their home landlines, we may see the toll-free number become extinct when making a call to any number anywhere does not have an added cost to the caller. Then the use of toll free numbers becomes irrelevant.”
InfoCision on Carrier Services
There is no better source for insight on carriers, issues and services and contact centers than the contact centers themselves. InfoCision Management Corporation is a BPO firm that has 32 centers at 12 locations in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, plus home-based agents. Mike Giulivo is InfoCision’s Supervisor, I3 Support Call Center Technologies. Here are key excerpts of our conversation with him:
CIS: Outline the services carriers provide for InfoCision
MG: InfoCision uses a number of carriers for different services and for different reasons. For instance, for inbound calls, we have dedicated circuits from four carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Qwest, and Global Crossing). For outbound calls, we primarily use Global Crossing. These carriers also provide other services, such as MPLS (Global Crossing and Verizon) and point-to-point circuits (AT&T, Qwest and Level 3).Cost and service are the drivers for the selection of services.
Carriers typically have different cost structures based on geographic locations and we try to use carriers that will offer the best overall cost for a particular service.
Naturally, the service provided has to work well and have features that further our goals. Customer support is very big, especially when there are outages. Our company lives by the delivery of carrier services and, if there are problems, the carrier we use must have an easy way to report those problems, provide timely updates on the issues and have competent technicians to work with us through any resolution process.
CIS: Outline how InfoCision manages its carrier relationships. What are the typical issues that crop up and how do you handle them?
MG: All of our carriers have a local presence and a team of people dedicated to serve our account. These people know us, our business and our needs. They are aware of the critical role their services play in our business and are ready to do whatever they can to support us.
We work together as partners and they are available to help us plan and deploy new services. They are very aware of the competitive situation and that they may or may not get specific business from us. But, even when business is won or lost, we strive to maintain our relationships because needs change and new opportunities arise all the time, and they could be the winner or loser the next time around.
We usually meet with our carrier teams in person or via conference call at least once per week to keep track of any outstanding orders or issues. With our diverse client base, there is always some request for some service or routing that one or another carrier may be able to deliver. They all have particular strengths and unique services that we try to leverage to enhance the services we can deliver to our clients.
Sometimes our clients will drive us to use specific carriers as well. If the client uses a particular carrier and would like to overflow calls to us or have us as one of their routing options, it makes sense for us to utilize that carrier too.
CIS: Is InfoCision switching to VoIP for call handling and if so, why?
MG: We do some VoIP today, but will be expanding that as we upgrade some of our systems. We will use VoIP or SIP to process calls from the delivery point from the carrier through to the workstation of the Communicator. At this point, inbound and outbound calls will be delivered in the traditional way, TDM via DS3 and PRIs and connected to gateways to be converted to IP.
We will likely be converting the inbound traffic from the carriers to IP in the near future as well. This seems to be a stable offering and has additional routing features we find desirable. Using IP trunks for predictive dialing is not a service that most carriers can support today. The high number of call initiations per second (50 or more) usually outstrips the capacity of the carrier hardware currently in place. That will change in time, but for now, we will interface with the carrier via gateways for outbound calls.--
The following companies assisted with 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