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Special Focus
February 2003

How Sip Is Transforming The Call Center Industry

BY STEVEN KAISH

The call center business has been around for a few decades now, but you can still teach an old dog some new tricks. Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and Voice over IP (VoIP) technology are revolutionizing the way that premises-based call centers are built and operated, and also creating new business models for service providers to deliver call center on demand as a network-based service. 

For premises-based installations, SIP allows a truly location-independent call center, where a unified queue can feed telephone calls to agents located anywhere, typically with no equipment at the agent location other than a multimedia PC. Telephone calls can originate anywhere around the globe and be transported inexpensively over an IP backbone to a local or distant call center. SIP is also one of the enabling technologies that is spurring the growth of multimedia communications between Web surfers and call centers. Finally, SIP has enabled Service Providers to offer their customers all of these same benefits of IP technology -- and more -- via a network-based service that requires no special equipment on the customer premises at all. The Service Provider can host the entire call center system in their network, and use only an IP connection to deliver telephone calls and other contact types to their customers� call center agents anywhere in the world.

The Virtual Call Center

Traditional call center solutions have a circuit switch, called an Automatic Call Distributor (ACD), located at each location in which there are agents. A single location may have a handful of agents, or may have thousands of agents answering calls. For years, most companies have consolidated many agents into a small number of centers, because it is typically most efficient to have a larger group of agents servicing a single queue than to have several smaller groups of agents each servicing separate queues at separate sites. Think of a bank line (single queue) versus a grocery store line (separate queues), and you get the idea. In addition, a strategy using circuit switches at many distributed call centers requires more capital to purchase the equipment for each location and a larger operational expense to maintain it. At the same time, call center operators recognize that using distributed regional centers can reduce their costs of labor and facilities, as well as increase their flexibility in staffing for peak calling seasons. Some have made the move despite the issues raised above, but many more have waited for a better technological solution to come along, which gives them the advantages of more distributed centers without the drawbacks.

Newer SIP-based IP call centers solve this problem by enabling agents located at any location to serve a unified queue of calls, creating a single virtual call center. Instead of an ACD at every agent site, there is a single virtual ACD that is connected to the IP network. Telephone calls traverse the public telephone network, and then hop onto the packet network via industry-standard VoIP gateway equipment. After routing information is collected in the IP cloud, calls can be routed to any agent located anywhere on the IP network -- or even hop off via another VoIP gateway to the public telephone network and routed to a company�s circuit switch or directly to an agent�s circuit telephone. Customers get the efficiency of a unified queue for all agent locations, and since there is no switching equipment required at the agent locations, there is no extra hardware to purchase or maintain. An added benefit is that administrative changes can be made in a single place, and these changes immediately become effective for all calls and all agents in the global, virtual call center. SIP not only enables distributed centers to be operated cost-effectively. It also reduces the cost and complexity of implementing home-based agents -- who now only need an IP connection to be part of the virtual call center.

Offshore Call Centers

Agent salaries are the single biggest expense in the call center industry. Many call center operators are moving some or all of the operations offshore, to take advantage of the lower labor costs. SIP-based solutions bring tremendous benefits to the offshore call center. Calls originating in one country can be transmitted to agents in another country over the IP network. This leads to tremendous savings in telecommunications costs when compared with transmitting these calls as international long-distance calls on the public telephone network. In addition, the virtual call center concept means that these offshore agents can service the same queues as the onshore agents, eliminating the inefficiencies of maintaining separate queues for each site. The virtual call center also means that there is no need to install and maintain special ACD equipment offshore. The SIP-based ACD can be maintained in a data center anywhere there is a connection to the IP network.

Revolutionizing the Agent Desktop

The introduction of SIP and IP technology for the call center has altered the call center agent�s desktop environments as well. Call center agents are almost always equipped with a PC to access and record data associated with their customer transactions. Many IP-based call centers are using softphone applications running on these same PCs, transforming the PC into a telephone. Once in place, agents can perform all duties with a PC and a headset, and save the added expense associated with hardware-based phone solutions. Of course, some centers still choose to use an IP telephone -- sometimes referred to as a �hard phone� -- on the agent desktops. Other call centers have circuit-based telephones and even circuit switches in place already, and are able to incorporate this infrastructure into their virtual call center operation by putting a VoIP gateway in front of it. The flexibility of SIP-based architectures enables many options.

Live Internet Customer Care

The growth of commerce on the Web has led to significant changes in the call center industry. It is not enough to just handle telephone calls anymore. Sales and service requests are now coming in the form of e-mails and also as live conversations on the web. Today, most of these live conversations are conducted using text chat or telephone callback. However, as consumers and business-people become more familiar and comfortable with using their PC as a communications device, many Web contacts in the call center will be in the form SIP-initiated voice, video, and collaboration sessions. Increasingly, call centers must enable customers to contact the call center in any fashion they desire -- including Web-based voice and video -- and route all contacts through a unified queue to the best-skilled agent for that contact.

Hosted Call Centers

Perhaps the most profound impact of SIP on the call center market is to enable service providers to offer their customers all of the IP technology benefits, delivered as a network-based service that requires no special equipment on the customer premises at all. Service providers host the entire call center system on their network and deliver telephone calls and other contact types to their customers� premises anywhere in the world through a simple IP connection. This has created a lucrative new business whereby service providers extend their traditional telephony business with high-margin value added services. Hosted call centers are becoming increasingly important in the market, and many analysts project that in the coming years a majority of companies will subscribe to such services instead of installing their own call center infrastructure on their premises. This is in large part due to the new architectures that SIP brings to the hosted call center market.

Traditional hosted ACD systems, such as Centrex ACDs, are tied into the fabric of the public telephone network switches. They are usually very limited in features, and hard to integrate with business applications in the call center. For these reasons, the adoption of Centrex-style call centers has been very low. SIP, however, enables network applications to be built independently of the underlying network infrastructure. This rich network interface allows for very advanced, multi-tenant applications to be developed by independent software developers. As a result, hosted call center applications now have feature functionality that matches and even surpasses that provided by legacy premises-based call center systems. Standardized SIP architectures enable these applications to plug seamlessly into a service provider�s SIP-based IP telephony network, as well as to interface into the circuit-based public telephone network via industry-standard softswitches and gateways.

CONCLUSION

It is plain to see the impacts of VoIP and SIP on the call center industry. Traditional challenges of linking together multi-site call centers are now being solved elegantly and cost-effectively, spurring an increase in distributed call centers. VoIP is helping to grow the offshore call center industry, while also making the home agent a much more cost-effective option. SIP has turned the PC into a true communications device that can complement and even replace the telephone. Finally, the adoption of IP-based architectures has enabled service providers to offer a new kind of service -- call center on demand -- that is revolutionizing the way call centers approach their business. These technologies are truly transforming the industry.


Steven Kaish is Area Vice President of Product Marketing & Business Development at CosmoCom, Inc. CosmoCom is a leading provider of all-IP, universal access contact center platforms. CosmoCom�s flagship product, CosmoCall Universe, is designed to provide true next generation capabilities for mission critical contact center applications. For more information, please visit them online at www.cosmocom.com.

[ Return To The February 2003 Table Of Contents ]



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