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Feature Article
December 2003


Tony Rybczynski photoLessons From The Customer Edge: IP Contact Centers

 

BY TONY RYBCZYNSKI & LAURA POWERS

 While many new channels have emerged (such as Web, e-mail, chat), contact centers continue to be a central resource in most enterprises� customer service delivery strategies. The evolution to IP contact centers is quickly becoming a key factor in cutting costs, increasing contact center productivity and improving customer service.

Many companies, having gained a positive experience with IP telephony, are now virtualizing their contact centers through IP telephony technology. Others, seeing the business value of IP contact centers, have aggressively pursued customer facing IP telephony solutions. Vegas.com, whose mission is to deliver a complete Las Vegas vacation experience for its customers, runs the most viewed city Web site in the world with 50,000 visitors per day. In spite of its name, a significant number of customer interactions are handled via its contact center. All of its agents are using IP telephones, which have worked so well that they are being deployed across the entire corporation. Vegas.com made the transition to an IP contact center by adding IP telephony to its existing PBX. This enabled the company to leverage its investment, accommodate rapid growth, and minimize risk.

More generally, what are the benefits of IP contact centers? The need for business agility was central to Vegas.com�s decision to embrace IP contact center technology � agility in serving customers, agility for new applications, and agility in adjusting to a rapidly growing business environment. This might work for you, but maybe you want to reduce your network equipment and operating costs by converging voice and data on that infrastructure. You can also reduce toll costs, especially for international operations and inbound toll-free traffic. Whether expanding an existing facility or building new centers, IP can be less expensive than circuit-based solutions. For example, agents can use a PC software phone, rather than a dedicated business phone. In addition, cost-effective IP communication links allow you to locate agents in �virtual call centers� that include branch offices and home offices just about anywhere. This can not only save significant facility costs, such as floor space, heat and lighting, but also allows you to draw from labor pools in lower-cost markets; for example, in rural areas. Home-based work options also contribute to lower costs by boosting agent productivity and reducing agent turnover and absenteeism. By distributing calls among agents in many locations and time zones, contact center managers can support extended business hours and dramatic shifts in demand at far less expense.

Of course, whether your agents are located at a contact center hub or in their rural home offices, customers and suppliers receive the same level of personal service and are unaware of any disparity due to the actual physical location. Web browsers can be used to connect with all of your contact center management, administrative, and reporting tools from virtually anywhere. Moreover, centralized management of call center applications reduces administration and maintenance costs. Finally, with IP contact centers and increased penetration of consumer broadband access, customers can soon expect to be able to view contact agents, interactive product demos, or informational broadcasts as part of their online experience.

LESSONS LEARNED
The benefits are there, but what have enterprises learned from their IP contact center deployments? Here are five lessons that can help you if you are evolving to or deploying IP contact centers. The overriding requirements are that the customer experience is seamless as you move to an IP contact center and customers don�t perceive any impact on call quality. Failing to do this can result in lost revenues, dissatisfied customers, lost customers, and a tarnished company image.

1. You need to ensure that your IP networking infrastructure is ready for convergence.
IP networks have matured to the point where they can offer the performance expected for customer-facing voice communications. However, due attention must be given to:
� The in-building contact center IP network, which should be based on switched Ethernet with standard line power to the desktop;
� End-to-end QoS across the virtual contact center;
� Nodal and network-wise reliability;
� Proper engineering of the WAN links to distributed call agents, leveraging WAN QoS capabilities;
� Internal/operational procedures.

2. You don�t need to abandon current investments in conventional ACD and PBX.
An IP contact center can be implemented by IP-enabling a traditional contact center using existing PBX and ACD systems, taking advantage of cost-effective efficient IP links to connect agents and branch offices. Alternatively, it can be implemented as a pure IP contact center built completely on IP-based components, including agent access devices, application servers, IP call control servers, and gateway mediation devices that interface with PSTN.

3. You can maintain feature equivalence with traditional contact centers.
Whether evolving an existing contact center to IP telephony or deploying a brand-new IP contact center, you should expect (and require) the full complement of contact center features �--whether related to customer interactions, skill-based routing for voice calls and e-mail, back-office integration or contact center management. New capabilities can then be added such as customer-agent collaboration, page pushing, and instant messaging. Think of an IP contact center as a feature-rich application that sits on top of the IP telephony and traditional telephony system, which itself sits on a switched network.

4. You can open up the data network to customer contact without jeopardizing security.
Contact centers traditionally operate behind the firewall in the context of agent PCs, while agent telephones interact with the customer on the PSTN over a circuit switched connection over a PRI. This doesn�t change at all with the introduction of IP phones, since the agent PCs are still behind the firewall, while agent IP telephones interact with the customer on the PSTN over a PRI connection, through a Media Gateway. Even with PC-based IP telephony clients, the only new threat is that telephony functionality may be lost if the PC gets infected by a virus or is in some other way compromised. However, security implications expand when the agent PC is used for both system-generated screen pops and as a tool for Web collaboration (including page pushing, screen sharing, chat, and instant messaging).

In this case, it is essential that the attributes of the agent application be understood and that the firewall is configured to properly to minimize exposures. In addition, intrusion detection and virus scanning should be invoked to minimize security-related risks. In the longer term, more and more consumers will want to use IP telephony to interact with contact centers, opening up new firewall and virus scanning requirements. The good news is that enterprises can confidently provide collaborative services over the Web today as long as they leverage the appropriate security capabilities to protect against unwanted intruders.

5. Home-based IP connections can be reliable enough for contact center agents.
Running home-based agents over the Internet has to be thought through, since ISPs rarely support QoS and the Internet is inherently insecure. But experience dictates that this is totally achievable and brings significant benefits. Firstly, security can be provided through IPSec VPN technology, a network level authentication and encryption standard for voice and data. Secondly, broadband access is a necessity, DSL being preferred over cable modems since the DSL link is dedicated to a particular residence. Thirdly, an ISP should be chosen that provides guarantees on maximum delays across the network. These two steps ensure that voice latency requirements will be met the vast majority of the time. Finally, some vendors provide schemes which monitor the ISP performance and switch over to the PSTN in case of performance degradation -- certainly worth looking at.

SO WHERE TO NEXT?
You can improve service, reduce operating costs, and simplify management and administration by leveraging IP in your contact centers. Furthermore, placing voice and data on the same network opens up new possibilities for converging the many ways in which customers communicate with your organization-voice, text, chat, e-mail, fax, and Web co-browsing. You can provide click-to-call from a Web site, or �push� Web pages to a caller to provide more information. Voice is still the dominant channel for providing contact center service, but customers are growing more conditioned to multi-channel communication, and the ability to meet that expectation -- a key strength of IP -- is becoming a key differentiator, according to Forrester Research. IP is clearly the future for converged, multi-channel communication, since it unifies all interaction types onto one infrastructure for routing, application access, and reporting.

In fact, the demand for IP is so strong that InfoTech estimates 46 percent of call center agent seats will be based on multi-channel IP platform technology by 2004. In short, the business case makes sense. Enterprises can save pennies per agent/minute, translating into annual savings in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, according to a November 2001 Forrester Research report.

Tony Rybczynski is Director of Strategic Enterprise Technologies in Nortel Networks. He has over 30 years experience in the application of packet network technology. Laura Powers holds product marketing responsibilities for Nortel Networks� IP Contact Center solutions. For more information please visit the company�s Web site at  www.nortelnetworks.com.

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