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 enterprisesï¿½
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.comï¿½s decision to embrace IP contact
center technology ï¿½ 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 ï¿½virtual call centersï¿½
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.
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 donï¿½t 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:
ï¿½ The in-building contact center IP network, which should be based on
switched Ethernet with standard line power to the desktop;
ï¿½ End-to-end QoS across the virtual contact center;
ï¿½ Nodal and network-wise reliability;
ï¿½ Proper engineering of the WAN links to distributed call agents, leveraging
WAN QoS capabilities;
ï¿½ Internal/operational procedures.
2. You donï¿½t 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
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 ï¿½--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
4. You can open up the data network to customer contact without
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 doesnï¿½t 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
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 ï¿½pushï¿½ 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 Networksï¿½ IP Contact Center solutions. For more
information please visit the companyï¿½s Web site at
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