September 2007 | Volume 10 / Nuber 9
IP Contact Centers Go Multi-Channel
IP contact centers were novelties until just a few years ago, occupying just a few percent of the world’s installations. Recently, however, the appearance of both robust, advanced technologies and more solid Internet broadband has set many companies along various migration paths to hybrid PSTN/IP contact centers. Multi-channel/multi-modal capabilities are becoming the norm, with customer ‘calls’ being anything from email and faxes to chat, SMS, MMS, instant messaging, voice and even video. Such ‘calls’ tend to ‘escalate’, starting from chat, say, to voice or video.
We start with Aspect Software (http://www.aspect.com), which helped to get the whole call center business going years ago by offering the industry’s best ACD (Automatic Call Distributor). Back at the turn of the century, when it was known as Aspect Communications (before it merged with Concerto Software in 2005), Aspect was already involved with IP with its IP Contact Suite, an IP-driven, centralized multichannel contract center framework that combined a software platform, applications and connectivity to front- and back-office systems. The system could handle remote agents via IP and Aspect’s IP Network InterQueue enabled control of multiple contact centers as if they were a single operation, with VoIP as an option.
Today, Aspect Software is known for such call center applications as its Enterprise Campaign Manager, which can be used with several productivity-boosting modules in the Aspect portfolio, such as the Aspect Conversations and Unison Predictive Dialers for outbound and blended call management, and the Aspect Ensemble Pro for unified contact center management.
Mike Sheridan, Aspect’s Senior Vice President of Strategy, says, “Most of our installed base is still TDM, but as our customers look to add new seats, home workers, or move their centers to IP in general, we’re seeing a lot of companies choose VoIP, particularly SIP [Session Initiation Protocol]-based VoIP. Percentage-wise, anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of our agent shipments per quarter for ACD [Automatic Call Distribution] are VoIP in nature. On the dialer [outbound] side, which makes up less of the total, we see very little VoIP. That speaks to the popularity of at-home, virtualized operations for sales, as opposed to, on the dialer side, collections services, which are typically done not via IP in a virtual manner, but right in a call center. There’s less of a business benefit for VoIP in such basically outbound call centers.”
“VoIP is starting to ‘happen’ in call centers everywhere,” says Sheridan. “Within a few percentage points difference, it’s largely the same mix throughout the world as far as TDM versus IP shipments. You’d think that, with an emerging market, more would be done quicker with VoIP. We do a lot of sales in the Asia, Pacific and Australia region, but the mix is about the same. It speaks to the maturity of the market. Korea has a very mature contact center market, and they’ve been making investments for years but there’s not a huge driver for them to swap out their existing TDM installed base to go to VoIP, unless they happen to be doing things such as home agents or they’re deliberately moving their centers to IP.”
“Here at Aspect we just moved our corporate facility from Westford to Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and in the process we went totally VoIP. We use Asterisk for the switch. We of course set up our customer contact center at the same time with our own Aspect Ensemble Pro for unified contact center management on top of the open source Asterisk system. The driver for us to move to VoIP was because we were moving our whole facility, which is the case for many companies these days.”
At Envox Worldwide (http://www.envox.com) Vice President of Product Marketing John Joseph says, “Our two main product lines consist, on the one hand, of tools and platforms for developing voice self-service applications, and on the other of software enabling CTI and intelligent routing relating to the contact center. We have several different toolkits for developing things such as IVR [Interactive Voice Response] systems, and those are enabled for traditional networks as well as IP networks. What’s important to us from a design philosophy is to have a single platform with which you can develop on and move forward. That’s been a good selling point against our competitors that have differing product lines for IP and the PSTN.”
Joseph elaborates: “So, you can develop a self-service application that initially works with the PSTN, then, as your business changes and as you do a pilot for VoIP, you can leverage the work you put into your application and easily transition it to an IP-based network. That’s what we’re up to on the self-service side. On the call center side we have a product line called Envox CT Connect, which we acquired from Intel. It’s been around for about 15 years. CT Connect software provides CTI capabilities such as screen pops, intelligent routing and monitoring functions. If you’re developing an app for a contact center, you can build your application, such as a monitoring app, to our CT Connect API and then we provide backend, out-of-the-box integration to more than 30 PBXs and ACDs, including IP and traditional switches from Avaya, Nortel, Cisco, Siemens, and others. Over 1.25 million ports are deployed on our self service platforms and there are over a million agents to whom calls are routed using our CTI software. We also provide services and we can do turnkey solutions. We sell both direct and to VARs and VADs.”
“We see SIP as a great standard as we move forward,” says Joseph. “All of our products are based on industry standards, such as VoiceXML and CCXML [Call Control eXtensible Markup Language] and MRCP [Media Resource Control Protocol], which enable you to piece together a very cost-effective and viable solution for various environments.”
“We definitely see an increase in the number of companies moving to VoIP, including some of our major customers,” says Joseph. “It’s driving the replacement of a lot of systems out there, which is where we get a lot of our business. We see a great deal of interest in what we term IP Communications in both the contact center as well as service providers. Then there’s the matter of communications such as SMS [Short Messaging Service], email, chat and even video. The ability to handle all that from a single infrastructure is a big selling point to enterprises today. There’s been a lot of change over the past five years, probably more than over the previous 20 years. There’s some uncertainty over where all of this is headed, but it’s pretty clear that the way we communicate and the applications that we use to communicate and what parts of an organization work together will change. You really must design for flexibility as we all move forward and plan that you want different modes of communication within the contact center. Your infrastructure should allow you to change applications and adjust things. You don’t want a solution that freezes you in time, even though to some degree you’ll always have limitations. But the more you can preserve that flexibility, the more you can assure that your business will be competitive in the future.”
“We see companies experimenting with advanced functionality such as video and trying to figure out what the value proposition is for their customers and what’s the correct timing and approach to add that into their call center,” says Joseph. “The same thing applies to the use of other communications modes, such as SMS.”
“Another major trend relating to contact centers is concern over how a network should be set up,” says Joseph. “Just how much does a company want to centralize their operations? Do they want to deal with at-home agents? There are some corporate culture issues that crop up with that kind of transition. But I think there is a turning point in terms of how to design your network, support strategy and systems for the future. The decisions you make now will set you up for flexibility and low-cost, or just the opposite.”
Joseph’s colleague, Sanjeev Sawai, Vice President of R&D at Envox Worldwide, says, “A certain amount of hand-holding is still necessary. There are several scenarios. In the case of large enterprises that have had TDM-based call centers for a long time, they have established procedures and applications; the challenge there is to make sure that you change out the infrastructure and that all of the new applications you’re installing work well with the other applications and the agents. Because of the cost points of IP contact centers, there are many small and medium-sized contact centers appearing that don’t necessarily follow that scenario, and the challenge there is to educate these smaller companies and ensure that what they buy works right out-of-the-box because they don’t have the level of IT help that you need to get something sophisticated up and running. But once it is up and running, productivity increases.”
“We have a very strong partnership with Salesforce.com,” says Sawai, “There the combination of Envox software with their CRM system really takes a tremendous number of capabilities formerly available only in larger call centers, and pushes them all the way down to small organizations. Even a call center of just a few agents can benefit from such significant capabilities. Many of those companies have added CRM systems in the past, perhaps to power their sales teams, but they never went back to ‘connect the dots’ between all the data they were collecting and information about their customers, to their support organization. Now, however, they’re able to do that, largely because of things like IP technology and hosted services. They can do it cost-effectively and the setup charges are minimal and the solutions have been proven to work together, so you can combine the solutions easily. We’re starting to see customer service organizations have much greater capabilities as a result. We think that translates into better service for their customers.”
Virtual Call Centers
One major trend for smaller and medium-sized businesses has been hosted and distributed “virtual” call centers.
Jim Dvorkin, the CTO of Five9 (http://www.five9.com), says, “We enable companies to create a VoIP contact center with a PC and a broadband connection. We’re a market leader in providing hosted, on-demand call center solutions. Any company considering buying or upgrading their premise-based call center infrastructure from vendors such as Avaya, Aspect, Nortel or Cisco, would consider Five9 as an on-demand alternative. Our migration path doesn’t require up-front capital equipment investment. Basically we provide all of our virtual call center technology from our data center in the U.S., which is connected to the telecom network to place and receive phone calls. From the data center, calls travel using VoIP. Every agent on the Five9 network is equipped with a softphone similar to Skype that runs on their PC. Obviously a broadband Internet connection is necessary. Typically our agents use headsets connected to their PCs. They come to work in the morning, they log into the Five9 application, and immediately through their Skype-like softphone they’re able to receive the calls from their call center and make outbound calls if necessary.”
“Different companies, both small and large, rely on Five9’s capabilities,” says Dvorkin. “We have customers that range anywhere from five seats all the way up to 200 seats. Our customers are not just in the U.S. but also across the globe in India, Latin America and Europe. Some industry reports indicate that there’s a strong trend of replacing the existing call center infrastructure with VoIP solutions. Many existing call center vendors such as Avaya, Nortel, Aspect and Alcatel, offer VoIP options to their existing hardware, and sometimes customers go for that. Sometimes the systems are being replaced completely by a brand-new VoIP call center - Cisco is a market leader in doing that.”
“Basically Five9 plays a role in that trend by providing an on-demand alternative for companies to consider and ‘pay as they go’ as opposed to investing in a big project in terms of time, money, resources, and doing a forklift upgrade or replacement of their existing call center infrastructure,” says Dvorkin.
“In the past two or three years, the Internet as an infrastructure became mature and more robust,” says Dvorkin. “Lots of bandwidth is available that is very inexpensive. That creates a huge leverage for new delivery mechanisms and new business models, such as Five9’s, which in turn makes these new solutions available and affordable.”
CosmoCom (http://www.cosmocom.com) is another major player in offering hosted contact center or “network-based” contact center services via Network Service Providers (NSPs). CosmoCom’s Contact Center On-Demand (CCOD) helps NSPs increase their margins, capturing some of the revenue that normally escapes to vendors of premise-based equipment. CCOD also allows operators to protect existing sources of revenue (e.g. simple transport services) from price-driven churn.
Now You See It
Of all of the multiple channels that can be plugged into the modern contact center, voice is still the “killer app” which is why many of us still refer to such centers using the term “call center”. Of course the word “call” has been expanded to include such various “channels” as email, chat, texting, and now video calls. Video is still a rarity, but it’s starting to catch on. Take OneContact from Portugal’s COLLAB (http://www.collab.pt), an IP-based 3G contact center solution that offers full multimedia contact management across instant messaging, voice and video. COLLAB’s software solution relies on just the ubiquitous SIP standard and a media server. OneContact lets you create multi-site contact centers in a distributed model, so contact center agents are able to work from any location. All contacts are handled in the same queue using the same routing and ACD rules regardless of what media a customer uses to contact the center.
Recently, RH Telecom, the leading Bosnian mobile network operator, selected HERMES SoftLab to implement a new contact center and helpdesk solution for their customer care operations. HERMES, in turn, selected COLLAB’s OneContact solution. BH Telecom will now have a next-gen contact center along with trouble ticketing and knowledge base applications. Thanks to OneContact, customer service representatives will be able to receive customer “calls” from different channels such as voice, email, web, SMS, fax and even USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data, a GSM technology standard that supports the transmission of information over the signaling channels of the GSM network).
Making the Transition
With all this talk of migration paths for enterprises and network operators, we forget that the vendors themselves have their own migration path, since they must re-engineer their products to work with the current hybrid TDM/IP Communications environment.
For example, Yours Truly remembers when Witness Systems was simply a company that specialized in recording technology for call centers in the circuit-switched world. Now, as Verint Witness Actionable Solutions (http://www.verint.com), their portfolio has increased considerably, with contact center solutions ranging from recording to quality monitoring, analytics, and performance management. Witness Systems’ Impact 360 workforce optimization has been combined with Verint’s ingenious actionable intelligence solutions, resulting in a considerable solution set for contact centers ranging in size from fewer than 100 agents to giant, multi-site/virtual installations.
Robert Barnes, Director of Recording Platforms at Verint, says “There are still many TDM contact centers out there, but most of the new-styled businesses certainly are IP or a mixture of IP and TDM. They’re served predominantly by such major players as Avaya, Cisco and Nortel. Avaya has been particularly strong in the call center space. Avaya and Nortel were a bit late into the game, but they’re leveraging their experience and their installed bases very efficiently these days.”
“Just about every greenfield operation that comes along is based on IP,” says Barnes. “If they don’t immediately adopt IP, they at least certainly want to understand how they’re going to move to it within the next two years. They’re looking at migration strategies and making sure that they’re not signing themselves up with a system that is TDM-based that ultimately prevents them from moving from IP. IP is of course where standards-based platforms play very well.”
As IP continues to penetrate into the contact center industry, customers will be surprised as to how easily and how many different ways they can reach customer service representatives, and contact center owners will marvel at how well their
systems can bring any member of their staff with pertinent expertise into a
“call”. Moreover, seamless connections with the back-office environment have eliminated the old bugbear of sequestering agents in front of multiple consoles. IP Communications may finally put the “service” back into customer service. IT
Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC’s IP Communications Group.
Today @ TMC
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Jive Communications by LogMeIn has Signed on as a Platinum Sponsor for 2019 Collocated Events, ITEXPO and MSP Expo