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September 1999

VoIP: Part III - Web -Enabled Call Centers, The Killer Application


Recently in this column, I discussed equipment requirements and business applications for basic IP telephony such as phone-to-phone and PC-to-phone services. Let’s assume that at this point we have the equipment, minutes are moving, and money is being made. So, how can even more money be made? What other services can be sold using the same equipment? One solution is Web-enabled call centers — services that enable carriers to target the corporate call center market using the same network infrastructure that supports other IP telephony services.

Companies today experience a disconnect between their toll-free call centers and their corporate Web sites. On the one hand, toll-free corporate call centers allow companies to reduce physical store or office costs by enabling customers to call company representatives to receive information and/or complete transactions. Unfortunately, these services are generally only available in a geographically limited area (for example within a country) and the customer/representative exchange is limited to voice only due to the limitations of the traditional black phone.

On the other hand, corporate Web sites provide customers all over the world with a rich and convenient environment to quickly access company collateral information. Unfortunately, Web sites do not provide customers immediate voice access to agents who can field questions and establish a personal relationship with customers. Customers can surf to a corporate Web site, gather information, and start filling their virtual shopping carts. However, if they have questions that are not answered by the Web site, or if they run into trouble navigating the site or completing the transaction process, they have to disconnect from the Internet and make a potentially expensive call to speak to a company representative. This solution interrupts the sales cycle, increasing the likelihood that the customer will abandon the shopping cart and surf on to a competitor’s site.

The solution? Web-enabled call centers.

Web-enabled call centers allow carriers to expand the array of services supported by their IP telephony networks. Using the same IP telephony equipment that supports phone-to-phone and PC-to-phone services, carriers can integrate the advantages of a company’s corporate call center and Web site by linking calls originating on the Web to corporate call centers. By combining the human touch of corporate call centers with the interactive environment of the Internet, online customers can receive personalized attention without having to disconnect. Customers can surf a corporate Web site, gather information at their leisure and, when they have a question requiring a human response, they can simply click on a Web-enabled button to connect to an agent. Not only can call center agents talk to customers, they can also jointly surf to different Web pages and fill out online forms.

Let’s look at a scenario that demonstrates how Web-enabled call centers can improve customer relations and expedite the sales cycle. Due to the high degree of customer interaction necessary, a full-service bank that maintains a call center is an excellent potential user of an IP call center. In the past, a customer interested in a mortgage would call an 800 number for information. The customer would then receive product information in a few days, and soon after, a follow-up call from a sales agent. The consumer then would make an appointment to visit a branch and have an interview with the mortgage agent in order to fill out an application form for credit approval.

Now, look at the bank with a multimedia call center. A consumer reads online collateral about a bank’s mortgage services. While some consumers will be able to cull all the information needed from the Web site and complete the online forms on their own, a number of customers will require assistance given the complexity and magnitude of the transaction. These consumers can click on a Web-enabled icon to talk to an agent via IP telephony, without disconnecting from the Internet. Agents can quickly set up a data collaboration session and surf with consumers to charts that for example compare 15-year versus 30-year interest rates. Both parties then proceed to an online application form where the agent is able to help the consumer complete and submit forms electronically.

Carriers, such as Deutsche Telekom ( a VocalTec shareholder), have already launched Web-enabled call center services. Using Web-enabled call center solutions, Deutsche Telekom launched freecall Online to extend the carrier’s existing toll-free 800 services. freecall Online enables companies to receive 800 calls originating from both traditional telephones and the Web. It provides an important business service by allowing companies to immediately address the needs of the increasingly important and growing online customer base. Deutsche Telekom’s service has already attracted customers such as ProSieben Club & Shop GmbH, a subsidiary of a popular internationally broadcast German TV station.

There are a few ways to implement Web-to-corporate call center network configurations. Both levels of service can be supplied by a service provider where the IP telephony equipment is located at the service provider’s site, and where the call center itself is at the customer’s site.

Voice Only
The first and simplest method for gaining this capability is to have a hot link on a site that appears on every page, similar to “Checkout” or “Order” icons. This “Call” hot link enables the user to talk to a company representative immediately from their PC over the Internet, without having to call over a regular phone. In this scenario, the first time a customer clicks on the Web-enabled button, a small client file is downloaded to connect the caller’s multimedia PC to the carrier’s IP telephony infrastructure. Based on billing, least cost routing, and authorization/authentication instructions from an IP telephony gatekeeper, also known as the “brains of an IP telephony network,” the IP telephony gateway routes the call over the Internet to an existing call center. Calls are answered by representatives the same way “regular” phone calls are answered. Diagram A shows the network configuration for a voice-only, Web-to-corporate call center solution.

Voice And Data Collaboration
A more advanced service is the ability for representatives to take advantage of the Internet’s interactive capacity by enabling representatives to assist customers not only with audio, but also visually. For that, an additional multipoint data collaboration server should be installed and representatives should be equipped with PCs connected to the network. The server provides an important security function by mediating all data collaborative exchanges, thereby preventing either party from having direct access to the other’s PC. This solution enables representatives to jointly surf to other Web pages and fill out forms with online customers. The call center server ensures that the representative receiving the call is connected to the right user and enables the two to share information. Diagram B shows the network configuration for a voice and data collaboration Web-to-corporate call center solution.

Web-enabled call centers allow carriers to introduce customer care into the world of e-commerce. This compelling service enables companies to ingratiate themselves to online customers by offering a human interface. By supporting multiple services using the same network infrastructure, IP telephony opens the door for carriers and Internet telephony service providers to position themselves as integral players in the development and execution of corporate e-commerce strategies.

Lior Haramaty is a co-founder of VocalTec Communications, and belongs to the original group that started the VoIP industry. Haramaty has dealt with passing audio over data networks since the late 80s; VocalTec started shipping VoIP products in the early 90s. Haramaty has a multidisciplinary background in the business, technology, and marketing fields, is a co-inventor on VoIP patents, and initiated and spearheaded standards activities in the industry. The goal of this column is to clearly explain issues related to Voice (and other media) over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to anyone, including the "acronym-impaired" person. Requests for future column subjects to [email protected] are welcomed.

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