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E-Sales E-Service Feature Article
January 2002  


IP Telephony In The Contact Center


It seems there has been a lot of talk about voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) for years, but little implementation. Now, however, businesses are beginning to find compelling benefits from implementing VoIP in their enterprises ' benefits ranging from adding or increasing a remote agent workforce, eliminating the costs of brick-and-mortar and providing round-the-clock customer service through the much-touted 'follow-the-sun' strategy.

According to a research study conducted last year by Phillips InfoTech, 17 percent of U.S. businesses began implementing IP telephony, and Phillips projects the number will grow to 80 percent within four years. The discussion around IP has changed from 'why?' to 'when and how?' Another significant question has been, 'Is IP reliable enough for my business-critical applications, such as my contact center?'

Faced with rising costs and pressure from new, non-traditional competitors, businesses are seeking to differentiate themselves with technology-enabled services ' personalized tools for attracting new customers and upselling to existing ones. Companies must choose the networking infrastructure that will allow them to manage customer transactions and workflows efficiently, cost-effectively and reliably. This is easier said than done.

VoIP may be right for a business if it is seeking to integrate all voice, text and Web customer contacts; if the company wants to communicate and share applications seamlessly across physical locations such as multiple stores or a showroom and a warehouse; if the organization wishes to enable its outside employees to serve customers more efficiently and effectively; and if it is looking to save money on its communications networking. Nowadays, it would be difficult to find a company that isn't seeking any and all of the above, particularly the 'saving money' part of the equation.

The Basics
IP is a transport protocol that uses data switches and routers to move 'packets' of data from one place to another, with many packets from many different data streams all traveling together to fully utilize the capacity, or bandwidth, of the network. Most business data networks already use packet technology on their local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs). By contrast, the traditional voice network uses a PBX, key system or phone company central office switch to provide a dedicated channel for each call. Voice over IP involves taking the voice stream, converting it to packets and transporting it on the data network, essentially converging voice and data (and, perhaps, video) on a single network infrastructure.

The IP contact center is a multi-protocol input point to the company. It receives phone calls, faxes, e-mail and Web-clicks ' both text-based and voice-based. Contact center solutions that use IP technology in the PBX are sometimes placed into one of two categories: a 'pure IP' contact center in which all forms of communication within the contact center enterprise network are treated as data (including voice); or an 'IP-enabled' contact center, which supports both IP and traditional voice transmission. The optimal solution is a platform that allows either approach or a mixture of the two.

In a contact center, examples of VoIP include one or more of the following:

  • Some or all agents use IP telephones or IP softphones;
  • Voice contacts are transmitted within a contact center site over a LAN;
  • Inter-site IP connectivity between multiple sites is enabled over a WAN; or
  • Multiple contact centers are connected to operate as one, using IP connectivity over broadband services.

There are two options for becoming IP-enabled. A company can IP-enable an existing PBX or it can voice-enable the LAN. When IP-enabling a PBX, the best offerings will provide transparent integration of and migration between circuit-switched and packet-switched environments. Voice-enabling the LAN should involve choosing a vendor that can assess a data network's readiness for voice traffic and provide the voice features required. Not all switches and routers are created equal, and each business has different requirements and data flows. Organizations should be sure to explore the advantages and disadvantages of each. Companies would do well to remember that VoIP is a technology, not a business strategy. Investment in VoIP for the contact center should happen only where and when it is appropriate from a business perspective. The real question is this: What gains will customers and businesses realize from this technology?

The Technology
Until recently, data networks were not designed for transporting time-sensitive information such as voice. This has caused many people to be skeptical about IP's reliability and voice quality. The challenge convergence vendors face is to provide the scalability, applications richness and feature-functionality of the traditional PBX-based contact center with all the reliability and voice quality that businesses expect.

The overwhelming perceived weakness in IP telephony is its relative lack of voice quality, as compared to traditional circuit switched networks. However, with the right policy management tools and quality of service (QoS) features, a network can prioritize voice (which can tolerate errors, but not delay) over data (which can tolerate delay, but not errors), providing users the undistorted, real-time calling experience to which they are accustomed. It also helps if the PBX is smart enough to know when IP voice quality is less than optimal, and can automatically put calls back on the switched telephone network until IP quality comes back up to muster.

Reliability (a measure that indicates time between failures) and availability (a measure of the percentage of time a system or component performs its function) are also perceived as weaknesses of VoIP. Availability of telephone systems, or 'uptime,' is expressed in the form of '9's ' for example, a vendor might be able to offer 'five nines,' or 99.999 percent uptime.

Some IP-PBX (LAN-based telephony) suppliers have yet to prove their availability and reliability. By contrast, many traditional PBX vendors offer 'shadowing,' meaning if a processor goes down, the mirrored standby will assume operation and maintain all active calls. Although several IP-PBX vendors offer redundancy options, this does not necessarily guarantee high availability or reliability unless active calls are maintained in the case of failure. Ensuring high availability extends beyond providing duplicate power supplies or servers to which endpoints can reconnect. High availability can be achieved through software design that allows for call state information to be shared between primary and backup processors so that in the event the primary processor fails, users and callers are transparently moved to the secondary processor with no service outage.

It is worth mentioning that a system may be available with a failed component if availability is obtained through redundancy. However, when high availability is obtained through redundancy, it is necessary to have the ability to test the redundant component on a regular basis to make sure that it is available when needed. Other issues include time to recovery (milliseconds, minutes, etc.) and the behavior of the system during the transition (e.g., does it drop all the calls?).

Another area of interest to a company considering VoIP is cost savings. Anticipated cost savings are not being realized as quickly as some would like, but companies implementing the technology do have the opportunity to save as much as 40 to 60 percent of networking costs by converging data and voice on a single network: fewer cables, wires and boxes; fewer management and maintenance resources; consolidated reporting of call records detailing activities and trends; and easier moves, adds and changes are examples. By using broadband data networks to pool agents from separate sites into one virtual contact center, an organization can reduce network costs when calls are transferred between these locations.

Additionally, if the proposed solution is standards-based, it can interoperate seamlessly with other systems. This can make it easier to develop or acquire third-party applications, and if a company grows through mergers or acquisitions, its network will be able to interoperate and share applications with equipment from different vendors.

Once voice quality, reliability and availability are assured, the next area of concern is the ability to retain the rich set of features and applications on which businesses rely. If an IP solution is an upgrade to an existing PBX, a company will not lose any of the functionality it has come to rely upon and need not waste the time and expense of training workers on a new and different interface.

A company can leverage its existing investment in its PBX and, at the same time, 'future-proof' the network by ensuring its upgradability; if the network can keep the content and context of an interaction intact as it moves from front office to back office and among different media types or network protocols; if the network can provide the security, reliability, scalability, feature-functionality and applications a company needs, then the organization can feel it has chosen the best solution for its needs.

Following are some business scenarios that may help determine if it makes sense to integrate IP into a customer contact center.

Attract And Retain Excellent Agents
One of the challenges companies face today is attracting and retaining good agents. An expanded pool of talent for an existing contact center is available through telecommuting and/or part-time workers. Companies that can offer agents the ability to work from home may find it easier to keep top-notch workers. With adequate network engineering for the right QoS, contact centers can use IP telephony to merge the voice calls and the data (for screen pops) to these agents, requiring the use of only one line to the home office. This low-cost option saves the installation expenses and monthly costs of a second line. Or, as an alternative to VoIP, consider continuing to send voice calls over a separate line, simultaneously providing the screen pop to the agent over the second line. Regardless, remote agents will be able to handle all contacts, whether voice, Internet or e-mail, just as efficiently as if they were on-site. They can be tracked and reported on in the same manner as on-site agents.

When adding agents who typically work on-site but may need to telecommute at times, consider providing these new agents an IP softphone ' client software on a PC that emulates the phone in the office. This approach allows for the same interface for agents, regardless of whether they are on-site or at home or remote offices.

Eliminate Costs Of Brick-And-Mortar
Some companies are beginning to take the remote agent approach a step further, and are recruiting an entire population of agents who work from their homes. Other than perhaps a small training facility, no building costs are incurred. Reporting and monitoring tools assist in the management of the remote agents in the same manner as if they were physically co-located. Companies that implement co-location programs with remote agents report almost no turnover, which, in the call center industry, is truly a revelation. These organizations are claiming enhanced productivity due to happier agents.

Add A Site To 'Follow The Sun'
If your contact center is growing, you may be considering adding a new site rather than expanding an existing site. By locating the new site in a different time zone, a company will be able to interflow calls between sites and provide a larger real-time response window for customers. Traffic can interflow between contact center locations using VoIP and, with the right PBX, can overflow to the PSTN if the data channel is too busy to accommodate the traffic or if the quality of service does not meet pre-defined standards.

The end goal is to ensure that customers are able to contact an organization easily, that they are quickly connected to the right agent and receive satisfactory service regardless of the physical layout of the communication system infrastructure. Using an IP network and broadband services to interflow traffic allows for the merging of individual contact centers into one highly efficient virtual contact center. This can maximize the use of agents between locations, while significantly decreasing overall network costs.

It's no secret that competitive pressures are greater than ever before. Customers have more options ' more information and more shopping choices ' and customer loyalty is more difficult to maintain. We live in a world in which competitors are a few mouse clicks away, so it becomes crucial to create a customer experience that is positive enough to keep customers interested and motivated to return. It's about aligning the enterprise around the customer; sharing valuable information with suppliers, partners and associates; and making it meaningful and relevant for the ultimate decision maker ' the customer.

Jim Smith is CRM CTO for Avaya, responsible for directing strategy, product realization, business development and technology alliance functions for Avaya's CRM Solutions Business. Rebecca Kay Phelps is a CRM Solutions Manager. Avaya is a provider of corporate networking solutions and services, and a worldwide leader in call centers. Avaya's CRM Solutions are a system of software, services and communications technology for building customer relationships, fulfilling customer requests and gathering and analyzing information needed for insight into customers and the business.

[ Return To The January 2002 Table Of Contents ]

IP Contact Center Solutions Migrate From The Internal To The External


IP telephony has come a long way, in its capacity, its quality and its capabilities. After so much talk, the quality of this technology has risen to a level allowing voice over IP to be a viable and economical option. Still, many companies are unsure of the risks involved (misdirected calls, lost customers and difficulty locating customer information) and start by implementing and testing the technology internally. As the technology proves itself in quality and dependability, it is scaled to external contact centers. This migration model of implementation allows early adopting companies to reduce the risk associated with full-scale deployment.

The Technology
Internet telephony may not be the most exciting of technologies. However, the growth and application of the technology in business today is quite exciting. After years of talk, the acceptance of Internet telephony has grown in the business world and what was once thought of as an issue of the future for IT managers is now a challenge of today.

Internet telephony technology marries the telephony and data worlds. Also known as voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Internet telephony allows voice to be converted into data packets and then be transmitted over corporate and network data infrastructures. At first, the technology was primitive and the quality and clarity of the voice communication was questionable. Current VoIP technologies have improved to the point where quality is no longer an issue. An enterprise can now use new VoIP technologies that allow them to communicate over their current corporate infrastructure and escape paying large long-distance phone bills. The technology continues to improve and the use in the enterprise is growing.

The Market
Providers of Internet telephony technology continue to improve the quality and throughput, resulting in customers' expanded usage in the enterprise. IDC projects the IP telephony service revenue for this year will be $1.6 billion, increasing to $18.7 billion in 2004. Worldwide growth of IP telephony equipment will be more modest during the next three years, but business equipment will surpass $2.1 billion in 2004.

So, it is easy to see that the growth and evolution of Internet telelphony is expected. The market formed as corporations quickly recognized the opportunity for cost savings. However, as with all technologies, the adoption rate is dependent on the success of the technology and the amount of risk associated with implementing it. This was very true in the case of Internet telephony. Internet telephony offers what could amount to large cost savings, but also a risk to the corporation. Many enterprises are beginning slowly by using the communication protocol for their internal or interoffice communication. This allows cost savings to be realized while not putting mission-critical communications at risk. However, these savings are sometimes not enough to justify replacing entire voice networks and traditional PBXs with Internet Protocol PBXs (IP-PBX). As incremental investments are made, enterprises are overwhelmingly choosing IP-PBXs.

Two to three years ago, several studies predicted that the large voice infrastructure players needed to move swiftly and develop IP telephony infrastructure as it was the wave of the future and would dominate the market. As it turned out, the IP-PBX market grew in a more controlled manner. Corporations are looking carefully at each new investment and are working to fully leverage their existing enterprise infrastructure. Recent research shows that for the first time since the early 1990s, traditional PBX station shipments have declined from year to year. This could be a signal that the momentum in the IP-PBX market is beginning to gather.

The Contact Center And IP Telephony
The call center market has changed dramatically over the last two years. The widespread use and adoption of e-mail and Web forms of communication by the public have driven call centers to accept and manage all contact media. As a result, call centers have now become state-of-the-art contact centers ' centers that manage all contacts with a customer regardless of the communication channel chosen.

Issues with speed and clarity, as referenced earlier, have held Internet telephony out of the mainstream. Contact centers, which are viewed as important corporate assets, are where an enterprise is put to the test by its customers. They are critical places where the enterprise gets the opportunity to delight its customers. Technology that does not fit results in poor service, which can significantly impact a corporation's bottom line. For this reason, new technologies have historically not been tested in these customer-facing centers; however, over the last few years enterprises have become creative in finding new ways to obtain cost savings by implementing new technologies in a controlled fashion.

One way to control the total cost of ownership of an infrastructure is to continue to use existing infrastructure whenever possible and add technologies that allow for their continued use. With this in mind, the IP-PBX can work in the contact center today. The optimal solution would be to use existing infrastructure, add the new IP technology, and choose application software that works independent of the infrastructure. There are several application software packages available today that allow a corporation to add an IP-PBX to their architecture and have it co-exist with their legacy voice infrastructure. This model also enables an enterprise to migrate to the IP-PBX solution one application at a time. The correct application software will act as the automatic call distribution application providing the identification, prioritization and routing of voice calls independent of whether the hardware is a traditional PBX or an IP-PBX. Along with the improvements in voice clarity and transmission, the implementation of this type of routing and management software as an adjunct to the switching infrastructure has expedited the adoption of Internet telephony in the contact center.

Internet telephony is not yet prevalent in contact centers. It is, however, beginning to take shape as the mainstream voice communication infrastructure. It is growing and providers of the technology such as Cisco and 3Com continue to build partnerships with call center application and CRM application providers to ensure they are involved in the buying decision for new technology in the contact center. The contact center has always been the largest user of voice technologies and the IP providers know they must satisfy these customers to make it. Packages offered by the providers offer applications and tools targeted for IP contact centers. As with all technology, demand will drive its use, but as more companies see the implementation success and cost savings, purchases will rise. Not only will internal applications and cross-department solutions be using Internet telephony infrastructure, contact centers will as well. It's only a matter of time.

Jody Wacker is senior vice president of marketing for Apropos Technology Apropos was founded in 1993 with the goal of developing the first network-based, client/server call center solution.

[ Return To The January 2002 Table Of Contents ]

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