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January 2002

Rich Tehrani The Brave New World Of Internet Telephony In The Contact Center


Last year, in this magazines January issue, our cover featured a tribute to Arthur C. Clarkes 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not wanting to break tradition, Ive chosen another sci-fi-related title with which to begin the year. In editorial this month, we are featuring two articles on the topic of Internet telephony in the contact center. The first article, authored by Rebecca Kay Phelps and James R. Smith of Avaya, offers not only good background for readers who wish to learn more about this growing technology, but also a concise list of the applications and benefits it can offer companies, including the ability to practice follow-the-sun service by locating call centers across time zones and even on the other side of the world, and the ability to attract and keep good agents by offering a work-at-home option, reducing the necessity of expensive capital ownership and decreasing overall network costs.

The second piece, authored by Jody Wacker of Apropos Technology, offers a beneficial insight into the Internet telephony market and goes a long way in countering some of the typical excuses to reject Internet telephony. (In essence, if you saw what the technology could do several years ago and were concerned by speed, latency, clarity, etc., then it is well worth your time to revisit itthings have changed greatly from just two years ago, and many technology providers are willing to offer quality-of-service guarantees.)

Before the advent of this exciting technology, many call centers were limited by cost restraints to operating only during the hours of 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. How many times have you called a government organization, insurance company, bank, help desk, etc., only to hear that Our hours are from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. Please call back tomorrow? All of us at one time have been frustrated with a defunct printer after work hours when we were desperately trying to finish a project or presentation. In this era where companies are recognizing that they need to offer excellent customer service all the time just to stay afloat, this option is not only unacceptable, but can endanger your business. Occasionally, some call centers kept second and third shifts, which was not only costly in terms of payroll, but increased capital expenses to unbelievably high levels and made for extreme agent turnover. (If you think turnover is high for daytime call center agents, imagine what its like for the nightshift workers.) Training expenses go through the roof, resources are wasted and the quality of customer service suffers as a result. Other companies chose to keep several call centers in different time zones, extending the hours of service. This, too, had its drawbacks, particularly in the days when networking was just not up to par and often one call center did not know what the others were doing. Callers received inconsistent service, which hurt their relationships with the companies with which they did business.

As we all know from opening our home long-distance telephone bills, long-distance service doesnt come cheap. As those of you who manage call centers know, in the volume necessary to run a large and effective contact center, the costs can be backbreaking. If there were ever a better time for a technology that gives customer service organizations the flexibility to reduce those costsnow is it.

There has been a lot of discussion lately regarding follow-the-sun service, and theres a reason that this topic has generated so much interest. Technology does not exist in a vacuum, and most companies wait, wisely, to let the applications develop before they invest precious capital in something new. The primary application for the call center has come in the form of outsourcing. Outsourcing has always been a time- and money-saving option for a company that wished to focus its primary efforts on its core business, and though having another organization make and take your companys customer service calls and e-mails helps reduce costs, costs have still remained high and agent turnover still causes quality of service to suffer.

Nowadays, its hard to read about the customer service industry without reading about India, or the Philippines, or Mexico or a plethora of other places in the world that are currently lobbying to become the primary sources of call center, help desk and other outsourced IT and communications talent. The case for outsourcing to these countries is solid. Capital and manpower can be as low as one-seventh of that of operating in the U.S. Even though agents are paid far less than their American counterparts, the jobs are popular because relatively speaking to the local wages, the salaries are desirable and the turnover is far, far less than what exists with American or Canadian call center agents. Another bonus is that often, the agents working for you out of a place such as India or the Philippines are often far better educated than their American counterparts. Who wouldnt prefer to have an individual with a Masters degree in computer science staffing the help desk? This level of education is almost unheard of in the U.S. among customer service workers, but it is not uncommon in parts of Southeast Asia.

Internet telephony is the only thing that makes arrangements such as these possible. Not a company in the world could truly afford the long-distance expenditures that would be inherent in such an arrangement. As more and more companies realize the potential of the follow-the-sun principle to increase service quality and reduce costs, they will step forward to implement Internet telephony into their businesses, particularly as the quality of the technology rises and the economy (and therefore profits) tightens. As the article written by Jody Wacker points out, many companies have chosen to test drive the technology first on an internal basis (linking satellite offices, for example) before deploying it on a full-scale to the outside world. This seems to be a wise choice for some businesses that wish to get their figurative feet wet before they dive in.

Another great stride that Internet telephony has made for contact centers is the ability operate remote and virtual offices. In years past, some companies did operate remote call centers using technologies such as voice over frame relay, but this was often prohibitively expensive. Companies are looking to cut capital expenditures, and when it comes right down to it, todays contact center technologies have made it unnecessary for agents to report to the same large room each and every day. Workforce management and monitoring technologies can now be delivered to any desktop with an Internet connection; classroom training of agents has begun to be enhanced or replaced by computer-based e-learning that is more engaging for the agents and can be accomplished during slow periods, eliminating the necessity of pulling agents away from the floor; information can be shared easily across channels so any agent servicing any customer can always have the full picture of that customers activities; calls can be transferred from one side of the globe to another instantly and transparently, without the quality of service taking a hit. With such technologies becoming more prevalent, the sizes of call centers are shrinking and good agents who need to work from home are being retained. There will always be a pool of agents that require location-based supervisionthe virtual agent arrangement only benefits companies when the agents in question are professional and reliable.

As business becomes ever more global and international barriers begin to disappear between companies and industries, it will be more important than ever for a company to be awake at all times for all customers, regardless of their location and what time it is at corporate headquarters. Internet telephony is making this possible, and we at Customer Inter@ction SolutionsTM are proud to continue to bring our readers the news and insights they need to realize the benefits of this technology and others in making their customers happier and their businesses ultimately more successful.


Rich Tehrani
Group Publisher, Group Editor-in-Chief

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