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Cutting-Edge Technologies For The Contact Center
April 2004

Contact Centers For A Virtual World

By Betsy Wood, Nortel Networks

Currently, the structure of contact centers is changing more rapidly than at any time in more than 30 years of existence. A key reason is the emergence and hasty expansion of the virtual world ' a world that is virtual in every meaning of the word. Let's take a closer look at what I mean and how businesses are taking advantage of this situation to maintain success.

First, geographical limitations are disappearing as more and more contact centers have employees working in diverse locations, but the contact center functions as a single, unified, virtual contact center ' either in essence or in reality. A virtual contact center offers companies exceptional versatility in building an agile business infrastructure that allows them to employ and retain highly skilled individuals wherever they are, quickly respond to dynamic market conditions and lower operating costs through a converged architecture. Customers receive enhanced service because their requests are handled more promptly and directly by the most appropriate available person. Finally, representatives and managers gain more variety and flexibility in their work environments, leading to higher morale and lower turnover.

How does this work? Two basic approaches are used individually or in combination ' network skills-based routing and IP ' to create the right architecture for specific business requirements. Business continuity and/or the need for increased contact center capacity often require two or more locations that are mirror images. These sites are then connected using network skills-based routing to create a single pool of representatives to answer calls.

The most cost-effective architecture assures a call is never sent across the network unless a representative is available and provides a variety of options for identifying the best skilled agent to get the call; for example, the fastest answering location, the location providing the best service level or the longest idle representative. Additionally, this approach should allow a company to choose whether to use a traditional circuit-switched private network, the company's WAN (IP-based, of course) or a virtual private network to connect all of the locations in the virtual contact center.

Browser-based thin-client tools offer consolidated views of real-time operations and comprehensive historical reports with the thorough information necessary to manage the virtual contact center and respond suitably, helping maintain consistently exceptional customer service levels. These tools, along with additional administrative and maintenance tools, can be used to manage the virtual contact center centrally from any place the user has secure Internet access ' either at a company location or off-site. These tools simplify operations and significantly reduce the time required to perform administrative tasks ' the optimum streamlined way to measure performance and guide decision-making for all facets of a virtual contact center.

The second approach for establishing a virtual contact center is to leverage IP in order to easily and cost-effectively locate employees in branch offices, at home or on the road. Representatives, team leaders, managers and administrators can use either IP phone sets or IP softphones installed on their PCs in combination with high-quality USB headsets. A LAN or WAN connection to the desktop is the only one needed to add someone into the contact center. If the representative is a teleworker, for example, a broadband link to the home using either a cable modem or DSL provides a relatively low-cost connection. When an employee is traveling, secure tunneling into the corporate WAN offers complete access using the Internet.

If the company uses a traditional PBX, in many cases it can be IP-enabled to allow for the same situation. Some reps can continue using digital sets while others use IP sets, or all the reps can use IP sets. For maximum flexibility, the virtual contact center should be neutral to the network infrastructure and not depend upon proprietary voice or data networks. Most important, before implementing IP in a virtual contact center, a network assessment should be completed to ensure the corporate WAN has the capacity, resilience and reliability vital to support the superior quality of service that is compulsory for valuable customer calls. Ultimately, IP significantly expands the number of options available to a company when creating a virtual contact center and can be used alone or in combination with network skills-based routing.

Second, forward-thinking companies are taking the Web and multimedia customer touch points seriously. These companies are promptly transforming traditional call centers into multimedia contact centers, thereby changing from a phone call focus to converging virtual communications ' those created, simulated or carried on by means of a computer or computer network.

Today, although most companies have created Web sites that provide customers with information and a means of sending e-mail or filling in Web forms, they usually haven't taken the next step, which is to put a process or infrastructure in place to handle the overwhelming arrival rate of these electronic requests. Nor do they have the ability to route, blend, track or measure electronic customer interactions like they do phone calls. Informal and ad hoc methods often mean a number of slow responses and some responses that fall through the cracks to go unfulfilled, alienating customers who expect instant gratification and frustrating representatives who don't have the right tools to do the job.

Multimedia contact centers unify customer communications using the phone, e-mail, chat, fax, collaborative browsing and more to deliver the seamless, consistent, quick and excellent levels of service customers demand. A multimedia contact center provides intelligent skills-based routing plus the management tools to measure and manage electronic interactions with the same effectiveness as traditional call centers. This results in increased service levels, additional revenue generation and enhanced customer retention.

Based upon the specific business situation, services that are increasingly integrated into the multimedia contact center include:

  • Intelligent skills-based routing of electronic inquiries,
  • Merging (or blending) of phone calls with e-mails and text chats,
  • Pushing of content between customers and representatives,
  • Collaborative browsing with Web customers,
  • Customer-scheduled callbacks ' immediate or delayed,
  • Web-based self-service,
  • Automated and immediate responses to frequently asked questions, and
  • Real-time text chat between customers and agents.

It's a fact ' customers are a great deal more likely to do business with companies that have taken the steps to offer convenient, seamless and consistent service to them no matter how they contact that company. Additionally, a business saves time and money in the process by improving contact center productivity.

Third, your customers are no longer tethered to their desks or homes. Instead, they can be virtually anywhere. Given this situation, how can a business enhance its contact center to eliminate boundaries ' to dynamically communicate and collaborate with customers wherever they are and whatever device they are using, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year?

This involves significantly more than becoming a multimedia contact center that still typically waits for customers to call, e-mail or click. Even so, this change can be accomplished in an evolutionary fashion, leveraging the knowledge and investments a company already has. Initially, it means raising the bar for a business to move beyond customer loyalty to foster customer engagement ' to figure out how to make customers' lives easier, to anticipate customer needs to give them what they want, when they want it, and to ultimately create advocates for the business.

It also means establishing a cooperative environment across an enterprise and across business applications such as CRM to deliver individually personalized services using multimedia communications as a tool for collaboration and delivering time-critical information. When a business seamlessly combines multimedia contact centers, self-service and business applications with unique customer knowledge, these services can be delivered dynamically while appropriately prioritizing the workload between people and automation. Previously disparate applications and systems cooperate (using open standards-based methods) to provide an outstanding customer experience.

This contact center and business transformation may seem daunting, but when an enterprise adopts this approach, it gains several advantages. Higher customer engagement and more effective business processes deliver increased revenue contribution and lowered service costs. A rich, distinctive customer experience supplies an enduring, dynamic competitive edge (see Figure 3).
There can be no doubt about it: the virtual world is here to stay, and its effect on contact centers is tremendous, though extremely beneficial to companies who leverage its power. A company can take advantage of this opportunity to remain competitive by eliminating business, technical and geographic boundaries to form a cooperative, agile business infrastructure, including contact centers, that fosters communication with customers and employees. Combine multimedia interaction management into the contact center to extend current investments while redefining customer service and expanding access to an organization. Collaboratively link online self-service with rep-assisted service to improve customer loyalty while more cost-effectively and reliably handling electronic inquiries.

Continue to adapt. Understand how to shift the business model from reactive to proactive. Embrace the latest business processes, behaviors and technologies to offer definitive services that reach customers quickly no matter where they are or what device they are using. Make customers' lives easier and keep them coming back again and again ' the decisive measure of contact center and business success.

Betsy Wood, a marketing manager at Nortel Networks Customer Contact Solutions, is part of a global team that helps companies deliver definitive customer service. Her experience incorporates 17 years of enterprise solutions marketing, sales and consulting with Nortel Networks in Asia Pacific, the Americas and Europe.

[Return To The April 2004 Table Of Contents]

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