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Customer Inter@ction Solutions
April 2007 - Volume 25 / Number 11
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Building A Distributed Call Center: Three Things To Look For In A Virtual Phone Solution

By Greg Brashier

It's no secret nowadays that one of the greatest challenges to running a contact center is complying with demands from executive company management, which usually involve trying to find a way to increase call center efficiencies and reduce costs while raising customer service quality to increase customer retention and loyalty. It may sound like an impossible task, but there are several areas in the contact center that can be addressed to help achieve this seemingly impossible goal. This article will address one method: expanding the call center from a single-site entity to a distributed model.

Moving from a single-site to a distributed call center can translate into bottom-line benefits including reduced overhead costs, lower employee turnover rates and reduced maintenance and expansion expenses. No longer are agents locked into a traditional on-site call center with acres of cubicles. In a distributed environment, hiring managers can recruit the best agents regardless of geographic location, leveraging lower cost-of-living wages and enabling the call center to offer round-the-clock support. Call centers looking to set up a distributed center, or expand their operations beyond the traditional on-site PBX (News - Alert) phone system, have several options available to them. One option that requires no equipment to purchase, install or maintain is hosted PBX technology. Hosted PBX phone systems can serve as the standalone phone system or overlay directly on top of a preexisting PBX and integrate with existing phone numbers. Virtual agents can tie into the system through their home phone, cell phone or VoIP phone, eliminating the cost of new phones or phone lines. To best benefit the distributed contact center, hosted PBX phone solutions should include three key components: automatic call distribution (ACD), online system management and real-time monitoring and reporting.

Automatic Call Distribution (ACD)
The more successful call centers employ customized ACD queues instead of relying on simple hunt groups to route calls to agents. A hunt group is a low-end, "dumb" technology that simply sends callers to a list of agent phone numbers without regard to whether the agents are working or not, whether they are already on a call or whether they may have stepped away from the phone for a moment. Typically, this results in long "on-hold" times for callers and under-utilized agents who must wait for the system to deliver a call to them even when they are available. Intelligent ACD queues, on the other hand, take all of these things and more into account, reducing caller waiting and increasing agent efficiency. Callers are immediately connected to agents as soon as they become available, without waiting for the system to get through the number list. When building a call center, it is important to utilize real ACD queuing. When choosing a hosted PBX system for a distributed call center, availability of real ACD queues, not just hunt groups, should be high on the list of priorities.

There are also alternatives between ACD queues. For example, some hosted PBX solutions offer full-featured ACD queues that integrate high-end capabilities like skills-based call routing and overflow queues. These features can route incoming calls to front-line agents first, while managers or trainees take calls only when call volume is heavy. These features can also be used to make sure calls go to the best agents first, which can improve sales and client satisfaction. It is a good idea to understand the ACD alternatives available and choose a solution that matches your contact center's unique needs. The flexibility of routing callers to the appropriate agent is what makes the best call centers successful.

Online System Management
Traditional in-house PBX systems can be very expensive and temperamental to manage and maintain. Problems with the system usually require a service call from the vendor, while adding extensions and expanding the agent load usually means upgrading the hardware. Additional upgrades are sometimes needed to add new features as technology evolves. System upgrades usually require new, expensive components to be installed by professionals. Even seemingly simple changes to the system can incur fees. Changing greetings or system preferences, updating agent ratings within queues or even adding new agents often require specialized knowledge that can be provided only by outside professionals.

The time needed to make these changes can be even more difficult to accept than the cost. Call center managers may need to request upgrades from busy IT departments or wait for outside vendors to schedule system modifications, ultimately slowing down the process.

Good hosted PBX solutions require only an Internet connection to monitor and administer the system. Call center managers simply go online to modify settings or add capacity. System administrators can log agents in and out, change agent rankings, add or delete agents or do a host of other management tasks. Some systems are scalable to nearly any level with no changes needed by the client. New features are added automatically by the hosted PBX supplier. In addition, with a hosted PBX system, agents are never out of reach. They can log into the system from home, on the road, or even have the system ring several different numbers until they pick up. The agent's unlimited flexibility improves customer experience and strengthens employee relations.

Real-time Monitoring And Reporting
By nature, call centers continuously monitor call volumes, agent efficiency and customer experience. Managers need to know how long each call takes, which agents are selling the most, and which agents are taking the most calls. Large call centers relying on expensive traditional in-house PBX systems can run these reports in real-time, but these features usually ship with the largest, most expensive equipment, or for additional fees.

Reporting and monitoring in a virtual environment is even more important than in a traditional call center. Managers can't see who is taking calls or even if agents are working. Hosted PBX systems can provide real-time online monitoring for managers, regardless of the physical location of the agents. Managers can see who is working and how often each agent takes a call; they can even watch calls progress through the system. Online monitoring can also tell managers when traffic is heavy, requiring more agents to log in.

Online reporting can help managers track efficiency and call-arrival patterns, assisting in matching agent availability with peak load times. Abandoned calls can be assessed for frequency and cause, further improving caller experience and business close rates. Making sure a hosed PBX solution has real-time reporting is imperative to maintaining a successful distributed call center.

The Fear Factor
It's not uncommon for managers of distributed call centers to feel as though they are losing control of their agents. Agents working from home do not have a manager standing directly over them to keep them on task. A hosted PBX system can help alleviate managerial fear by ensuring management real-time control over the entire PBX system and agents' skill ratings.

It is important for call centers to thoroughly research hosted PBX solutions before making a selection. Look for real ACD queuing, not just hunt groups. Ask for a demonstration of online management tools and samples of call arrival patterns and other reports. Since you'll probably be talking with potential hosted PBX suppliers by phone, ask them if they use their own system for their own call center (this sounds like a no-brainer, but is sometimes not the case). Since hosted PBX technology varies, it is important to make sure the solution you chose has the capabilities you require for your specific application. CIS
By Greg Brashier

Greg Brashier is the VP of Marketing for Virtual PBX (www.virtualpbx.com), a hosted PBX service provider for SMBs and enterprises alike.

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