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Virtualize Your Contact Center
By Hollie Moran, Aspect Communications Corp.

Propelled by strong economic trends such as workforce globalization and corporate acquisitions, increasing numbers of companies in industries such as financial services, healthcare, retail and telecommunications have found themselves operating multiple customer contact centers of varying sizes throughout the world.

Concurrently, the trend toward building distributed virtual contact centers has been growing, influenced by different but equally powerful business drivers:

The need to do more with less. Businesses are delaying capital expenditures and are streamlining operations in an effort to cut costs. Virtual contact centers can help reduce infrastructure costs.

The need to consolidate. Consolidat-ing local operations into centrally administered virtual contact centers allows companies to lower expenses without sacrificing customer service.
The need to expand. Even during the economic downturn, some organizations have expanded. Virtual contact centers are a way to improve call handling capabilities and extend service across time zones, as well as across widely separated geographies.

The need to outsource. Outsourcers, for whom cost-per-transaction is a critical metric, use virtual contact center solutions to leverage labor and facility costs in less expensive venues.
The need for backup in an uncertain world. Virtual contact centers can provide a built-in backup plan if a center is offline through planning or disaster.

The need to plan for an IP future. Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) technology is a major operating expense, and enterprises are evaluating solutions that let them shift voice traffic to the less expensive IP network.

Multiple Sites? Go Virtual.
For organizations operating several contact centers, each site is frequently ill-designed to meet local or regional requirements, with best practices based on only a part of the bigger corporate picture. Agents in different locations are often trained differently, interpret corporate policies differently, and may even work using information culled from different databases. This lack of consistency can even extend to customer greetings and IVR prompts.

A far more effective approach to managing multiple geographically dispersed sites is to create a single virtual contact center. Virtual contact centers have access to bigger pools of agents, providing the ability to form larger skill groups or agent groups. This allows companies to take advantage of the pooling principle, which demonstrates that a larger group of agents is more efficient (i.e., higher occupancy rates) than smaller groups of agents. Therefore, you can achieve higher service levels with fewer agents because the right agents are being assigned to the right calls. Some of the tools associated with the virtual contact center include these:

• Computer-telephony integration (CTI). Customer data can be accessed and presented to the agent’s screen no matter where the caller is calling from and which agent receives the call.
• Skills-based routing. All contacts can be queued and routed to the best-skilled agent, regardless of channel (phone, e-mail or Web) or agent location.
• Consolidated business rules and reporting. This tool provides consistent business rules and reporting across all sites, enabling improved efficiencies and insight to enterprisewide, rather than single-center, trends and data.
• VoIP technology. This tool eliminates the need for point-to-point connections; reduces remote agent PSTN charges; and provides the flexibility to locate agents anywhere network access is available (including mobile knowledge workers).

Regardless of whether an organization chooses to network existing centers or to support agents working remotely, a distributed virtual contact center can reduce development and operating costs; can extend business hours with the same staff footprint; can use existing resources more efficiently; can tap into global skill pools; and can provide customers with consistent, high-quality service.

Creating A Virtual Environment
There are two primary ways to create a virtual contact center environment: network existing sites with centralized intelligence or extend contact center capabilities using remote solutions; however, a third — a combination of both — can create the most effective virtual contact center.

Network sites with centralized intelligence. Networking sites (e.g., connecting Boston and Topeka, or Boston and Bangalore) decreases costs and allows companies to send customers with specific concerns to the agents who can address them. The center’s location is transparent to the caller because databases, policies and customer interfaces are uniform across the operation, a particular benefit to companies that have built a reputation for good customer service and want to maintain it.

Successfully networked sites typically share similar strategies and best practices:

• Centralized administration and development. Unified environments enable developers to build call flows once and then distribute them across all sites. One administrator may manage several sites, eliminating the need for administration at each site.
• Extended operating hours. The ability to provide service outside the normal eight-hour business window without adding staff is a competitive differentiator and a convenience for busy customers whose days do not begin at 9 a.m. or end at 5 p.m.
• Efficient use of existing resources. Customers gain access to agents with specific skills, regardless of where they are located. Leveraging abilities across the enterprise saves money and helps maintain service quality.
• Ability to tap into global skill sets. A solution that seamlessly integrates outsourced work groups into an existing contact center allows enterprises to acquire needed skills at a considerable cost reduction.
• Consistent response. Centers linked by the same solution and common corporate policies present customers with a single, coherent view of the company. In a business landscape characterized by continual change, consistency is a competitive advantage.
• Open-standards-based. Open standards provide tight integration between applications and allow applications to work with VoIP and PSTN.
Remote solutions are also ideal, not only for reducing costs, but for expanding services, consolidating facilities and providing emergency support. Companies deploying remote solutions typically need to increase the capacity and capabilities of a primary center, but want to avoid the expense and inflexibility of building a new operation or of continuing to operate an underused one. Remote locations staffed with agents working from branch or home offices can extend customer service capabilities at lower labor costs.
Effective remote solutions make use of the following six strategies and best practices:
• Increase branch productivity. Integrating the branch into the enterprise can leverage employee expertise while keeping costs down. This doesn’t require any special hardware at the site, but rather only a PC and a phone at each agent’s desktop.
• Centralize administration. Building call flows, configuring multiple systems and managing agent groups from one location can reduce administrative costs and streamline operations.
• Flexible agent deployment and use of at-home agents. Agents need only a PC with broadband access and, sometimes, a phone; in other cases, the PC can double as the phone. Offering agents the option of working from home is a proven way to attract and retain the most skilled people without increasing costs. Or, placing agents at underused corporate locations is a great way to use space that is already being paid for through a long-term lease.
• Consolidated sites. Many companies find it makes sense to close centers with lower activity levels, and then link agents to remaining sites to reduce costs without jeopardizing customer service levels or losing valuable employees.
• Lower facility and labor costs. Organizations with prohibitively high labor and facility costs can employ agents in lower-cost areas and still manage performance centrally. Alternatively, they can outsource to countries with a well-trained — but less expensive — labor pool, and still benefit from centralized management.
• Use of voice over IP. Connecting VoIP-enabled agents with a PSTN-based center offers greater flexibility and cost savings, as well as protection of investments in legacy hardware and software solutions.

Planning A VoIP Network — A Brief Technical Digression
Organizations going the VoIP route find that success lies in effectively managing their IP networks. To do this, network planning and design are critical. Projects do not fail because the technology is inadequate, but because of poor planning and design. This checklist can help ensure a successful project:

• Select the best Voice-Operated Recorder (vocoder) possible for the available bandwidth because it will provide better MOS scores (minimum operational sensitivity).
• Make certain the network has sufficient bandwidth to handle the maximum number of concurrent end-to-end calls supported by the VoIP application, also ensuring there is enough bandwidth available to support additional traffic.
• Ensure that network latency and network packet loss are as low as possible.
• When using a third-party network service provider, confirm that it offers a service-level agreement with real-time performance monitoring, a bandwidth guarantee and a delay and packet-loss rate guarantee.
• Separate voice and data traffic into separate virtual LAN segments, when appropriate.
• Always prioritize voice traffic to reduce traffic delay, packet loss and echo.
• Choose phones and headsets that optimize sound quality.
• Monitor and tune frequently for optimal performance.

The Benefits Of “Virtualizing”
“Virtualizing” contact center operations confers powerful benefits. Front and center among these for most companies will be the cost savings. In a business environment frequently ruled by severe budget constraints, superior technology alone is not a sufficient reason to make operational changes. Networked and remote solutions have proven themselves through their ability to dramatically reduce expenditures in several categories. Companies can reduce infrastructure costs by deploying agents who work in less expensive labor markets or at home, reducing facilities costs — or by consolidating their call center systems in one location. They can lower administrative costs by centrally managing all agents, both those on-site and remote, from a single location.

In addition to cost effectiveness, there are other reasons to consider virtualizing. Virtualization offers incomparable flexibility. It permits companies to maintain management and customer interface consistency, while linking dispersed sites or establishing outsourcing relationships with minimum difficulty. Networked centers or remote agents also make for improved disaster preparedness. If one facility is affected, agents in other locations can be brought online quickly and easily.

A virtualized contact center is also a highly productive one, usually delivering higher levels of customer service and enabling greater agent efficiency. With the ability to route calls to the most experienced or least busy agents, a virtualized call center can handle a greater volume of calls, can offer a more satisfying interactions for customers and can deliver a better rate of closure.

Moreover, offering flexible work hours and the ability to work at home can increase the pool of available labor and boost retention, as competition for skilled agents is one of the biggest challenges companies face. With agents able to work remotely across time zones, companies can expand service hours. Virtualizing also enables organizations to access a larger number of multilingual agents, as well as the ability to handle seasonal call fluctuations without the need to build new facilities.

Finally, virtual contact centers provide customers a single, consistent, coherent view of the company. They assist in providing common policies, data, business rules and reporting across the company, enhancing the customer’s experience while simultaneously driving improvements in operational performance across the entire company.

When contemplating whether to deploy virtual contact centers as a strategy, all of the potential benefits should be taken into equal consideration. While organizations are quickest to respond to financial rewards, the benefits of flexibility, productivity, access to talent and the ability to deliver a greater customer experience should also be highlighted upon evaluation. Without a doubt, any organization with a contact center can benefit from virtualization. The only question is this: To what degree? CIS

Hollie Moran is senior product marketing manager for Call Center Solutions at Aspect Communications Corp. (www.aspect.com).

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