TMCnet - The World's Largest Communications and Technology Community
ITEXPO begins in:   New Coverage :  Asterisk  |  Fax Software  |  SIP Phones  |  Small Cells

IP Contact Centers
August 2004

Voice Over IP: Hitting Home Runs In The Contact Center

Every spring, the first game of the season fills my leisure time with visions ' of baseball and speculations about the prospects for my favorite team. Sometimes those visions color my product management job, and I then find myself reviewing product scouting reports and performance stats to wonder if Internet telephony is ready to give traditional telephony solutions a run for the pennant in the contact center ' especially since Internet telephony delivers the benefits of voice over the Internet, or VoIP, with the functionality of real-time data and other productivity tools.

Since its introduction in the late 1990s, VoIP had many skeptics debating its commercial viability. There were many problems for the skeptics to cite. Technical concerns included quality issues like latency, security lapses and a lack of end-to-end QOS (quality of service). I am happy to report those issues are absolutely out of the game. Today, equipment and application leaders are teaming with network service providers to tackle and conquer those issues. VoIP has technically grown up. More accurately, IP's ability to support VoIP voice has become reality. Businesses of all sizes are reaping the benefits of VoIP in the contact center.

Until now, however, the technical service re-quirements were still a challenge for many businesses, and there's still a need to work closely with service providers around the world to enable these services and ensure flexibility.

ROI Or RBI ' Runs Batted In
VoIP is helping business owners maximize their returns by allowing them to create virtual contact centers anywhere they need them, and a variety of them are realizing great competitive advantage across three kinds of business environments:

  • Typical retail stores;
  • Work-at-home contact centers; and
  • Follow-the-sun contact center applications.

For example, retail chains could take advantage of the slow times in its retail stores. Store managers can staff the stores for their peak busy periods, and by installing a hosted contact center solution, increase the productivity of salespeople and turn every store into a virtual contact center.

The virtual nature of VoIP-enabled contact centers could bring productivity of salespeople to a new level. For example, the back room of any retail store could be set up as a virtual contact center, putting the sophisticated support tools of the contact center agent in the hands of every ordinary store salesperson. Store clerks could know what the customer bought online, by phone, even in another store, because they have access to a complete buying profile of the customer, enabling them to adjust their pitch to each customer's interests and buying patterns.

With only a PC and broadband IP connection, retail clerks could take advantage of store downtime to call customers and let them know about new deliveries or sales and promotions. Customers at retail chains could get the kind of personal service that was previously only available at higher-end establishments.

Store managers at those retail establishments could also take advantage of their sales resources during periods of slow in-store traffic to create new inbound and outbound customer contacts. For example, the company could allow the local manager the discretion to start or stop special promotions as the traffic in that particular store dictates. It would put a powerful tool into the hands of the local manager to optimize returns from each store. If local events, such as bad weather, cause a slump in customer traffic, the manager could have the clerks make calls to key customers to offer a special discount or promotion. Conversely, a manager with good results could delay offering discounts, keeping margins up.

Switch Hitting ' The Work-At-Home Contact Center
Flexibility is the most important characteristic of a winning major league team or a contact center. As coaches want players who can switch hit or play utility in-fielder, businesses also need the ability to offer flex work arrangements to attract the best workers. Numerous contact center managers with whom I've worked have sung the praises of some of their best, most dependable team players ' the 'soccer dads and moms.' According to my contact center manager friends, parents who want the flexibility to work around their kids' schedules are among the most reliable and productive agents in the business.

Businesses that use the work-at-home contact center strategy experience a number of key advantages:

  • Reliable, skilled agents who switch from 'soccer dad or mom' to contact center agents with ease. Any home with a VoIP quality broadband connection can now be equipped as a VoIP contact center with minimal investment;
  • Distributed, satisfied agents who can get the schedule they want and don't need to travel to a centralized location;
  • Access to a much broader pool of talent without the significant costs of a brick-and- mortar contact center; and
  • Evolution to a converged environment where voice is available in the same infrastructure as the data, eliminating expensive separate lines.

All of these advantages center on the ability to create a virtual work environment around VoIP technology. The core value proposition of VoIP technology is that it brings to many applications the same functionality without regard to geography. You can locate the technology almost anywhere, and you don't need to reconfigure the infrastructure as you move agents around or as the business grows. Voice and data in the contact center are integrated with access to a single customer database so all agents get a total view of the customer.

Getting Ready For The World Series: Global Economy Demands Global Support
One clear benefit of the Internet is its escalation of the global economy for small- and medium-sized businesses. Large companies have been able to distribute their operations around the globe for decades. But the investment in wide area networks (WANs) was beyond the reach of most small- and medium-sized businesses. Now the IP protocol standard is facilitating the creation of virtual worldwide networks at a fraction of the cost of a private WAN.

With a virtual IP contact center, small- and mid-sized businesses can provide more affordable around-the-clock support. Not only are the network costs more affordable, the business can take advantage of the best labor rates for its contact centers. Support can follow the sun by taking advantage of the best labor pools for multiple time zone and multiple language support, eliminating the need to pay overtime rates in any time zone.

A 'follow-the-sun' customer support strategy also provides flexible disaster recovery. Multiple customer support centers'brick-and-mortar and virtual ' facilitate instantaneous restoration in the event of network outage or other disaster. If a business chooses a hosted contact center solution, it gets immediate redundancy.

Instant restoration is only one advantage. Another critical capability is smooth migration from existing analog systems and call centers to IP telephony call centers. Support to both traditional call centers and VoIP is a critical requirement businesses should demand from vendors.

The flexibility and availability of a hosted contact center have a significant impact on the total cost of ownership for the contact center. A hosted solution, in effect, outsources the technical and capital investment headache. It eliminates the need to hire and train an IT staff. Further, the service providers and their suppliers assume the issues around technology obsolescence. Finally, small and medium-sized companies can afford the functionality of the big company on a small company budget.

Scoring In CRM Means 360' Visibility And Support
A contact center that uses VoIP should let businesses see one integrated view of the customer. All customer interactions via phone, fax, e-mail, snail mail or in-person should be visible to agents through shared interaction data access. This allows a new, higher level of customer intimacy. Large businesses can appear to know their customers better. And the little guys can look like the big guys because they get an integrated view of the customer and a complete history for relatively little investment.

But 360' visibility in CRM works in both directions. The business gets a total picture of the customer, and the customer gets a multifaceted view of the business. Where is the customer's order? What's on the invoice? What's back-ordered? What are the new delivery dates? Customers' expectations are high and rising. Comprehensive round-the-clock support with 100 percent uptime is a mandate rather than an expectation. Meeting that objective is going to require some new business relationships and business models. Service provider hosting is that solution.

Hosted solutions from telecom service providers promise to remove that last obstacle and make VoIP in the contact center the MVP, most valuable player. This paradigm presents a winning combination for both small- and mid-sized businesses and the service providers who support them.

Here's how it works: Service providers, their applications and equipment suppliers collaborate to install and manage the business' applications in the service provider's data center and on its network. If needed, the supplier supports the business customer at its location, ideally giving these customers access to best-in-class, affordable applications. These 'outsourced' applications are delivered over the service provider's IP and voice networks. Customers will have the advantage of knowing they're using market-leading technology from their service provider and its supplier without the awesome responsibility for building and maintaining their own contact centers.

The service provider delivers seamless support for both traditional and VoIP contact center locations with the technical support businesses expect from their phone companies. Some providers of communications networks and business services are offering hosted versions of their enterprise products for Internet telephony and contact centers through service provider partners. There are advantages in working with those suppliers that provide equipment and applications to contact centers with more than 400 agents, as they will really understand the day-to-day demands of those centers. Here are some of the other critical requirements that contact center managers should demand from any contact center vendor:

  • Reliability. Insist on fault-tolerant server options and distributed architecture to avoid disasters rather than only doing disaster recovery.
  • Physical and operational security. Take advantage of the advanced service provider secure environments while hard security boundaries between business customers allow for complete separation for security issues, as well as for performance and operational concerns.
  • Data security. Demand data security between enterprises with an architecture design that supports security.
  • Guaranteed peak performance. Demand a hosted architecture design that provides 100 percent peak performance for each enterprise.
  • Flexible implementation. Make sure you get a standards-based development environment because a flexible implementation is easily customizable to unique needs. Support for application program interfaces (APIs) also simplifies integration into existing networks. It should also be preintegrated with CRM solutions from other vendors, and the hosted product should have deployment ability in either a centralized or a distributed architecture.

Another advantage of a hosted IP telephony call center is its provision of consistent infrastructure around the world. Managing a hosted contact center solution, I have learned that service providers want a superior product offering, a complete partnership strategy, a smooth migration from traditional telephony and a flexible pricing policy that allows the service provider to gradually grow the capability.

This is an exceptionally exciting area that is exploding. Service providers and enterprise business customers want to get into the business of VoIP without the hassle. They want hosted contact center solutions. Businesses are now beginning to realize how much they can harness the power of VoIP in the contact center to operate on a global basis, improve customer service, enhance customer intimacy and increase sales.

So, as Yogi Berra once said, 'Baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical.'

While we can't admire his math, I think we all understand the sentiment. I'll take his thought and apply it to VoIP in contact centers: the successful VoIP contact center is 90 percent service, the other half is technical. I'm predicting that hosted VoIP in the contact center will break all the records for scoring hits with customers because it has the best of both worlds ' comprehensive service and world-class technology.

Bob Gilbert is product manager, Hosted Contact Center Solution, for the Service Provider division of Avaya.

[ Return To August 2004 Table Of Contents ]

Upcoming Events
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas

Subscribe FREE to all of TMC's monthly magazines. Click here now.