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Contact Center Virtualization:
Requirements For Effective Team Supervision And Quality Management

By Gerry Johnsen
Spanlink Communications


Today, rather than having a legacy environment — where contact centers tend to be a single physical site — contact centers are turning to voice over IP technology to break down geographical barriers and tie communications together across the enterprise. VoIP (define - news - alert) enables new work paradigms because VoIP lifts geography as a barrier to effective communications, enabling successful “virtual” contact centers and “homeshoreing.” For contact centers, the opportunities are:

  • The ability to hire, train and keep qualified employees regardless of location;
  • More flexible staffing, including part-time, peak-time and followthe- sun;
  • The opportunity to invoke remote staff at peak times to ensure service levels for high-value calls, which drives an increase in revenue; and
  • The addition of call center agents without adding facilities costs.

There’s no question that customer interaction is going “virtual.” When we think of virtualization, we tend to think of a workforce at home. In reality, virtualization happens when independent locations or bodies of resources operate together as part of a cohesive customer interaction network, including:

  • Home agents;
  • Smaller, regional call centers;
  • Branch offices or store locations;
  • Knowledge workers at corporate headquarters or anywhere else; and
  • Outsourced contact centers at any location.

Through virtualization, customer inquiries can be handled by a trained call center agent in any remote location to provide a more flexible resource for meeting service levels. In hiring conscientious, qualified agents, location is no longer a factor. This increases customer service quality, as customers dialing a local number feel like they’re getting localized or specialized service and/or their call is automatically transferred and handled by the most appropriate agent.

Virtualization isn’t just about the location of people. It requires that contact center tools are available to any team member on the network, not just those at the main contact center. In some cases, it drives requirements for new tools as well as a new architecture. For example, agent team members must now have a way to know the skills and availability of virtual team members, and it becomes impossible for agents to simply raise their hands and say they need help from a supervisor if they are working at some other location. Once agents, supervisors and managers are distributed across the enterprise, traditional supervisory and quality control management techniques become either impractical or difficult to adapt and scale with the enterprise. As a result, team supervision and quality management in a virtual environment requires a new approach.

With VoIP, (define - news - alert) the physical location of the agent — large call center, remote location, home location or foreign call center — can become completely invisible to the customer. This requires precise planning and design from location to location and person to person. It’s also important to consider that the service levels can vary drastically if the team management process and technology is not built to support virtualization. Some of the underlying challenges are a lack of planning around best practices and tools for managing virtual teams to ensure quality and adherence to key metrics; and applications that don’t allow the network to be truly “virtualized” so the cost levels can be reduced while providing better service.

Successfully addressing these questions enables the technology and training resources to enhance the customer experience and brand with consistent service and value.

Best Practices And Tools For Managing Virtual Teams
Virtual contact centers must support team productivity regardless of location — whether agents are in a call center, at home, or at a retail store location. The best contact centers handle calls by using agent desktops that include access to enterprise applications, Web services and other productivity-enhancing tools. These tools become even more critical in virtual centers, where best practices must be enforced across distance. Agent productivity and team management tools built in service-oriented architecture (SOA) will boost virtual agents’ efficiency by providing ready access to tools and information and a consistent business process.

Contact center agents realize productivity gains by having key customer data, call records and other tools at their fingertips. Remote agents require the following functionality to remain connected to the organization:

  • Call information presented in real time;
  • Integrated business applications and Web applications for easy access to customer data;
  • Performance reports for snapshots of key metrics;
  • Presence information for virtual agent team members;
  • Real-time chat capabilities between supervisors and other agents to enable communication without having a negative impact on service; and
  • Automated workflows that automate transaction best practices such as customer data entry and post-call activities.

Remote agents must have the ability to directly interface with the point-ofsale or CRM software for ease of use and faster service. Customer calls, along with call history and context, should be transferable to other qualified agents or supervisors, regardless of location.

Contact center supervisors require a management framework to monitor, coach and train centralized or virtual teams. A full-featured supervisor cockpit is essential in the virtual customer interaction environment. Supervisors of remote agents require the following functionality to manage virtual teams effectively:

  • Real-time reports of customer contact center key metrics;
  • Alerts when contact center events exceed defined thresholds;
  • The ability to monitor and record agent calls;
  • Real-time agent status (logged in/out, available, talking) and the ability to remotely change agent status;
  • Real-time chat capabilities for easy questioning and coaching;
  • Intervention tools (barge-in/intercept) for assisting agents in meeting customer needs and call center objectives;
  • The ability to push valuable information to agents during training or live call sessions; and
  • On-demand agent re-skilling, which gives managers of virtual teams the power to respond to changing environments and reassign contact center resources where and when they are needed.

Reporting, monitoring, recording and coaching tools must enable agents and supervisors to collaborate to solve customer problems instantly when they are not collocated. These capabilities will increase operating efficiency in a virtual environment.

Edge Architecture: An Intelligent, Virtual Model
As agents become virtual, using tools to capture their customer interactions at the edge is the best way to measure service. Yet, once agents, supervisors, managers and evaluators are distributed across the enterprise, traditional quality control monitoring techniques become either impractical or difficult to adapt and scale with the enterprise. If conversations are recorded and analyzed at a central site, it becomes impractical to make evaluations in real time. Quality management in a virtual environment thus requires a new approach.

Edge architecture, an innovative approach to IP-based call center applications, builds on the lessons learned from the Internet. By moving business logic closer to the information and events that drive it, and by mobilizing the full computing power and storage capacity of end-user PCs, edge architecture brings several valuable benefits to enterprise call centers, including:

  • Faster, easier application development;
  • Increased end-user productivity;
  • More reliable system performance;
  • Expanded system capacity, flexibility and scalability; and
  • Reduced capital and operating expenses.

There are various approaches to voice recording and analytics. The traditional approach records all conversations on a central recording server or on multiple servers spread across various sites. The VoIP network delivers incoming calls directly to virtual call center workers at the network edge. As a worker takes a call, the network copies the conversation as a VoIP packet stream to the central site. Special servers record the streams for later analysis.

Not every conversation requires analysis, but since the decision regarding which calls to analyze is made centrally, virtually every conversation must be transported to the central site, which adds to server bloat. Moreover, since VoIP requires priority treatment to alleviate network delay, jitter and loss, VoIP streams must be transported at high-priority. Thus, centralized recording consumes large amounts of high-priority (expensive) bandwidth.

A popular compromise solution places record servers at regional call centers. These distributed servers capture conversations held by local workers. They may also support home workers and smaller sites that lack their own record servers. Conversations recorded on the regional servers are later shipped to the central site for synchronization, archival storage and analysis.

Regional recording reduces high-priority bandwidth utilization since recordings can be shipped to the central site as compressed batch files instead of uncompressed, high-priority VoIP streams. In addition, some filtering can be done at the regional servers, reducing the number of recordings that cross the network.

Still, this method requires expensive record servers — perhaps even redundant record servers — at regional sites. Configuration of these servers can be challenging and can complicate network design. Moreover, to capture live VoIP streams, the record servers must attach to SPAN ports on local LAN switches, reducing the availability of SPAN ports for network monitoring and other important uses.

Edge architecture replaces central or regional record servers with record functions on end-user PCs. Instead of relaying real-time VoIP streams to a central or regional record server, PCs record, filter and analyze conversations where they first enter the virtual call center. Certain recordings still travel to the central site for archival storage or further analysis, but edge recording yields a major reduction in network traffic. Business logic is defined by a manager or supervisor who identifies which conversations to review based on factors such as call length, time of day received and call origin, and downloads those policies to end-user PCs. The PCs filter calls according to the policies and ship back only “calls of interest.” The calls travel to the central site as compressed batch files for minimal bandwidth impact. For even greater savings, PCs can analyze calls themselves and ship back only the results instead of the entire voice files.

Edge architecture gives supervisors more granular control over call selection and filtering than the central or regional approach. If desired, supervisors can set different filtering policies for each edge device instead of just each record server. Edge architecture also leverages PC capacity for a major reduction in server costs, eliminating record servers at distributed sites and avoiding the need for redundant servers since a PC outage affects only one worker. Less archival storage space is required at the central site because only selected calls get shipped back.

As with other edge architecture applications, voice recording and analytics scale with the number of call center workers, since each worker has his or her own PC. The architecture also enables valuable new capabilities such as real-time voice analysis and alarms, since there is no network delay between the live conversation and the recording process.

  • Edge-architected quality management virtualizes the quality management process, creating a system that:
  • Enables voice and screen recording of any agent at any location without site-based hardware;
  • Facilitates the distribution of reports and recorded contacts throughout the organization;
  • Enables collaborative contact review and training between remote users;
  • Integrates management with the telephony infrastructure; and
  • Leverages existing collaboration and training tools.

Of course, compared to the centralized model, edge architecture adds some operational complexity. Call center operations staff must maintain diverse applications on large numbers of remote PCs and manage policies that apply to large numbers of remote users. However, any worthwhile edge architecture solution includes automatic software verification and update mechanisms. End-user PCs automatically check with the central site upon start-up and download any software or policy updates.

VoIP technologies support improved unified communications, enabling more effective call center applications to provide tangible results such as greater reliability, efficiencies, cost reductions and ultimately improved customer service.

It is critical for virtual contact centers to be correctly deployed and effectively operated to optimally perform and improve customer satisfaction. Agent productivity and team management tools are especially critical in virtual centers, and best practices must be enforced across distance. Agent productivity and team management tools built in serviceoriented architecture (SOA) will boost the efficiency of virtual agents by providing easy access to tools and information and a consistent business process.

Finally, quality monitoring must factor in the unique requirements necessary to support remote agents. By storing recordings on the PC, the complexity of the server architecture and bandwidth requirements are minimized while providing a greater opportunity for evaluation in real time.

Gerry Johnson is product manager, Quality Management at Spanlink Communications (news - alert) (http://www.spanlink.com), a provider of customer interaction solutions that leverage VoIP technology for transformational business improvements in productivity, efficiency and customer satisfaction.


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