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April 2001


IP -- Out Of The Cloud And Into The Contact Center


Conjure up a mental image of Switzerland and you are likely to envision Alps, cows, bankers, watches, fondue and chocolate. Belying those stereotypes are the modern offices of Neue Zrcher Zeitung (New Zurich Newspaper, which was founded in 1780) in the bustling Zurich suburb of Schlieren, where customer service agents are making and receiving calls off a voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) HighPath ProCenter Workflow system from Siemens.

Vincenzo Vito, who is head of the reader services contact center, explained that NZZ produces several newspapers besides Neue Zrcher Zeitung -- St. Galler Tagblatt, Der Bund Bern, Tagblatt der Stadt Zurich -- as well as NZZ Online (which has one of the highest hit rates in Switzerland) and NZZ Television, which produces documentaries. NZZ also has a book publishing division. All told, NZZ has around 1,500 employees.

Vito related that NZZ readers are mainly management level, and that more than 50 percent of readers are online, so the NZZ contact center needs to handle interactions coming in through voice, e-mail, voice mail and fax. Vito's group of 35 agents handles reader service questions, mostly concerning subscriptions and billing questions, as well as letters to the editor, for Swiss and international readers (mainly from Germany and Austria) from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. On average, the center receives around 600 to 800 calls a day, but he has seen spikes of 1,200 to 2,000 calls a day. Seventy percent of calls are inbound, with an average talk time of 1 minute and 35 seconds, and an average wait time of 10 seconds, which is well under their service-level goals of 90 percent of all calls being answered within 20 seconds. (Vito told me the system has a dialer, but they don't need it since they outsource calling for subscriptions.) Usually, calls peak at around 9 a.m. and valley around noon, then go back up a bit after lunch. Agents run Windows NT and Outlook on their desktops, and during the down times in calls, they answer e-mail inquiries.

Setting up the system followed an orderly progression, starting with workflow definition, which took around three months, system installation in less than two months, then each month after came supervisor training, installation of the reporting and unified messaging components and finally the integration with NZZ's SAP front-office system, which took around three months. Vito said NZZ has a good relationship with Siemens, and the technicians who developed the system at Siemens' Center for Competence have been very helpful (NZZ was a beta customer for 32 workstations). Vito also acknowledged the help of the NZZ IT support staff, which is just a few minutes away in Zurich if he should encounter any problems he cannot correct himself. Currently, NZZ has a 100 mb network switch from Cisco, but Vito intimated that there can be slight problems if someone in IT does a major download without notifying them.

When I asked Vito why NZZ chose a VoIP solution for its contact center, he said it was for two reasons: "one, it will be widespread in a few years and two, all media are on the same platform and additional media can be readily integrated." For example, the system's ACD is used to route phone, voice mail (.WAV files), e-mail and fax to the proper agents' desktops.

Vito was high on the Siemens system in part because it gives his agents the ability to handle all media types on the same platform. Vito emphasized that the strengths of the system are its stability and the fact that NZZ can easily resize the software and hardware. He also likes that it is easy for the supervisor to reconfigure many aspects of the system. For example, it's easy to set overflow priorities, and provisioning workstations is quite simple as the phones are software and an integrated part of the system. From the supervisor station he can also monitor calls and help out if agents are having a particularly difficult call.

Vito said that while technology is helping to mechanize the workforce, every user has been highly enthusiastic about the Siemens system, not only because of its ease of use and the quality of the IP calls, but also because it helps them do their jobs better. As for NZZ, Vito has been able to report that efficiency is increasing -- and despite the fact that the number of calls is increasing, they have been able to reduce their workforce.

Domestic IP
Nearly half a world away from Switzerland, I recently visited the world headquarters of Stream International in Canton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, where Stream, a major teleservices/technical support outsourcing company with 20 customer interaction centers in 10 countries, is installing an IP system from Aspect Communications for its customer interaction center. I met with Lorie Abrams, vice president, Advanced Voice and Computer Services, who told me that Stream originally tested IP technology over their LAN, sending calls to the desktops of a small group of agents. "We have been testing every possible point of failure," continued Abrams. "Contingency is paramount," she said, as Stream cannot leave its clients' customers in the lurch while it installs new technologies.

Abrams said that Stream likes to keep customers in small queues of no more than 10 at one time. She was complimentary of Stream's "technically savvy" agents who are readily adapting to the new technology. Illustrating this, Abrams pointed out that some of Streams' help desk agents handle chat, e-mail and voice (depending on client needs) and that a small number of at-home agents answer e-mail using an e-mail system from Kana.

When up and running (construction delays in the new contact center were holding up the final rollout at press time), calls will go to Stream's Memphis, Tennessee center and be routed over IP to around 250 agents in the Canton office. Abrams said that long-term, the plan is for the entire organization to eventually go remote over IP, as the resources will allow this. This will give Steam more flexibility in its workforce and also in the projects it can handle. "But for the customers, there should be no difference" in the quality of voice service or in the quality of the service Stream provides. As an example of how Stream will maintain its quality, Abrams mentioned they can monitor calls in Canton from their NICE quality monitoring system in Memphis.

Commenting on the depth of the Stream personnel involved in the project, Abrams said telecom engineers and network engineers have a minimum of 15 years of experience. One of the engineers, Ken Fleming, showed me around the phone room and gave me details on some of the wizardry behind the project. Fleming said they tested on G.729, but standardized on G.723, which although more process intensive, gave them better quality. (Abrams had mentioned they had some challenges on the desktop components, but they are now using an IP telephone in lieu of a PC soundcard, and the system has not turned up many latency issues.) While the Aspect WinSet server can handle 512 agents, only 32 agents can be connected to each gateway server. Aspect is currently working on higher density gateway servers. On the desktop the agents will use the Aspect WinSet product along with a third-party IP phone.

Through all the testing phase, Abrams reported that they have seen no degradation of service, and they are confident with the call quality. If she sees major issues in the deployment, they will stop and fix them. As far as IP in the contact center, Abrams sees the major benefits coming in cost savings, the ability to better utilize capacity, and the possibilities of setting up more smaller, remote contact centers.

The author may be contacted at elounsbury@tmcnet.com.

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