Call Center Technology

The Virtual Call Center: What's New in AI, At-Home Agent and Cloud-Based Offers

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  May 22, 2012

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions magazine.

The definition of a virtual call center is different depending on which camp you ask. For some, it means a call center that relies on remote, as opposed to on-site, workers. For others, it’s about putting call center functionality in the cloud. And for still others it can involve virtualizing call center reps.

One of the more interesting advancements of late on the virtual call center front involves at least two of the three. And it comes from Voice Print International (News - Alert) Inc. In March, the company unveiled VPI VirtualSource, a hosted, pay-as-you-go contact center solution. It leverages conversational, on-demand virtual agents powered by artificial intelligence to automate inbound and outbound calls and reduce mundane tasks for human call center agents. These virtual agents use short-term memory to track conversation flow and long-term memory to recognize callers and remember preferences from previous calls.

The idea behind all this, of course, is to lower call center costs by unloading some of the more mundane work from human agents. According to VPI, this solution is 80 percent less expensive than using human agents. VPI VirtualSource, a new module within the VPI EMPOWER customer experience optimization suite, also can be an ideal mechanism to capture and handle transactions involving sensitive customer information, such as credit card numbers, that it doesn’t want to expose to human agents, according to the company.

“Traditional self-service channels have failed to provide positive customer experience because they are designed to take customers down a simple linear path,” said Mike Mercadante, chief technology officer at VPI. “Humans, however, do not think in a completely linear way and only get frustrated when forced down that path. Unlike a typical voice-activated IVR, virtual agents do not use decision trees. They acquire their knowledge and skills by training much like human agents – the more call scenarios they listen to and handle, the smarter they get.”

Nancy Jamison, industry principal of contact centers at Frost & Sullivan (News - Alert), added: “With a very smooth conversational flow and dynamic adaptation to the caller, VPI's virtual agents have achieved what the industry sought to achieve more than a decade ago when the first virtual assistants came out, truly providing the ability to off-load and supplement the agent pool down to the tracking of performance. This is a solution that should not be overlooked.”

Alpine Access has an altogether different take on the virtualized call center. It’s coming at it from a work-at-home agent angle.

And while that may not be as seemingly futuristic as the above example, the home-based call center agent model may well be the wave of the future. Indeed, Rob Duncan, Alpine Access COO, recently told Customer Interaction Solutions magazine that the at-home call center market continues to grow faster (at a 30 percent rate) than the brick-and-mortar market. For its own part, Alpine Access grew revenue by 54 percent last year.

“This is the future of contact center,” he said, adding Saying that there are approximately 2 million U.S. call center agents, about 300,000 of whom are at-home agents.

Many major banks and financial institutions, insurance companies and big consumer brands like Office Depot use home-based agent programs, he added.

For businesses, a virtualized call center of this nature means a broader (and often more closely matched to the job and more diverse) base of rep candidates from which to select. Call center reps, meanwhile, get the benefits of working where they are (which can be great, especially for individuals with handicaps or retired people), the savings of not having to commute, and the comforts of home (which can result in higher attendance rates, because there are often fewer sick days). Alpine Access received more than 300,000 applications from home agent wannabes, and it hired 2 percent of those applicants.

Adding to the appeal of a home-based call center rep model is the consumerization of technology like broadband, laptops and interactive applications. That means many people have a built-in comfort level and already have the tools and technologies in place to get up and running.

For customers with specific security needs, however, Alpine Access sends agents a secure remote desktop, which can only do specific tasks. For example, this setup may block agents from doing such things as copying and pasting documents, or printing, in an effort to make client data less susceptible to reproduction and theft.

As discussed above, the virtual call center can also simply mean a call center that relies on technology within the service provider network as opposed to at the customer premises. There are, of course, plenty of offers on this front; and this is a growing trend.

Angel, a provider of enterprise-focused, cloud-based customer engagement management, earlier this year reported it achieved more than 35 percent year-over-year revenue growth in 2011. It attributed that to an increase in new customers, saying that it’s seen growing traction in the health care and financial services markets, and via partnerships with companies such as Century Link. Angel customers include such big names as Facebook, Healthways, Pitney Bowes, Sprint, Target, Thomson Reuters (News - Alert), Western Union, and Winn-Dixie.

“Angel’s mission is to delight customers through innovative solutions that speak directly to their needs,” said Dave Rennyson, president of Angel. “Enterprises today have real challenges with customer engagement, as consumers expect increasingly personalized interactions with their chosen brands. This year’s growth and momentum shows that we’re on the cutting edge of customer engagement management, and the strong financials are just one indication that we’re doing something right.”

Another cloud-based customer care outfit is CallFire.

The company’s solution allows its customers to simply upload their contacts, go through a few quick steps to set up a campaign, and get their agents into action. CallFire will call agents’ phones; once they’re connected, it starts dialing up to four lines per agent. As soon as someone picks up the phone, the agent is connected, and the other numbers are redialed later.

This March at the Enterprise Connect show, Echopass Corp. exhibited its newest cloud-based contact center services. New from Echopass are offerings that address the mobility needs of enterprise clients. Specifically, the company’s API now allows for sharing of critical information necessary to create an enhanced customer experience for inbound callers, as well as to facilitate effective communications with mobile employees that need to connect with customers while they are mobile. 


“The use of mobile communications is accelerating at a dizzying pace,” saidDavid Tso, senior vice president of corporate strategy at Echopass. “Over 35 percent of adults in the U.S. own smartphones and over 810,000 mobile applications have already been built, according to Mobielwalla. Keeping pace with ever-changing client needs and demands is critical, and offering an enhanced customer experience through smart mobile devices is essential to support customer loyalty initiatives. Seamlessly linking smartphone applications to the contact center greatly improves customer self-service options by visually equipping customers to quickly chose and be routed to their desired destination, enabling quick connections to live agents, and providing for customer callbacks when queue times lengthen.”

Also in March, cloud-based call center software company Five9 Inc. announced the availability of its solution, the Five9 Virtual Call Center, on Microsoft's (News - Alert) Dynamics Marketplace. The goal here is to enable significantly increased productivity.

With this new solution, Five9 said, “sales and marketing teams can generate more leads, faster, with higher qualification rates. Customer service and support representatives can immediately access critical information to resolve customer inquiries with the first call. Finance and collections departments can improve communications with customers and reduce outstanding accounts receivables.”

Five9 (News - Alert) CEO Mike Burkland added: “Five9 is the dominant leader in the cloud-based call center market, with the greatest market share of customers. Continuous innovation is what made us successful as a company, and now our latest solution delivers the leading call center technology, improved agent productivity and greater business flexibility to all Microsoft Dynamics customers.”

Speaking of customers, cloud-based contact center software and contact center agent optimization tool provider inContact announced a new one in March. The company said a leading multi-national software company selected the inContact contact routing and workforce management solutions to unify its global customer service operations. The new customer reportedly plans to make available the inContact platform to nearly 250 agents in the next few months. The deployment involves both multi-location on-site and at-home agents.

"With our growing international presence, supported by our global cloud infrastructure, inContact is a very attractive solution to multi-national companies with significant operations around the world," said Paul Jarman, inContact CEO. "We are able to provide an enterprise-class solution to our customers, with all of the benefits of scalability, pay-as-you-go model, and disaster recovery that have become the hallmarks of the cloud delivery model."


Edited by Stefania Viscusi