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Hybrid Is Not A Four-Letter Word

Surviving the Transition to an IP Contact Center

By John Joseph

 

Organizations large and small are making the smart decision to transition their customer service infrastructures to IP-based contact centers that enable them to gain important business benefits that conventional time division multiplexed (TDM)-based infrastructures can�t match. Chief among these benefits are lower networking and maintenance costs, increased flexibility through cost-effective deployment of distributed agents, and overall service quality improvements.

VoIP technologies also provide an easy path to multi-channel communications through Session Initiated Protocol (SIP)-enabled multimedia devices capable of handling voice, chat, and even video from a single source. With an eye to the future, we�ll likely see retail agents interacting with customers using photos of substitute or higher value merchandise to speed the decision-making process. Callers having difficulty describing a product problem could quickly shoot and send a video clip to gain support assistance. New self-service applications could leverage graphics to answer complex questions. SIP-enabled communications allow the interaction to switch between different communications methods as necessary to dynamically create the best interaction possible in the way that best suits each party.

Though the benefits of VoIP are well documented, and most organizations are already thinking about an IP-based contact center, the challenge with which they are struggling is how to get there.

Instant conversion to an all IP infrastructure with fully integrated contact center components is ideal; however, it is simply out of reach for most organizations. They have too much invested in their existing infrastructure to replace it wholesale, so must instead leverage what they have while migrating to a new VoIP-based system. Any migration plan must carefully consider the impact on the customer. Customer loyalty is a capricious item, hard to earn and easy to lose. A few dropped transactions, an extended wait on-hold, extensive transfers to ill-prepared agents, or being led down a blind alley can send customers to the competition faster than you can say �operator.� With any new project, disruptions are possible, but they can be minimized with careful planning and a reliance on best-in-class solutions from industry leaders.






In practice, a staged approach to IP, which leads to a temporary hybrid network infrastructure, is the most common method of deployment and one that is likely to be in place longer than people anticipate. Hybrid infrastructures enable organizations to prepare for a switchover to IP and reduce the risks, enabling them to leverage their existing contact center investments and ensure that they don�t alienate their customers.

Key hybrid network technologies include various PSTN-IP gateways and call processing middleware that can shield the application from the complexity of the network infrastructure. These technologies can unify TDM and IP applications into a reliable and centrally-managed infrastructure. Gateways provide the glue between the old and the new networks. Call processing software joins existing TDM equipment � PBXs, circuit switches, etc. � with new IP applications and contact center products, which is the key to a phased TDM to IP migration. There are several choices for gateways and call processing products. Some are proprietary and designed to support a single vendor�s infrastructure, while others are based on standards, such as SIP and CSTA, and are able to support both IP and TDM infrastructures from multiple vendors.

Migrating a contact center to IP is inherently more difficult than transitioning basic business communications systems. Moving the phone service to VoIP is a relatively simple process. Network managers intrinsically understand the deployment process, as it mirrors the process of deploying workstations on a WAN/LAN. In this case, there are only a few, standard applications that need to be deployed to match the user�s current functionality � voice mail, auto attendant, and perhaps a follow-me solution. The contact center scenario is significantly more complex. There are many more elements to integrate � PBX (News - Alert) functionality to answer calls, call queuing and routing solutions, automated self-service options, and agent desktop solutions that enhance productivity and call resolution rates. Another aspect is complete integration with call monitoring and workforce management solutions that enable organizations to accurately assess staff productivity. A great deal of custom application development and integration work is needed to create a coherent contact center solution that best fits both an organization�s business processes and their customer requirements. Recreating this functionality in a new environment can be a daunting task. And, contact center managers need to feel confident that replacing their PBX with an IP-PBX will not generate six months of integration work to get their agent screen pop applications up and running.

Selecting standards-based components provides the most flexibility in hybrid contact center environments. To improve the overall interoperability between all contact center products and to minimize migration issues, consider employing call processing software to pass data between all contact center products. Organizations with standards-based call processing software, for example, can upgrade their TDM PBX to an IP PBX with little or no change to their IVR, agent desktop, and workforce management applications. This approach also allows companies to choose best-in-class solutions for speech-enabled self service, call routing, automated response, call monitoring etc., which can make it easier to deploy an IP solution with the capabilities they require.

While most call processing and IP contact center vendors claim support for industry standards, savvy buyers must dig deeper to determine exactly how much integration, custom coding, and post-implementation hand-holding it takes their products to work as promise.

Taking the hybrid network stage into account, most organizations have found value in allowing breathing room in their deployment schedule. In many organizations, the path to IP telephony leads them to implement a trial network at a standalone site. This allows the organization to test the technology (and vendors) to make sure that it works, and that it can satisfy all of the current business and technical requirements. These trials often last for an extended period of time; an expected six-month trial can easily run 12�18 months due to integration issues that arise resulting from the pace of change in the technology and the complexity involved in using multiple vendors.

Phasing in an IP infrastructure one site at a time enables organizations to work through any rough spots with minimal customer impact. Should one contact center encounter difficulties implementing a middleware platform or an IP-based application, the organization is able to bypass that contact center and route customer traffic to other locations. In this way, the customer remains unaware of the difficulties and the organization is not subjected to a negative backlash before they are able to gain the benefits of an IP contact center infrastructure. This approach, enabled by PSTN-IP gateways and call processing software, in particular those based on standards such as SIP and CSTA, enables an organization to manage their hybrid network and smoothly transition to a pure IP network at their own pace.

Integrating standards-based call processing software into the hybrid deployment model will ease the migration to a pure IP environment. It will protect applications from extensive integration issues as you move from one environment to the next and enhance interoperability between all your contact center products. It will allow you to easily take advantage of new multimedia device capabilities as they are introduced. Your contact center will be more agile and more responsive to changing customer needs. Your organization will be in the enviable position of being able to quickly and easily take advantage of new products and services that boost service levels, enhance agent productivity and lower costs.

The transition to VoIP is not an overnight process. Organizations that enter the process with a plan and their eyes wide open to a hybrid network that leverages their existing investments will triumph. The resulting IP contact center will yield organizational efficiency, drive down cost, and boost customer loyalty. IT

John Joseph is vice president of corporate marketing at Envox Worldwide. For more information, please visit the company online at www.envox.com.

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