Connecting parts of your call center using voice and other services over IP is finally becoming mainstream. It is believed that the 3,000th IP contact center went into service in December of 2005. Projections are that the number of new IP agent positions installed will exceed those for traditional TDM (time division multiplexed) agent positions by early in 2008. Though most IP contact centers today are small- to medium-sized, we're now seeing even very large contact centers beginning to make the switch.
Many organizations believe that to protect their most important telephony application, the call center should be last on the list of groups to go to VoIP, but there are reasons you might want to get involved now. Connecting branch offices and deploying work-at-home agents, for example, can economically bring expertise where and when it is needed. IP contact centers make these opportunities practical. It is possible to start small and build experience and expertise over time, learning about the risks, benefits and best approach for your organization at low risk.
The value of IP in the call center
There are typically three scenarios for deploying the IP contact center. The first scenario involves remote agents who work for the call center in branch offices, at home or from the road. Organizations can begin to use this approach with just a data connection; agents don't require a second phone line or special tie lines.
While the concept of remote agents isn't new, the availability of IP telephony has made its use much more practical. Organizations like JetBlue and Willow, for example, rely solely on at-home agents, saving nearly 40 percent in operating costs because they don't need to invest in a physical plant.
This capability provides a powerful opportunity for nearly every call center, enabling them to tap into a remote work force, agents who are experts in their fields, or agents who are relocating but would like to stay with the company.
All major telephony vendors can now deliver IP-based equipment, making the second scenario -- centralized equipment or IVRs, ACD, and speech recognition servers that work using VoIP --a reality. This scenario delivers benefits for the call center as well, because IP-based equipment is typically less expensive than traditional TDM equipment and offers more standardization, which can lead to configurations that are truly best of breed. The cost advantages and flexibility make this scenario one that all call center managers should be aware of.
The third scenario uses hosting, because with VoIP, it is easy to carry calls back and forth with hosted IVR/ACD. It is rare, however, to see the wholesale movement of an existing call center to VoIP (where every agent would use an IP phone), making it unlikely that most call center managers will experience this scenario.
One of the positive, hidden benefits of IP contact centers is the flexibility to locate anything, anywhere, which can help assure business continuity for organizations of all sizes and types. In a post-9/11, post-Katrina world, we've learned that it's frighteningly easy for a significant part of an infrastructure to be knocked out of operation, and remarkably costly to lose an important connection to customers. Today, fewer than 20 percent of contact centers have a business continuity plan that has ever been tested, but IP contact centers can make these business continuity plans a reality.
All of these scenarios result from the ease of connecting different components within an IP Contact Center, and the increasing modularity available. The chart below shows an overview of these options: remote agents, centralized equipment, hosting, and disaster recovery capabilities are examples of the benefits of versatility in deployment configurations.
The risks of IP in the call center
Vendors and reviewers often paint a very rosy picture of IP contact centers and their benefits, overlooking the rough edges. While the benefits can be significant, call center managers should be concerned about the reliability, interoperability and voice quality of their proposed IP contact center solution.
Why is it harder to achieve reliability, interoperability and quality with an IP contact center? First, new standards for IP telephony are announced almost monthly, and second, IP telephony is still an emerging technology that depends on the underlying call center infrastructure far more than traditional telephony does. With IP telephony, there are many moving parts; for example, an IP IVR usually requires multiple boxes rather than a single box.
In addition, IP contact centers can be especially vulnerable in the case of infrastructure downtime. Nearly all contact centers have experienced a time during which applications were not available and have had to resort to "paper" methods to take orders or record customer inquiries. With IP contact center technologies, if the data network is not available, the contact center simply can't receive calls. The convergence of voice and data onto a single network means that network stability is now more important then ever, and the organization must be prepared to operate it effectively or encounter the consequences.
As a result, the IP contact center must look for solutions that ensure redundancy or techniques that enable them to fall back to the PSTN to increase their reliability. But while having these options is critical, they add complexity. In the case of work-at-home agents, for example, most implementations have a fall-back option whereby agents can connect to the call center over TDM if the quality or accessibility of the data network is inadequate. That switchover is rarely fully automatic, but it is essential given the current state of reliability of IP contact centers.
It is also important for call center managers to be aware of the operational ramifications of IP contact centers, beginning with system management. Traditional contact centers are very reliable and monolithic, and have required only minimal system management, but because IP contact centers are distributed, multivendor and use more standard servers and networks, system management is both a possibility and a necessity. You should be aware of what system management means and how your IT staff can support the contact center to make sure it runs well all the time.
The second management ramification is "people management." This applies especially to the hosting and at-home agent scenarios, where agents are no longer "visible" and may require extra attention to stay informed about what is happening in the call center, to stay trained and to stay motivated. Whether these agents are in your employ or in the employ of an outsourcer, IP technology makes it possible to have them "out of sight," but out of sight cannot mean "out of mind."