Contact Centers Undergoing VoIP Transformation

By enabling a geographically distributed workforce to meld into a centralized virtual call center, voice over IP has the potential to reinvent the traditional enterprise customer service operation.

By Jeff Goldman | Posted Mar 17, 2005
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Voice over IP technology is providing a range of new opportunities for enterprise contact centers, the most significant being the ability to maintain central control over a highly distributed workforce. Accessing agents outside of a traditional call center environment can help a company improve customer service while realizing significant cost savings at the same time.

Katrina Howell, Senior Analyst at Frost & Sullivan, says the change from traditional TDM systems to IP systems is likely to be a gradual one. "The majority of current implementations are hybrid, meaning that they're IP add-ons to a TDM system that's already in place," she says. "So you can add a branch office through the LAN and just have the users plug in IP phones."

The 'killer app' for IP contact center technology, Howell says, is the ability to centrally manage multiple locations. "It expands the possibilities for the way contact center work is accomplished, and it moves the contact center out into the enterprise," she says. "So if you have knowledge workers in multiple locations, they can all be linked together, and they can work from home more easily."

According to Howell, that doesn't mean traditional contact centers are going away—but in the U.S., at least, they're not being expanded. "In North America, they're not growing, because they've already been built out," she says. "One huge drive is linking offshore contact center locations to onshore contact centers—you can have the switch be located in North America, and the contact center be located in India."

The problem, Howell says, is that the arguments for the technology aren't yet quite compelling enough. "Distributed functionality is the killer app, but that's not going to bring the entire market over at this point," she says. "So what we see is that the vast majority of implementations are in the 100-seat sector, the small to medium contact center."

Sheila McGee-Smith, President and Principal Analyst of McGee-Smith Analytics, says once Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) emerges as a uniform standard, it will makes VoIP that much more attractive by adding presence functionality. Instead of just switching a caller over to a new queue, an agent could immediately know whether or not a specific person is available—and if that person is on the phone, the agent could instant message them and find out when they'll be free.

The same functionality could be used to improve productivity throughout an organization. "Think about a small bank with 30 branches, and they have a call center—and on Monday mornings, they've got hold times of 30 minutes," McGee-Smith says. "Meanwhile, there may be people sitting in branches when there's nobody in the bank. If we could extend those calls to those people who are just sitting there anyway, then we're taking advantage of a workforce that's already out there, without any incremental cost."

One prominent example of that kind of functionality, McGee-Smith says, is the supply company Grainger, which has set up 400 locations nationwide as a single virtual contact center thanks to IP solutions from Spanlink and Cisco. "If you're in the Chicago suburban area and you call into Deerfield but there's nobody available there, they'll route you over to Northbrook to somebody who not only can help you now but is in kind of the same geographic area," she says. "So what they've done is make everybody who works in one of these locations a virtual agent—they no longer have a centralized call center."

The technology offers a real potential, McGee-Smith says, for significant change. "People have been talking about the idea that the enterprise is the call center," she says. "It's like taking it to the nth degree—everybody's in the call center. Everybody's aware of what traffic is like, how it's moving, and they can jump in and pitch in—and IP will enable that."

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