VoIPowering Your Office: Powering Call Centers

Annoying pests who invade your home. Inmates memorizing your credit card numbers and home address. Customer service reps who do not speak your language, or quite possibly any human language. Long hold times. Long annoying commercials instead of pleasant hold music. Byzantine call-routing menus designed to make you go away. Voice-stress analyzers that reward yelling and swearing.

I doubt you’ll find many people with positive things to say about call centers.
And why should they? The poor things are misused and abused in all kinds of
ways. But it’s not the fault of the technology. Which, like all telephony gear,
has long been overpriced and under-featured. Voice over IP has revolutionized
call centers—just as it has practically everything else in the world. Can
you build a call center on free software? Yes, you can.

Call centers fall into two general categories: customer service, and annoying
phone spammers. Customer service call centers typically handle tasks like:

  •  Taking orders
  •  Fixing problems
  •  Providing information and general assistance

Those are the functions that many businesses need—someone to answer the
phone and be helpful. Perhaps these should be called answer centers instead
of call centers.

Then there are the call centers that are literally call centers—these
are the folks that pester us as though we were paying for our phone service
just so we could serve as extensions of their marketing. It’s rather amusing
browsing publications that target this type of call center. They use benign
phrases like “outbound dialing,” “predictive dialing,” ” customer care,” “marketing
relationships,” “interactive intelligence,” and “text-to-speech systems for
totally automated collections”. Now that’s progress—completely eliminating
the humans. You can complete the cycle by setting up an Asterisk server at home
to talk to the telemarketer’s telephony server, and never have to touch a telephone
yourself.

Not all phone spammers are really spammers, of course. Volunteer organizations
benefit from using automated dialers to remind members of meeting dates and
other events. Businesses that offer genuine opt-in for certain services might
as well reap the benefits of automation as well. For example, my bank calls
me when they have specials on things I’m interested in. That is a good thing.
Not like some businesses that elevate a trivial one-time purchase into a lifelong
intimate relationship. Read my lips: OPT-IN.

Building a Call Center with free software
When is a call center not a tool of the devil? When it’s yours. Asterisk, our
favorite iPBX, is a great foundation on which to build a call-center, but it
does not come with all the tools that a call center needs. For that you want
AstGUIClient. AstGUIClient is free in both senses of the word: free of cost,
and open source software licensed under the GPL.
This means you can modify it as you please, and you can distribute your modified
versions, or even sell them if you can find people willing to pay money. (But
don’t forget the part where you must make all derived source code available,
and without whining, because you’re reaping the benefits of an entire free software
ecosystem that you didn’t have to create.)

AstGUIClient is a customer-management and call-center suite that runs on top
of Asterisk. It’s not an Asterisk configuration tool, but an AJAX-based Web
interface to your Asterisk server. It installs on your Asterisk server, after
which your customer agents, or customer service representatives, or predatory
sales weasels, or whatever you call your staff only need the Firefox Web browser.
Most browsers work fine, but Firefox is cross-platform, standards-compliant,
and not prone to inviting malware home, so you might as well standardize on
it. With the AstGUIClient you can monitor calling queues and individual calls,
record calls, check voicemail, transfer calls, park calls, create conferences,
and all kinds of things.

AstGUIClient includes the VICIDIAL dialer (pronounced Vee-chee-dial). This
is a dialer power tool that has all the functionality of expensive, buzzword-laden
commercial dialers: a robo-dialer that screens calls before transferring them
to a human agent, custom hold music, time zone dialing rules, call recording,
report generators, support for remote logins, remote transfers for agents, and
more. If there is something more you want it to do, just grab your nearest PHP
geek and put her to work.

AstGUIClient scales nicely, supporting load-balancing and distributed servers. AstGUIClient is stable and works well, but installation is a fair job. It’s a source build, and it requires MySQL, Perl, Apache, PHP, Sox, and LAME—in addition to Linux and Asterisk. If you have an existing MySQL database then you only need a MySQL client on your Asterisk server to hook into it.

AstGUIClient/VICIDIAL are good for managing complex inbound and outbound calling
scenarios, but what do you use for customer data and relationship management?
Try SugarCRM. SugarCRM comes in three editions: Open Source, Professional, and
Enterprise. The Open Source edition is free of cost, and it’s a powerhouse.

The fine folks at AstGUIClient have written an excellent howto called Scratch
Installation
that covers installation and configuration basics, and user
and administration manuals are available from Eflo.net.

Resources
AstGUIClient
SugarCRM
Telemarketer Torture
VoIPowering Your Office: Table of Contents

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