IP contact centers pose significant challenges

Careful planning is necessary to cross a minefield of issues

IP contact centers are proliferating, but they still pose a set of potential gotchas that businesses need to beware of as they consider upgrading from the TDM world, experts say.

Hidden costs, personnel considerations and cripplingly complex integration are among possible pitfalls corporations face as they make the shift to more feature rich and flexible IP centers.

With more than half of all contact centers still based on TDM, the bulk of contact center executives still face tough decisions about how to successfully migrate from one technology to another, says Sheila McGee-Smith, president of McGee-Smith analytics. Here are some of the challenges they face:

•  Start with the basics: The underlying IP network might not be fit to support the contact center. "Voice quality is so much more important in contact centers," says Matthias Machowinski, an analyst with Infonetics. "It's the No.1 thing."

As a result, in general adoption of IP contact centers lags adoption of IP voice. "Businesses are reluctant because of reliability concerns and voice quality," he says.

Chart shows survey results of main reasons for going bringing IP to a call center

So before deployment, a full network assessment is called for to gauge QoS and ensure the levels required to support professional grade quality to handle customer-facing calls.

It is essential to consider call quality for each type of agent based on location, because they will access the contact center over varying infrastructure. For instance, the call quality for an agent working from home depends not only on the corporate infrastructure, but the quality of the broadband service to the agent's home and even the agent's home network, Machowinski says.

Businesses should tap the in-house VoIP expertise that they may have developed for their non-contact center calling. This should be readily available because typically companies are willing to use VoIP on calls within the company but not to outside parties, McGee-Smith says. "They're willing to have IP on intra-company calls, but to take orders or support customer service they are more reluctant to use IP contact centers because of quality issues. Usually you're the last man standing," she says.

•  Sticking with your current call center vendor could reap big cost benefits, but maybe not. "Do I attempt to keep what applications I have as I migrate to IP or do I scuttle the whole thing and start again?" McGee-Smith says. "If you use the vendor you have, there are may be issues with upgrading."

For instance, a 7-year-old TDM contact center may be so different from a vendor's current IP offering that the disruption of the upgrade won't be any worse than installing a new vendor's gear, she says. "Is it more disruptive to switch vendors than it is to stay with the same one? My premise is it's not, really," she says. "It might be no more disruptive to start from scratch."

The flip side is that upgrading – even though it may amount to a rip-and-replace – may be had at a bargain price because the vendor wants to retain customers and will pay a premium. Vendors will readily offer 30% off the per-seat price, but that's not enough to clinch a deal. "If they offer 50% or even better, then you're making me pay attention. If not then it makes more sense to put my paper on the street with an RFP," she says.

Advertising for bidders will typically shake out better deals if vendors start with shallow discounts, she says.

Mitigating factors include the extent to which customers have integrated the contact center platform with enterprise applications. "If you spent time and money integrating then it's worth considering" upgrades to existing platforms to avoid further integration costs, she says.

Then again, rebuilding the integration to use newer technologies such as XML that result in a more flexible architecture may be worth the investment in the long run. "You have to look at that situation more carefully," she says.

Customers also need to consider what has happened to their vendor between the time they bought their current system and now. They may have switched focus, sold off assets and lost some edge over the competition. There may even be new vendors that weren't around when the current contact center was bought, she says. "One of the issues to get over is loyalty to your existing vendor," she says. "Just because you have something in place doesn't mean it's the best choice going forward."

•  Avoid the temptation to swap features of the old platform for their rough IP equivalents. Demand more, says Grant Sainsbury practice director of Customer Interactive Solutions at Dimension Data. Instead, plan how new contact center features enabled by IP can be turned into money as soon as possible even though it may seem safer just to replicate the TDM functionality. "That's a bad strategy. You're making an investment," he says.

An IP upgrade is the opportunity to improve integration of front office and back office applications and to redistribute the workforce in a more cost-effective way, he says.

For example, be prepared for converting call routing strategy in ways that can improve customer service. Routing in a TDM contact center might call for initially ringing one set of agents, then shifting to a different class of agent if the call isn't picked up in five rings, then to a third class if it isn't picked up in another five rings. With IP, presence could identify the most appropriate available agent right away and connect seconds before the old system would have found her, Sainsbury says.

Integrating the contact center call distribution functions with other business applications is the biggest goal, Machowinski says. Without links to databases and customer records, productivity gains that a contact center might otherwise provide would be impossible. But adapting those interfaces created for TDM contact centers to IP contact centers may require a lot of work, he says. "You'd be surprised how many companies have proprietary databases," that may not have standard interfaces such as XML and Session Initiation Protocol, he says.

The integration should take place, but it will require close examination to determine whether to adapt what's there or start fresh, he says.

Businesses should look at incorporating computer-telephony integration with their call centers. Although the technology has been available for 10 years, it is still used in only 30% to 40% of contact centers, McGee-Smith says. Such work is more complicated than it might seem at first blush because it can alter business processes.

IP contact centers can offer integration with instant messaging, for instance, which can allow an agent to seek an expert while they are talking to a caller. Rather than being put on hold while the agent seeks help, the customer remains on the line while the expert is conferenced in. This can result in faster resolution of a call and a more satisfied customer, she says. "The nature of calls don't change, but hopefully my path to resolution becomes cleaner," she says.

•  Don't be locked in by geography. Just because the current call center is located in a single building with hundreds of desks doesn't mean it has to stay there after it is converted to IP, McGee-Smith says. In fact, deploying agents at home can be cost-effective because it boosts productivity.

Home agent technology has been available for 10 years, but now it is packaged so it can be deployed much easier. "The home agent market is exploding," she says. Home agents are happier and more productive than those who go to a central call center, she says.

That will change how the business operates, and require personnel management tools and training for handling a remote workforce. While not a technology issue, it is one to be faced in order to be successful, she says.

•  Don't buy more than you need. Depending on the level of sophistication of the contact center, it may be useful to employ the basic contact-center features that come with many IP PBXs, Machowinski says. "If you just need basic functionality, it should be relatively easy to set up," Machowinski says. "You could argue that if you have an IP PBX, a contact center is really easy to set up."

But for better call routing, richer features and integration with caller records and backend platforms, dedicated call center packages are the way to go. They can better tap into customer data bases to provide information that the system or live agents can use to personalize interactions and make them more successful, he says.

Automated features can be also geared to individual callers based on integration with databases. For instance on-hold audio can be chosen to present ads tailored to each caller's known interests as determined by the database.

"The more you know about the customer, the better you can serve them," he says. "You want to spend as little time with customers, and do a good job, and keep the customers happy." This can also reap monetary rewards. If hundreds of agents save a few seconds per day on each call, that can account for a lot of time to take extra calls, he says.

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