• United States
by Lori Bocklund

VoIP is in your future

Jan 20, 20039 mins
Cisco SystemsCRM SystemsNetworking

The other major architectural change on the road to contact center Nirvana is to the packet-switched world of IP from traditional, circuit-switched TDM.

The migration path generally will start with IP-enabled products, using a TDM infrastructure at the core, with IP to the desktop and IP for networking to remote locations. The next step is a full-blown IP-centric solution with an IP switching  infrastructure throughout.

Technology Insider: IP-based contact centers

Voice over IP (VoIP ) is compelling, and most contact centers need to start planning for it. There are three key business drivers:

Economics – Convergence of voice and data into a common infrastructure for wiring, routers, network connectivity and others holds promise. Companies will be able to deploy, manage and maintain one network to serve all communications needs, saving on infrastructure, and potentially resources, in the long term.

Applications – VoIP creates the potential for applications that couldn’t have been done before, or couldn’t have been done easily or effectively. This is particularly true for a multimedia and/or multisite environment, in which Web contacts, virtual operations with outsourcers overseas, and remote sites or seats, such as home agents, all could improve the customer experience. The business case for these applications also can be compelling because they save significant numbers of call center agents and prove a more cohesive reporting view of all contact handling.

Building block for the future – VoIP is an inevitable part of the contact-center infrastructure. Many centers will wait for catalysts such as major growth, a new site, time for replacement, or the need to support new applications. Or they will invest in VoIP infrastructure knowing it is the platform for the future.

“The promise and value of VoIP in the contact center is in defining an open standard that lets multiple vendor products work together,” says Bern Elliot, an analyst at Gartner. “Different platforms and applications can use the same infrastructure. This in turn leads to broader choices.

“Right now, the market is pushing to get a start,” he says. “The contact center lags general telephony in migration to VoIP by about two years, because it is more application-centric – and a more complex and robust application. The applications can’t precede the infrastructure needed to make it possible. For VoIP to go faster in contact centers, it now needs the pull of more applications that are easier to integrate.”

All major switch vendors provide IP products for contact centers. Traditional switch vendors, such as Aspect, Avaya, Nortel, Rockwell and Siemens , offer traditional TDM switches with IP phones and IP networking between sites as options in their IP-enabled or hybrid products.

They also offer IP-centric call-center products, but few call-center customers are buying them.

Lessons learned

The keys to success when implementing VoIP include:
Define applications and business benefits. Define the reasons for migrating to VoIP.
Assess and invest in network infrastructure as needed. Many vendors, such as Avaya and Siemens, offer network assessments and tools through their professional services organizations.
Invest in the redundancy and reliability solutions that vendors offer.
Ensure that voice and data staff work together. Collaboration is key in planning and implementation. Train and hire people with the necessary skills.
Test and pilot.

IP-centric players, such as Cisco and 3Com , are pushing IP-centric products, but they are aware of their limitations. They aren’t trying to compete head-to-head on a feature-by-feature basis with robust ACDs, and they aren’t selling much to large (more than 50 seats) mission-critical centers (yet). Cisco is positioning itself as an “ACD alternative” rather than an “ACD replacement.” But the IP-centricity of these vendors means that they are further ahead in deployment of pure IP products.

VoIP is happening . . . but where?

VoIP in contact centers is happening primarily in greenfields – small or nonmission-critical centers. Some larger companies are running small pilots in the help desk for example, to gain experience with the technology. Distributed contact centers can implement VoIP in three configurations: home agents, a remote site networked off a main site, or networking multiple sites for virtual operations.

JetBlue Airways, a relative newcomer to the troubled airline industry, is delivering customer care in a different way, in addition to delivering airline travel in a different way. Using an Avaya IP-enabled product (the pure IP product was not available when JetBlue implemented more than a year ago), the majority of JetBlue’s telephone customer contacts are handled by their home agents using H.323-compliant  IP softphones on their PCs. Web calls to these agents are the next step.

The distributed, IP approach let JetBlue build its new contact-center capabilities quickly, minimize overhead costs, and tap into a broader pool of skilled resources. And by enabling people to work from home, they increased job satisfaction. That can translate into increased retention, productivity and customer service, which all contribute to JetBlue’s bottom line.

Buca di Beppo, a fast-growing Italian restaurant chain, created a centralized call center using IP connections from its 62 restaurants. Customers dial their local number to make a reservation – any time of the day – and are routed using an IP-enabled Nortel Meridian 1, with a Symposium Call Center Server.

Customers can reach an agent at the call center even when the local restaurant isn’t open, and agents interact as if they were the friendly neighborhood restaurant, thanks to the CTI integration and screen pops. The extended coverage and personalized service this product provides increased revenue more than $1 million in the first year.

Many multinational companies also have “follow the sun” routing to centers around the globe, some managed and staffed by outsourcers. By creating a virtual center environment, they use resources effectively, deliver better service, and manage a single system for routing and reports.

Some companies are using IP to connect to remote sites, especially in countries such as India and the Philippines. Voice traffic can be compressed, furthering IP’s significant cost savings on international trunking. Companies implementing these types of remote or multisite configurations also enhance their business continuity and disaster-recovery options.

Shurgard, a storage company, was an early adopter of IP, using Aspect’s IPContact Server (IPCS). Shurgard needed to upgrade or replace its dated system, so it implemented a pure IP solution about a year ago. It started slowly, with a few seats in customer service as a pilot, and has begun to gradually roll it out to other applications, including 40 sales agents.

Kris Larson, sales center IT manager for Shurgard, says the company will integrate with IP switches to transfer calls to stores all over the country, support multimedia customer contact, and reap the benefits of toll bypass with its VoIP implementation. Soon it will integrate the IPCS with its IVR and other systems.

Larson says the transition wasn’t easy: not only was the architecture different, but users had to adjust to a different set of reports and routing tools. Having a background in IT and telecom, and a fair amount of autonomy, helped him manage the transition.

A word of advice from Larson: “Don’t skimp on the network infrastructure.” Shurgard bought new network switches, routers, and servers as a lead-in to its implementation, he says.

Overcoming fear, uncertainty and doubt

So what’s holding other companies back? Fears include reliability of the IP network, or of standard servers and operating systems running mission-critical applications. Additional concerns about scalability and quality remain.

However, vendors says those issues can be addressed. Lawrence Byrd, convergence strategist for Avaya, says that more than half the software in the voice switching infrastructure (whether the Definity or S8700) is for reliability, redundancy, self monitoring and healing. “And, the VoIP pioneers have learned that through proper engineering, testing and piloting, the network can be made VoIP-ready and stable.”

Certainly the economy is another factor. When your workhorse PBX or ACD isn’t depreciated, functions well, and provides the applications you need, it’s hard to argue for an architectural change at significant cost.

One other intangible fear that affects VoIP decisions is the fear of change. Changes to organizations, roles, responsibilities and processes will accompany VoIP. Turf battles might wage between IT and telecom. Telecom staff need to shift their thinking and embrace IP (not to mention open architectures), and IT staff need to understand the network demands, as well as quality and reliability expectations, of the contact center’s mission-critical applications.

In tackling all these issues, most companies will make a gradual migration to VoIP, rather than a leap. As Don Greco, director of National Call Center Field Marketing and Sales for Siemens, says, “The migration path is the most important thing to contact-center customers today. Few want to implement full IP just yet. They want to understand the migration path and know that what they are buying today will enable an ‘easy’ transition to IP. Many are investing in IP phones with a TDM system. They’re taking the time to understand how they will move to full IP when they’re ready, and when they feel comfortable with the stability and reliability IP provides.”

Take steps to migrate to VoIP

Gartner doesn’t “expect wide-scale adoption of VoIP by mission-critical mainstream call centers until 2005-2006” because migration to VoIP takes time, and the planning should begin now.

Your steps to migration include some of the same things you must consider for opening up your architecture. You should consider them together. Start with business strategy, understand business needs and develop a technology strategy. Take time to get educated and select appropriate vendor partners – again considering the best of breed (one vendor provides applications and another provides the IP switching) vs. suite of products (a single vendor to provide it all). Start small, and build gradually. Moving slowly into the IP waters is a sound approach, and it will enable you to then wade in deeper and deeper as the waters warm up.

Four-step program

Here are the top contact-center technology changes to plan for in the next one to two years:
Migrate to VoIP — Includes associated changes to IVR, computer telephony integration, quality monitoring or other tools that integrate with your voice channel.
Migrate your contact routing, management and reporting to a server-based product.
Migrate your voice self-service applications to a VoiceXML or SALT-based architecture.
Integrate the routing, management and reporting for all media on a common technology infrastructure.