Packet Telephony Call Centers

In most call centers today, the largest costs are for the brick and mortar holding the building together. You can drastically cut the actual costs of renting a building, putting a phone at each desk, and purchasing the required infrastructure (call-routing technology, PCs, and so on) by using a Packet Telephony Call Center (PTCC).

Each call center is different, but for many call centers, the ability to grow the business as needed (perhaps as discretely as one station at a time) is a great benefit. Currently, call centers must grow in chunks. The size of these chunks depends on how many ports the call centers can purchase for their Private Branch eXchange (PBX) at a time. This is a great disadvantage because call centers usually need to be flexible and be able to grow and shrink as the number of required stations changes.

Many call centers are unable to grow in smaller chunks because the hardware necessary to provide desktop phone services is sold only in larger units (such as growing one to several T1s or E1s at a time, instead of a phone at a time). This prevents the call centers from being able to grow quickly based on seasonal or natural growth.

Circuit-Switching Call Centers (CSCCs) enable users to work from home and still take calls, but this equipment is expensive. With PTCCs, users can log in to a phone no matter where they are and have access to the exact same features as if they were at their desk, and the costs are much lower.

A CSCC currently uses a device known as a PBX Extender, a remote piece of equipment that extends the features of the PBX to the user's premises. A PBX Extender can run upward of $1000 per user, and that's just for the equipment itself. You also have to purchase software that must be added to the central site; the circuit to the worker's residence; and Customer Premise Equipment (CPE) gear, such as the router, for the remote site.

When you use a VoIP network, however, you don't need additional equipment for the remote site. You can take the same phone you use at work and have exactly the same functionality. Of course, the company still has to purchase the circuit to the worker's residence, as well as the CPE equipment.

Nevertheless, VoIP lowers the costs of locating stations anywhere geographically. In doing so, VoIP gives callcenter operators a great advantage in terms of hiring skilled or unskilled workers, as well as growing and shrinking the number of stations needed at any given point in time.

In a packet telephony infrastructure, you can have a group of distributed virtual agents that you can locate anywhere, and you can still offer them the same tools that a traditional call center offers. Figure 6-1 shows ways you can use a common IP infrastructure to unite various methods, and it showcases one possibility of telecommuters as virtual agents.

Figure 6-1. Virtual Agents

Figure 6-1. Virtual Agents

Two of the challenges facing CSCCs today are cost and employee retention. Descriptions of these challenges are as follows:

Many toll-free numbers—CSCCs must manage the number of circuits the enterprise uses. Using more circuits increases the cost of operating the CSCC and, therefore, can potentially decrease profits. Misrouted/rerouted calls—Each time a call must be routed to a different agent (because, for example, an agent might not have the correct skills to answer a customer's question, or he does not speak a customer's language), revenue is lost.

Multiple centers—The capability to "follow the sun" increases the "brick-and-mortar" costs in a CSCC. Following the sun implies that different physical call centers must exist to keep workers working a normal shift. This also is known as time-of-day routing. (When the United States call-center operators are sleeping, for example, Australian operators can take the calls.)

Percentage distribution/overflow routing—The capability to handle overflow between different physical locations increases the profitability in a peak call-flow time. But, if this overflow mechanism is not properly managed, it can cost more to overflow the call than to not service the incoming call. Employee turnover—Call-center work can be stressful, and, because of the repetitive nature of such work, keeping workers can be difficult.

Seasonal staffing needs—Oftentimes, call centers experience more volume during certain periods. As such, they must hire people to accommodate the high-volume periods, and then lay people off when volume drops. (This is a common plight of technical support staff during the holiday season, for instance.)

• Inconvenient busy hours—If the call center does not have a "follow the sun" model, it must hire staff to work inconvenient hours, such as the night shift, for instance.

• Regional call-center talent—Having skilled workers come into a brick-and-mortar facility can lower the number of possible workers in the pool of talent. Telecommuting so that regional workers can work within any geography in a specific time zone increases the number of workers in the available pool.

The CSCCs are adapting to meet these challenges, as well as meet new demands. One of the solutions to the previously mentioned challenges is increased efficiency. To become more efficient, practice the following principles:

• Computer Telephony Integration (CTI)—One application is for caller information (such as the caller's name, buying patterns, and address) to be "popped" onto the agent's screen so that the agent can handle the call more quickly.

• Skills/application-based routing—Routing calls to the proper agent based on technical skills, language, and any other skill can increase the speed by which the call is handled.

• Information duplication—Call agents can avoid asking the same question twice if transferred to a new agent. This is possible due to the information on the first agent's screen "popping" onto the new agent's screen when the call is transferred to the new agent.

• Interactive Voice Response (IVR)—This enables callers to input basic information (such as account information) so that calls can be handled more quickly.

CSCCs will upgrade to an integrated voice and data network initially based on cost. But, the true value (which might be hidden to some) is in the value-added services and applications that can be offered after this enhanced network is in place.

Some of these services and applications include having both your voice mail and e-mail integrated into one application; using Web-based customer support; having CTI capability; being able to fax in and out from the desktop (and fax to your e-mail account); and being able to conduct desktop video conferencing with your customer.

Traditionally, an entire call center revolves around the PBX (as shown in Figure 6-2). As such, call centers are held ransom by the number of ports they can afford at any given point in time. Reliance on the PBX also forces the CSCC to deploy applications only when they are compatible with the PBX or when the CTI link enables the field to be passed.

Figure 6-2. Circuit-Switching Call Center

Figure 6-2. Circuit-Switching Call Center

In a PTCC, the network is integrated and standards-based and does not rely on only one component or vendor to provide the entire solution.

This enables the call center to have remote users for a fraction of the cost of PBX extenders (thanks to integrated CPE gear). This also enables the business to grow in the increments that customers need, and enables the business to add new applications (such as data/voice collaboration) as needed.

Another important issue with CSCCs is the ability to retain and develop current employees. Studies show that giving employees options on schedules and "flex-hours" greatly increases the retention rates of many companies.

Although Figure 6-2 shows how a CSCC is efficient for a large centralized call center, the CSCC design lacks the flexibility to enable telecommuters, and it lacks a true integration into Internet telephony or unified communications (such as fax-to-e-mail).

PTCC enables you to retain a connection into the legacy PBX call center, but it also enables integration into the new network of Web support, Internet telephony, and unified communications. Figure 6-3 shows the components and network design of a PTCC.

Figure 6-3. Packet Telephony Call Center

Figure 6-3. Packet Telephony Call Center

Call Center Connection

This connection to the legacy PBX is accomplished by having an external call-processing engine that connects to the PBX and to the Cisco Call Manager through CTI links. The external call-processing engine enables telecommuters and PBX call agents to answer calls as though they are attached to the call center.

Also, with a connection from the legacy CSCC into the IP network, you can use enhanced features such as IP-based IVR systems (also known as Voice Response Units [VRUs]) and unified messaging services such as fax-to-e-mail, text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and so on.

As you can see in Figure 6-3, the Call Center Corporation is no longer tied to physical ports for the VRU, and the entire messaging infrastructure (e-mail, voice mail, applications, and so on) is tied into one common infrastructure.

The call-routing or call-processing engine is now just part of the data network and is removed from the PBX. This enables telecommuters, call-center agents, and branch office agents to have the same access to the same information. Access to a common infrastructure gives everyone equal footing, and it gives the customer a common look and feel, as shown in Figure 6-4.

Figure 6-4. Common Infrastructure for All Call Agents

Figure 6-4. Common Infrastructure for All Call Agents

Call Center Infrastructure

This new architecture also enables you to stop making unnecessary expenditures on legacy CSCC gear and begin expanding into the packet telephony call-center space. This, in effect, frees you from having to grow your business in larger chunks. This network also utilizes your existing wide-area network (WAN) data infrastructure and can provide a more efficient use of existing bandwidth. Calls to remote agents are now essentially "toll-free" because they are traveling over an IP infrastructure.

Another key benefit is Web integration. This means a call-center customer can request a call back from the Web site (also known as "click to call back"), which uses the PSTN or even places an Internet telephony call. This saves the call center money because it doesn't have to pay the incoming 800 toll charges. The call center can route the customers to the proper agent depending upon where they click. This application is known as click to talk (or click to dial) and is shown in Figure 6-5.

Figure 6-5. Click to Talk

Figure 6-5. Click to Talk

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