Uncentered call center: Building distributed or virtual call centers with CTI and Internet telephony, The

uncentered call center: Building distributed or virtual call centers with CTI and Internet telephony, The

Ghio, Terry

When you fantasize about the call center of your dreams, what does it look like? Is it a physical location or more of a concept? Do you imagine sufficient parking or no need for parking at all? Do you see rows and rows of headsets, all in simultaneous use – or a large map studded with headset-shaped push pins?

If your imagination runs more toward the latter concept, your ideas are not as fantastic as you may think. The call center of your dreams is a virtual call center. If your dreams include the former concept, but include several locations working in synchronicity, you are envisioning a distributed call center. While there are many similarities between the two, they are not the same thing. Although, as neither is a single central operation, they are both “uncentered”; that is, call centers without “centers.”

9 A distributed call center uses network-based routing to connect disparate locations. These multiple call center sites are then managed as a single entity with universal call transferability. This concept may consist of many small centers or a few large centers, according to a company’s needs.

* A virtual call center uses-locationindependent agents who telecommute homes. In a virtual call center, agents can work anywhere there is a Webenabled PC and a headset, and supervisors can monitor these agents’ productivity and efficiency just as well as as agents in any other call center.

Just as the physical set-up of both types of call centers differes, so do the advantages. The issues that might motivate you to consider a distributed call center include:

* Load sharing. You can redistribute calls from a busy call center to less harried agents at a center that is having a slower day – and reverse the flow on the next day.

* Redundancy and back-up. If there is a flood or a power failure, or a server goes down, the calls intended for the affected center can be transferred to another center without the need for callers to be aware of the situation.

* Skills allocation. You can shift calls from one location to another on the basis of “skills required versus skills available.” If a call requiring a certain type of expert comes into a call center where all those experts are busy (or there are none), the call can be seamlessly transferred to an available expert anywhere organization.

The advantage virtual call center can go steps further than those listed above:

Facility cost savings. People who work from home do not require parking lots, restrooms or lunchrooms; in fact, they do not need buildings at all. As a result, a virtual call center eliminates the need for maintenance staff for snow removal, cleaning, landscaping, etc.

* Expansion of labor pool. There are many people who would make great call center agents; however, they only want to work part-time, cannot travel to the office or want a more flexible schedule. When companies can offer the work-at-home option, they have a much deeper labor pool from which to draw hires.

Piecework compensation. People who work from home need not be compensated in the same way employees who travel to a central facility for X number of hours per day. The law allows employers to compensate These workers for -Viocework – a certain amount of money for each call they handle. In addition, the benefits SW@ ings are enormous for workers who Are not full-time employees.

Specialization. With a virtual call center, companies can provide callers access to experts of all types. By allowing everyone to be an “agent,” companies can assure their customers that they will always have the information they need, when they need it. Even if a particular “agent” is only called into action once a week or once a month.

Increased morale and motivation.

This is especially true for “technology” people who might be specialized agents or flex-time workers and who often require special attention within an organization. With this approach, companies can meet their needs without upsetting the equilibrium of the entire call center.

In both cases,,companies can eliminate the need for overtime by moving the calls with the time zones. If all inbound calls after 4:00 p.m. EST are handled by a Midwest call center (or East Coast operators can go home on time. The switch occurs again for the West Coast and, if a company operators internationally, it can for thep moving west until it gets back to the eastern U.S. without ever having to pay extra for a night shift.

Figure 1 illustrates the architecture for a totally IP-based virtual or distributed call. Following is a more in-depth explanation:

Let’s begin with the call center (the group of agents together). The first ference is not immediately apparent. There are computers and headphones. What you may not notice fight away is there are no phones. The agent has only one appliance – a networked PC. The headphone is connected to the PC and all the information the CSR requires is provided via “screen pops” or text and graphic information blocks that pop up every time a call comes in. These screen pops tell the agent who is calling, what the call is about, what type of call it is (PSTN, voice-over IP, chat or a message) and display whatever historical information the center’s database has on the customer. This subtle change affords myriad advantages to all types of call centers.

Staying inside the call center (regardless of what it looks like), let’s look at the servers. There is a virtual ACD, housed in a PC, for automatic distribution of calls. The ACD (automatic call distributor) is the brains of the virtual call center.”‘(In the interest of brevity, I will be using this term to cover all IPbased call centes for the remainder of this explanation.) The ACD collects all incoming communication and, using its inherent intelligence, places them into orderly queus and routes them to the appropriate agent based on the priorities, skills and other factors the call center requires.

There are also Internet, message and telephone connection servers. In a small virtual call center, these can be housed in one PC. The architecture scales well and in a larger configuration, there can be separate servers, as shown in Figure 1. The number of incoming communications determines the hardware configuration. These servers collect the Internet (voice-over IP and chat) calls, the telephony (PSTN) calls and the messages (voice and e-mail) and route them to the ACD for queuing and distribution.

In a traditional packet-switched telephony-based call center, calls come in and are connecter in a direct connection between clOer and agent. This is a,, point-to-point connection and one agent can-only have one call at a time other caller busy signals or are placed in g pattern. It is very difficult to get any information from one of these calls to the agent. To make the PSTN call “talk” to the call center’s computer system, a complex system of CTI (computer-telephony integration) must be jerryrigged to enable two inherently incompatible systems to communicate.

Unlike some CTI systems which convert all incoming calls to telephony calls (thus eliminating all the advantages of the multimedia-rich Internet environment, the opportunity for computer-to-computer collaboration and the change for agent-led browsing), a true virtual IP multimedia ACD converts all incoming PSTN calls to Internet calls. This allows the agent to access the screen pops, knowledge base, skills-based routing options and location independence offered to Internet-protocol (IP) calls, even W the incoming communication is telephony-based (#STN)- call.

Now let’s consider the VPN (virtual private network) depicted in Figure 1 as a blue cloud. If the ACD is the brains of the operation, the VPN is the heart. It is there (even though in reality, no “there” exist) that all the calls are circulated. then call comes into a virtual call cener@whether it is from a telephone caller, Internet caller with multimedia capabilities (voice-over EP) or Internet caller using the chat in realtime option, it passes through the appropriate server (or gateway), as illustrated in Figure 1. The call enters the VPN and passes through the ACD to be queued, routed and distributed through the VPN to the appropriate agent, who may be located in the next room, the next state or the next time zone. Now that we have covered the virtual call center’s operations from the inside, let’s consider the operation from a human perspective. If you were an agent in this call center, your experience might look something like this:

1) You log onto your computer, put on your headset and immediately receive your first call. A screen pop informs you that this is a PSTN call and gives you the caller’s name and the nature of the call. It has gleaned this information from the customer’s responses to IVR prompts, combined with what the CRM (customer relationship management) software has mined from the call center’s database.

2) You speak into your headset, addressing this valuable repeat customer by Dame and offering assistance with her specific concern.

3) While you are speaking with Caller A, a new screen pop informs you that an Internet-based call is coming in. You click on the call service button and type a greeting.

4) The Internet-based caller (Caller B) receives your personalized greeting, complete with your name and photo, and expresses surprise that you know not only his name but what is in his shopping cart and the item he was looking at on the Web site when he called.

5) You complete your conversation with Caller A by transferring her to a specialist in another city. You are confident that the information you added to her record during your conversation will arrive with the transferred call and this valued customer will be given the personalized treatment she requires, without her having to repeat information to another agent.

6) You ask Caller B if he wants to escalate from chat to voice-over IP. He does, and you click on the escalate button on your screen. Now you are speaking to him on your headset while viewing his information on your screen.

7) You suggest that there is a better quality item available for only a small price differential. He is skeptical, but you click on the “push URU button on your screen and provide him with an explanation about the picture and description he now sees on his screen.

8) Before closing the sale, you check your database for this caller and find out that he is entitled, as a first-time customer, to a special shipping rate on orders that total only slightly more than the order he has just placed. You mention this to him, while sending him a picture of an accessory for the product he just purchased. The total will now put him over the spending mark for the discount.

9) He asks you to put this item in his shopping cart and you push him a copy of his final invoice and complete the transaction.

All the circuit switching, the queuing, the call routing for skills and availability and the transfer to the needed expert are transparent to the caller. It does not matter if the caller is placing a PSTN call or an Internet-based call; the amount of information about the contact and the level of customer service remain equally high.

As you can see, whether your fancy runs to connecting several disparate call centers into one distributed IP call center operation or connecting scattered individual agents into a virtual call center, the advantages are numerous and the technology is currently available to make your call center dreams reality.

Terri Ghio, CosmoCom’s vice president of sales, is responsible for sales strategy and management of the company’s sales team. She has over 20 years of sales experience and a successful track record for building winning sales teams and selling high-end IT products. Her expertise includes both brick and mortar and electronic retailing and the transition from one to the other, as well as selling on the Internet, merchandise planning for the Internet, Web-based customer service, transitioning CSRs from telephone to Internet sales and customer support, maximizing agent productivity and developing customer loyalty.

Copyright Technology Marketing Corporation May 1999

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