The Facts On IP Contact Centers
The Facts On IP Contact Centers
IP contact centers are now viable and should be seriously considered, as should the challenges for the second wave of early adopters.
By Donna Fluss
The market has been hearing and reading about Internet Protocol (IP) contact centers for years — actually so much so that it’s turned into a “boy who cried wolf” situation. No one believes it’s for real. Well, the “wolf” has arrived. Every prospect must decide if IP contact center technology is more beneficial than Time Division Multiplexing (TDM)-based switches and if they are willing to take the risk of being an early adopter. Likewise, the risk for those who do not purchase an IP contact center now is that they are investing in old solutions that are on the way to becoming obsolete.
Until 2004, I’d been a cynic and non-believer in IP contact center solutions. For years, I’ve carefully followed a number of the very early adopters of IP-based contact centers, mostly outside of North America, and was not pleased with the results, even though most of these companies were able to make the solutions work after a great deal of effort. The first few releases of IP contact centers provided some basic features, but had more than their share of problems and were not functionally comparable to sophisticated TDM-based contact center solutions.
IP contact centers are now viable and should be seriously considered, as should the challenges for the second wave of early adopters. I’m not discussing hybrids contact center solutions, which have worked well for a few years. But instead, stand-alone, functionally rich IP contact centers that compete effectively with classic TDM solutions and can scale.
This article addresses a number of questions that I’ve recently been asked about IP contact centers.
Question: Are IP contact centers ready to be used?
Answer: Yes, IP contact centers are now viable and should seriously be considered by enterprises both in and out of North America. A number of developments over the past couple of years have made many of the IP-based offerings viable. All of the leading contact center vendors are making substantial investments in R&D. Vendors include (in alphabetical order): Alcatel, Avaya, CISCO, Cosmocom, Interactive Intelligence, Nortel Networks, Nuasis and Siemens. Rockwell just came out with an IP contact center offering that runs with CISCO, and Aspect will be announcing an IP contact center solution in the near future.
Vendor investments in technology and functionality have brought IP contact center solutions closer to parity with strong TDM-based contact center offerings. IP contact center products are software-based and present great opportunities for vendors to deliver functionally superior and more flexible offerings that are not tied to hardware. However, it’s going to take time for vendors, particularly those that have been hardware-oriented for the majority of their history, to deliver IP-based contact center solutions that incorporate all of the functionality found in the TDM-based (hardware) offerings that they had invested in for 20 to 30 years.
Question: What are the benefits of using an IP contact center? Is there a payback?
Answer: Yes, if an IP contact center is properly planned, implemented and has adequate bandwidth, enterprises will realize benefits, a payback and return on investment (ROI). However, the savings will vary greatly depending on many factors, including whether it’s a new (“Greenfield”) implementation or an existing (overlay) site, if the enterprise has the ability to reduce support staff due to the converged voice and data networks, and whether it’s a single or multi-site environment. The benefits will come from the following hard and soft dollar categories:
- Reduction in network management costs (for multi-site environments)
- Reduction in call routing time (for multi-site environments)
- Convergence of voice and data networks
- Reduction in maintenance costs, as there will no longer be a need to maintain both a voice and data network
- Simplification of the network management
- Standardized handling of different transactions, such as calls, emails and chat sessions
- Improved customer satisfaction and loyalty as a result of timely responses to emails and chat sessions (a benefit of standardized handling of all transactions)
- Reduction of routing and queuing systems for multi-channel organizations.
- Added flexibility in supporting multi-site environments, including at-home agents and office branches
- Increase in agent satisfaction and reduction in agent attrition (due to improved flexibility)
Question: What are the major challenges in using IP contact centers?
Answer: The offerings from different vendors are not equal. Some have proven that they can scale while others still need proof points. The functionality in the offerings also differs substantially and has to be carefully evaluated and cost justified, like any other investment. (This standard selection criteria applies to most technology purchases.)
The major issue that still plagues IP contact centers is bandwidth, which must be addressed by the end user and cannot be controlled by vendors. Unless an organization has a dedicated and protected network to handle IP transactions for its contact center (which is rarely the case because it defeats the promise and value proposition of the converged network), bandwidth capacity has to be carefully analyzed before purchasing an IP contact center. Whether a single site or multi-site contact center, network bandwidth capacity must be assessed to make sure that it is adequate to provide a consistently high level of performance and service, even at peak volume.
There is a myth that all customer calls are going to come over the Internet and, as a result, enterprises will not be able to manage call quality. Some “calls” are initiated on a computer via Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). These transactions do go over the public Internet and can experience unexpected disruptions in service, for example, if a router goes down or a virus propagates — but these are relatively rare occurrences and impact only transactions initiated from computers. The vast majority of calls are initiated by telephone and go through central office switches that are predominantly TDM-based. (Calls are converted to IP by enterprise gateways.)
Internet performance is a more serious consideration in multi-site and virtual contact centers. Companies that use IP contact centers to tie in branch offices or other contact center sites generally have dedicated lines to pass network data, such as emails. As a result, the network connections already exist and can be enhanced to support the contact center traffic. As in the case of a single-site environment, the network for multi-site contact centers must be configured to handle peak call volume and maintain consistent performance. Keep in mind that TDM environments are not immune to bandwidth issues, however, when there are too many calls for the number of lines, customers receive a busy signal instead of poor voice and sound quality. Virtual contact centers using at-home agents are more vulnerable to Internet service quality challenges than a second contact center site or branch office because they are dependent upon an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to facilitate bi-directional communication via the Internet to the enterprise. (It’s possible for a company to install a direct line into an agent’s home, but the cost is prohibitive.)
A second issue that must be considered is the device to be used to answer the phone call, if a phone set is going to be used instead of a soft phone. IP phones are not equal in features, quality or price and have to be tested carefully before making any investments.
Question: Which organizations should seriously consider implementing an IP-based contact center?
- Greenfield sites that are installing their first contact center.
- Small and mid-size sites with anywhere from 10 to 150 seats, as the majority of the solutions can scale to this size.
- Enterprises that have analyzed their network bandwidth and determined that they have adequate capacity to ensure performance and service quality.
- Multi-site environments, particularly those using network management solutions today.
- Virtual contact center environments that need a great deal of flexibility and have many different end points, such as those that want to support at-home agents or branch offices.
- Sites in high bandwidth countries.
- Companies whose current contact center is fully depreciated and are looking into a major upgrade.
- Enterprises that want to reduce their total cost of ownership (TCO) by streamlining and standardizing their voice and data networks — the convergence argument.
- Contact centers that support a variety of channels — calls, web chat, email — and want to reduce the number of systems being used to route and queue their transactions in order to reduce the TCO and standardize service quality.
- Companies that are forward-looking and want to position themselves for future innovation.
IP-based contact centers are viable and should be seriously analyzed by any company considering a new contact center or a major upgrade. However, as viable as IP contact centers are, they are still confronting environmental, technical, functional and economic challenges that companies must consider before making an IP investment.