A Call to Consolidate
- 05 February, 2004 11:58
Making the switch to an IP-based contact centre.
Is your call centre a money pit? Are your agents hamstrung by inflexible, unresponsive applications? Are your customers getting the service they require?
You can transform your antiquated call centre into a distributed, multimedia contact centre that can handle e-mail, chat sessions or Web-based contacts just as readily as a voice call. You can hire the most qualified agents no matter where they live and plug them into the network. And you can layer on new applications, such as screen-pop links to back-end databases or interactive voice response systems.
Moving to the next-generation contact centre requires two fundamental architectural shifts. You need to migrate to voice over IP, and you need to move applications to open, industry-standard architectures. Find out how in this Technology Insider.
Open architecture is the key to building the next-generation customer contact centre.
Picture this: Instead of having to operate an expensive call centre tied to a physical location, you've created a virtual, multimedia contact centre staffed by agents working from home or in distant offices, connected through a voice-over-IP (VoIP) network.
You've launched money-saving, self-service customer applications based on standards such as XML and VoiceXML that reduce the load on your agents. You've integrated your CRM software with computer-telephone integration (CTI) so that back-end database information on customers is available to agents in the form of screen pops.
Customers reach your contact centre any way they wish - voice call, e-mail, chat and real-time collaboration over the Web. The customer experience is consistent across all media, and each interaction is immediately reported so updated information is available right away. The contact centre blends resources, and manages and reports on all contacts via a common application suite.
Is this vision hype or reality? The answer is a little of both. This contact centre is possible with today's technologies, but full-blown implementations are still few and far between. However, experts are confident that VoIP-based, multichannel contact centres are the future of customer relations, so it's important to start planning.
The next-generation contact centre requires two fundamental architectural shifts. In the network infrastructure you need to shift from the TDM/PBX world to VoIP. And in the applications infrastructure you need to migrate call routing and reporting, traditionally handled by automatic call distributors (ACD), from closed switching systems to open, industry-standard servers.
Open architecture offers the promise of infrastructure-agnostic applications. Routing, reporting and management functions can run on a server that talks to the switching infrastructure. Open applications can seamlessly route voice calls, e-mail and Web-based contacts, and they can connect online customers with contact centre agents via chat, escorted browsing or collaborative form completion. Switch vendors offering open architecture contact-centre products include Aspect, Avaya, Cisco and Nortel .
The idea is that once contact-centre applications are freed from single-vendor proprietary systems, customers would be able to select best-of-breed products. This open architecture would attract a larger pool of application developers, leading to new capabilities, lower costs and improved integration.
For example, Nordea, a Swedish financial services company servicing 3 million customers and handling 44 million calls per year (85 per cent of them automated), has deployed Genesys' Framework to transform its contact-centre operation, improve the customer experience, and save more than $2 million per year.
Nordea migrated from the ACD applications on its Nortel switch to Genesys server-based software to manage not only phone calls, but also other media. The Genesys IP Contact Centre routes contacts and integrates with Nordea's information systems and databases. And rolling the system out to additional sites was relatively quick once the initial infrastructure was in place.
Customers have the choice of which channel they want to use to reach the company, and the Genesys software funnels customers to the best available and qualified of 1000 agents in 14 centres, considering language, product/service and customer type.
With an open architecture, users theoretically can mix and match products from various vendors. But that point has not been reached yet. For example, switch infrastructure vendors offer specialised applications that are tuned to their own products or they promote the pre-integrated capabilities of their server applications - tying together ACD, interactive voice response (IVR) and CTI functionality. So the world is not as "open" as it might seem.
On the plus side, customers can use standard interfaces to make integration easier. For example, APIs, such as TAPI and JTAPI, link switches to servers. CRM and CTI solutions integrate with prebuilt adapters, such as the Siemens CRM Ready Kit or the Genesys G-Plus adapters. These allow for integration with a top-tier CRM package, such as Siebel, in hours or days, rather than weeks or months. Similar connectors integrate IVR systems and reporting tools.
Other tools further the goals of openness for ease of integration, interoperability and portability. Standardised yet flexible data schemas and data access provided through SQL, Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) and XML are examples. The architecture frameworks of Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition, .Net and Common Object Request Broker Architecture also are becoming prevalent in contact-centre applications today.
Vendors have been responsive to customers' need for easy integration by offering an increasing number of connectors. Many leverage standard tools, such as ODBC; XML; and extraction, transformation and loading (ETL) applications. Faster and easier integration of the diverse elements in a centre is critical to enabling efficient and effective resource management.
Most vendors seeking to integrate with CRM solutions have, or will have, connectors to the top four products (Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP, Siebel ). For these vendors, there likely is a full-blown product. For others, it is an open hook - a software development kit (SDK) or API that can be written to more readily. CRM and CTI integration now is tackling the thin client architecture, which most CRM packages are also migrating to.
Voice Self-Service Apps Go Standard
Open architecture also applies to interactive voice response, where one server runs the speech processing for a natural-language user interface, and another runs the standard VoiceXML code of the core application. Both are communicating with standard voice-processing cards.
IVR vendors are supporting the VXML standard; most are or will soon be version 2.0-compliant. This architectural change has huge potential to open the previously small pool of developers and enable portability of applications, while leveraging the Web infrastructure and common data.
However, version 2.0 of the VXML standard needs significant extensions to support customer contact applications. CTI-based call control, screen pops and integrated reporting are examples of functions that require capabilities beyond the standard. So a standards-compliant application might not be portable across platforms.
Many vendors generate VXML code from their proprietary graphical user interface as an option, easing the migration for those with in-house programming expertise on their current platform (but this code is not portable to a different platform if it includes any extensions). Some, such as Genesys, are agnostic about standards. They will work to promote the development of the VXML as well as Call Control XML standards. They also will comply with and support Speech Application Language Tags, a competing standard Microsoft is promoting.
Ready, Set, Implement?
So what's holding users back from implementing open application architectures?
- Some products aren't mature; VXML, for example, is just being used by early adopters.
- Some interfaces aren't truly open.
- Not enough "canned" interfaces exist, partly because they are vendor-specific, not standards-based.
- It can be hard to integrate solution elements, potentially resulting in significant system integration costs.
- The products don't plug and play the way they're marketed.
- Not many have done it before them.
- Maintenance and ongoing management costs can be high; for example, an upgrade or new release in one element can have a ripple effect to other elements for upgrades and testing.
As a customer, you must evaluate potential costs and trade-offs in integration, problem resolution, upgrades and the like. Your strategic approach to vendor and product selection needs to consider the tradeoffs of integrating best-of-breed products vs buying a suite of products from one vendor.
Take these steps to open your architecture
Here's what you need to do to open your contact-centre architecture to enhance applications and ease integration:
- Understand your business strategy. Companies that want to offer best-in-class customer service, drive down costs, or be more flexible and adaptable to changing business needs should be able to build a business case for open architectures.
- Begin an education process on the various applications and integration approaches in the contact-centre market. Understand which of your strategic vendor partners are offering truly open solutions.
- Understand your business needs. If you need contact handling, Web and phone self-service, improved reporting, and integration of desktop applications, it's time to look for more open solutions.
- Select vendor partners that offer open solutions. Challenge them with the "show me" question. Be clear on whether you have a best-of-breed or suite strategy and why, and understand the trade-offs that go with it.
- Develop your technology strategy. Define where you need to be, and when, to support the identified business needs. Define how applications changes sync up with your infrastructure changes.
- Don't let low cost be a driver unless you're looking at total cost of ownership. Understand that low-cost purchase might result in a high-cost management.
- Define your design and implementation principles. More rapid application deployment, portability, interoperability and flexibility all point to open environments.
- Deploy your new applications through a careful testing and piloting process.
This process takes time - 12 to 18 months or more. That's why planning needs to start now.
A Packet-Switched World
Someday soon, IP will support call-centre features that TDM cannot
If moving applications to open, industry-standard architectures is the first step on the road to contact centre Nirvana (see graphic,Making the leap from TDM, page 23), the second major architectural change is to the shift 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.
Voice over IP (VoIP ) is compelling, and most contact centres 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 can also be compelling because they save significant numbers of call centre 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-centre infrastructure. Many centres 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 centre 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 centre 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 centres, it now needs the pull of more applications that are easier to integrate."
All major switch vendors provide IP products for contact centres. 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-centre products, but few call-centre customers are buying them.
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 centres (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
VoIP in contact centres is happening primarily in greenfields - small or nonmission-critical centres. Some larger companies are running small pilots in the help desk for example, to gain experience with the technology. Distributed contact centres 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 two years 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-centre capabilities quickly, minimise 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 centralised call centre 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 Centre Server.
Customers can reach an agent at the call centre even when the local restaurant isn't open, and agents interact as if they were the friendly neighbourhood restaurant, thanks to the CTI integration and screen pops. The extended coverage and personalised service this product provides increased revenue more than $1 million in the first year.
Many multinational companies also have "follow the sun" routing to centres around the globe, some managed and staffed by outsourcers. By creating a virtual centre 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 18 months 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 centre IT manager for Shurgard, says the company will integrate with IP switches to transfer calls to stores all over the US, 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 some 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 organisations, 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 centre'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 centre field marketing and sales for Siemens, says, "The migration path is the most important thing to contact-centre 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 centres 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.
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 organisations.
- 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.
Here are the top contact-centre 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.