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Contact centers slowly moving toward VoIP

Barney Beal

Contact centers still aren't clamoring to make the move from circuit-based systems to voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), but according to recent research, there are a few cases where they're finding some value.

"We've seen a lot out there in terms of people saying, 'VoIP is better for everything,' and 'One network is better than two,'" said Art Schoeller, an analyst with the Boston-based Yankee Group. "It ain't happening."

Schoeller recently surveyed roughly 1,000 call center managers to determine where VoIP implementations were underway. He found that few companies are investing in VoIP to lower their total cost of ownership of the infrastructure, but rather are swayed by specific application needs and, in a few cases, isolated infrastructure costs.

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The small and midsized business (SMB) market has seen the most widespread adoption, but larger centers are also finding a use for VoIP in distributed contact centers.

One scenario, garnering most of the attention within the contact center industry, is using VoIP with home-based agents. While VoIP makes the technology piece of enabling home-based agents, Schoeller said it is by no means a panacea.

The real decisions driving deployment of home-based agents within organizations is how to recruit and manage personnel.

"The bigger issue is, how do you manage people who are not there," Schoeller said. "You need to regularly bring them back into the office. There are a lot of much bigger managerial issues."

As one might expect, the large call center outsourcers are seeing some value in VoIP as well. Companies like Omaha, Neb.-based West Corp. and Convergys Corp., in Cincinnati, are leveraging VoIP for cost savings. Schoeller said the ability to reduce costs, even moderately, offers these companies the "bang for the buck" to make VoIP worthwhile.

"For them, every penny counts," he said. "They're the ones beating up on the vendors to make it work."

Multi-site contact centers are also taking advantage. For example, a company with 3,000 agents across five locations needs to be able to switch between centers quickly and cheaply. VoIP offers that, Schoeller said.

Historically, there are three layers of switches -- directing calls by subject, directing calls by site availability and directing calls by agent availability. VoIP allows organizations to collapse those three tiers and save them hardware costs.

In addition, VoIP enables organizations to connect small groups of individuals to the contact center who would not otherwise be connected. For example, customers who call to get information on product availability at a local "brick-and-mortar" retail location can be redirected to the closest retail center. Similarly, tellers at retail banks who are facing downtime could be available to take customer service calls. Conversely, if the phone rings at the local bank and tellers are busy, the call can be transferred to a call center.

Finally, SMBs are taking the path of least resistance when it comes to VoIP. They are simply installing the "system of the future" to save themselves the trouble of having to switch it out later, Schoeller said. Price points for VoIP have come down in recent years, making it more in line with circuit-based systems and more attractive to new buyers, he added.

Yet, companies are still voicing their concerns over VoIP. Security and quality of service are both raising flags for potential purchasers.

"If you're a single site and things are running smoothly, maybe you can wait," Schoeller said.


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