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Understanding Session Initiation Protocol in today's call centers

Donna Fluss, President, DMG Consulting LLC
Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is a technical feature of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)-based call center platforms that promises two important and very practical benefits for users. The first is the ability to identify the location and status of any individual or device tied to the system. The second is interoperability between different call center tools or private branch exchanges (PBXs). These two benefits have the potential to translate into significant savings for organizations by minimizing the need for multiple automatic call distributors (ACDs) or PBXs and reducing carrier fees.

Uses and benefits of SIP

The concept behind SIP is excellent, and there is great potential if SIP is used effectively:

  • SIP can make it easier and more cost-effective for companies to tie together various call center technology tools based throughout the world.
  • SIP can reduce the number of ACDs required, greatly minimizing technology, maintenance and IT staff costs.
  • SIP can dramatically reduce the number of "endpoints" or telephony-enabled devices such as phones, PC-based soft phones, PDAs and cell phones that companies need to purchase and support. (Currently, businesspeople have as many as four costly devices.)
  • SIP can make it easier for companies to set up and manage remote (at-home) call center agents.
  • SIP allows enterprises to minimize the need for enterprise
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    • routing solutions, dramatically reducing carrier fees.
    • SIP can also provide a strong foundation for disaster recovery without major incremental investments.
    • In other words, SIP delivers great flexibility and eliminates the physical boundaries and limitations of many of today's time division multiplexing (TDM)-based call centers.

      SIP challenges for the call center industry

      Companies that have invested in SIP-enabled call center products are seeing most of these benefits. But there remains one big challenge for the industry, and it's one that most vendors neglect to share when they discuss the benefits of SIP-enabled call center solutions. The issue is that SIP facilitates true interoperability and the rest of these benefits only in a single-vendor environment. (To be fair, some SIP-based solutions support telephone sets from other manufacturers, although this degree of interoperability is still limited. For example, Polycom and Grand Stream SIP phones can be used with a couple of the SIP-based ACDs.) What is not interoperable for any of the products is security, management, support of advanced features and call accounting. For example, a company can send a call from one manufacturer's ACD to another's, but it will arrive without the intelligence about how to treat the interaction. Therefore, any company that has multiple ACDs and PBXs from different manufacturers will not be able to realize the benefits of SIP. However, most companies purchasing their first ACD, or enterprises replacing their entire telephony infrastructure, are selecting SIP-based products because they are able to realize all the benefits.

      Any company that wants to realize the full benefits of SIP must convert its entire telephony infrastructure to a single-vendor environment. The cut-over must include all PBXs that are used to route calls to ACDs, all call center systems and all endpoints (phone devices). Also, these companies generally find it beneficial to convert their interactive voice response systems and recording applications to IP at the same time. So, while SIP offers the potential for millions of dollars in technology, carrier, operational and staff savings for large and complex operating environments, the start-up costs can be prohibitive.

      Here's an example that may help make the issue clear. Many financial services companies were created through mergers that brought together a diverse set of technologies and systems, including call center technology and PBXs from many manufacturers, such as Avaya, Nortel, Cisco and InterTel/Mitel. In prior years, many of these financial services organizations purchased an enterprise routing product to help them tie together their diverse call center systems without having to "rip and replace" their existing technology. The carriers/network service providers played an essential role in moving calls between diverse ACDs. This was (and continues to be) expensive, but enterprises have been able to avoid major technology write-downs and potential service disruptions. Carrier-based routing tools have enabled them to quickly deliver sizable merger-related savings.

      The SIP evaluation process

      The SIP-enabled call center vendors all claim that enterprises can streamline communications and eliminate hardware investments by migrating to their SIP-based platforms. This claim is absolutely true, but it has to be analyzed carefully. The first step in a corporate SIP strategy should be a comprehensive analysis that addresses various SIP-based alternatives versus the status quo. This analysis should address the total cost of ownership (TCO), return on investment (ROI), and disaster recovery plans. The study should quantify the short-and long-term value of the benefits and the trade-offs between the savings and investments needed to leverage this powerful new technology.

      The future of SIP in the call center

      SIP has great potential to change the way companies build their telephony backbone, but for enterprises to realize the greatest benefits, interoperability in call treatment, security, management and call accounting will have to be guaranteed. There are some forums and committees working behind the scenes to facilitate inter-vendor cooperation, but much work remains to be done. Enterprises need to pressure their vendors to move toward open standards-based SIP products so that all organizations can reap the benefits of SIP.


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