Call centres start dialing up Voice-over-IP

Major telecommunications equipment manufacturers like Nortel Networks, Lucent Technologies and Cisco Systems are talking about Internet Protocol (IP) products that unify networks and enable companies to run voice and data over one network system. They are talking about IP-phones that connect companies enterprise-wide by IP-enabled WANs. They are talking about the death of long distance and the Internet becoming the sole channel for voice and data communications.

Let’s stop all the talking for a minute and look at the state of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) as it pertains to one telephone-dependant industry: call centres. If ever an industry was primed to serve cyber-shopping customers who want to talk to a live agent before making a purchase decision, it’s the call centre industry. After all, aren’t call centres primarily about sales, support and service? And isn’t e-commerce radically altering the traditional commerce universe?

When it comes to VoIP and call centres, there is good news and bad news. First the bad news: few if any call centres are using VoIP technology to talk to customers on the Web. Now the good news: give it two to three years and we’ll be able to surf and talk to our hearts content.

While almost anyone with a PC, sound card and Internet connection can do VoIP, it doesn’t mean they can do it well. Latency through a sound card is about a quarter of a second, so if a customer and call centre agent are both using PCs, assuming no transit delays (which is not a good assumption), the quality of commination would be unacceptable, says Seth Neumann, senior manager, Internet call centre, Nortel Networks.