IP telephony, VOIP makes way into some call centres

Converged voice/data WAN projects and applications are helping customer call centres of all sizes cut costs and to become more efficient. Benefits include savings on long-distance and local phone charges as well as improved performance of customer call agents due to better-integrated voice and data technology.

At Household Financial Corp. Ltd., convergence is helping the financial services company turn its 1,500 branch offices around the country into mini, localized call centers which can serve customers over the phone, or face to face.

The firm recently built a converged voice and data network with products from Vertical Networks Inc. and an IP-enabled nation-wide T-1 backbone from AT&T Corp. In each office, a Vertical Networks InstantOffice 3500 was installed, which acts as a small-office PBX, a LAN switch and a platform for computer telephony applications.

Household branch offices provide loan application and other financial services to regional customers. The branches were once connected to a centralized database via dedicated 56k bit/sec data circuits, while each office had anywhere from five to fifteen outside telephone lines for customer support. By combining the branch offices’ voice and data onto single T-1 lines from AT&T, the total telecom savings among the branches will be around US$4.5 million per year, says Ken Harvey, CIO for Household. In addition, with the new converged network, branches get nearly three times the WAN bandwidth as before.

But that’s not the biggest plus, says Harvey.

“What the converged network has allowed us to do is to make every branch office its own call center,” he says. Along with converged WAN traffic, the InstantOffice PBX/server is used as a platform for customer interaction applications normally found in larger call center systems. For example, the box integrates caller ID with Household’s custom-built CRM system, allowing customer records, such as loan processing updates, to pop up on an agents’ screen before he or she says “hello.”

The InstantOffice server, integrated with Household’s backend systems, lets agents pull up customer documents over the WAN from a centralized database – housed in Chicago. Documents can also be faxed from Household branches to customers through an application interface on the desktop.

According to IDC, the market for converged voice platform next year – which include IP PBXs, and IP-enabled PBXs, or phone systems connected via data lines – will reach will reach $231 million, up from just $7 million four years ago. This comes as larger companies have ramped up customer service efforts among businesses. In fact a recent IDC study says 28 percent more businesses have created IT budgets specifically for call centers in 2001 versus the 2000.

The traditional, or circuit-switched, call center market is led by such vendors as Nortel Networks Corp., Avaya Inc., Siemens AG and Aspect Communications Corp., who sell automatic call distributors (ACDs), or beefed-up PBXs which can handle the large call volumes. Companies including Alcatel SA, Cisco Systems Inc., 3Com Corp. and smaller players such as Vertical Networks and Altigen Communications Inc. have added call center capabilites to their IP PBXs, while the traditional players have also gotten into the act with IP-enabling add-on software for their ACDs, and pure IP call center software which can run on top of server-based IP PBX products.

Integrated IP/telephony applications are also making enterprise call centers more efficient at reaching customers.

If you get a call from Bass & Associates, P.C., an Atlanta-based law firm which provides outsourced bankruptcy and collections call services for credit card, cellphone and consumer loan companies, you probably don’t care that the company uses an integrated voice/data system to streamline its calling process. But the Conversations 4.0 predictive dialing software from Divine Inc. allows the firm’s agents to make 70 percent more calls daily, according to Jack Stephens, senior account executive with Bass, who oversaw the installation of the Conversations server. The Conversations server has allowed Bass to double the money it collected for its clients each month, he adds.

The Conversations applications runs on an IBM RS6000 server, which connects to the firm’s IBM Corp. AS400 and a Lucent Technologies Inc. G3 PBX. The Conversations server places the call for the agent, and a a desktop application screen brings up the customer’s data from the AS400 for the agent to read. Since Conversations runs over IP, Stephens has extended the server over the company’s VPN to a second call center in Tucson, Ariz., which does collection calls during west coast business hours.

“Running the [Conversations] application over the network let us add more agents in the Tucson office,” Stephens says, which as helped ramp up collections on the west coast. While IP telephony and VoIP have gained some traction in a few large call centers, the base telephony gear in the largest call centers will remain circuit-switched for the time being, some users say.

“The reality is that we’ve got a huge investment in PBXs that work,” says Tom McCormick, senior technical analyst with Carnival Cruises Inc. in Miami. “We are a call center for the most part; that’s where all of our customer service is,” McCormick says.

IP voice gear such as IP phones and PC-based softphones may promise improved features and more closely-integrated voice/data applications, McCormick says, but he does not think the technology is ready for primetime on the scale of Carnival’s contact centers.

“[IP PBXs] are not meant to complementary or compatible with existing PBXs, generally,” McCormick says. “From the ground up they’re great, but we’re not ready to risk that technology in our call center.”

Carnival runs two call centers based on Avaya G3 PBX systems – in Colorado Springs and Miramar, Fla., to cover both sides of the US. The Colorado and Florida centers have 250 and 700 agents working in them, respectively, and the cruise company is building a third call center in Miami that will house another 700 agents.

“For any other department that’s not out breadwinner, [IP voice] is great,” McCormick says. “Take my IT department , where it doesn’t really matter how good the quality of a call is. We’re not losing money there if a phone isn’t working. There’s no reason to buy a non-IP phones for non reservation-related departments.”