Learning IP voice skill the hard way

UpSource, a two-year-old customer management firm, took care to find the perfect location for its call centre, ultimately choosing North Sydney, N.S. Unfortunately, it seems the company picked less-than-perfect technology to support its employees.

Although North Sydney has a lot going for it – including an intelligent and educated population, according to UpSource’s vice-president of sales and marketing, Susan Cohen – the agents there had to deal with a rather stupid telecom system.

Without naming the vendor or the product, CTO Mark Burns said the platform had availability and reliability issues – problems that could impact UpSource’s chances for success. He said the firm “came to the unfortunate conclusion” that the system had to go.

After a year, UpSource replaced the poorly performing platform with Avaya Inc.’s Communication Manager for IP Telephony and its Call Management System. Avaya has “proven call centre technology…a strong convergence strategy and investment protection,” Burns said.

UpSource eventually found the right technology for its call centre, but not before it lost a year’s investment on an unsatisfactory system. So how can your enterprise avoid such an experience? Industry observers have some advice.

Mark Quigley, an analyst at Ottawa-based The Yankee Group Canada, suggested getting ruthless. “Today, particularly when you’re starting to look at IP telephony deployments, you do have a number of long-standing vendors that are very anxious to get your business. They’re all eager to get market share, to get the momentum going across their product lines.

“By all means, use it. Play one off the other. Force them to sweeten the pot. Be cognizant at the end of the day that you’re getting exactly what you need out of it, instead of buying into one of the lovely technology myths that constantly seem to be out there.”

Quigley pointed out that 65 per cent of a call centre’s costs come not from telecom or bricks-and-mortar infrastructure, but from human resources. Technology designed to aid employees – make them as efficient as possible – “has a pretty immediate impact on your operating expense,” he said.

Roberta Fox, president and senior partner of Fox Group Consulting in Markham, Ont., advocated a go-slow approach to purchases.

“What I haven’t seen people do, and they should, is (utilize a) prototype and proof-of-concept (process), before they sign on the dotted line for the big costs. Try the vendor; try a mini version of the solution.”

These days Fox Group is building a pilot virtual call centre for a B.C.-based company that plans to expand into Ontario. Rather than build a single call centre, this firm means to have operators at individual locations answer queries from customers. The system that Fox Group is designing would give customers a single number to dial even though agents would be distributed across the province.

“Yes, it’s going to cost time and effort and money, but we want to prove, before we start putting things in the stores in Ontario, that it’s going to work,” Fox said, adding that it’s also important for the enterprise to know what it wants before making the purchase.

“I ask a simple question: ‘This project will be successful if and when what happens, from a business perspective?’ If you can’t define measurable success, how will you know if it’s working or not working?”

Fox said UpSource could do worse than Avaya, explaining that predictive technology built into the company’s solutions help guide calls to the right operator at the right time.

But Quigley posited that Avaya trails a major IP sector competitor in one respect: “Certainly they haven’t banged the drum as loudly as Cisco has,” he said, mentioning Cisco Systems Inc.’s recent program to entice corporate Canada into buying IP telephony gear (see “Cisco’s remedy for TDM tedium,” page 15).

Still, “the best thing Avaya can do is keep going out, winning customers and servicing them properly. That tends to be almost as powerful, I think.”

Burns from UpSource said the Avaya platform should make call centre management simpler than before. Avaya’s Expert System “automatically receives alarms from our solution and attempts to resolve them remotely and automatically. If it can’t – and it can many times – it can pass off the alarm to a person, but with diagnostics and recommendations supporting that.”

But just how diligent was the company during the selection process this time? It’s a case of once bitten, twice shy. In an e-mail to Network World Canada, UpSource said it was rushed into the decision to purchase the first platform, and advises others to take care. Before buying, visit firms that use the proposed system. Talk to customers with similar needs and see what they did.

And “be careful not to be dazzled by promises of IP technology, to the extent that you fail to pay attention to your needs for a production-level system.”