CIPA Winners’ Circle: Call-centre crunch time

The call-centre outsourcing industry changed on a September day in 2004, when IT executive Pierre Grimard and his colleagues realized that their plan would work.

Leading a project for Nordia Inc. of Montreal, one of Canada’s largest customer contact-centre companies, Grimard and his team were trying to create an entirely new way to route and manage long distance calls. They had to meet an immovable deadline under amazingly difficult conditions.

Nordia had a contract with the State of California to provide relay services, whereby specially trained communication assistants transcribe and relay telephone conversations back and forth between people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-disabled and those they wish to communicate with by telephone.

This was no ordinary contract. It specified more than 500 functions to be carried out. The call centre needed to handle new technologies, including Internet-protocol and wireless technologies, as well as specialized technologies used for hearing-impaired and speech-disabled callers – and in English, Spanish and eventually French.

The service level demanded by the contract was unprecedented: an average call-answering time of 3.3 seconds, compared with 20 seconds for the industry as a whole.

“The service level for this contract is one of the fastest and toughest to meet in the industry,” says Grimard, Nordia’s vice-president of information technology, who has been managing complex telecommunication projects for 20 years. “It’s not even a ringtone.”

Most challenging of all, California had chosen three call-centre service providers, which would compete for call volumes throughout the three-year life of the contract. One of the companies was also the network services provider in the U.S., upon whose cooperation Nordia depended to make its solution work. Never before had such relay signals been possible across the Canada-U.S. border because of differing transmission standards.

Why did Nordia get into such a tough situation? To make a name for itself in an industry that employs one in 25 working Canadians, and to break into the U.S. market. Nordia was young, having been formed in 1999 as a partnership between Bell Canada and a U.S. company called J-Telecom Interest Inc. It wasn’t well known outside of Ontario and Quebec.

The ultimate success of the project, though, changed all that. Nordia gained industry recognition for quality of service and technological leadership and won several awards, notably a Gold Best of Category Award at the 2005 Canadian Information Productivity Awards in the ‘Efficiency and Operational Improvements, For Profit’ category. Today, a Google search of Nordia turns up almost 50,000 entries, many of them about Nordia’s awards.

And the U.S. market? That’s wide open to Nordia now. The explanation lies in how it met the challenge of the California contract.

Moving into high gear

California announced its selection of Nordia, MCI and Sprint to operate its California Relay Service in 2002, but the contract was not signed until April 2004. The deadline for meeting terms of the contract was December 2 of that year.

Grimard, who had just joined Nordia in January 2004, was asked to take the slow-moving project into high gear. He worked with two other key players: Anne Rousseau, director of customer relations, who was responsible for client relations with the State of California and coordinated multiple teams encompassing human resources and facilities management, and Bernard Durocher, now acting president and CEO of Nordia, who was responsible for setting up the new contact-centre operations.

Grimard himself took leadership of a diverse team of software and telecommunications experts from Nordia and several companies located in Montreal, Ottawa and California.

“We were working six or seven days a week, building the facilities, hiring more than 200 agents at once, training them and completing the technology solutions, all at the same time.”

The team adapted Project Management Institute methodology and used a features-based approach to rapidly develop the software solution, identifying one key feature at a time and then using it as a building block to add more features.

Nordia and its strategic partners – including Bell Canada, Nortel, Circumference Technology Services and Concept S2i – developed and implemented a new technological platform called the Multimedia Relay Centre (MMRC). This software-based solution succeeded in centralizing management of multiple call types on one single platform, including webIP-relay, TTY (teletext), ASCII, three-way calling and conference calls, as well as speech-to-speech (for speech-disabled people) and video relay services for sign language users.

Building a new partnership

Nordia’s success with the State of California project had an important side benefit. It attracted the attention of another relay service provider in the U.S., GoAmerica Inc.
Read more

In all, the integrated relay system directly supports 57 combinations of call types, a new level of technological achievement for the industry.

But that wasn’t the hard part.

Working with the competition

Nordia needed to work with Sprint’s people to establish network connectivity, but some of the same people were also involved in operating Sprint’s call centre.

“I learned how to deal with third parties that are not necessarily in favour of working with you since you are also a competitor at the same time,” Grimard says.

He made use of the Bell Canada team. They had devised an ingenious way to overcome the difference between Canadian and US telecommunication standards so that the relay transmissions could cross the border, by installing an intermediate Oracle database in real time connected to Bell’s long-distance switchers. The Bell team could communicate persuasively with the Sprint team.

After several months of persistence, the relationship began to work and the connectivity solution did, too. Nordia and Bell became the first to show that specialized call centre services could be transmitted across the Canada-U.S. border, with all the required call-record information. That’s when Grimard – who experienced many moments of doubt along the way – realized that the project would succeed.

“It was a great moment,” he remembers. “We had rented a floor in a building for what has become Nordia’s seventh contact centre, and while we were installing the server room in the middle, the building crew were ripping down the walls and ceilings and putting in new carpets and setting up the new 135 seats for the agents.

“We started to train the agents on a lower level where we had temporary facilities until our permanent floor was ready. And when the training began on the new platform, with a new reliable technology integrating all the different components and services from multiple parties, we realized that it worked.”

Nordia met the target implementation date of December 2, and California allocated it additional call volume.

QuickLink: 061390

–Lawrence Moule is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. Winners of Canadian Information Productivity Awards, such as Nordia Inc., are celebrated at the CIPA gala banquet in November of each year for excellence that fosters innovation and enhanced productivity and

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