Insurance company connects agents with IP product

Back in 2000, La Capitale Assurance Generales noticed that its customers were going virtual, but thanks to limitations in communication technology, the Quebec-based insurance company had a hard time keeping up with this high-tech trend.

For some time La Capitale had been looking at how its clients were interacting with the firm, and discovered a new pattern: customers were shifting away from face-to-face interaction, and moving towards virtual communication, using the call centre or going to the Web site, explained Sean Forkan, director of advanced technologies at Cisco Systems Canada, a communication platform vendor.

This presented a challenge for La Capitale. It had a large geography to cover — 22 contact centres spread throughout the province of Quebec — and the cost of buying PBXs to cover both large and small call centres was “a little cost prohibitive,” Forkan said.

La Capitale decided the solution to its communication woes lay in the emerging voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology, a connection method that would put voice and data on one network.

But at the time, in 2000, few tech vendors offered the sort of converged voice-data platform that La Capitale sought, explained John Kirouac, the enterprise’s vice-president of finance and administration. Although he went to many IT shows searching for a range of providers to choose from, “the only one that really worked at the time was Cisco.”

La Capitale and Cisco had an existing relationship. The insurance company used Cisco products for data connectivity, Kirouac said.

La Capitale decided on Cisco’s IP Contact Centre (IPCC) to connect its branches and derive efficiency from its data network. IPCC is a VoIP-based system that includes call centre applications.

The most challenging part of the implementation was linking all 22 units across the province together, said La Capitale’s Kirouac.

“When you buy an IPCC system from Cisco, you buy…all kinds of hardware and having all this hardware communicate properly together was the hard part. But they finally did it,” he added.

The installation took six months to complete, but Kirouac noted that the company didn’t go into the project with blinders on. La Capitale still had its old Centrex system in place. It acted as a backup in case the IPCC experienced any failures. “We didn’t do it without a parachute,” he said.

La Capitale figures the IPCC has helped increase call agent productivity by as much as 20 per cent. The system has also helped reduce network ownership costs by $1 million per year. These days La Capitale is considering a click-to-talk feature on its Web site, so customers can speak with company agents during online sessions.

Although La Capitale’s experience with IPCC seems to be a positive one, Roberta Fox, president and senior partner at Fox Group Consulting in Markham, Ont., said Cisco needs to more clearly define what customers should expect from their VoIP systems if it wants to continue to be the “gorilla that a lot of people say [they are] in the data market.”

Cisco, which made a name for itself as a data equipment vendor, originally underestimated the complexity of voice technologies, both in terms of sales and installation, explained Fox. “I think they are now looking more strategically at how they can do it more effectively if they want to grow their IP telephony market share.”

Fox said she has been testing VoIP since 1997 and has learned that a company needs to have a well-designed, well-managed data network in order to put voice on top of it.

“If our e-mail is 30 seconds late it doesn’t matter, but if our voice call goes weird it matters,” Fox explained. “It is the real-time effect of a voice application that’s driving the data networks to be better managed.”

La Capitale’s Kirouac said his company so far has had a positive experience working with Cisco.

“My experience was a good one, but it was a hard one,” Kirouac said, referring to the fact that La Capitale was almost a guinea pig with the technology since it began plans to implement it in 2000. He added that when the company had problems with products, Cisco brought in the right people to solve them.

“When I bought the system I also bought some professional services at a fixed rate,” Kirouac said, “and I’m quite sure they spent at least three times what I paid them and they never said a word.”

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