VoIP brings holiday cheer to retail, contact centers

IP communication tools in retail contact centers are helping spread the holiday cheer.

No doubt this holiday season will find you hustling through crowded stores, surfing the Web or ordering by phone.

It's a pretty hectic time, but there's a lot going on behind the scenes to try and make everything go as smoothly as possible, and a lot of that hinges on VoIP.

The retail industry sees its biggest sales boost in November and December. According to recent research, most retailers earn between 25% and 40% of their total yearly revenue during the last two months of the year. One slip can change how a customer views the retailer and dent the bottom line. Telephone inquiries and the Internet are also hampering in-store sales, prompting many retailers to rely on advanced IP contact center applications to keep customers in the holiday spirit.

The ability to have an IP phone at the site and have calls answered and forwarded to a call center can enhance the overall customer experience.
John Vincent
Director, Retail Industry MarketingAvaya
"The biggest value we see for IP telephony for retailers during the holidays is allowing them to [improve] the customer's overall experience," said John Vincent, director of retail industry marketing for IP communications vendor Avaya. "Bricks-and-mortar retailers are very concerned about enhancing the shopping experience."

Physical stores are now forced to compete with the Internet for the almighty holiday dollar, according to Vincent. That competition is much harder for smaller, specialty retailers than it is for national mall chains. But when a customer walks into a store, there are only three possible outcomes: They buy something, they leave without buying anything, or they steal something. Only one of those outcomes is in the retailer's favor.

"They need a way to improve the overall experience," Vincent said. But the experience can be marred when a sales associate in a store stops assisting a customer to answer the phone.

To combat that problem, stores can hire more staff, but that gets costly. Instead, using IP communications tools, they can centralize the calls without losing their local presence. Calls can be pushed to a contact center, decreasing the overall number of calls coming into the store, reducing the likelihood that the store will lose a sale, and freeing up the staff to focus better on customer service.

"The ability to have an IP phone at the site and have calls answered and forwarded to a call center can enhance the overall customer experience," Vincent said. "It keeps the store's staff focused on the customers, while maintaining the important local presence."

Currently, the retail and wholesale trade sector has the highest level of IP telephony adoption among business sectors, with 22% using an IP PBX communications switch.

Vince Weseli, director of call center consulting for Convergys, an outsourcer of call center operations with roughly 50,000 agents worldwide, said the holiday season is the "moment of truth" for most contact centers. From Black Friday on, he said, contact centers see double or triple the amount of call volume and have to adjust staff accordingly.

Weseli said the trick to optimizing the effectiveness of a call center is strong continuity and transparency across several sources: technologies, operations, people and processes. He said tools such as VoIP and SIP enable the network to push pertinent customer information to agents, helping them to serve customers better and making the behind-the-scenes workings more transparent.

"Where there is not continuity across the channels," Weseli said, "you're going to have a dissatisfactory experience on the part of the consumer."

VoIP is critical because it can trigger different pieces of relevant info and put it in front of agents.

Henry Rey, telecommunications manager for Tiger Direct, a computer and electronics retailer with a huge online presence and several physical stores, said the company's six call centers are linked by IP telephony on an MPLS network. The main, in-bound call center in Miami averages 30,000 to 40,000 per week. During the holiday season, that number jumps to more than 100,000. Rey said the company would never be able keep up with the demand on its contact center without IP communications tools.

"It alleviates the cost of opening more offices," he said. "It also allows us to share the availability of a pool of people."

For more information
Read how VoIP is changing the contact center

Check out our Fast Guide to an IP call center
Rey said that Miami is the main call center, but there are two more in the U.S. and three in Canada. Using IP, calls that come into Miami are passed onto another call center if all of the agents are busy. This all happens seamlessly and without the customer's knowledge, ensuring that wait time is as short as possible and the correct person answers the call.

"It automatically increases our pool of agents by 20 or 30 when a call comes into Miami," Rey said, adding that the retail stores are on the same switch, and calls can be bounced from the stores to the contact center to free up in-store staff.

Tiger Direct can also save money and space by hiring part- and full-time home agents who connect to the network via VPN without the need for a costly additional phone line. The company has since grown from only two or three home agents to more than a dozen.

The benefits of IP telephony in the call center are obvious all year round, Rey said, but they are most visible during the holidays.

"The week before Christmas, it really gets crazy here," he said, noting that customers are constantly calling for order status updates. To transfer a call before IP, Rey said, Tiger Direct had to trunk the inbound call and route it to another trunk so it could be handled by a different call center. Now, with the MPLS network connecting all locations and four-digit dialing on IP phones, that's not the case.

"It was such a hassle before," he said. "The ability for us to help our customers has become something we're very proud of."

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