Distributed calling centers helped 'Barack the vote'

The same call center techniques that drove record numbers to the polls could help enterprises cut costs and improve retention.

On-demand, distributed call centers helped drive the highest voter turnout in decades, offering eager volunteers

a convenient way to call potential voters from the comfort of their home. The same technology is poised to transform many enterprise call centers, too.

Vince Bognot, a technology blogger from Nevada, wasn't able to make the trip to Barack Obama's Las Vegas campaign headquarters to work on a phone bank, but he was still able to contribute by logging on Obama's homepage and registering there.

"I just signed up, clicked the big green button that says 'Make Calls Now,' and picked my state," Bognot said. "It had a script of what you had to say, and the contact telephone number, and [a] name and polling place."

While the system Obama's campaign used directly was fairly simple, giving users a list of numbers to call, other Software as a Service (SaaS) distributed call centers are more sophisticated, such as dialing both the caller and callee to connect the call with minimal work from the volunteer or employee.

Letting callers work from home – or anywhere else they can find a telephone line and Internet connection – provides some great benefits to both campaigns and corporations.

"One of the big challenges for any call center management is recruitment," said Howard Kiewe, senior research analyst with Toronto-based Info-Tech Research Group. "Working at a call center isn't fun, so if you can make it convenient, there's a whole new pool of labor available to you."

Kiewe said other benefits include savings earned by not having to provide a physical office to call center agents and the rapid scalability to meet changing demands. This is particularly useful if a company is launching a new marketing campaign, or a political campaign is in the final push to elect its candidate.

More and more call centers will have a distributed model as an option, according to Kiewe, as they replace traditional PBXs with all-IP communications, which are easier to trunk wherever the user is.

"It's a different business case, depending on what phase of operations your business is in," Kiewe said. "If you have an existing call center in place and you're matching your calls already, it doesn't make sense for you to switch over to this system. Where you see more uptake is end of life in the call center technology, where you'll consider moving over to VoIP, which makes these exercises so much simpler."

Komnieve Singh, co-founder of distributed call center host CallFire, said his company enabled millions of calls a day on behalf of MoveOn.org, a progressive cause advocacy organization, and other political organizations during this year's election season.

"Over the course of time, we'll see a number of people going into a distributed model, but I don't think by any means it will take over," Singh said. "There's a lot of management that goes into it from a human perspective that I don't think we have yet."

These management concerns are particularly important when sensitive data is at stake.

"Having agents at home, you're sacrificing some of the control," Kiewe said -- a dangerous prospect for 911 call centers or companies that handle tightly regulated financial or medical data. "You really want a supervisor making sure that data doesn't walk out the door."

But for getting out the vote, it turns out that the distributed model may be just about perfect for putting eager, but increasingly time-constrained, volunteers in touch with the political process.

"I made over 30 calls and reminded 30 people to vote in Las Vegas, and that made me feel good," Bognot said. "I am proud of MoveOn and all the work they did … I hope I helped out."

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