Virtual call center technology gives enterprises flexibility in how they staff and manage a call center. Enterprises can move agents out of a central office and distribute them globally anywhere with an Internet connection. For enterprises that rely on a pool of people to man customer service, sales or technical support lines, virtualizing the call center might be the best opportunity to reduce overhead, ensure business continuity and hire the best staff available.
Early virtual call center products relied on analog phone lines at the remote agent’s home office. The technology would either forward calls to the user’s phone or establish a steady connection to the agent’s line while the agent was logged in. IP telephony has made virtual call center technology more sophisticated and simpler to set up. Now a call center agent needs only a broadband Internet connection and a computer with a USB headset.
Benefits of virtual call centers
Virtual call centers offer enterprises several strategic benefits. They can reduce the overhead of maintaining commercial office space for large call centers. Enterprises also no longer have to hire locally for specialized agents, such as nurses or technical staff. They can find the best employees regardless of where the agent may live. This geographical diversity has the additional benefit of enhancing an organization’s disaster recovery and business continuation plans.
“Physical call centers are susceptible to natural events, ranging from bad weather that prevents agents from getting into the office to large-scale disasters. A virtualized call center is an excellent business continuation strategy.” said Michael Barbagallo, president and principal analyst for Shenandoah Analytics. “Agents spread throughout the country means that no matter what happens, someone is always there to answer the phone.”
Enterprises will also experience some soft benefits with virtual call centers, such as improved work-life balance and higher employee morale.
What to look for in a virtual call center
First and foremost, integration with an enterprise’s existing systems is a top consideration for any virtual call center project. Most solutions natively connect to leading customer relationship management (CRM) systems, such as Salesforce.com, but enterprises should also focus on a vendor’s ability to connect to incumbent business and unified communications systems, too.
Similarly, the virtual call center vendor's ability to scale with the changing needs of the enterprise, particularly during temporary or seasonal spikes in demand, should be high on the list of criteria. Many retail organizations, for example, significantly ramp up staffing for the holiday season, only to wind back down to normal staffing levels after Christmas. Understanding the licensing and bandwidth ramifications of these spikes will help determine which virtual call center solutions, both on-premise or hosted, fit with the organization’s needs.
Enterprises should also decide early on in the planning process whether they want to implement an on-premise or a cloud-based virtual call center product.
“The first step in implementing a virtual call center is deciding whether to build it or buy it,” said Dan Fontaine, senior vice president of technology for VIPdesk, a provider of concierge and customer care solutions, who has implemented an on-premise virtual call center product from Interactive Intelligence. “There are a lot of great companies out there that have turned the call center into a service.” For VIPdesk, Fontaine ultimately chose an in-house solution to provide the level of customization required by the company to support its customers' needs.
IT organizations will have to rethink their implementation and support processes for virtual call centers. Rather than simply placing phones and PCs on an agent’s desk in a physical call center, IT support staff will have to contend with remote agents working out of their homes, likely on their own hardware. Ease of deployment and training requirements for remote agents’ needs will also be important considerations, to ensure that even temporary and seasonal agents can get up and running quickly and easily.
The decision between an on-premise or cloud-based virtual call center product comes down to budget structure and internal expertise. Enterprises should decide whether they want to treat their virtual call centers as capital or operational expenses. And they should assess the skills of their internal telephony engineers. An in-house virtual call center will require skilled technicians on staff to maintain, upgrade and support that solution. An organization not willing or able to bring on the staff might consider relying on an outside vendor for its virtual call center.
Virtual call center implementation and challenges
VIPdesk’s approach to connecting its agents is as virtual as the call center services it offers. First, the company audits the home office environments of new agent hires. This audit ensures that an agent's computer system and Internet connection is capable of handling the necessary VoIP software, but it also ensures that the home work environment is acceptable.
“We don’t want our callers to ever hear a barking dog,” Fontaine said.
VIPdesk also provides remote training to new agents through a Web-based learning tool. To deliver the virtual call center application to remote agents, the company uses virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) from Citrix. Remote users visit a Web address on the company’s website and install a software client on their workstations. The software provides a window into VIPdesk’s software suite, running on the company’s servers.
“Using virtual desktop, none of our customer’s data ever leaves the building, even though the agent may be a thousand miles away,” Fontaine said.
During implementation of a virtual call center, enterprises also need to ensure that call center managers have the tools in place for effective oversight of remote agents.
“Most call center managers fear the loss of control when transitioning to a virtual call center,” Barbagallo said. They want to “walk the floor to keep tabs on what is going on,” he said.
Collaboration and monitoring technology can ease a manager's transition to a virtual call center. Presence has been a mainstay of call center customer interaction in recent years, but managers can use technologies like instant messaging, real-time monitoring and video chat to stay in close contact with remote agents. These capabilities not only allow supervisors to keep track of what is going on, but also enable remote agents to reach out for help.
“In many ways, the level of interaction a call center manager has with his remote agents can be greater than if they are under the same roof. With the level of call monitoring and reporting available, a supervisor can listen in a call and even speak into the agent’s ear,” Fontaine said.