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Pizza Pizza serves up call center innovation

Through VoIP, this Canadian delivery chain is using a virtual call center to take orders from all over the country, with many agents working from home.

Pick up a phone to order a large pepperoni and mushroom from Pizza Pizza Ltd. in Canada and that call you make isn't going to the local pizzeria. It's going to one of three nationwide call centers or maybe even someone's living room.

With a catchy jingle already keeping the company's phone number fresh in the minds of the greater Toronto area, Pizza Pizza is now turning to technology to help deal with the influx of orders.

The Toronto-based company is a veritable veteran of call center projects. The day the first restaurant opened in 1967 it already had a separate call center in a room upstairs and orders were dropped down a chute. Now Pizza Pizza operates 350 restaurants across Canada and 150 "non-traditional" operations such as booths at food courts.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has allowed the company to operate a virtual call center with a system from Indianapolis-based Interactive Intelligence Inc. In 1991, Pizza Pizza dismantled its large Toronto-based call center and moved to a mixture of in-house, outsourced and remote agents.

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At peak call hours, Pizza Pizza has about 150 agents working in its call center and 200 working remotely. Call volume can be pretty predictable in the pizza delivery business. For example, Evelyn Page, director of call center operations, knew when the Canadian national hockey team had a game recently she would need extra agents on hand. However, something less predictable like a thunderstorm can cause a spike in calls, as people order in instead of going out.

With the Interactive Intelligence tools, home-based agents are brought online through a system of alerts, either via phone, chat or e-mail, and can pitch in to handle call spikes.

"It really gives us a lot of flexibility with managing our service levels," Page said. "You can keep smaller contact centers which are more personal, yet have the economic efficiencies of a bigger call center."

Most of Pizza Pizza's home-based agents are not on VoIP. Calls that come into Toronto and need to be routed to a remote agent must be converted to telephony before it's transferred.

"The next step would be to transition my group of home guys onto VoIP," Page said. "Right now they need two phone lines to function. The in-house people are using soft phones IP."

Because taking pizza delivery orders is not particularly complex, there is little ongoing training required. Agents are brought in to the call center for training and the company relies heavily on an online memo system and internal intranet to keep agents up to speed, Page said.

While there are occasional issues with VoIP such as latency problems and echoes on the line, the benefits far outweigh the minuses, Page insists.

"For anyone considering one, I say go for it," she said. "There are a lot of efficiencies in moving to a virtual center."

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