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VoIP in the call center: Making the transition

Smaller organizations are proving more nimble in making the switch to VoIP in the call center. One Florida credit union is already a veteran.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology brings with it the promise of significant cost savings, flexibility and future growth, but many contact centers have remained cautious in their approach to moving to VoIP.

Fears about security, reliability, quality of service and transition costs have led many to wait for the technology to mature and for others to take that first step in moving from TDM lines to VoIP. And when they do, it's often a piecemeal approach.

Not CampusUSA Credit Union. Five years ago, it ripped out its existing time division multiplexing (TDM) system and rolled out a full VoIP suite for its contact center all at once -- over a weekend.

"It was a lot of pressure, that's very true," said Mitch Wright, senior network administrator with the Gainesville, Fla.-based organization. "We put a lot of faith in the technology. Our Credit Union is one of those who… yes, I would use the word bleeding edge."

CampusUSA was an early customer of Interactive Intelligence Inc., an Indianapolis-based company that provides a full VoIP-ready contact center suite called Customer Interaction Center. At the time, CampusUSA was leasing an Avaya Definity G3 for TDM-based switching at its inbound/outbound call center. The credit union was happy with the Avaya system but, as its contract expired, decided to take a second look at things.

"We thought we might as well take the opportunity to get current with technology and even get ahead," Wright said. "In the process we found that this looked like an intriguing and a good step to position us for the future."

Learning from the little guys

Smaller organizations have actually taken the lead in deploying VoIP in the call center, according to Ian Jacobs, strategic analyst for the information and communication technologies practice at San Antonio-based Frost & Sullivan Inc. Greenfields -- new organizations buying call center technology for the first time -- are far more willing to deploy VoIP systems because they don't have to worry about ripping out expensive, existing hardware. They have no reason to take a piecemeal approach, Jacobs said.

"When you have to swap out, people are taking small steps," he said. Some larger organizations are making the move, however, and Jacobs predicts more widespread adoption as organizations begin looking to replace systems they installed in preparation for Y2K. @28391

"The push toward really distributed call centers and routing rules makes this more difficult to swap out," Jacobs said. "Some of the companies having the hardest time ironically are high tech. They've offshored their call centers, and the infrastructure they've built up is rather complicated."

Companies have been using VoIP outside the call center, but with call centers typically lagging two to three years behind the larger enterprise, the industry should be at the beginning of a boom, according to Jacobs.

Smaller organizations are also catching on to the promise of presence much faster, he said. For example, VoIP can enable an agent in the call center for a mobile phone retailer to see whether the salesperson who sold a customer a phone is available. If so, they can simply transfer the call to the store. Customers are getting someone who knows them and their history better than a call center agent does.

"From a sales guy's perspective, this isn't a disruption in his work," Jacobs said. "Smaller companies are getting that idea faster."

Banking on VoIP

Banks are often cited as organizations particularly suited for extending the contact center. During peak times, the call center can shift some calls to branch offices where employees can handle calls.

CampusUSA supports a 20-agent call center at its inbound/outbound center, plus about 100 branch office member service agents. Although call volumes don't often require the company to ship calls to the branches, it's good to know it's there, Williams said. The system also makes opening a new branch easy on IT.

"I'm not running a bunch of extra wiring. I can roll out a branch and just set it up as a data line and run VoIP on the same pipe as the desktop gets its computer," Williams said.

CampusUSA is also saving on toll costs by routing calls through three separate cities and into the corporate office and directing calls back based on which area is cheapest.

VoIP also provides disaster recovery for CampusUSA through Interactive Intelligence, which provides a failover in the event of a disaster such as a Florida hurricane. If power goes out at CampusUSA's call center, the IVR system and circuits are switched to Interactive Intelligence's facility in Indianapolis, and agents work from home on cell phones and laptops, acting as remote agents, Williams said.

Wright was quick to embrace VoIP, but he recognizes that not everyone is. He recommends a lot of research and running a pilot program before making an investment.

"You do want to make sure your data network is rock solid," he said. "You can't have any networking inadequacies. If your data system is solid, you won't have any problems."

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