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Virtual call centers driving VoIP adoption

Organizations are driving down customer service costs by distributing agent workload across multiple locations, and VoIP is a key enabler, research shows.

Contact centers are increasingly turning to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to run their operations, and the interest in "virtual call centers" is driving much of that change, according to some recent research.

VoIP is helping enterprises to do away with their large call centers -- with rows and rows of agents being monitored by on-site managers -- and turn to the "virtual call center," a strategy of distributing agents across multiple locations, including home-based agents and offshoring.

And while cost is still the No. 1 reason companies are deploying virtual call centers, the best among them are seeing improvement in customer satisfaction as well, according to Boston-based Aberdeen Group. Aberdeen recently conducted a survey of 150 companies, and over 35% of the best in class have seen a greater than 10% improvement in customer satisfaction scores after implementing a distributed agent strategy. In addition, more than half plan to upgrade their contact centers by adding distributed agents within the next two years.

VoIP-based systems are driving down the costs of virtual call centers and ensuring that calls get directed to the right agent more quickly.

"If you've got the right agents, call durations are going to go down as opposed to shuffling amongst agents," said Alan Hubbard, Aberdeen's senior vice president of customer service and support and author of the research report. "Not only does call duration go down, but satisfaction goes up."

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In fact, adoption of IP telephony is growing across the board. According to an IDG Research Services survey of CIOs from across the U.S., 63% of respondents plan to deploy an IP private branch exchange (PBX) within the next 12 months. That's up from the 50% who have the technology deployed in some form today.

Nordia, a Montreal-based customer service outsourcer, turned first to a hosted call-center software suite and has since moved on to VoIP. In 2000, one year after the company was formed, Nordia replaced its traditional PBX with a call center software suite from Indianapolis-based Interactive Intelligence Inc.

"For us, it's a mission-critical system," said Pierre Grimard, Nordia's vice president of IT. "Interactive was providing us with a reasonable cost per call for recording technology to bring those calls to agents compared to the other providers. We really saved on integration, and it provided us with a quickly deployed solution for all recorded interactions."

Nordia currently operates 1,500 agents across five sites on Interactive Intelligence's system, plus an additional 700 on a client-based system, handling 100 million customer contacts per year. That includes an offshore call center for clients who want that option.

"We deployed two main Interactive Intelligence switches with [automatic call distribution] and the calls coming in these two main switches are distributed across the centers based on the ability of agents and how we want to service those contracts," Grimard said.

In 2005, the company found itself in a period of rapid growth and needed to expand its number of seats. For that, it transitioned to VoIP.

"It actually went much better than we thought in terms of quality and stability," Grimard said. "Originally, with the traditional approach, IT was always on a critical path. Being an outsourcer demands we're flexible and able to deploy new services rapidly. IT was always on the critical path for those four to six weeks before we can deploy a switch to a new center or an existing center that didn't have that capability."

In one instance, Nordia had excess capacity in several of its call centers. By implementing a virtual call center, the company was able to actually save the cost of building out a new center, Grimard said.

Moving to VoIP is a critical factor in successfully implementing a virtual call center, according to Aberdeen's Hubbard. In the last year, he said, 20% of the companies that responded to the survey moved from PBX to VoIP.

"That will continue to grow," Hubbard said, "as they look at VoIP as a way to drive down costs as they move to a distributed agent strategy."

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