10 Questions to Ask When Choosing an IP Call Center

Updated: July 06, 2009

Issue

By now it's almost a cliché to say that even SMBs (small to medium-size businesses) need call-center capabilities. If a substantial portion of a company's employees spend most of their time talking to customers, that company has a call center in fact if not in name. And just because the company is relatively small, that doesn't mean it doesn't need sophisticated features to keep its customers satisfied. Fortunately, the advance of IP voice technology means that even the most modest-sized businesses can access call-center functions formerly availableonly to large companies. For those ready to take the plunge, here are some questions to ask before spending any money.

Considerations

1. What kind of ACD call routing capabilities does the proposed solution have? ACD, or automatic call distribution, is the key function of a call center. It makes sure calls get to the employees best equipped to handle them, rather than simply having them answered by anyone who picks up the phone. And how the system distributes calls can make a big difference in how effective it is. At the most basic, the one you're considering should be able to route calls according to the skills of agents.

Beyond that, does it let you assign the same agents to a number of different queues? Can it use the incoming caller ID to send calls to the employees who have previously dealt with the callers in question? Can it use find me/follow me functionality to reach specific employees even when they're away from their desks? Can it route calls based on priority, so that the most important ones get answered first, or based on how long they have been in specific queues? Can it route them by time of day, so that calls go to time zones where agents are at work? Will it automatically redirect them to voice mail after business hours?

2. What kind of outbound calling capabilities does it provide? There are several reasons you might want a call center that can handle outbound as well as inbound calls. If you have a small staff, they might be performing multiple functions, such as sales and collections, that can require substantial levels of outbound calling. Even service and support agents may need to make customer-requested callbacks. In such cases, it's a big advantage if your system can not only automatically place calls, but also balance inbound and outbound traffic. That way, the outbound calls can take place during periods when inbound calling slacks off due to cyclical events such as shipping or other deadlines. Automated dialers also help save time by connecting employees and delivering screen pops only after someone picks up on the other end.

Automated outbound calling integrated with customer-information databases and outbound IVR (interactive voice response) is another big time-saver. It can, for example, notify customers that their prescriptions are ready or their orders have been shipped. Such calls can in fact reduce the volume of inbound calls from customers asking for routine but time-consuming updates on orders and other activities.

Certain kinds of outbound calling, however, will impose an additional requirement. For calls involving collections and sales, there are all sorts of laws governing whom you can call and when, and laws differ depending on location. An intelligent predictive dialer with built-in compliance mechanisms is the only solution when you have many such outbound calls to several different regions.

3. Will your call center be a cost center or a revenue center? If your call center is selling things, it's a revenue center. If it's providing service and support for things you've already sold, it's a cost center. In either case, it would ideally follow the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of calls answered within 20 seconds, though 70/30 is probably more realistic for small businesses. Beyond that, consider this question: When push comes to shove, do you want potential buyers to wait longer than those who need service for products they've already bought? Probably just the opposite. Bluntly put, those who are still thinking about buying have a lot of alternatives, while those looking for service have no choice but to wait. Besides, if you don't keep selling things, you won't be around to service them. Being willing to acknowledge the difference will influence your choice and use of system in a variety of ways, from how you distribute calls when they come in to the kind and variety of announcements callers hear when they're on hold. That said, it's still important to remember that if you don't keep existing customers happy, eventually you'll have trouble finding new ones.

4. How easily will it let you use remote or mobile agents? A key benefit of IP-based call centers is that they let you employ remote agents at reasonable cost. Doing so can bring significant benefits. For one, it gives you access to employees who otherwise couldn't or wouldn't work for you. For another, agents working from home are often better educated and more flexible than those who come to your office every day. If they're part-time workers, they can fill gaps when staffers are out sick or on vacation, or when things get busy. Beyond the convenience, there are also financial benefits: For every agent you don't have to provide with space and other facilities, you can save $10,000 or more per year.

But it's crucial to determine how easily the solution you're considering lets you integrate remote agents into your system. For example, can it send customer calls to them over both the Internet and the PSTN (public-switched telephone network), so you don't have to risk poor voice quality with Internet-only calls? Does it let them access the same features and information via their home-office computers that your in-house employees can? Can it reach agents on their cell phones if necessary? And does it provide you with the same information about remote agents' performance as it does about in-house employees'?

5. How easily will it let you move time-consuming activities to self-service? Routine inquiries waste a lot of employee time. You can reap big savings by moving such inquiries to an automated IVR system. For example, IVR integration with a shipping information database lets people call in and, by pressing keys in response to recorded prompts, find out when their products will be sent and delivered, with no need for employee involvement. Other popular self-service applications allow people to check their balances and to re-order or check on the status of their prescriptions. And although voice recognition allowing callers to speak their choices is a cool feature, in most cases key presses will suffice, and may even be faster.

6. What kind of information does the system's agent desktop app provide? Agent desktop apps, often called dashboards, give agents information about callers and the call center itself. But some give more information than others. How much of the history of the customer's calls does the system you're looking at provide? What kind of information does it display from the CRM system with which it is integrated (see below)? Some innovative solutions go so far as to show the dollar sales volume an inbound call represents. You may in fact be able to customize the interface so it shows just the data you want. Also useful is the ability to display presence or availability information about other employees the agent might need to contact to help solve problems. And it's a big help to agents to see information like how many callers are in queue and how long they've been waiting, as well as data about their own call-handling performance.

7. How does it make callers feel better? Providing music on hold hardly begins to meet the standard for modern call centers. How about multiple types of music, interspersed with informational announcements about your company's products or special offers? You might want to tell customers the estimated wait time before their call is answered, or tell them their position in the queue. And you'll surely want to keep reminding them that their call is important to you. For callers who don't have a moment to waste, can you give them the option to "zero out" of queues, by pressing 0 to record a message? That way they don't have to either wait for an answer or call back and start again.

8. By what methods does it let your agents communicate with other employees? The ultimate goal of call centers is to take care of all customer interactions with one call. So it's enormously useful if the agent can find out all information necessary to resolve an issue without having to transfer the call, or worst of all, call the customer back. One way to accomplish that is to use a system that permits agents to chat from within the dashboard via instant messages with other employees with specific subject-matter expertise, in addition to using email or phones. It also helps if they can click to call such experts from within applications such as Outlook, or from within the desktop agent itself.

9. How easy is it to integrate with other applications like CRM? As noted above, it's important for agents to know not just customers' calling history with the company but also their sales history as stored in the CRM system you're using. An ideal way to do that is to have calling and CRM information available through the same desktop interface. That way agents don't have to frantically switch from screen to screen, typing in identifying information while the customer is waiting. An alternative is a link they can click in the dashboard that takes them to the relevant CRM page. Either way, some systems come standard with integration with CRM systems like Salesforce.com, SugarCRM or premise-based applications. For more specialized integration, it helps if the call center vendor has APIs and encourages a developer community that can build such links on a commercial basis.

10. What kind of monitoring and reporting capabilities does it provide? One of the biggest benefits of actual as opposed to ad hoc call centers is the ability to monitor the performance of individual agents and of the call center itself. Supervisors can listen in or even break ("barge") in on calls. They can also record calls. They may be able to see statistics about the calls in real time or in historical reports. With some setups they receive the reports via email, or as exported spreadsheets. With others, they can go to a portal and generate specific kinds of charts, graphs and data about agents individually and as a whole. Typical data can include number of calls handled, average call time, total talk time, number of transfers, number of calls abandoned, average abandonment time, average wait time and longest wait time.

Next Steps

Finding the right IP call center solution is no walk in the park. Besides costs and ease of installation, you must consider a number of features and compliance issues, as listed above. In addition, your IP call center needs will be constantly changing. After using these questions to identify the right solution for your business, don't think you can rest easy. Revisit and re-evaluate whether your call center is delivering on its promises every six months or so. If it isn't, it's time for you to reconsider whether your system is the best fit for your company.

For more on IP call centers, consult Focus' Buyer's Guide: VoIP Contact Center Solutions or check out the many related Research Briefs on the subject.

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