The Essential Guide to VoIP Call Centers

Updated: April 30, 2009

Today's call centers are more than holding cells for gum-cracking, headset-wearing operators. The modern-day call center is a business imperative, offering services such as order collection, telemessaging and customer-service support from representatives that speak several languages. A call-center agent's duties have also evolved from fielding phone calls to handling email and online communications, including IM (instant messaging). In turn, customers now rely on call centers to submit email inquiries, request Web chats, send faxes and transmit text messages from cell phones and PDAs. Agents may specialize in one particular mode of communication, or a company may opt to have universal agents that handle multiple communication methods. Either way, a call center must be equipped to sell products, respond to customer questions, resolve technical-support issues , and handle inquiries in a timely and efficient manner.

How Call Centers (and the Technologies that Power Them) Work

Companies can choose from a variety of technologies to get a call center up and running. Hosted or on-demand solutions are among the most popular with pay-as-you-go models that eliminate substantial up-front costs and ongoing operational expenses. What's more, the on-demand delivery model offers unprecedented flexibility, allowing companies to add and subtract functionality with minimal risk and at reasonable cost. Growing businesses can also rapidly change operational size to meet their fluctuating needs. Hosted solutions additionally allow companies to better manage agents and their activities, regardless of their location.

Despite these perks, vendors such as Avaya Inc. , Nortel Networks and Alcatel-Lucent still offer on-premise call-center solutions among their primary services. Benefits include knowing that your company's confidential data is safely and securely stored on in-house servers; making leveraging investments in existing technology such as CRM tools; and the ability to tailor an on-premise system to suit specific business requirements. In addition, for several industries, such as health care, regulatory requirements may mean that an on-premise solution is the only choice.

Another option available today is outsourcing call-center activities altogether. By outsourcing, companies can get up and running in record time without having to scramble for new hires. Turning to a third-party provider's tried-and-tested systems can reduce costs and hassles. A single vendor is also often better equipped to manage geographically scattered call-center locations for consistent customer experience.

An increasingly popular trend involves deploying call-center solutions while upgrading to a VoIP solution . Promising to increase savings and reduce operating costs, using an IP contact center can help make your operation more scalable, which helps you expand rapidly and without costly infrastructure investments. An IP infrastructure also more easily allows for remote agents , which can enhance customer service while slashing overhead costs. And by converging voice and data traffic, a company can reduce operating costs and simplify call-center management processes.

Adding Value to Your Call Center

Equally important as a call-center platform is selecting add-ons that can greatly enhance a solution's value. By integrating your call-center telephony with a CRM application, for example, a company can create a seamless user interface, enhanced customer interaction, first-call resolution of issues and increased agent productivity. That's because the marriage of call center technology and CRM links inbound and outbound communication channels with consumers' historical data, such as buying patterns and product preferences, for a complete view of a customer.

Speech recognition is another popular call-center technology that enhances customer interactions by dramatically increasing automation rates. Speech is also making advances in mobile applications, where companies have used speech technologies to make significant gains in responsiveness and productivity of mobile workers.

Other special features promising to ramp up a call center's functionality include:

Predictive Dialing : A perfect tool for outbound-calling campaigns, a predictive-dialing system is an automated outbound-dialing system that only connects agents to calls answered live. This feature can anticipate when an agent will become available, and then accelerate or decrease the outbound-dialing rate accordingly.

Routing: Routing puts an end to customer frustration by ensuring that each interaction is sent to the ideal resource, no matter where that resource is located. This increases first-call resolution rates, manages variable call volumes with limited resources, increases cross-sell and up-sell rates and improves agent satisfaction .

Email Management: This add-on helps companies manage large volumes of customer email inquiries using customizable business rules. The result: accelerated and accurate response times by automatically directing messages to the right agent in record time.

Overcoming the Obstacles

Attracting and retaining top talent is one of the toughest challenges facing call centers today. For starters, the cost of turnover in most call centers represents a tremendous financial burden. Hancock Information Group estimated that it costs roughly $3,000 to train one agent during a two-week period. Staffing represents nearly two-thirds of call-center operating costs. The typical cost-per-hire for an agent ranges from $5,000 to $15,000. And agent-replacement costs can be 1.5 times the agent's annual salary. Clearly, companies cannot afford to mismanage the recruitment of their contact-center talent.

Monitoring and recording call-center communications is also key to a high-functioning environment. Live monitoring ensures that agents have the information, skills, attitude and motivation to satisfy customer needs. And recorded monitoring supplies a valuable source of information to measure compliance, resolve conflict and evaluate training effectiveness.

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