Engaging new lines of communication

Switching to an internet-based telephone system not only cuts costs but also offers significant improvements in efficiency and customer service, as Jessica Twentyman discovers


Think big and be ambitious. That’s the message to business leaders contemplating a shift to IP (internet protocol) telephony or upgrading their earlier deployments of the technology.

Rufus Grig, chief technology officer at voice and data communications consultancy Azzurri, says: “An IP telephony project shouldn’t be viewed simply as a way to cut some of the costs associated with the way a company does business today.

“It’s an opportunity to significantly change the way that its whole workforce operates, a chance to introduce new efficiencies and achieve greater responsiveness.”

Are customers hearing the message? Some are but, within many organisations, the main driver for migrating voice telephony from traditional fixed lines on to converged IP networks remains the promise of lower costs.

In a recent survey conducted by IP telephony specialist Telappliant, 68 per cent of respondents said they switched to voice over IP (VoIP) to reduce overall telephony costs. Only 22 per cent said they use the technology to allow staff greater flexibility to work from home or from another location.

This is a shame because it is in the area of flexible working that IP telephony can have its most transformative effect and where organisations benefit most from “thinking big”.

More specifically, IT decision-makers need to view IP telephony in the context of their wider strategy on unified communications and collaboration (UCC), says Michael Bayer, Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) president of Avaya. “IP telephony is the foundation for unified communications. Without it, there can be no UC, but it’s just the starting point and companies need to think carefully about how they build the real value-added applications and services on to that foundation,” he says.

Fixed mobile convergence (FMC), for example, means that calls made to a single number can reach the intended recipient whether they’re sitting at their desk in the office or out on the road, equipped with their mobile phone – an extremely attractive capability in the era of IT consumerisation.

But it is perhaps in customer service and support functions that IP telephony is really changing the way people work, says Stewart Braid, of IT consultancy Damovo. “Increasingly, we’re hearing business leaders say that their strategy for customer service isn’t based on a call centre at all, but on remote workgroups, connected by IP telephony, each with different areas of expertise, different working hours or different language skills,” he says.

Today’s technology means that those employed to respond to customers’ queries and issues can do so across a network of call centres that act as a virtual “whole”, as Daniel Hong, an analyst at IT market research firm Ovum explains. “IP interconnects multiple contact centres in a distributed environment to facilitate the provision of 24/7 support and access to specialised agents,” he says.

“This provides for the dynamic distribution of calls to agents in multiple locations across different countries and time zones, which increases agent availability and thus improves customer service. For example, during peak-hour traffic in a contact centre in the UK, calls can be quickly and cost effectively routed to offshore locations to minimise wait times and queue lengths.

“The IP network has several added advantages, such as easier multimedia routing and queuing, multichannel integration, remote agent deployment, and multi-site virtualisation. Utilising these advantages to their full extent can greatly improve customer service levels in the contact centre.”

At travel agent Low Cost Holidays, for example, an IP-based call centre system with dynamic call routing, queuing and reporting, implemented by open-source telephony specialist Foehn, is credited for a 20 per cent lift in conversion rates, a 25 per cent rise in call handling productivity and a 40 per cent increase in customer retention rates.

In fact, remote agent deployment means that customer service staff no longer need to work in a traditional call centre environment at all. Instead, they can simply work from home, logging on to a softphone on their PC or laptop at the start of their shift.

It’s an opportunity to change the way the workforce operates, introduce new efficiencies and achieve greater responsiveness

That was certainly the case at Low Cost Holidays. “With a completely web-based system, we’ve been able to move to a home-working model for our direct sales team,” says Jonathan Bastin, the company’s IT manager. “Not only is it helping us save on expensive office space, we can also offer our employees flexible working that suits their lifestyles. We’re saving money and benefiting from a more effective workforce.

“All home workers are connected just as if they’re in the office. They can see the wallboard, instant chat and speak with colleagues just as they would in a normal office environment.”

Session initiation protocol (SIP), meanwhile, promises still further improvements in customer service and support, by combining IP telephony with media streaming for richer communication sessions with customers.

“When SIP endpoints become pervasive across devices, browsers and contact centre workstations, then we’ll see seamless multimedia capabilities being used in the same session. For example, agents will be able to push graphics or email to a customer on a call,” says Ovum’s Mr Hong.

“This would also improve customer service as the engagement between the customer and agent can be rich and more tailored to the customer,” he says. Although, Mr Hong adds, the current reality is that bandwidth limitations of mobile networks may hinder enterprises from fully using SIP capabilities for a few years yet.

PLANTRONICS

Flexible mindset makes business sense

Smart, flexible working is a way of life for the 110-strong workforce in headset manufacturer Plantronics’ UK and Ireland operations, according to Paul Clark, the company’s managing director for the region. It’s an approach that is made possible, he says, by the adoption in 2011 of IP telephony, based on Avaya softphones and Microsoft Lync unified communications (UC) tools.

Flexible working is extended even to those in customer service and support roles, who might previously have worked in a more traditional call centre environment, but are now able to work from home for most of the week. In fact, this was the group that first piloted the technology during 2010 – a risky but ultimately rewarding strategy, according to Mr Clark.

“Nowhere is communication more critical than in our connections to customers, which include retailers, distributors and end-users,” he says. “But by trialling IP telephony with call centre staff first, we were better able to understand its possibilities elsewhere in the company.”

Today, customer service agents are expected to work in Plantronics’ offices at least one day a week but, provided they and their home have been assessed for suitability by the company and they have attended the company’s home-working training programme, they can work remotely most of the time, logging into their softphone on their home PC or laptop at the start of their working day, just as they would do on company premises.

THE SOUTHERN CO-OPERATIVE

IP move is major leap for stores

At The Southern Co-operative (TSC), which runs 155 Co-op stores in the south of England, the move to IP telephony was triggered by a consolidation of three offices around Fareham, each with its own analogue private branch exchange (PBX) system, into a new headquarters at the Lakeside development in Portsmouth.

“Moving offices gave us the opportunity to rethink our approach and IP telephony has been a major leap forward for us,” says Paul Sargeant, TSC head of ITC. “Now we have a core network with IP telephony, mobility and fixed mobile convergence [FMC] running over it.” Moving fixed lines and calls to this network, which is managed on TSC’s behalf by provider Azzurri, has reduced call costs by 25 per cent, he says.

Soon all employees, including area managers and training staff who travel between TSC’s 155 stores as well as home-workers, will be issued with a single telephone number that will follow them around, so that calls made to that number can reach them, regardless of their location or the device that they are using.

TSC is now considering extending the network into its stores. “We’re constantly reviewing the network and its capabilities, but we wanted to get the core services up and running first,” says Mr Sargeant.

Since the initial implementation, however, TSC has opened a new office 20 miles from Fareham and was able to quickly extend the network.