Operating a call center is intensive in both people and capital. Dialing into voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the new technology that merges voice and data networks, is mitigating both challenges. And it is ringing up savings without sacrificing voice quality.
Sharon Grossman, President of XACT Telesolutions, had a problem that a lot of money could solve. XACT provides customized interactive voice response (IVR) and call center support. The 30-year call center veteran built her company by acquiring 12 other call centers, each with its own phone switches, predictive dialers, and IVR systems.
Two years ago the company was servicing more than 400 toll-free numbers for its clients, mostly colleges and universities. XACT had six small call centers, each with 50 employees. The problem: XACT couldn't link together its six sites along the East Coast of the US because of the differing technology in each without writing a big check for requisite infrastructure.
At the same time Grossman wanted to add home-based agents, called telecommuters, who could be based anywhere, not just 20 miles from her brick and mortar call centers. She had no trouble recruiting and retaining agents for the eight to five weekday shift; some of her agents have been with her for 10 years. But XACT was experiencing "terrible turnover" in the unpopular work hours--the midnight shift every day as well as Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. Grossman says a turnover rate of more than 100 percent a year was common.
In addition, the call center owner wanted to recruit people who spoke French, who are relatively easy to find in Canada. Ditto for Spanish speakers, who are numerous in California and Texas. Call center workers with these skills were hard to find in Bangor, Maine, where XACT's principal call center is located.
VoIP Answered the Call
VoIP was the answer. Grossman says she "was worried" about VoIP in 2002 when she made the switch. "Was it ready?" she wondered. She was skeptical that she could get a clear sound over the Internet. But she took a chance. Now she's a convert. "I've never received a complaint from a customer about the sound quality," she reports.
XACT chose to outsource this telephony service to Five9, an application service provider (ASP) specializing in hosted VoIP contact center solutions for call centers with under 200 agents.
Sanjay Mehta, Senior Vice President, Technical Operations and Customer Care for Five9, estimates it would have cost XACT $200,000 in hardware and software licenses to set up a call center.
Outsourcing VoIP technology was a given since XACT did not have the needed new skills to manage the new technology. VoIP networks require telephony experts as well as network specialists. "The personnel needed are closer to what an IT person does than the work of the phone guy who comes in to wire your PBX," says Daniel Berninger, Senior Analyst, Tier 1 Research.
Hosted solutions are also the answer for companies in a hurry to deploy. Mehta says the ASP can get a company up and running in two to three days. "Most of our customers don't have the time to wait," he notes.
How the Technology Works
Five9's technology allows XACT to network everyone together regardless of their domicile. The technology requires no special configurations or firewalls. All the agents need is a high speed Internet connection and a computer.
Here's how it works. Agents use standard analog phones that plug into a Five9media gateway, which is a terminating device provided by Five9. The gateway converts the analog signals to a digital data stream; agents are not required to purchase special IP phones.
When a customer calls the center from an analog phone, the call goes through Five9's data network. There, the network scans the XACT database to see which agent has the skills to answer the caller's questions as well as who is available to take the call. The system sends the call over the Internet to the appropriate agent. If no agent is available, the system routes the call to a voice mail for the agent.
Five9's system allows its managers to listen to the call. They can even coach the agent. XACT is using its own proprietary software to generate reports. Grossman uses the following services:
- Inbound calls for internal help desk or support centers
- Outbound calls for telemarketing and sales
- Predictive dialing, which goes to the next call if no one answers the current call.
- Interactive voice response (IVR)
- An embedded customer relationship management (CRM) system so agents know something about the people they are talking to.
How the Call Center Benefited from Outsourcing
Today, 75 percent of XACT's 100 employees are telecommuters. (The other 25 percent work in the Maine office, the only bricks and mortar call center left.) She has many employees in Canada. Turnover for all shifts is next to nothing (less than 10 percent). "Now we have a waiting list for people who want to work for us," Grossman reports.
This is a plus for call centers because more tenured agents provide better service than neophytes.
The telecommuters are also better educated, she reports. Many are mothers who want to work when their children are in school or after they go to bed. Others are retirees looking for additional income. She can now hire handicapped workers who are unable to travel to physical locations. "Handicapped workers are very stable, a good thing for us," she says.
Telecommuters have also cut down capital costs because XACT requires that they have their own computer and pay for their own Internet connections. "We have no equipment costs as we expand," she exults. "This is fueling and speeding our growth."
Using telecommuters has helped her scheduling workers. If someone in the Maine center goes to the dentist, she can enlist another agent to work a two-hour shift. This wasn't possible when she had employees in her centers. "You couldn't get someone to come in for just two hours," she says.
Finally, VoIP has allowed XACT the opportunity to tap into offshore call centers. If a customer wants an offshore price, she can now provide that.
The Dollar Savings
XACT pays the ASP a per-month fee for hosting each agent as well as a per-minute fee for the traffic. This cash outlay is far less than the rent for the former centers in high-cost areas like New York City and Washington, D.C. She has eliminated the cost of maintaining the local area networks and running call center facilities. "The coffee service and the janitor all cost money," she says. "With outsourcing, all that goes away."
She also doesn't have to worry about the technology of running a big switch. "Before, if the technology became obsolete, we would have to pay for new technology to stay competitive. Often, we would have to buy new equipment before we've paid for the last batch," Grossman says.
Now XACT does not have to own any hardware. If agents need a memory upgrade, they have to pay for it themselves.
"VoIP has changed the whole nature of my business by reducing my overhead," says Grossman. Now she has the capital to put into human resources, which is her competitive edge in the marketplace. That sounds good to her.