Call centres lag behind on IP adoption

Call centres would seem to be the ideal place for next-generation phone systems. So why have many resisted the temptations of VoIP?

IP telephony, or voice over IP, is now commonplace in many large enterprises. So why has it not been successfully ported to an area where it can offer great benefit - the call centre?

IP-based call centre systems have been widely available since the late 1990s. In the intervening years, the technology has matured significantly and there are a number of high-profile reference sites that prove its scalability and reliability. It doesn't lack support from the vendor community - Cisco, Avaya and Nortel among others have put their full weight behind the tech.

Yet sales of IP contact centres have been much lower than vendors and analysts expected. A mere eight per cent of all contact centres in the UK have deployed a pure IP solution, while only a further 27 per cent have deployed a hybrid IP/TDM solution, according to analyst house ContactBabel. On the whole, larger contact centres are currently more likely to have an IP solution. In fact amongst contact centres with over 250 agent positions, only 23 per cent continued to use a pure TDM system.

So what's holding the IP contact centre back?

The contact centre is often at the bleeding edge of enterprise IT strategies, yet state-of-the-art telephony doesn't always figure high on the wish list. One analyst believes call centres have been distracted by other grand projects.

Elizabeth Ussher, an analyst with the Meta Group, says: "Many of them are still struggling with their CRM and multimedia projects and do not want to cause any more disruption to their operations. They've heard the IP horror stories. A company's contact centre is its window to customers and they just don't want to take the risk."

The hub of a contact centre is much more than a glorified PBX. It houses a multitude of specialised applications such as workforce management, quality monitoring and predictive dialling. These applications are tightly integrated with the telephony system which makes any replacement risky undertaking. And some of the key selling points for IP telephony, such as the simplicity of moving, adding and changing users, simply do not apply in the contact centre environment.

Part of the difficulty facing vendors is that selling an IP contact centre is very different to the traditional contact centre technology sell. Typically technology in call centres is acquired to improve the efficiency of the operations. For example, an interactive voice response (IVR) system can increase overall productivity because it can handle simple calls without recourse to an agent.

IP contact centres simply can't offer this payback because their advantages are not always that tangible. In fact before installation, companies will nearly always have to upgrade their networks. According to Steve Morrell, an analyst with ContactBabel, this can make up to third of the total deployment cost.

"This is a big hurdle of initial expenditure without any real quantifiable payback," warns Morrell. "IP for its own sake simply does not work. The transport mechanism is not really a selling point because people are happy enough with the quality of the telephony network."

To further complicate matters, the decision to deploy an IP contact centre is usually taken at a strategic rather than an operational level, which can leave the traditional buyers of contact centre equipment out of the loop.

But it is not all doom and gloom for IP contact centre sales. The technology makes a lot of sense in a number of scenarios, in particular those where companies need to integrate a number of dispersed contact centres into a single 'virtual' operation.

These include combining offshore and local operations, multiple dispersed UK contact centres and home workers into a single larger one.

Ian Sherring, business development manager of IP communications at Cisco Systems, says: "The big driver for teleworking is quality of service (QoS) support over DSL. We are waiting for service providers to launch this as it will open up new opportunities." This will allow many home-working agents to be seamlessly combined into a single call centre.

IP is also an obvious choice for greenfield sites as companies can design their data network from scratch to handle multimedia traffic. Outsourcer Garlands, for example, deployed a Cisco solution in its new Middlesbrough contact centre blending inbound and outbound calls.

Garlands IT manager Steve Bowen says: "Cost-wise, we've calculated that to implement the blended inbound/outbound VoIP solution at our Middlesbrough site costs approximately half of what a traditional telephony solution would have cost. Network provisioning costs have also been halved at our new Stockton site as we only need one set of wiring and one CAT 5 point per desk rather than two sets of wiring and separate points for voice and data."

The renaissance of branch banking in the retail banking sector is also helping sales of IP solutions. Traditional TDM call centre solutions work very well with large centralised call centres but do not cope with more dispersed service operations.

John van der Linde, director of converged applications for Avaya in the UK & Ireland, explains: "IP helps banks deploy agents in branches."

Banks can set up a centralised communications infrastructure and push applications out to the edge. This allows agents in the banks' central call centre, for example, to share the same functionality with those located in the actual branch.

Although IP contact centre deployments are lagging general IP PBX projects, some vendors are seeing contact centre functionality being deployed off the back of general telephony projects. Cisco's Sherring says: "It is being installed as an add-on to IP PBX installations, as part of a value-added solution such as unified messaging." This is helping extend contact centre functionality such as screen pops and database integration through to the rest of the organisation.

This is particularly popular in the mid-market and many vendors are targeting this sector with their products. Avaya's Van Der Linde says many companies are finding the decision to deploy IP in smaller contact centres easier to make because it is simpler to assure network quality of service. And Meta Group's Ussher points out there are not as many application integration issues in sub-75 seat contact centres.

IP contact centres are also particularly useful in multimedia environments because any type of contact can be routed to any agent irrespective of which channel it arrives on. Existing methods of dealing with multiple channels are less than successful.

ContactBabel's Morrell says: "Multimedia is still a bit of a dogs' dinner. It is usually shoehorned into the call centre and the service levels are dreadful." Less than 10 per cent of contact is non-voice, says ContactBabel, and there are still disagreements about how best to handle different channels.

The IT sector is the most enthusiastic adopter of IP in the UK, according to ContactBabel, with 21 per cent of these contact centres adopting a pure IP solution. This reflects the high use of alternative channels such as instant messaging to contact IT support centres.

Although IP has made inroads into these niche areas, vendors still expect to see it hit the mainstream and analysts agree. Meta Group's Ussher, for example, says that while IP has had a slow start, in two to three years it will become commonplace. And given that almost all vendors have some element of IP in their product lines, it will appear in all contact centres by default eventually. But TDM looks set to hang in there for many years yet.

Anthony Plewes writes for