VoIP: Is it for you?

Australian companies are showing a lot of interest in Voice over IP, yet not many projects are underway. We profile the companies that are ahead of the pack.



Australian companies are showing a lot of interest in Voice over IP, yet not many projects are underway. We profile the companies that are ahead of the pack.


Contents
Data#3
Toyota Financial Services
NRMA
Inchcape
Executive summary

The initial pitch for Voice over IP (VoIP) was largely built on cost reduction, especially through toll bypass on calls between locations outside the local call area.

Organisations are becoming increasingly savvy, and now realise the benefits that accrue from being able to treat multiple locations as one from a telephony perspective.

This ease of management extends to the integration of voice and other systems.

At this stage, it's hard to find a VoIP integration project that isn't involved with a CRM or a call centre. That's not surprising, as even small improvements in efficiency add up when there are large numbers of calls being made or received.

Some of the organisations we contacted while preparing this article are thinking more broadly and are planning or working on projects linking VoIP with a wider range of systems including vehicle dispatching, HR, financials, and non-voice communication such as instant messaging -- we may look at some successful examples in a subsequent instalment.


Contents
Introduction
Data#3
Toyota Financial Services
NRMA
Inchcape
Executive summary

Data#3
For Data#3, switching to VoIP and integrating it with corporate applications fell into the category of "eating your own dog food". The company is a Cisco Gold Certified Partner, and at the time of the initial implementation, managing director John Grant said "There is no better proof to our customers of our belief in a particular technology than to have implemented that technology ourselves. We are now one of the largest accessible demonstration sites for IP telephony in Brisbane."

The company has completed three of the four subprojects it planned.

Outbound calling is integrated with Data#3's ACT-based CRM system so that on dialling a customer's number, the agent is automatically presented with a form for recording call details. Phone dialling is implemented similarly for personal address books in Outlook, a Notes-based recruitment system, and any other application that maintains a list of contacts. This integration was carried out in-house, using the standard connection points provided by the various programs along with CTI software from New Zealand-based Performance Solutions Limited (PSL). The PSI software sits on top of the Cisco Call Manager software and provides the required integration facilities.

"We can't downplay the significance of mobility."

John Grant, Data #3
"These are not complex tasks," says Grant, so neither implementation nor maintenance is onerous. Having invested in CRM systems and the associated processes, it is important that customer information is maintained easily and promptly, preferably during the contact, Grant told Technology & Business. "There's no time like that time to update the information."

Inbound calling uses caller ID to identify the customer so that the appropriate information can be popped onto the screen of the agent to whom the call is routed. The information follows the call if it has to be transferred to another agent, even if he or she is working at a different location. While both these aspects could just as readily be done with a conventional PABX system, Grant says the issue is whether to continue the investment in old PABXs or make the move to VoIP.

Mobility is a different matter. O'Brien says VoIP means Data#3 staff can work anywhere a VPN connection is available -- while travelling to conferences or meetings, or even at home.

The company uses Cisco's IP Communicator softphone, which delivers exactly the same functionality as a handset but can be used anywhere in the world.

The most common situation is that the employee makes a VPN connection to Data#3. The softphone runs across that link, and the PSL software and other applications are available via Citrix and associate with the softphone. Thus, the same range of applications and the same degree of integration are available whether the user is in the office or at a remote location.

The company is also in the process of Web-enabling most of its applications and in conjunction with the Cisco WebDialer this should make similar functionality available via a browser.

Providing full-scale telephony services to mobile users is a big advantage, says Grant. Sales and service delivery staff are always available whether they are working at a different desk, on a customer's premises, or from home. This does require a degree of trust, he notes, but he trusts his staff to do their jobs wherever they can do it best. That might mean working on a proposal at home to minimise distractions, but if it is necessary for them to participate in another activity, the full communications and applications suite is available wherever they are.

"We can't downplay the significance of mobility," he says.

Grant observes that most organisations are virtual organisations these days, and "we need to provide an integrated and functional environment." This has been possible with applications for some time, and now telephony has been added.

The fourth subproject is a virtual meeting room. Previously, Data#3 has used teleconferencing via either an external provider or internal facilities, but that lacks the ability to use the company's meeting application that presents the agenda, collects notes, and assigns action items.

Integrating VoIP and this software will enable people located off-site to be full participants in the meeting, and save work for the convenor. This project should be complete by the end of the month.

Grant sees this as the first step to integrating VoIP with the full Notes collaboration environment. While VoIP can save money -- Data#3 expects significant savings in hardware maintenance and call costs -- O'Brien says the important benefits are non-financial. The greater user-friendliness of VoIP and of integrated systems allows employees to make more use of the features and to become more productive. Presence management reduces phone tag. These productivity improvements provide the real ROI.

Grant agrees, saying that Data#3 only looked for a break-even result on hard dollars to justify the investment, with the real payback coming from staff productivity.


Contents
Introduction
Data#3
Toyota Financial Services
NRMA
Inchcape
Executive summary

Toyota Financial Services
Moving to a new head office building provided Toyota Financial Services with a spur to switch from traditional telephony to VoIP.

As is often the case, adds, moves, and changes were a problem with the old system, but the company realised the simplified cabling alone would reduce the cost of fitting out the new premises by AU$80,000.

Mark Gosling, technical services manager, says the original plan was to install VoIP only at the head office, avoiding a "big bang" implementation. The voice quality was well accepted, the cost savings were significant, and the potential for application integration was apparent, so within three weeks of opening the new head office in October 2004 the VoIP installation was extended to Townsville. By February 2005, all Toyota Financial Services locations -- Sydney (two), Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, and Townsville -- were using VoIP.

The company runs call centres with approximately 100 agents spread across various locations covering sales (Sydney), customer service (Adelaide), collections (Brisbane and Perth, to ensure all day coverage regardless of time zone), the fleet business (Melbourne), and IT help desk (Sydney, serving staff and dealers).

Prior to the VoIP implementation, Toyota Financial Services used Telstra's interactive voice response (IVR) service to direct incoming calls according to their purpose to a hunt group serving the corresponding location. There was no integration between telephony and the call centre software. Now, Telstra directs incoming calls to the closest Toyota Financial Services location. From there they are routed across the company's IP network to an IVR server in Sydney, which obtains the contract number and determines the purpose of the call, then passes it to an agent at the appropriate location. Once that hand-off occurs, the voice traffic travels directly from the answering point to the agent: it does not loop through Sydney. Combined with "free" inter-office calls, this has reduced Toyota Financial Services' phone bill by 25 to 27 percent.

"The voice system is now a bunch of servers."

Mark Gosling, Toyota Financial Services
Instead of conventional handsets, agents now use softphones running on their PCs. Genesys software links the softphones with the Onyx CRM system so that agents see the customers' details as they take the calls. Gosling says this reduces the time agents spend on the line, although the old system did not provide the statistics required for an exact comparison.

While similar integration is possible with conventional telephony, the diversity of old equipment made it difficult. Having a consistent environment across the whole company means any integration only needs to be done once.

The new centralised reporting also allows managers and team leaders to see activity across the entire virtual call centre, allowing performance comparisons.

Cisco CallManager was implemented by IBM Global Services, while Touchbase looked after the Genesys/CallManager integration. Toyota Financial Services' internal development team worked on the IVR/Onyx integration. That task was straightforward, according to Gosling, as it simply means passing the contract number to Onyx as part of a URL. This was easy for developers to understand and they didn't need to learn a new technology, he says.

VoIP also provides greater resilience. A disaster recovery site has been set up, and functions can individually fail-over. "The voice system is now a bunch of servers," says Gosling.

Employees outside the call centres get the benefit of extension mobility: their extension number is mapped to their softphones as part of the network login process.

Outbound calling could take advantage of integration between the CRM system and telephony -- to automate dialling, for example -- but Gosling says the low volume of collections activity means it isn't worth the implementation effort. However, it is much easier and cheaper to add features to VoIP based systems, he says.

The company has no firm plans for further development at this stage, but one possibility under consideration is to extend the use of interactive voice response to allow customers to order new payment books without involving an agent. Gosling says the new platform provides the flexibility to respond to requests from business groups.

That flexibility also removes the need to restrict particular call centre groups to particular locations. There's nothing stopping a fleet agent working at the Perth office or even remotely. The system has been proven to work successfully over a home ADSL connection, and while that will initially be used by senior staff requiring out of hours access or in disaster recovery situations, the company is exploring "fluffy slippers operation" (ie, telecommuting).


Contents
Introduction
Data#3
Toyota Financial Services
NRMA
Inchcape
Executive summary

NRMA
NRMA Member Services installed call recording systems at its call centres in Sydney and Gosford to help with staff training and dispute resolution. "We were looking for a tool to assist the staff in their development and improve service to our members," says Graham Dempsey, call centre integration manager. "It's a great support for the resolution of issues."

An Avaya IP-capable PABX was already in use, and this meant the Witness ContactStore and Quality for Communication Manager recording system could be used, says Paul Brauman, solutions architect at contact centre specialist Touchbase. (A Cisco-compatible version is also available.) The Witness system records a conversation along with the contents of the agent's screen, and is simpler to manage than a traditional call recording system as no physical alterations are needed to accommodate moves and changes -- all that's needed is to update a database record.

"It's an additional cost to the business."

Graham Dempsey, NRMA
When an agent takes a call, recording is automatically triggered. Analogue to IP conversion is performed by the PABX, which routes this data stream to the call recording server (or logger) via the LAN. As the NRMA receives 3.5 million calls per year and intends to store them for five years, some compression is needed to reduce the amount of storage needed. The logger therefore compresses the audio by 8:1, "with no discernable voice quality loss," says Brauman.

The PABX can perform the compression, and this feature would be used if one logger were serving multiple sites. The NRMA's two sites are connected by IP trunks for load balancing and call sharing, but they chose to install a logger at each location. The data is stored on the logger using a proprietary format.

Currently, 10 calls per agent per month are reviewed by managers, and the plan is to sample five calls with screen replay. Although the system has been very well received by the agents -- and new employees previously thought it odd that a 150-seat operation was not already using call recording -- Dempsey explains that the NRMA is waiting for all staff to become comfortable with it before enabling the screen recording feature.

When the logger activates call recording, it can also send an instruction to a piece of software running on the agent's PC to begin screen recording. Screen grabs can be taken at set intervals or in response to screen updates and mouse movements. The resulting "movie" can be played back along with the voice recording using a Media Player-style application, providing familiar play/pause/rewind/fast forward controls.

Implementation at both sites started in July 2004 and was finished in September 2004. VoIP call recording is 10-15 percent cheaper than its analogue equivalent in terms of the initial outlay, says Brauman. Ongoing costs are also lower as there's less hardware to maintain and routine tasks such as moves and changes can be carried out through software configuration rather than altering physical cabling. The IP-based approach also scales up and down more easily, he adds.

The system is mainly used as part of staff training, says Dempsey. Agents like it because it provides a way of increasing their skills and increases their personal empowerment.

"Of course, it's an additional cost to the business," he says, but it yields savings as staff learn how to control call lengths with no loss of service quality, and through providing a definitive record in the event of a dispute. A post-implementation review will be performed during the next six months or so, which will look for benefits accruing to business units in addition to those within the call centre. Dempsey expects to recoup the costs of call recording within two to three years.


Contents
Introduction
Data#3
Toyota Financial Services
NRMA
Inchcape
Executive summary

Inchcape
Inchcape Motors' Subaru business uses a VoIP system to link its sites in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth with a seamless phone network. Like Toyota Financial Services, Inchcape enjoys lower costs by having calls to 1300 SUBARU routed to the closest capital city, and then carrying them to its Sydney call centre over its frame relay links. This approach has allowed the business to expand from 500 employees at 12 sites to 700 people at 22 sites with as little as a 10 percent increase in data network capacity, says IT manager David Starr. The reverse process is used for outbound calls: "that works quite well," he says.

Each employee has their own extension number, and can log into the Avaya phone system at any of the company's sites or even when they are off the premises. Some managers and account staff are able to work from home on occasions, with access to the phone system and the dealer management system over an ADSL connection.

The CRM system is used to track all customer interactions, whether they involve sales staff or call centre agents. This allows agents to quickly connect customers with the salesperson they had been dealing with, regardless of his or her location on that particular day and even if they can't remember the salesperson's name. It also ensures that consistent trade-in figures are quoted when potential customers take their cars to more than one location for valuation, and avoids starting the sales process from scratch if customers call in when their original salesperson is away. Data mining of these records yields information that can help close subsequent deals.

The next step is to implement skills-based routing for all members of staff who deal with customers, not just those in the call centre. This means agents will be able to transfer a call to, say, an available Forrester expert without having to identify him or her by name or determining that person's current location.

About 40 percent of staff use a desk phone, with the remainder using mobile IP handsets along with PDAs or tablet PCs so they can move freely around the complex while assisting customers and recording information such as colour preferences. The system is configured so that when sales staff do not want to be disturbed because they are busy with customers, any calls are forwarded to their colleagues on a "next-available" basis or to voicemail if the caller specifically wants to talk to that person.

As some employees' work takes them off-site, Inchcape uses a feature that can associate an extension number with a mobile phone, ringing both at the same time when a call comes in and then routing it to whichever answers first. The company would like to extend this idea to encompass mobile phones that support VoIP over Wi-Fi, but is still waiting for such devices to come onto the market.

Inchcape is investigating the use of an IVR or speech recognition front end, although it has no specific plans at this stage. While this could lead to increased efficiency, Starr is concerned about maintaining the "Subaru experience". He says initial indications are that customers have a distinct preference for having their calls answered by a person.


Contents
Introduction
Data#3
Toyota Financial Services
NRMA
Inchcape
Executive summary

Executive summary

  • VoIP allows centralised management and centralised integration in a distributed organisation.


  • Mobile workers and telecommuters have full access to corporate voice and data systems (bandwidth permitting). They can be reached on their usual extension numbers, and be given the same voice/data integration as their office-bound colleagues via Web-enabled applications or standard applications running on a Citrix (or similar) server.


  • So far, most VoIP integration projects involve call centres or CRM systems, but that's about to change as organisations look beyond the low-hanging fruit.
  • VoIP can make it affordable to combine multiple call centres into one virtual centre, providing additional flexibility (eg, for load sharing). This can be difficult to achieve with an existing collection of heterogenous equipment.
  • VoIP can use familiar IT strategies for fail over to provide disaster recovery.
  • It is easier and cheaper to add functions to VoIP systems than it is with traditional telephony, and this provides flexibility to respond to changing business requirements.


  • That flexibility also applies to ongoing administration. For example, moves and changes can be effected through software even if a call recording system is involved.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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