By John Hird
In the 21st century, the ability to enable and increase the productivity of “virtual” workers has been a major focus for IT departments. Nemertes Research reports that in 2007 eighty percent of all companies are “virtual” workplaces where at least some of their employees work away from their supervisors or workgroups. Nemertes also reports that in 2007 seventeen percent of employees work at least some time at home, up from ten percent in 2006. Obviously, virtualization is growing quickly. What does “virtual” worker mean in the call center industry and why is “virtualization” important?
With call centers there are two types of “virtual” workers. The first type of virtual worker is a remote agent. Remote agents work outside of the call center and receive calls routed from the call center via traditional telephone lines or VoIP. The remote agent’s workstation or desktop presents the same information as the workstations located at the call centers. Agents process calls and transactions at his/her remote location while call statistics and messages are managed centrally within the call center.
The advantages for the call centers are that remote agents:
- Are more cost effective (lower hourly rates)
- Consume less overhead
- Can be recruited over a much larger geographic area, enabling call centers to seek more qualified agents
- Have more flexible hours and are more satisfied with a flexible schedule, thereby providing longer retention
- Can take advantage of more effective hours due to less travel time and expenses
- Can be more skilled to process specific types of calls, such as calls related to billing or sales
The ability to support remote agents became available in the 90s. Today, remote agents are supported and utilized by most call centers. VoIP and Internet technologies enable remote agents to process calls and transactions remotely. Additionally, voice recording, workstation screen recording and other Work Force Optimization (WFO) software tools are available so that quality assurance, agent management, and optimization can be maintained for remote agents as well as in-house call center agents.
The second type of virtual worker is an agent that is located in an “alternate call center.” The alternate call center could be a “branch call center,” owned by the same company, or a “partner call center” with different ownership but with certain business arrangements for accepting and handling calls due to overflow, disaster recovery, or certain skill set requirements. In this scenario, the ability to route calls to an alternate call center is readily available and straightforward. Providing the same agent desktop and screens to the alternate agent, especially at a partner call center, is more complicated. The business relationship between the primary call center and the partner call center(s) introduces even more challenges such as the use of confidential data, multiple billings, and restoration of service back to the primary call center. This is where the “virtualization” of the call center becomes critically important.
True virtualization is achieved when the following enablers are employed:
- Automatic call distribution to primary or any alternate call centers due to overflow, disaster recovery, or business requirements (such as skill set)
- Automatic database replication between primary call centers and all alternate call centers, making the necessary information available to the alternate call centers. Security of the client information must also be maintained for the primary call center.
- Automatic agent desktop replication enables agents located at alternate call centers to access the same screens, scripts, workflow, and messaging as the agents located at primary call centers, thus maintaining and offering the same customer experience.
- Billing, management, and reporting that supports primary and partner call center business arrangements.
In other words, true virtualization of a call center requires not only call routing, but a complete business framework supporting the relationship between the primary call center and the business partner call center. As an example, the business partner must be able to track and bill the calls they handle to the primary call center owner. The primary call center must bill their client for the calls that are processed at both call centers. The callers’ experience should appear transparent, whether the call is handled by the primary call center or a business partner call center. The primary call center maintains the relationship and service response for the client. Activities provided by the partner call center must be transparent to the client. Therefore, the clients’ experience should also be the same regardless of whether calls are handled at a partner call center or by the primary call center provider.
Virtual Application Network (VAN) is a technology-oriented solution and a framework for properly implementing virtualization. VAN is made up of systems of shared resources where applications are distributed and executed over a variety of disparate networks. Virtual application services are services of multiple application instances that are executed over shared resources in a VAN. The call center example where calls are handled by a partner call center but the call pertains to a client of the primary call center is a perfect example of a VAN in operation.
At first glance, it seems straightforward for a partner call center to handle a call for a primary call center. However, for complete and successful outsourcing of call handling to a partner call center, the primary call center must ensure that:
- Only call types that are supported can be forwarded from the primary call center.
- All screen data for the partner call center must be the same as the primary call center
- Calls handled by the partner call center must be tracked and then billed to the primary call center
- The partner call center must be able to modify client account information as needed
- Information gathered from callers by the partner call center must be accessed and processed by the primary call center
- Recordings, caller information, and call details handled by the partner call center must be available in near real time by the primary call center
- Call information handled by partner call centers must be available on the primary call center’s client Web portal so clients can access all of their call records
- Quality of the partner agent call handling can be measured and tracked by the primary call center
- Client relationship data is not accessible to the partner call center (client ownership is maintained by the primary call center)
A fully implemented VAN delivers these functions to primary and partner call centers. Key elements of VAN are a high performance, distributed, real-time database system plus a distributed unified desktop that offers automation, such as intelligent call distribution, call screening, workflow scripting, and messaging.
Operational advantages delivered by VAN include the:
- Ability to handle client campaigns that require greater agent resources than available at the primary call center
- Ability to reduce (or consolidate) agents during low activity periods
- Ability to maintain services and availability to clients during disasters or unforeseen circumstances
- Ability to meet stringent service-level requirements of demanding clients
VAN delivers numerous business benefits, the primary ones being increased productivity, customer satisfaction, and revenues. Moreover, business continuity is secured because services can be maintained even during disruption of the primary call centers due to high call volume, natural disasters, or call center IT down time.
When fully integrated with call center workforce optimization tools and agent desktop unification-automation technologies, VAN offers the most effective and optimized solution to call center challenges such as labor costs, desktop complexity, the need for bundled solutions, virtualization, and small-to-medium size call center requirements.
Virtualization is a top priority in the IT industry. Call center services will greatly benefit from virtualization as VAN functionality and agent automation continue to be deployed.
John Hird is vice president of product management at OnviSource Inc. He has a track record of delivering award-winning solutions to the call handling industry for over twenty years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[From Connection Magazine – October 2007]