Hosted Service Options: Three Key Questions

By Bill Curtin IV

The many advances in communications technology during the last decade are responsible for many changes in the teleservices industry. These advances have allowed call centers to use remote agents and downsize pricey office space. Some call centers are now 100 percent virtual. Technology makes it possible for call centers to have local DID numbers from all over the US and Canada, allowing them to compete nationally and internationally. These same changes enable call center vendors to offer fully hosted solutions, along with off-site backup and colocation solutions to their customers.

Calls centers need to actively evaluate advancements in technology and adjust their business practices to find the best way to provide reliable communications and reduce their costs. Following are three questions call centers should consider.

Is a Fully Hosted Solution a Fit for Your Businesses? With a fully hosted call center, you can provide service to your customers without purchasing a system. Phone calls arrive at the switch, agents process the calls, and information is delivered as needed. At the end of the month, your billing application prints the invoices. This sounds so simple and so ideal, but to get to this point can take some blood, sweat, and, all too often, tears.

A fully hosted solution can reduce the responsibilities of the call center to maintain or worry about the software and hardware. However, this reduced responsibility comes at a cost. In most cases, a fully hosted solution will have a higher total cost of ownership than a purchased solution. There is also the intangible cost of having less control over your business. While there are no more urgent trips to the office to fix system problems, you are now reliant on the sense of urgency of others, who may want to solve problems by pointing fingers at yet other vendors.

You need to find a hosted solution provider who will be a good business partner, one who is willing to work with you to address your customers’ needs. With this model, your business continuity plan becomes a joint venture between you and your hosting provider. In addition, if your call center has medical accounts that contain PHI (Patient Health Information), you will need to have in place proper agreements with your hosting provider to protect this federally mandated confidential information.

Depending on how you structure your hosted solution, there can be many ways to lower the total cost of the business. Call centers can have fewer expensive technical staff to support the system, but you must realize that lots of technical support for on-premises workstations, phone lines, and Internet connectivity is still needed with a hosted solution.

Before signing a hosted solution contract, every piece of hardware the call center’s data will touch should be identified. All hardware that is not redundant or hardware that is shared should be identified along with all hardware dedicated to your solution. If the solution has nonredundant or shared hardware, this can affect the quality of service the call center can provide.

Likewise, every circuit that data travels over must be identified. All phone lines should travel on SONET (Synchronous Optical Networking) rings, and all Internet connections should use BGP (Border Gateway Protocol) to freely access multiple Internet providers. Phone calls should only travel on a PSTN or on an MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) network, never over the Internet. All service risks need to be identified before a contract is signed.

Lastly, and most importantly, check resources before signing any agreement. A good reference check will contain fifteen or more questions that address level of service, technical support responses, and interactions with the hosting facility’s billing department. Always check multiple references.

Is an Off-Site or Hosted Backup Solution a Good Fit for Your Business? If you are happy with your call center’s on-premise solutions, there are still many ways that advances in technology can improve the reliability of your call center and potentially reduce your bottom line. Customers expect all calls to always be answered; they are less tolerant of calls not being answered because of a local disaster. By creating an off-site backup system in a geographically diverse location, call centers can protect themselves from these unforeseen occurrences, thus preventing a situation in which a call center can’t take calls for hours or days.

Call centers with multiple locations are easily able to create off-site backup solutions at their other offices. For single-location call centers, this is more challenging. Consider a partnership with another trusted call center, creating a situation in which both call centers can provide service in times of emergency. Another solution is to contact your switch vendor about hosted backup solutions. Vendors that have infrastructure in place for their own systems could also host or colocate a backup solution.

When creating an off-site backup solution, you’ll need to coordinate with your telephony provider. Many providers have options to forward calls to another number in the event of a service outage. Additionally, SIP providers can forward telephone calls to another IP address on an MPLS network – and in some instances, to an Internet IP address. The challenge with off-site backup solutions is finding the best solution to protect your business needs while keeping the costs in check.

Is a Colocated Call Center a Good Fit for Your Business? Another option to investigate is colocating your system at a data center. This will improve the reliability of your telephone and Internet connectivity, as well as your electrical power. Most data centers have a SONET ring that provides multiple optical fiber paths from the central office that channels the telephony and Internet into the data center. If the fiber is cut on one of the paths to the data center, the data will automatically correct itself to travel over a working line.

When using a telephony solution at a data center, be sure that your telephony provider can deliver a “meet me” telephone line. The “meet me” line is terminated at the phone company’s central office, and the data center provides the information to connect the phone line to its SONET ring. The data center then runs the phone connection into your rack.

The “meet me” line does not include a “last mile” fee (the cost to run the phone line to your building). Instead, the data center charges a “cross-connect” fee to run the phone line over its SONET ring. This arrangement can result in lowered monthly telephone costs. Most data centers have annualized contracts with fuel companies to provide the fuel to run backup generators in times of power outages, along with providing battery power until the generator kicks in. This arrangement guarantees that when the power goes out, your call center keeps running.

The biggest challenge in colocating your data center is finding the right data center. Data centers come in all shapes, sizes, and price ranges. Some data centers provide the bare minimum: rack space, power, and one Internet connection. Other data centers are certified as SAS 70 Type II facilities. Much communication with the data center is required to understand what is included in your service agreement. Also, when looking at colocating your system, check with your system provider. Call center solution providers that offer hosted solutions will have the resources to colocate your hardware and fully support your system.

Consider these three questions to find the answer that is right for your call center: fully hosted, hosted backup, or colocated.

Bill Curtin IV is corporate IS/IT manager for Amtelco and manages the three data centers that Amtelco uses to provide customer solutions.

[From Connection Magazine – June 2010]

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