IMS Paves the Way for Virtual Call Centers

By Nathan Franzmeier

Internet Protocol Multimedia Subsystem, or IMS, is usually associated with personal communications services, but it also has implications for call centers. IMS is the key to creating cost-effective virtual call centers, a goal that has eluded customer service operations for years.

Rudimentary forms of “virtual” have been part of the call center world since its inception. Call centers routinely put engineers or high-level technicians on calls that the frontline customer service reps couldn’t handle. However, a fully virtual call center – a geographically dispersed array of human and technological resources that can be flexibly provisioned on short notice – has been such a prohibitively expensive proposition that until recently, few call centers have taken it on. The difference over the last few years has been the Internet’s increased reliability and bandwidth, which have provided a ubiquitous, low-cost conduit for service operations. With the Internet linking call centers, companies have the ability to bring service representatives online as needed, both internally and increasingly through networks of specialists and home-based service agents. This can enable call centers to tap into a large and cost-effective labor pool to handle peak demand.

With the transport mechanism in place, the next logical step is equipping these legions of remote service representatives with the applications and data they need to accept calls, process orders, and resolve problems. That’s where IMS plays a major role. IMS enables companies to extend a rich mix of service applications to external service agents over the Internet without incurring extraordinary overhead expenses. The resulting infrastructure ushers in a new era of call center and field operations with a broad range of new multimedia services – most notably integrated video and voice.

New call center models: Definitions of virtual call centers vary, but basically a virtual call center is a combination of conventional fixed call centers and remote service reps linked by a common IT infrastructure. IMS’ role in the virtual call center is essentially the same as its role in the wireless and wireline worlds in general, which is as a convergence platform.

Remote service representatives need access to customer service applications, databases, and ordering systems. They will inevitably work from a wide range of fixed and mobile devices.

Maintaining client software on every remote rep’s computer would all but wipe out the gains made from bringing them online only when they’re needed. With IMS-enabled applications, companies can maintain all of their application functionality on their servers and use Web browser interfaces, eliminating the need for any software on remote agents’ computers. It doesn’t matter whether remote service reps enter the network via cellular service in Europe or a Vonage-like service in Eureka; the network will be able to provide them with services as seamlessly as if they were working in the call center.

IMS-enabled applications would work over IP switching infrastructures. Directory services is a good example of an industry that has used IP to create a flexible, follow-the-sun call center model by combining geographically dispersed call centers into a single virtual pool. Companies that provide services such as operator assistance and 411 service for major wireless providers use IP switching to link geographically separated call centers so they don’t have to add extra staff at any of their sites to handle peak demand. When demand exceeds capacity in one area or the other, the infrastructure automatically rolls calls over to the next available call center.

Companies that adopt this model build extra intelligence into the switching infrastructure so the system knows which agents are available. Call traffic can traverse both the public and private Internet backbones. Companies could build these virtual call center infrastructures on conventional telephony technology, but the costs are prohibitive. They would have to lease T1 lines 24/7, even if they only need the lines at peak demand times.

If directory services represent the Internet’s potential as a foundation for new service models, Hamilton Relay, a division of Nebraska-based Hamilton Telecommunications, is a window on the kind of applications IMS enables companies to build. Hamilton Relay provides video-based operator assistance to the deaf and hearing impaired over IP networks. Customers use Web cam-equipped computers to reach operators who know sign language. They sign their request to the operator, who signs back a response. Over the same system, Hamilton Relay provides translation services by routing customers’ voice calls through agents, who sign the spoken part of the conversation to the customer and speaks their responses back to the party on the other end of the call.

The widespread application of a model like Hamilton Relay has great implications for customer service. Video is an incredibly powerful customer service tool, but it has to exist in an IP infrastructure because the current telephony system’s time division multiplexed (TDM) foundation can’t support sophisticated video applications. IP-based infrastructures, by comparison, enable call centers to offer a full complement of video and voice services on demand through any device with Internet access. How much more powerful would a company’s service offerings be with added video?

Consider a company that sells cable set-top boxes. A customer goes to the company’s website for help with an installation problem: he can’t figure out which cable goes where to hook his DVR to his cable box to his plasma television to his Internet modem. After trying and failing a few times, he clicks an icon on the screen and starts a voice call with a customer service rep. The rep, sensing the customer’s growing frustration, starts a video session. Using models of the set-top box and the other devices, he guides the customer through the installation. Unknown to the customer, his customer service rep doesn’t work at the set-top box company. The call center brought him online when it reached 90 percent capacity after a recent promotional program. Functions such as call waiting and call hold that once resided on a central switch are now embedded in his handset. He records the service details through a sign-on Web portal.

This scenario isn’t too far removed from the current reality. Neither is a similar one in which an HVAC technician calls the office for help installing a new kind of compressor and gets a demonstration over his PDA. IMS is the lynchpin between the elements of these rich service offerings, providing the convergent middle ground where the IP network, end-user devices, and application infrastructures meet.

Nathan Franzmeier is vice president, emerging network solutions, at Stratus Technologies.

[From Connection Magazine March 2008]