Call centres urged to tread warily with VoIP

Quality of service on IP-based networks still leaves a lot to be desired, and prospective users should 'proceed with caution', a group of call-centre staff and managers heard last week.

Quality of service on IP-based networks still leaves a lot to be desired, and prospective users should “proceed with caution”, a group of call-centre staff and managers heard this week.

Mike Foley, manager of Unisys’s CRM (customer relationship management) and CIS (customer information systems) activities in New Zealand, says that, nevertheless, there are advantages to using IP for both voice and data. Speaking at a lunchtime meeting sponsored by Tuanz thisweek he said it is a ubiquitous, “open” protocol supported from end to end of a PC or telephone network. It has “heaps of research” helping to improve it, he says. But it is far from the “five-nines” (99.999%) reliability aimed at and mostly achieved by the original voice-phone network.

Packets can get lost, and, more frequently, a message is slowed down or broken up by congestion on the line. There are moves afoot to improve the quality of service by modifying IP to put a flag on high-priority messages.

Then there is the danger of complete failure, much more endemic to digital as against analogue-voice technology. Foley, asked for a show of hands on how many people had had their office network collapse in the past week (about a fifth of the audience) and how many had experienced telephone collapse (hardly any).

“Users may have to get used to a phone system going down almost as often as the network does,” he says.

In the context of the emerging “contact centre” which adds digital communication with a customer to the more familiar voice call-centre, VoIP presents itself as an advantage through combining the necessary contact-centre currency of voice and data on the same line.

VoIP as a contact channel makes it easy to implement interactive typed “chat” on the PC screen between customer and supply or service personnel, and encourages the incorporation of the email channel for handling inquiries and complaints.

However, “it requires customers to reconfigure their browsers,” a task which many may feel beyond them and an unnecessary obstacle. Ideally, all browsers should include VoIP support as standard, Foley says.

Established call centres have a huge investment in analogue telephones which they will typically not want to sacrifice. So VoIP will go into newly-built contact centres, "and will thrive [among companies selling] high-value products to highly profitable customers."

There is hot competition among VoIP vendors – that includes most of the major networking vendors like Cisco and 3Com, and Genesis, newly acquired by Alcatel.

“People in contact centres will be subjected to aggressive sales techniques,” and must be educated and trained to tease out the reality behind the VoIP hype.

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