To set up your own in-house call center to handle customer service calls, you will need three key elements: hardware, software, and the network.
Most call center software runs on industry-standard servers. However, you will need a switch to connect between the telephone system at large and your internal telephone system, generally known as a PBX (for public branch exchange). While PBXes in the past were proprietary devices that only connected to the traditional telephone system, many are currently built to connect to an IP-based (Internet) network.
You need to be concerned about interoperability when selecting call center hardware.
If you get your call center technology from your phone company, you may be locked in to using their equipment. Another factor to consider with call center hardware: While some IP-based telephony systems work with traditional handsets, to get the most out of the new applications using the Session Initiation Protocol running on IP-based phones, you’ll need to purchase new phones. This replacement of your phone hardware can get expensive (Cisco’s IP phones start at about $100 each), which is why most small or even midsize businesses don’t make the switch to IP-based telephony systems until they face a specific trigger event, such as the expiration of the lease on their telephony system or a move to new offices (you can set up IP-based telephony systems and traditional telephony systems to interoperate).
As with any technology purchase, once you select your hardware you must also consider compatibility in relation to the software; specifically, you’ll need to find out how much effort it will entail to integrate it with the hardware you choose. The contact center presents an integration challenge because your customer relationship software must be tightly integrated with the contact center software, and your e-mail archives (and even your instant message archives, if you so desire) must be tied into it as well.
Computer telephony integration is hard. That’s why a preintegrated platform is so much easier. Even with industry-standard hardware and software, it’s prudent to find out whether any preintegration has taken place by vendor partners; that’ll be one less hassle for you.
Jargon crops up more frequently when discussing the software components for call centers. Here’s a selection of the concepts you’ll need to be most aware of:
Automatic call distribution: This is an effective way to structure queues, both in terms of putting customers into those queues and ensuring that certain agents are assigned to them. For instance, you may not want to assign a brand-new agent to a long-time, high-value customer. Your ACD can also ensure that calls that originate in a particular country are routed to agents who speak the language of that country.
Interactive voice response: IVR allows you to route calls (again, you can assign certain customers via their account number to certain agents), but it also has a self-service capability that allows customers to get information without involving an agent, or to complete a transaction (transferring of funds, bill payment) beyond normal working hours.
Customer relationship management: Though these applications aren’t necessarily part of call center technology, you should determine how easily your call center software integrates with any given CRM application (many are preintegrated with Microsoft Dynamics CRM or Salesforce.com, which target small to midmarket companies). It’s important to integrate these applications so that when customers call, the ACD software queries the customer database and pops up the customer information on the agent’s screen. That way, the agent knows what the customer has ordered in the past and can determine whether it’s a new or long-time customer (each may need special treatment in different ways).
Metrics and analytics: One of the most crucial aspects of any call center system, no matter how small or big your business is, is its ability to tally metrics and analyze results. These tools, frequently included with the software, will help you identify both strong and weak points of your call center staff. Some of the metrics to look for include how long customers waited in a queue; how long the call took; whether the call was escalated from a tier-one agent to a more specialized agent; and how frequently customers hung up before they were served. All of these can tell you how efficient your call center agents are and whether you need to add more agents or adjust training for the ones you have. Also, make sure the software you’re getting lets you easily output this information into reports.
Because your call center will link to both back-office software and the telephone system, you’ll need traditional network hardware, such as routers and firewalls. Here you need to carefully match your network to your expected capacity. If you have a bad network, you have a bad call center. For example, don’t buy a $49 router that’s designed for a home office and try to run a call center with it.
You’ll hear a lot about voice over IP or converged voice-and-data networks when you start researching call centers. This entails running voice over the same lines as data and entails some significant feature and price advantages. You can more easily integrate voice-and-data services; this is what the concepts of “click-to-talk” or “click-to-chat” are based on. That is, when customers see something on your Web site and want more information, they can automatically contact a call center agent for more information (some prospects have a higher propensity to buy if their questions are answered immediately). Also, from a network management standpoint, you can monitor a converged network with one tool rather than having one tool that monitors your phone system and one that monitors your data network. It’s usually more economical when it comes to IT staffing, since you don’t need one staff member skilled in computer networks and one skilled in phone networks.
Because VoIP technology runs over broadband lines available in most American homes, it also allows small businesses a unique luxury: the ability to hire virtual agents that work out of their homes. Low-cost airline JetBlue’s reservations agents all work at home; its ACD routes calls as if they were in a single building. This offers small businesses economic advantages in terms of real estate, employee flexibility, and network savings.
If you do employ VoIP, ensure it has a quality of service capability that will enable you to prioritize voice traffic over data traffic (e.g., if an e-mail arrives two seconds late, no one notices; if there is a two-second gap in a phone conversation, it is noticeable).