Want to know just how you should go about migrating your call centre to an Internet protocol (IP) platform? Let Lesley Hansen show you the way in six easy steps.
Telecom and IT pundits predicted a much faster uptake of IP telephony in the early years of this decade than we have experienced.
Indeed, if you look at research companies’ and industry speculators’ uptake, figures have remained generally the same but the timelines have been somewhat pushed out.
Today, however, we finally seem to be experiencing a wholesale migration to IP. Partly this delay was due to early technical difficulties as experienced with any new product and technology. But more recently it has, to a large extent, been due to the difficulty in justifying the cost of a migration to IP based on the infrastructure changes alone.
Feature-integrated data and telephony applications are today the oil that is smoothing the path by providing cost justifications for migrating to IP. Nonetheless, migrating to a single converged IP infrastructure remains at the top of the list of concerns for the IT manager today – and this requirement to migrate the applications, as well as to achieve the business ROI, has only raised the barrier for the IT department to achieve a successful migration.
A contact centre’s decision to use a converged IP network to deliver voice calls over a standard packet switched network can be either a simple change to the infrastructure or a step change to the business. The infrastructure change will result in lower support, maintenance and wide area link costs by creating a single, more cost-effective network to support voice, data and video. Or it can be an enabler of new working practices, taking advantage of greater telephony and data integration.
The IP network can make it easier to distribute the members of the team across different locations with common business applications, enabling home working and the introduction of more flexible working practices. It can also enable the deployment of new applications and capabilities using the integration of business processes in to telephony applications.
This, in turn, provides opportunities to increase the effectiveness of the call centre and the use of presence awareness to increase communications efficiency.
So, what are the steps that can make that move to IP really effective? In my opinion, there are six and they are as follows:
Step one – planning and evaluation
The single most important thing in any wholesale change to a mission-critical commodity such as the corporate network is to plan everything to the last possible degree. The more time spent on the planning, the smoother the migration path will be.
The evaluation phase of any migration project is, to some extent, a case of asking the right questions and using the answers to guide you to the right solution(s). Take time to analyse the results of the evaluation and allow sufficient time to implement the changes in the IP network infrastructure before starting the IP telephony and application trials. This will avoid raising expectations and then disappointing the user base.
Examples of questions to be answered early on to ensure an effective design are:
For the voice network
- Do I have to link in to the existing voice infrastructures?
- How many incoming lines from the public switched telephony network (PSTN) are in use?
- How many calls do we have to handle in the busy hour?
- What proportion of calls will be recorded?
- What are the expected levels of use of conferencing, presence and other collaboration applications?
- What potential for growth in agent numbers and in applications should be considered?
- What additional capabilities of value to the business, such as text-to-speech or automatic speech recognition, should be introduced?
For the data network
- Will the network support the anticipated call loading?
- Is the wide area network (WAN) able to support the data and voice demands?
- Does the security policy cover home working?
- Does the network support quality of service (QoS) to ensure that the voice traffic has priority over data?
- Does the network have resilience built in?
- Will the IP phones take power over Ethernet?
- Is there sufficient power back-up (UPS) for all areas of the network estate?
The answers to these questions will help the IT manager select and deploy a solution that addresses the needs of the business as well as delivering a high performance functioning network.
Step two – test and review
Don’t be pressurised to shorten this phase of the migration. The test phase is critical as it is here that the IT manager can identify areas of weakness and address them. As the new data networks will be carrying large amounts of traffic, it is also important to load and stress-test the system.
At a very generic top level, you should consider the merits of proprietary systems with an IP interface that protects known solutions but maintains vendor lock-in. This offers less choice compared to an out-and-out migration to an open standards solution, such as session initiation protocol (SIP) or an H.323-based IP-PBX. However, it also provides you with the option of adding more features and specific vendors’ applications in the future.
There are two broad categories of IP-PBX. A hybrid one uses existing time division multiplexing (TDM) hardware and offers the ability to route calls over IP. The full IP switch, meanwhile, will get you open standard network interfaces but vendor-specific hardware and applications.
Both have their merits, of course, but the pure IP switch will offer more flexibility and a better longer-term investment protection, while ensuring network application and hardware choice going forward.
The use of IP protocols is not only affecting the enterprise telephony environment; the world of telephony outside the office is changing, as well. The three key changes are: the rise in uptake of broadband; the increase in providers of IP-based trunking; and the availability of low cost terminations to the PSTN. All of these areas should be considered and, where appropriate, be taken advantage of to get the maximum business advantage out of your new converged solution.
Broadband is allowing staff to work from home using virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the corporate data networks. This also allows home workers to be part of an extended IP telephony solution, with access to corporate applications, ensuring greater productivity for remote and home workers.
IP trunking has been successfully deployed to reduce calling costs between disparate sites but the step change in wide area telephony networks in the UK will be the roll out of BT’s 21st Century network. This project is aiming to have 50% of exchanges converted to support IP telephony by 2008 and, for the enterprise, will ensure that high quality end-to-end IP networks are readily available.
Step three – trial
The rules are simple. Plan your trials with care. Run them and the first deployments in parallel with existing solutions to ensure a fall-back is always available. Make the trials as near to real-life scenarios as possible and include enough users to effectively challenge the system and allow you to assess the outcome.
Create and resolve possible scenarios and evaluate for ease of management, change and control. Consider carefully the length of the trial, too. It needs to be long enough to gather the required information and to enable the users to become familiar with the equipment. Usually, between eight and ten weeks is about right.
Step four – evaluate
To provide a seamless migration strategy from TDM to IP-based telephony, the call centre applications should be able to operate in both environments with no perceivable differences to the end users.
Applications will typically be divided in to two broad groupings: customer relationship management (CRM) and call distribution. Remember: CRM applications should be able to deliver the required information to the agent’s screen, no matter what type of handset they are using – be that a softphone, mobile, a wireless (WiFi) connected phone, SIP phone or
traditional handset. The deployment of both CRM and telephony applications must not affect existing implementations or disrupt the normal working practices of non-trial users. Time must be allocated for the training of trial personnel, too.
Other key considerations are that open standard application interfaces are needed for future business process integration to ensure the ability to link in to the company’s databases. Call centres need to operate 24×7 and resilience and ease of upgrade – without disruption – should be considered.
Companies are rarely static and proposed applications need to be able to grow or reduce as the company requirements and working practices change. Since we are in an ever-changing world of technology, you should also be able to incorporate new technologies such as speech kit and presence capabilities.
The most talked about new technology that is likely to offer business benefits is presence and instant messaging (IM). IM will become more important as presence federations come in to existence, allowing the agent to send IM securely and
traceably to other organisations.
Step five – trial, educate, train, test and re-evaluate
The secondary trial of applications should be long enough for the users to really learn how to use the system. Typically this should be a minimum of six weeks and, preferably, run as long as twelve weeks.
Another important part of any trial is to educate the end-user base and ensure that they understand what the solution will do for them – especially if benefits to the end user can be identified. Once the user base has bought in to the process, train them to ensure they know how to use the new system. This will bring rewards as it will highlight the improvements. Remember, though, to back up the trial with an evaluation. Just because one trial and evaluation has already taken place doesn’t mean a second one isn’t also necessary.
Step six – migration
With the planning, trials and post-trial evaluations successfully complete, the selection of the correct IP telephony-based contact centre solution should be straightforward.
As with every other stage, planning is key at the point of migration. Nonetheless, the lessons learnt in the trials should help facilitate a smooth implementation. Some of the key areas to think about in the final migration are as follows:
- The hardware – routers, switches, UPS, servers and so on. Ensure that the solution is fit for purpose now and also able to support new applications in the future.
- The IP infrastructure can, and probably should be, up and running and fully tested for performance before applications are switched over.
- Allocate resources for troubleshooting.
- Allocate resources for training needs.
In the initial stages of the migration it is vital to identify and protect key areas of both the TDM and the data networks. It is also critical to perform a cycle of education, training, deployment and evaluation at each step in the migration path. This is perhaps best achieved after each team or group of end users is moved over.
As a last word of warning, though; I’d say that you should not be rushed in to a deployment that you are not entirely happy with. If there is one single message for a successful deployment, it has to be plan, plan and plan. If you have considered and planned a solution for every possible contingency, you will be a long way towards your final goal.
Lesley Hansen is group marketing director at TeleWare
Tel: +44 1845 526 830