Channel Partners

December 3, 2009

6 Min Read
Meeting Call-Center Challenges

The last few years have heralded some of the greatest changes to the outbound telemarketing industry since the invention of the automated dialer. The last year in particular has been a mixed bag of opportunity, risk and regulatory hurdles for the call center industry.

On the one hand, technology has advanced to the point of allowing highly complex services to run on very inexpensive equipment from almost anywhere on the globe. On the other hand, the Federal Trade Commission and some telecom carriers have set severe barriers on the industry which are forcing many to change the way they do business or exit the industry all together.

Call centers lead IP migration. Almost all new call center PBXs, auto dialers and predictive dialers are IP-enabled these days, which gives centers an interesting telephony choice — they can continue to use traditional TDM or they can choose to switch to IP or VoIP connections, such as SIP. While most traditional businesses in the United States remain firmly rooted in the TDM world (the reasons for which would be the subject of an entirely different article), IP has clearly become the new standard for call centers. IP enables a world of opportunity, from screen pops and SIP trunking to remote agents and easy configuration. For call centers, the decision to migrate from TDM to an IP environment was quick and nearly universal. The exception seems to be small centers that may be locked into their TDM equipment due to cost constraints; though, even then, gateway devices (often supplied by the carrier) that convert IP to TDM can enable these centers to take advantage of some of SIP’s best features.

The shift from TDM to IP is in stark contrast to traditional, non call-center business customers. Few traditional businesses currently are using VoIP, though almost every large call center either currently is utilizing IP-based dialer equipment, or is currently in the process of converting. Call centers are once again at the forefront of the technology curve — some might even say they are driving the technology forward.

The reasons are rather obvious. Modern call centers, especially outbound centers, are high-volume enterprises. Their phone and data expenses can be tremendous. Even incremental cost advantages quickly can add up to big savings. As a result, they constantly are looking for ways to cut costs and increase efficiency.

Luckily, for savvy and technology-forward companies, equipment costs have been dropping for the past several years. Equipment built upon open-source software such as Asterisk and FreeSwitch can be “self configured” and significantly less expensive than other options. IP can be a cost saver for call centers as well. While the promise of “free” VoIP calls never really materialized for business-grade communications, the cost can be very reasonable for those who shop for lowest rates or employ least-cost routing measures. Many SIP trunking providers offer extremely aggressive rates as well. When shopping around, we encourage customers to look not just for the lowest rate, but also how many digits the rate is billed in and rounded to — those hundredths of a penny can add up to big savings for high-volume customers.

Regardless of the price advantage, which everyone seems fixated on, it is really the flexibility of VoIP that has driven the IP revolution in call centers. Ease of configuration, integration with CMS systems, the promise of unified communications, and the ability to rapidly deploy systems or virtualize operations are all primary drivers for companies to take the IP leap. In particular, VoIP is inherently “geographically agnostic.” While call centers have been moving business process outsourcing to offshore locations such as India and the Philippines for the last decade, the move to VoIP-based telephony removes many of the infrastructure hurdles previously encountered in the move to offshore. With VoIP, there is no difference between being across the road or halfway around the world, and that has literally opened a world of possibility. There is no doubt that the professional call center industry is now firmly in the hands of IP and it is driving many unique advances.

Call centers face challenges. Unfortunately, trouble is brewing in the industry. Predictive dialers hold the promise of reaching more potential customers with fewer agents on the phone. And an increasing number of centers have also employed “robo-dialers” which utilize pre-recorded messages and therefore few or no live agents. While dialers themselves aren’t new, they have long been considered an expensive proposition. However, over the last few years, several software-based options have lowered that barrier to entry. Now, call centers the world over can afford their very own dialers which has, of course, led to a flood of outbound centers. More centers and a bad economy have driven increasingly more competitive service rates and an increasing flood of calls to customers at dinner time (and every other time of the day).

Few cash cows can continue forever. Telemarketing in general has been under increasing pressure from federal and state Do Not Call legislation and increased surcharges from carriers. To protect their networks from the sudden increase in high-volume and short-duration calls, caused by all this outbound dialer traffic, many carriers have come up with creative fees such as “short-duration surcharges” and contract terms to block outbound dialing in mass quantity. That has left many call centers frantically looking for willing companies to take their call traffic. And even if they can find a carrier willing and able to take their traffic, the FTC, with new regulations that took effect Sept. 1, has taken action against most types of robo-dialing (with more than a few loopholes built in for good measure).

What can call centers do? Well, that’s a difficult question to answer; one that requires each center to examine their calling practices and reevaluate their business models. Once they have determined who they’ll be calling and how they’ll be calling them, they need to make sure that they are complying with the law and working with a carrier that will support their call traffic.

Here are some tips for telecom agents and VARs to assist competitive call centers in this difficult environment:

  1. Find a carrier that supports “dialer” traffic.

  2. Find a carrier that can handle high CPS (calls per second) of the kind generated by dialers.

  3. Search for carriers with no “short duration” surcharges.

  4. Seek low-cost long-distance rates with at least six-digit rounding for billing accuracy.

  5. Help your customers explore open-source software options such as Asterisk and FreeSwitch.

  6. Make sure your customer has enough Internet bandwidth for their VoIP calls, based on the codec they are using (G.711, G.729, etc.).

  7. Optimize dialers to comply with carrier rules on average call length and incomplete call attempts.

  8. If your customer is not yet ready for VoIP, find a carrier that can support their traffic either on traditional TDM or via a TDM/VoIP gateway device.

Call centers have a strong future. Costs clearly will continue to fall for equipment, phone service and Internet access. IP advances will allow centers to explore new organizational architectures that could further improve operational efficiencies. While the road may seem littered with hurdles at the moment, there is no doubt that clever centers will leap those barriers with ease and others will follow their lead. The call center industry has proved its ability to rapidly adapt and embrace change.

Daniel Lonstein is the COO of AireSpring Inc., a facilities-based nationwide telecommunications carrier specializing in low-cost local, long-distance, SIP trunking, high-speed Internet, and related telecommunications services. He also is a member of the 2009-10 PHONE+/Channel Partners Conference & Expo Advisory Board.

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