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Optimizing Customer Interactions through the Contact Center

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An efficient Contact Center reduces costs and drives business value

Enterprises now serve a new type of consumer. Today’s consumer is more demanding, expecting the freedom of choice in how and when they communicate – via the device of their desire. This multi-device, multi-channel consumer expects communication options from the organizations that they do business with. This calls for contact center agents that

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White Papers

An efficient Contact Center reduces costs and drives business value

Enterprises now serve a new type of consumer. Today’s consumer is more demanding, expecting the freedom of choice in how and when they communicate – via the device of their desire. This multi-device, multi-channel consumer expects communication options from the organizations that they do business with. This calls for contact center agents that can handle emails, chats and voice calls, both inbound and outbound, without forced dedication to a single channel.

In addition to serving a more-demanding consumer, today’s businesses rely heavily on the technical infrastructure supplied by the company’s IT professionals. In the past, small and midsized businesses (SMB) could stay competitive with fewer systems and a minimal reliance on technology. However, those days have passed and SMBs are faced with employing a whole regiment of complex IT solutions to keep up with their rivals.

While large companies sometimes have the luxury of specialized teams to handle the various types of technology (for instance, telephone systems, desktop hardware and applications, servers and enterprise software, networks, and so on), the IT departments of most SMBs must wear multiple hats. In addition, large companies may outsource the IT support of a specific technology (for instance, a finance application), while small and midsized companies tend to use in-house personnel.

Customer service is becoming a mission-critical operation in many companies, in particular SMBs, and the contact center is the critical element of any customer service operation. However, contact center technology can be complex and has to interoperate with several other applications and solutions.

This white paper explores ways in which IT managers of small and midsized companies can manage more complex customer interactions while at the same time reducing the complexity and cost of maintaining the contact center solutions, Doing so requires focus on the following topics:

  • Supporting a multichannel environment
  • Minimizing hardware requirements
  • Streamlining integration with other solutions
  • Reducing risk>
  • Using at-home agents

Overall, the key to IT sanity is to generally reduce complexity by finding solutions that combine significant functionality with simplicity. This paper targets specific contact center technologies that can assist IT managers in maintaining a smooth-running and cost-effective operation.

1. Supporting a multichannel environment

Consumers now expect companies to be reachable 24/7. As more consumer transactions occur over online channels, customers also expect enterprises to be readily available to engage the organization via the same modes. The contact center can be used to personalize customer service and increases customer satisfaction by building a window to the customer – a portal that directs communications to the most appropriate resource.

Handling multiple channels efficiently calls for the use of a ‘universal queue’ – allowing the enterprise to service their customers and prospects with standard business rules regardless of the channel the customer chooses to contact the enterprise. Voice, chat and email contacts are routed via the standard mechanisms and routing rules and agents can answer any contact based on system-wide resource matching rules configured by the contact center administrator.

2. Minimizing hardware requirements

Multiple server vs. single server installation
Contact center solutions are composed of several separate but interconnected functions. The main task of any contact center solution is to ensure customers connect to self-service applications and appropriate agents, and that the agents and self-service solutions have access to the appropriate information. Many contact center vendors distribute the functionality over separate servers. Even solutions designed for midsize contact centers may need to use more than one server. While this topology works in many contact centers, it requires additional support efforts from the IT department, which may strain many IT departments. Making matters worse in many cases, components such as IVR or even email/Web components have a separate management or reporting interface, further increasing the IT overhead.

Most contact center solutions designed for the small and midsized business market can be operated on a single server, but few are designed as a single server solution. ShoreTel designed the ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center as a single server solution. ShoreTel provides all features needed to operate a fully functional contact center, including ACD, IVT, CTI, outbound dialer, inbound/outbound call blending, multimedia interactions, and reports and reporting database, on a single rack-mountable server. In addition, the solution offers significant scalability to the company as it grows. ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center offers IT management opportunities to lower the hardware costs of supporting a contact center, and saves the IT staff time and effort, because only one server requires backup and maintenance and it takes up minimal space in the data center.

IP telephones vs. softphones
Business-quality IP telephones cost between $250 and $450. In addition, the headsets used by most contact center agents cost anywhere from $50 to $150. Extrapolating the cost across the board of handsets in a contact center with 50 agents, the IT department can expect to pay between $15,000 and $30,000 for IP handsets and headsets. For IT managers who have to watch every penny, paying $250 to replace a telephone may be hard to swallow.

In recent years, contact center vendors have developed softphones. These software applications are part of the agents’ desktop and eliminate the need for physical handsets on the agents’ desks. All call controls supplied by a physical handset are also supplied by softphones. The applications use either a standard or USB telephone headset.

Softphones provide opportunities for IT managers to reduce hardware costs and decrease the effort needed to support telephone and contact center solutions. Softphones also eliminate the need for hardwire telephones (hardphones) and the associated costs. The following table illustrates the cost difference between using physical telephones and softphones in a contact center of 30 agents.

Figure 1 - Cost comparison between hardphones and softphones

Category Hardphones Softphone
Telephone $300 $0
Headset $75 $50
License $0 $150
Per Agent $375 $200
Number of Agents $30 $30
Total $11,250 $6,000

Further advantages that softphones offer over hardphones include:

  • Streamlined provisioning process: softphones are provisioned when the IT personnel creates the agent’s PC and eliminates a separate process to provision the telephone at the agent’s desk.
  • Increased available work surface on the agents’ desks.
  • Simplified business continuity: agents do not need reserved workspaces and can receive calls anywhere as long as there is a network connection.
  • Reduced cost of at-home agents: since softphones operate through a VPN, they remove the reimbursement cost to agents for additional home office telephone lines.

ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center with unified communications provides softphones as part of the agent’s desktop and supports standard USB headsets. The ShoreTel softphone supplies the same call-control as physical telephones. The solution is IP-based and operates through a VPN as effectively as within a company’s internal network. The agent softphone is part of the ShoreTel unified communications (UC) system and provides access to multiple communications channels.

3. Streamlining integrations

Start with an integrated solution
Contact center solutions come in one of two designs: interconnected solutions (sometimes called unified solutions) and integrated solutions. Interconnected solutions have all the pieces (i.e. IVR, ACD, dialer, and so on) coupled together through APIs, middleware, and other external methods. Integrated solutions are built from a common software foundation. Both types of solution have advantages and disadvantages and both have environments where that solution works best.

Integrated solutions, because they have less “moving parts,” are typically more suited to the small and midsized business world. The components of these solutions share interfaces and structure, making maintenance and upgrades simpler. Common foundations let integrated solution vendors streamline installation and upgrade processes. Users, partners, and field engineers typically install all features at once and turn on the feature the customer has purchased. Future maintenance and feature releases are installed to all modules, even those the customer is not using. If the customer purchases a new module, it is ready to go and can be initiated without having to upgrade first. Finally, integrated solutions have common interfaces, a single management interface and the same look and feel throughout all its screens. This has the advantage of decreasing the learning curve and improving administration efficiency.

ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center is a totally integrated contact center solution and includes ACD, IVR, top-to-bottom historic and real-time reporting, and outbound dialer. Users operate the solution from a single administration interface, which includes an interaction flow designer and campaign manager. The integrated solution allows ShoreTel resellers to thoroughly train their support and installation personnel in all aspects of the solution, requiring fewer professionals to install and maintain the solution. The close integration of the components allows the user to take full advantage of its single administration interface to streamline training and decrease the learning curve.

ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center is also very closely integrated with ShoreTel UC. This enables IT managers to improve the return on investment of the UC solution as well as the contact center solution through shared hardware. Customers calling into contact centers are routed using the same hardware components as customers calling into the corporate switchboard. The close integration eliminates the need for a set of media servers and voice switches specifically to support contact center traffic. Using ShoreTel Communicator, ShoreTel Contact Center agents and supervisors access the same user interface as other users, reducing the training and management costs for IT.

Use open standards to expand the solution
Open standards are commonly used and agreed-upon communication protocols. They enable diverse solutions to exchange information, commands, and controls without the need for proprietary translators or specific programming languages. Common open standards include Session Initiated Protocol (SIP), Web Services, and Open Database Connectivity (ODBC).

Open standards, being almost universally accepted, are easy to implement and simple to maintain. While some programming has to occur, most solutions that support open standards also supply graphical workflow designers. In addition, the skills needed to support open standards are easily found in the market or can be learned through numerous training facilities. IT managers can hire the most appropriate and qualified candidate or send a current employee to training.

ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center supports open standards such as SIP, JavaScript Object Notation (JSON), ODBC, Web Services. IT managers can use open standards to integrate ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center with other solutions, providing contact center agents with a rich assortment of customer information. ShoreTel’s use of open standards provides the IT managers with choices. They can support the integrations themselves, shop around for a qualified third-party contractor, or hire a fully qualified ShoreTel reseller.

Include unified communications in the integrated solution
UC enables the contact center to better support customers and provides multiple communication channels, such as voice, text, and chat, in one interface. Agents who need assistance can find an available supervisor or expert agent through presence and send an instant message with a question or a request for help. In addition, UC allows agents to easily conference in a supervisor or expert agent with the customer or to create a video conference between the agent and the expert.

However, if not integrated into the contact center solution, UC solutions can be difficult and complex to implement. Interconnected solutions couple a third-party UC solution with the contact center solution. While this works well, it requires constant care and can require special skills and additional hardware. For IT departments with limited resources, using a solution with UC features already integrated may prove to be a more effective use of resources. Integration removes the external component and uses internal structures to exchange data. Furthermore, an integrated UC solution does not require additional hardware or third-party middleware. In short, an integrated solution is cleaner and more streamlined.

Make sure you determine components that are manufactured directly by the vendor since increasing the touch points, even if not directly, increases costs for the IT department. Components such as phones, conferencing, gateways, desktop clients, and so on, are some of the key components that you may want the vendor to manufacture.

ShoreTel offers customers an integrated UC solution. Its solution provides multiple communication channels, including voice, instant message, Web chat, and video. The ShoreTel UC system uses the same user interface as ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center, maximizing the space on the user’s desktop. The solution operates from the same hardware as the ShoreTel telephone solutions, streamlining maintenance and installation.

Contact center solutions can be a complex web of hardware, software and middleware. Incorporating external solutions, such as CRM or ERP, into the contact center system adds complexity and risk. Integrated solutions and open standards provide significant benefits to IT departments with limited resources. Integration reduces the resources needed to install and maintain the system by incorporating all features and functionality into a single entity. Open standards reduce costs by reducing the need for specialized training on proprietary software, or the use of consultants to create connections between the contact center solution and external systems. IT managers with a limited budget and restricted resources are advised to investigate integrated solutions.

4. Design for business continuity rather than disaster recovery

Eliminate single points of failure
Contact centers are becoming mission-critical operations for businesses and more effort is being placed into keeping the center operational during emergencies. Snowstorms, hurricanes, and even fire drills can have an impact on revenue and customer satisfaction. Depending on the call volume received, a period of inactivity for a little as 30 minutes can take a significant chunk out of a company’s revenue. In addition, businesses operate in a fast news market and news spreads quickly through social media. A small outage may turn into a revenue and marketing nightmare as customers tweet that they cannot get through to a company.

IT managers must work with the contact center manager to design a business continuity plan, rather than a disaster recovery plan. Disaster recovery means that the contact center was unavailable for a time while business continuity means that the contact center was operational during the crisis.

When it comes to business continuity, sometimes the old truths are the simplest solutions:

Never keep all your eggs in one basket

The goal of a business continuity plan is to keep interactions coming into the contact center and to have agents available to answer the interactions during an emergency. The key to a successful business continuity plan is to remove single points of failure by distributing agents into two or more locations. Distributing agents reduces the risk of a complete outage due to a building closure, fire drill, or other event affecting the single location. The following figure is an example of a distributed contact center. Note the separate contact centers. For business continuity purposes, these are dispersed locations but connected through the corporate network.

Figure 2 - A Distributed Contact Center

When selecting solutions with business continuity in mind, IT managers are advised to look at systems that are designed to be distributed and fulfill most of the follow requirements:

  • Each location must be able to accept and route interactions independently, as well as dependently.
  • The contact center must be operational even when the data center is offline.
  • Each location must be able to house all or at least 75 percent of agents.
  • The solution must be able to recognize agents, regardless of location, and route calls to their extension with no reconfiguration or definition changes.
  • Distribution should be accomplished with the minimum amount of hardware and software.
  • All components must be maintained remotely and from a single interface.

IT managers can add additional continuity capacity by working with the contact center manager and geographically separate the main and remote contact center. When the centers are in separate cities or countries, the effects of weather, seismic activity, or geopolitical events are greatly reduced. Hardware and software requirements should not differ greatly from the solutions used in a distributed contact center within the same city.

ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center and the ShoreTel UC system are designed to be distributed solutions and the redundancy of the solutions enables contact centers to continue to operate independently during emergencies. ShoreTel’s architecture supports hot-standby solutions, which continually communicate and duplicate agent skills, information and routing rules, as well as IVR messages and call flows. In addition, ShoreTel Communicator decreases the cost of remote contact centers and streamlines implementation. Using the ShoreTel Communicator softphone or office anywhere functionality helps eliminate the need for a telephone handset or reserved workspace in separate locations. Agents need only to find an empty workspace or conference room and connect the network to start receiving calls.

Use Tried and True Hardware Redundancy
Many emergencies are very localized—for instance, failed disk drives. If a hardware failure shuts down the contact center, it really does not matter whether agents can work from home or if the continuity plan protects against the ravages of Mother Nature. A key responsibility of the IT group is to keep the technology up and running. Hardware redundancy and RAID technologies have been around for decades and are standard operating procedures for IT departments.

ShoreTel solutions are internally and externally redundant. The company offers high availability options and supports continual contact center operations. In addition, routing and communications are maintained through hot-standby and on-line backup solutions, and can be brought up to speed in a very short time.

Contact center business continuity is no longer a “nice-to-have” capability. It is essential to maintaining a competitive advantage. When customers cannot connect with the contact center, they call competitors. Whether it is due to a monsoon, blizzard, or hard drive failure, maintaining operations in midst of emergencies can keep companies ahead of the competition. While IT departments must ensure that the contact center is operational during crises, they also should simplify contingency management by selecting systems with built-in redundancy and direct limited resources to creating tools to keep the business competitive.

5. Help Contact Center Manager reduce costs and agent turnover

Use at-home agents
The use of at-home agents is becoming more popular as contact center managers discover their advantages. At-home agents offer contact centers cost savings while offering morale benefits to agents. Configurations are only limited by the contact center solutions employed, and most of the current contact center solutions support at-home agents.

While there are costs associated with at-home agents, those costs can be offset by savings in real-estate and building overhead costs. In addition, contact centers using at home agents typically experience reduced absenteeism and tardiness, as well as decreases in agent turnover. This can result in shorter wait times and improved customer service, as well as reduced training costs.

Figure 3 - Business continuity with at-home agents

At-home agents enhance business continuity by adding a third leg to business continuity plans, and creating a very stable structure. While at-home agents must have access to the contact center solution, this is accomplished by supplying each agent with a laptop or employing virtualization technology such as Citrix or VMWare. See the figure below for an example of a business continuity solution using at-home agents.

Businesses take advantage of at-home capabilities in different ways. Some allow agents to work part time at home and the remaining shifts in the actual contact center. Some use at-home capability on an emergency basis (such as when it snows or when traffic is expected to increase significantly). Other businesses employ at-home agents on a permanent basis. Each situation requires different technology. If agents are traveling between centers and their home, a laptop is most likely the best solution. However, if contact centers are using at-home agents on an emergency or permanent basis, then virtual technology may be the better solution.

IT administrators must evaluate the additional costs they may incur from their vendors to enable telecommuting. These are costs such as telecommuter licenses, additional servers or costs of redundancy for telecommuters.

ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center supports at-home agents. By using ShoreTel Communicator, the contact center agents working from home do not need a sophisticated telephone solution. They can employ the built-in softphone (over a VPN connection) or a simple analog telephone to offer the agent complete call control. IT administrators can also choose to provide the remote agents with easy-to-administer ShoreTel VPN phones to further enhance the customer experience.

Furthermore, ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center provides the agent with an extension and all other information the agent needs to properly route calls. The unified desktop also offers at-home agents the same access to experts and supervisors through the corporate network. Finally, ShoreTel Communicator interoperates with virtualization solutions and is Citrix Certified to allow companies to reduce equipment cost and simplify asset management.

Simplify Mobility
It is a mobile market place and more people are purchasing smartphones. Sales of smartphones, have skyrocketed over the past couple of years. In addition, sales of tablet computers, such as Apple’s iPad, are growing rapidly.

The problem is that smartphones and tablets are not standard and have different ways of integrating with the enterprise PBX and contact center solution. While IT managers must embrace the use of smartphones and tablets, the adoption of these technologies has accelerated to a point where standardizing on a single make and model is very difficult. Sales representatives and contact center managers are requesting their personal smartphone be integrated into the PBX and that contact center desktop applications be ported onto their smartphone.

IT managers need help from communication vendors to implement smartphone technology because of the wide range of options and the sophisticated programming needed to connect smartphones with communication platforms. Integration of contact center technology increases that complexity.

ShoreTel Mobility simplifies the integration of smartphones into ShoreTel Enterprise Contact Center. ShoreTel Mobility reduces integration complexities for IT departments and enables companies to use smartphones as PBX extensions. The tools support leading smartphones and tablets including iPhone and iPad. ShoreTel Web-based dashboards display critical queue and agent information enabling IT to provide information directly to customer service or sales managers on the device of their choice, be it a PC or an iPad.

Companies are no longer locked into a single office building and contact centers are moving out from the traditional cubicle-filled room. While virtualization of the workforce is providing advantages to businesses by reducing agent turnover and overhead costs, it is creating an increasingly complex environment for the IT group. As companies spread out, the IT manager needs to find solutions designed to have distributed and remote capabilities as baseline features to reduce the complexity of a virtual workforce.

6. Conclusion: reduce complexity

IT managers must adhere to the rule of keeping it simple. While all IT departments are restrained in one way or another, SMBs find themselves doing much more with the same or fewer resources. Moreover, contact centers are one of the most complex business operations, technologically speaking, and IT managers are asked to help maintain and expand their solutions. IT mangers can keep it simple by taking advantage of integrated and distributed solutions, as well as open standards. In addition, using built-in capabilities for at-home agents and mobile solutions can help streamline the virtual contact center, and reduce costs. Over all, keeping it as simple as possible will enable IT managers to use resources efficiently and effectively.

ShoreTel. Brilliantly simple business communications.

ShoreTel, Inc. (NASDAQ: SHOR) is a leading provider of brilliantly simple IP phone systems and unified communications solutions powering today’s always-on workforce. Its flexible communications solutions for on-premises, cloud and hybrid environments eliminate complexity, reduce costs and improve productivity.

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