Canadian call centres that continue to upgrade their private branch exchanges are severely limiting themselves in a world where Internet Protocol is making inroads, according to executives who spoke at a recent call centre conference.

In a panel discussion at last month’s International Call

Centre Management conference in Toronto, experts noted that while IP telephony isn’t exactly revolutionary technology anymore, it’s relatively new to contact professionals.

“”I don’t know if any of you are comfortable with IP telephony in the call centre space,”” said Alexander Carroll, general manager of BCE Elix, a Bell Canada subsidiary that provides call centre installation and services.

Regardless of their comfort level, Carroll said, it’s a change that’s being forced on the industry. Vendors are no longer putting R&D into the PBX space, he said, and the benefit of IP telephony is that it removes the geographic barriers of PBX technology.

What’s important is scaleability, said Ken Redekop, Telus Corp.’s director of contact centre solutions. For an organization with fewer than 200 seats, IP telephony is something they should “”jump on right away,”” while larger enterprises with larger investments in their traditional infrastructure are taking more of a wait-and-see approach.

We’re at the tail end of the early adoption phase, said Gerry Barber, vice-president of the Call Center Industry Advisory Council (CIAC), a not-for-profit global standards and certification board for contact and support centre professionals. “”You’re going to be able to have remote storefronts,”” he said, so IP telephony is something they need to focus on over the next 18 to 24 months.

“”Don’t count yourself out if you’re a small call centre,”” said Redekop, since the IP-based approach is much more nimble.

But voice over IP often has hidden setup costs, said Nancy Lewis, executive vice-president for client services at Virtual Agent Services.

“”Dig in and find out what it really costs”” to set up voice over IP, said Lewis, who spoke at another ICCM panel discussion, titled “”Outsourcing Issues and Options.””

Voice over IP reduced international long-distance costs for many companies and was one driving force behind the trend towards outsourcing call centres to Asian countries. But cost reduction is not the only reason, said Ian Cavanagh, president of 24/7 Customer Care Canada, who also spoke at the outsourcing panel. In India, for example, many young workers have university degrees, speak English and are willing to answer phones during the midnight shift, when those in the North American time zones tend to call, Cavanagh said.

But there are opportunities for Canadian companies to establish call centres for U.S.-based clients. Between 2002 and 2004, 57,000 new call centre jobs were created in Canada, said Steve Demmings, president of Site Selection Canada.

Telus’s Redekop said there are 15,000 call centres in Canada, but only 1,000 are large enough to justify the investment in technologies such as speech recognition. However, more organizations are starting to ask about speech recognition.

Another emerging technology in this space is near real-time customer feedback at the agent level. This allows call centre employees to pinpoint the main causes of customer complaints, said CIAC’s Barber. “”That is a differentiator,”” he said of this functionality, which most contact centres have not yet deployed.

—With files from Greg Meckbach

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