Call centre industry pushed towards post-PBX era

TORONTO – Canadian call centres that continue to upgrade their PBXs are severely limiting themselves in an increasingly IP-based world, executives told the ICCM conference on Wednesday.

In a panel discussion that looked at emerging technology trends, 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,” Alexander Carroll, general manager of BCE Elix, asked the audience. Bell Elix is a division of Bell that focuses on contact centre solutions.

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 takes down the geographic barriers of PBX technology.

What’s important is scaleability, said Ken Redekop, director of contact centre solutions with Vancouver-based Telus. For an organization with less 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.

However, being available isn’t enough anymore. Customer relationship management is seen as an increasingly important part of the overall picture.

“In my experience, most clients don’t leverage their customer data as they should,” said Carroll. “Today it’s very inexpensive and easy to do.” This not only makes clients happier, but also makes the job easier for agents, he said.

“Telus and Bell are in agreement on this one,” said Telus’s Redekop.

But they didn’t agree on everything. 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, even if they can’t afford it at this point. “No one is buying systems without compatibility for speech down the road,” he said.

While Carroll said the “cost would be up there,” there are a lot of reputable applications on the market. But Redekop said customers would still be looking at $100,000 in development costs and doesn’t see it being rapidly adopted at this point.

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, and root out supplementary concerns. “That is a differentiator,” he said of this functionality, which most contact centres have not yet deployed.

The industry is also starting to see more convergence in this space, the panelists said. The big players – Genesis, Cisco, Nortel, Avaya – are taking switching and routing and putting those together, said Redekop. “We’re seeing the consolidation of functionality on one box,” he said, which will likely decrease the number of players in the market (of which there about 500 right now).

This consolidation will be made easier with a protocol called SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol, said Carroll, which will allow Brand X to work with Brand Y. This means companies don’t have to rip out disparate systems but can get them to work together.

However, technology is only an enabler, said Barber. He points to call centres where technology has been deployed but underutilized. The call centre manager should provide leadership, he said, and bridge the gap between the IT and telecommunications departments. And no matter how good the technology: “Always allow customers to easily get to an agent.”

ICCM Canada wrapped up on Wednesday.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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