Calling remote agents

Contact centre is becoming an oxymoron, as more companies are routing calls to people working at home or in a different location, and this can affect both the security and the quality of service, industry experts say.“The reality of call centres today is you need a lot of remote capability for people who are going to work off-site,” says telecommunications analyst Jon Arnold, principal of J. Arnold & Associates of Toronto. “The cost of building centres is pretty expensive.”
But some companies are reluctant to allow call centre agents to work from home because they are concerned customer data could end up in the wrong hands, says Tracy Fleming, national IP telephony practice leader for Avaya Canada Inc. “We’ve seen customers go to the point where they don’t want a home agent simply because of the possibility of customer data being displayed on a home PC and the possibility of that person walking away and another family member walking in and inadvertently seeing sensitive customer data,” Fleming says.
Those who decide to employ home workers should give the agents as little hardware as possible, and try to route calls and customer information through software, Fleming says.
“If you have a 500-seat call centre with 500 bodies in it, that’s one thing, but if you have 500 homes and each home has two or three pieces of corporate equipment, you’ve just made asset management a nightmare.”
Regardless of how a home worker is set up, administrators need to think about how the remote agent’s phone is connected with the computer, Arnold says.
“The telephony environment and how that ties into the computer is really critical,” he says. “You don’t want them sharing a home line with this, and having to interrupt calls to take personal calls.”
Arnold added Internet Protocol (IP) has several advantages over time division multiplexing (TDM) systems, including the ability to combine voice and data services.
“You can pull up customer records instantly” and access information on a customer’s previous inquiries, Arnold says. “You can call up information on a local database about that customer and, during that call, run other resident applications that you may have to sources apart from a remote application. You can do all these things in real time when you’re on the phone.”
IP also makes it easier to connect remote workers to call centres, says Betsy Wood, evangelist for multimedia applications at Nortel Networks Corp.
“With an IP phone or a soft phone on a PC, I can plug in anywhere I have secure Internet access,” she says. “If I have my PC with me, or if I have my communication device, anywhere I have broadband Internet access that’s secure, I can be working.”
To make the access secure, companies need to install virtual private networks (VPNs), Fleming says, adding IP communications over a VPN will not necessarily have consistent quality.
“If the person’s sitting in Owen Sound on a VPN connection, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get eight hours of solid, toll-quality voice,” he says. “If somebody’s called in to buy the next widget, and (the agent) is currently having a brownout on their Internet service, is that acceptable?”
As a result, he says, some companies give remote workers the ability to move calls over to the public switched telephone network (PSTN) if something goes wrong with their VoIP service.
No Avaya customers are asking for pure IP telephony products, Fleming says, because at some point, they will need to route calls over the PSTN.
“Three or four years ago, the thought was, ‘TDM’s bad, IP’s good, and it has to be pure IP,’” he says.
But network managers soon discovered if their data network went down, the voice network was also unavailable. As a result, companies operating contact centres started installing two separate data networks in case one went down.
IP communications also means voice networks have the same security vulnerabilities as data networks.
Avaya does not include Web servers in its IP phones, because a hacker could turn the phones into zombies and launch a distributed denial of service attack, Fleming says.
But security concerns should not stop a company from installing IP-based contact centre, Arnold says.
“The percentage of people using IP is relatively small still, and it hasn’t become a real target or focus for hackers and all this malicious stuff,” he says.

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