VOIP: Virtual Contact Centers Answer the Commute Congestion Question

1 Nov, 2007

By: Leigh Fatzinger

The term “contact center” generally brings to mind the vision of a group of employeesin a centralized building space, however, Voice over IP (VoIP) offers the unique opportunity for businesses to build a sustainable workforce not dependant upon geography or a single location. This can have positive results for employee satisfaction and productivity as well as significant capital and operational expenditure savings for enterprises.

With swelling populations in many urban centers and congestion destined to get worse, it is imperative for companies to think about how they can leverage technology to enable employees to work remotely. In addition, the new emphasis on Business Continuity Planning (BCP), in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, is motivating companies to investigate solutions that allow them to quickly and easily set up temporary satellite offices.

Counting the Cost of Weary Workers and Businesses

The battle with traffic, time and availability has significant impacts on both companies and employees as daily commutes grow more difficult each day. Companies feel the impact as employees explore lifestyle alternatives and struggle to make tough decisions about which is most important: where they live or where they work. As desirable locations continue to attract growing populations, congestion will only worsen – making the balance of work and life an even larger issue.

U.S. News & World Report recently stated that more than 3 million people drive 90 minutes or more to work. But even with a commute of 40 minutes each way, an employee can spend close to seven hours in the car during a five-day workweek. In addition to the lost time, commuting takes a direct toll on the pocketbook due to the current cost of fuel. Even worse, long and expensive commutes cause unwanted stress. The American Institute of Stress calculates that workplace stress costs the United States more than $300 billion annually due to accidents, absenteeism, costly employee turnover and unforeseen medical and insurance expenses.

While employees try to come to terms with all of this, businesses are struggling to achieve greater returns with fewer resources and staff. Pressures from the global marketplace have changed the competitive landscape, which translates into increased demand for seamless service and lower prices.

Geographically Challenged

A related challenge to providing seamless service is the ability to maintain continuity of operations and keep employees productive, wherever they are located. Consider the Los Angeles Times report on JetBlue and its 700 reservation agents, all of whom work from home. In the article, JetBlue’s CEO, David Neeleman, shared the story of a snowstorm that crippled the Northeast, impeding the usual work commute. As the airline’s competitors struggled to get their employees into company call centers to assist worried travelers, JetBlue had no such dilemma. Its reservation agents did not have a commute, and, therefore, were ready and available to field the surge of incoming calls.

When extreme weather and other emergencies arise, such as the collapse of a section of highway overpass funneling traffic from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, it is imperative that employees have virtual office capabilities to work either from home or from remote branch locations, quickly and efficiently. A story by Rachel Konrad, of The Associated Press, about the overpass collapse, reported on how an employee from the Santa Clara office of Sun Microsystems Inc. was immediately able to seamlessly begin working from home and avoid being on the road altogether. In fact, 56 percent of Sun Microsystems’ staff works remotely on a regular basis. For companies such as this, plans to mitigate the impact of an emergency are already in place.

The trend of working remotely will only continue to grow, states the International Telework and Association Council, in a report issued by WorldatWork, the leading non-profit specializing in compensation, benefits and work-life balance. The number of workers – both employed and self-employed – who work remotely at least one day per month has risen from 26.1 million in 2005 to 28.75 million in 2006. VoIP technology is a vital part of this trend; it enables organizations to cost-effectively provide employees with information and access anywhere.

The Solution

VoIP provides the needed solution for more productive, efficient remote contact centers. However, there is a substantial amount of confusion surrounding the technology, especially in understanding the value it can provide to small and medium-sized enterprises. This confusion has worked to impede broad migration to IP telephony, but it doesn’t need to be the case.

The reality is, VoIP’s remarkable flexibility offers significant benefits and, for many firms, provides tremendous corporate value. Some benefits of VoIP include:

• Integration of voice and data – as technology continues to progress, the integration of voice and data traffic will be facilitated by convergence application software

• Simplification – an infrastructure that supports all forms of communication allows for less equipment management

• Network efficiency – integrated voice and data systems means voice simply becomes an application on the data network

• Remote access – by making company servers and applications easily accessible, employees have the option to convert their homes into remote workstations.

Reduced operational costs and related savings are one of the most significant benefits of VoIP in call center environments. According to VoIP Connection, “Traditional PBX- based move, add or change requests can cost as much as $40 on average, but with VoIP, this average cost drops to below $10…” Incremental dollars, such as these, can add up to big savings. In addition, VoIP creates the opportunity to handle business development needs without having to buy, build or add infrastructure to accommodate new contact center employees.

A Sound Migration Strategy

Aging PBX systems used by many contact and call centers are primary candidates for migration to a premise-based or hosted IP PBX platform. To be effective, the new platform must properly serve the needs of the whole organization. There are three major situations that should be taken into account to ensure the IP telephony network solution implemented will benefit both the business and its employees:

• Remote workers – meaning staff working at a satellite office, virtual contact center or from home

• On-site workers – who for whatever reason need to be grouped topically rather than by geographical location and

• Contingency planning – in case the entire network needs to be distributed (or moved) as a result of an emergency or disaster.

When investigating options, look for a solution that will provide a simple and seamless transition and will leverage and combine existing infrastructure investments with the new platform. At the same time, the new system should offer transparent migration and be implemented in a timely fashion to best leverage VoIP’s improved efficiencies, reduced costs and enhanced services such as conferencing capabilities.

To ensure effectiveness, the network must easily expand and adjust during the course of regular business or in an emergency. Businesses with call centers selecting a new VoIP solution can benefit from the assistance of the VAR (Value Added Reseller) and reseller community. With input from one of these experts, companies can take full advantage of all the functionality and flexibility that VoIP has to offer at all office locations: corporate, branch and home based. Of course, an expert can also assist in establishing a Business Continuity Plan, deemed key to the survival of any business – particularly one that relies on a contact center.

Positive Long-Term Impact

By creatively applying the VoIP solution, businesses are already beginning to mitigate the consequences of the American commute. Enterprises are far more likely to retain employees who can choose to live and work in the same area, avoiding a long commute, which results in higher productivity from uninterrupted workflow. And even if emergencies, such as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge overpass collapse bring traffic to a standstill, the workflow will keep moving.

In an enterprise contact center, quick return on investment is achieved from deploying a VoIP system – especially one that leverages existing telephony infrastructure. Taking advantage of VoIP’s flexibility allows businesses to frequently avoid investment in additional brick-and mortar offices, virtually eliminating associated capital costs. Workers can be supported wherever they are – even a large, scattered group of contact center employees.

VoIP: Answering Tomorrow’s Call, Today

With the flexibility and capabilities of VoIP, isn’t it time to start working smarter instead of harder? A contact center or satellite office powered by VoIP or connected to a broader IP platform can turn today’s headaches into a positive, sustainable business model. By fulfilling employee and business desires for flexibility and for business needs to be cost-effective and achieve a positive return on investment, VoIP can have a significant impact on today’s workplace – and tomorrow’s.