|Africa and the Middle East 2005
|IP evolution – unlocking contact centre potential
|Managing Director, Southern Africa
|Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories
Mark Payne is the Managing Director of Sub-Saharan Africa for Genesys. In the course of his career, Mark Payne has covered the spectrum, from programmer, to consultant, to management. Prior to joining Genesys, Payne spent two years on Sabbatical raising Arabian horses. Previously, Mr Payne served as the Senior VP EMEA for Avaya Communications, as Senior VP for Quintus Corporation and, also, as Senior VP for Versatility. Mr Payne has had many years of experience with the EMEA region as a whole. Mr Payne has a Diploma in French linguistics and is fluent in Dutch and English.
IP systems hold tremendous potential for contact centres. They handle a mixture of traditional and IP-based infrastructure and let enterprises cost-effectively migrate towards IP systems while maintaining current operations. IP enables easy implementation of open standards-based applications such as those using Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP. Open standards enable telephony applications to interface with each other and inexpensively provide high-level functionality. They reduce the redundancy of enterprise applications and hardware and provide a migration path for future systems upgrades.
The Internet Protocol (IP) has evolved beyond data-only networks to encompass an integrated, converged world of voice and data communication. What used to be a secondary transport medium is now becoming the primary medium for communication. The world’s largest telecommunication backbone providers are now using IP-based networks with high reliability and excellent Quality of Service (QoS) as a primary choice for their backbone networks. Similarly, at the enterprise level, businesses are now using mature IP technology for both telephony and other traditional data applications. IP has finally arrived for business critical voice and data applications. As part of this evolution, IP holds tremendous potential for contact centres – potential that can be realised today – if properly implemented. The issue nowadays is less about whether to have an IP contact centre, and more about how to incorporate IP into the organisation. This is extremely important as most enterprises have an existing TDM (Time Division Multiplex) based infrastructure. Simply throwing this away won’t work, as the operation needs to continue and, besides, it would mean a huge waste of past investment. Having a contact-centre application that can handle a mixture of traditional systems and, as well, a new IP-based infrastructure, allows enterprises to migrate towards IP at their own pace and ensure that their operations keep on running. It also ensures a highly cost-effective migration path to IP-based applications and systems. When considering the advantages that IP can bring, it is worth determining whether the main benefits to the operation stem from the new applications it makes possible or from the efficiencies and savings the IP infrastructure generates. Although improvements to the infrastructure can look compelling at first glance, the larger, more important opportunity for most organisations rests with how IP allows for the cost-effective development and deployment of new applications and functionality. IP can be used as an application enabler, which means users will be able to develop and deploy new standards-based applications easily. Advances in standards such as the Session Initiation Protocol (RFC 3261), or SIP, enable telephony applications to interface with each other and provide functionality once limited to proprietary infrastructure hardware. SIP brings the power of open systems to the world of telecommunications. Particularly, in the contact centre, due to their rich multimedia requirements, open systems allow customers to select non-proprietary hardware and software for queuing, routing and applying treatments to interactions. For these reasons, it is expected that SIP will emerge as the de facto standard for enterprise IP communications. Two major discussion points in the IP contact centre solution centre on the PBX (Private Telephone Switching System) platform, which can be hybrid or pure IP-based, and the interaction management applications. The latter applies the same business rules and provides central agent configuration management, whether the agent is connected to a proprietary PBX or IP-based soft switch. Generally speaking, agent configuration management is a process by which groups of software “agents” that handle specific tasks can be automatically configured, managed and coordinated. This allows locations and agents that are physically remote from the main contact centre to act as a logical extension of the contact centre. As a result, customer interactions are handled by the appropriate resource, regardless of actual location. All agents are seen as part of a single pool of agents for routing and reporting. This centralised configuration environment reduces the time needed to deal with administrative tasks by changing agent skills and interaction capabilities and is backed up by centralised reporting capabilities, which report upon system performance right down to the agent level. Of course, this consolidated model also reduces the redundancy of applications and hardware across sites. Currently, many businesses have to own and maintain many PBXs/ACDs (Automatic Call Distribution) at each location, as well as complex voice networks and applications. Using open standard IP to consolidate systems means that a single instance of software can be used to control every site. However, each site can deploy monitoring tools for its own performance and has the ability to influence the routing strategies based on the individual operation’s requirements. Such functionality can be deployed and configured from anywhere in the network. Functionality, as always, remains the vital issue when considering a solution. At the most basic level, some IP solutions simply consist of an IP LAN (Local Area Network) card fitted into the PBX with a data link to an agent (human or automatic voice response) softphone (software that lets a PC simulate a real phone, usually connected to the sound card of the PC). At the other end of the spectrum lie complete IP-architected solutions, with integrated multi-channel applications and interaction routing software. Many solutions were not designed with IP in mind, but are evolutions of tried and tested call-centre functionality. In such cases, new applications may be attached to the core IP-PBX, which is running the same CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) links as in the old circuit-switched environment. True IP-architected solutions do not use CTI middleware: the APIs (Application Program Interfaces) integrate directly with the ACD/IVR (Automatic Call Distribution/ Interactive Voice Response) functionality. The chances in many, but not all, cases are that there will be slightly fewer features available in the IP world at the moment, but that for the majority of businesses this will be a minor irritation. Because IP is an open standard, there are many developers, both among equipment vendors and independent developers, who are able to add functionality to the solution over time. In the meantime, it is likely that IP-based functionality will come to exceed what we see today in traditional environments. Users should, however, only consider vendors that can advise where, when and what future functionality will be added. On the desktop, users will have to decide which phone to go with – PC, softphones, proprietary IP phones or open standard IP phones. Without going into too much detail, proprietary IP phones at the moment may offer greater levels of functionality than other varieties but will cost more. Most solution providers will allow other brands of phone to be used, which will be cheaper, but there is a risk of losing some of the functionality provided by the supplier’s own specially integrated equipment. Softphones are relatively inexpensive, but lack some of the features, such as directory look-up and Web browsing, that some IP phones provide. However, vendors are addressing this issue at the moment and during 2005 will deliver the softphone functionality that contact-centre agents require. Other issues to consider when moving to IP are reliability and security. The rule of thumb is that the reliability and security of IP telephony is only as good as the network itself. Some vendors believe security is actually better on converged networks, in that hackers must pull out only the voice packets – an extremely complex process. Denial of Service attacks (hacker assaults designed to shut down a network or application) could cause IP telephony downtime, but these are also issues of overall network stability and not strictly a specific threat to IP telephony functionality. Deployed via properly managed and maintained QoS networks, VoIP (Voice over IP) can be as reliable as circuit-switched telephony, offering 99.999 per cent reliability – the five 9’s that we expect in standard telephony. That said, there are initiatives to encrypt voice traffic to improve security, although encryption slows things down considerably. Depending on how sensitive the voice traffic is, users may wish to question their vendors in some depth about this aspect. Key to the stability of any network is the concept of redundancy where, even if one or more points in the system fail, the network keeps functioning. Because traditional telephony has been so reliable, solution providers have come to understand that the customer has no tolerance for telephony network outage – unlike in the data world, where outages are accepted as something that happens every so often. The most critical issues to consider when moving to IP are how the business approaches IP, and how each organisation decides what it wants to get out of it. It is as important to have confidence in one’s own abilities as it is to believe in the technology or the vendor. Businesses should make informed and objective decisions internally, before embarking on any migration. The key to understanding the real value of IP is through recognising how it enables applications to be deployed quickly and effectively in a SIP-based environment. Put simply, completely and genuinely adopting open standards means that contact centres are released from the high maintenance costs associated with proprietary systems and can choose the applications that more exactly suit their needs at the time. Open standard IP solutions are the closest the industry has ever come to truly being able to future-proof their contact centres. A truly open approach to an IP contact centre will ensure that more costly, proprietary silos are avoided. Combining open IP with a vendor that specialises and focuses on contact centres will allow the vision of IP for the contact centre to be fully realised.