The ability to link multiple call centers into a single, networked “virtual” center is least remarked about outside technical circles. And yet, this capacity is becoming more of a trend.
In the last few years, the teleservices business has gone through several waves of growth and consolidation. Companies have often found themselves operating call centers built by someone else or have had to set up centers quickly, perhaps near a favored client. This explosion of individual centers forced companies to duplicate efforts along many lines, including management, staffing and call flow.
With virtual centers, though, it doesn't matter if centers are across town or across the globe. The technology has advanced far enough so that a company can operate multiple centers as if they were one — with a unified view of telephone patterns, data flow and management information.
A “virtual call center” is defined as several groups of agents in geographically separate locations that are treated as a single center for management, scheduling and call-handling purposes. Sometimes the term is used to refer to agents working from their homes, but that is so small a number of people (and so tiny a sliver of the market) that it doesn't count for the purposes of this discussion. Essentially, a virtual center is a set of centers that operate independently — each with their own mission (inbound or outbound, telemarketing or customer service) but bound together through software so that they can be perceived as a single site.
The idea of a single site can manifest itself in several ways. It could mean that at the end of every day, management of the whole system gets a unified call handling performance report. Or, in the case of an outsourcer, that a given client's calls are handled at a variety of centers depending on where the call originates — each with a consistent script or data capture system. Or it could mean that the network itself is queuing up the calls, with AT&T or one of the other carriers holding the calls and querying the linked centers to find out which one is the most appropriate destination for the call.
Many advanced switches also perform this function, looking out over the network to find another center to send a call to when wait times are high at one center. This real-time networking for “dynamic call handling” — making a destination choice on a call-by-call basis — is the most sophisticated use of virtual call centers, and the most expensive.
High-end switches are needed, plus advanced call-routing software and an enormous amount of network bandwidth, if data is to be sent with the call. This could mean an ISDN connection or a private high-capacity line, like a T-1, linking centers. Some vendors are exploring IP/Internet connections for the exchange of the voice/data connection between call centers.
Under this broad definition of the virtual call center, many existing operations already qualify — any time calls are passed from one center to another (every day at 7 p.m., say, or when volumes get too high) a virtual call center is made. Generating a report from a switch that tells of stats for more than one center also is an application of virtual call center tools. Typically, if multiple centers are operating with the same brand of switch and a software system for universally predicting volumes and staffing levels, it is a de facto virtual call center.
There are two shapes a virtual call center can take:
1. Virtual call-flow, in which calls can go anywhere they are directed in a call center network;
2. Virtual management information, in which calls are not affected, but backend information systems collect results data from several centers, make them uniform, and present a coherent picture to managers for analysis.
Often these go hand in hand, but it's not that unusual for a company to use one or the other model.
Say a company has acquired another — adding three new centers to its existing three. How does three plus three equal one? Several key switch vendors offer software that supports virtualizing with hardware made by other vendors. And the purveyors of add-on software, particularly workforce management systems, also enable much. These days, centers of almost any kind can be connected.
Subhed: The Advantages
There are some clear advantages to connecting existing call centers. First and foremost is traffic. In the virtual call-flow model, reliability is gained instantly–a backup is in place in case one center goes down. In addition, there are economies of scale that allow more calls to be handled together than could be done separately (traffic engineering is an arcane and specialized art). The result: calls are shorter, they cost less and customers spend less time on hold.
Second, call centers can be placed anywhere-even at a client’s site without sacrificing efficiency. One service bureau placed a call center at an airport where its main airline client was based. Though it wasn’t necessary for the center to be at the airport, it made the client feel more in control. Virtual call center technology gives the outsourcer more options in where they place the center.
Freedom of placement also allows centers to be located where facility and labor costs are advantageous.
A third advantage of connecting call centers is optimizing resources on many levels. Multiple centers mean more of an agent pool to draw from on any given call. Calls in Spanish can be sent to an agent group at one center, while calls about Gold Cards can go to a group at another. Virtual centers mean virtual agent groups, even virtual campaigns that are less bounded by geography than by function.
Functions can be centralized — a single center can handle literature fulfillment for many clients, for example. Any investment in infrastructure geared to a specialized application need only be made once; then the resource can be shared throughout the system.
Subhed: Virtual Efficiencies
Ameritech Cellular is using the virtual call center concept. It’s five regional centers are now linked into one virtual center. Calls are separated by function, with each center able to perform some — but not all — aspects of the company's customer service.
Also linked to the virtual center are Ameritech’s two outsourced call centers that provide backup and overflow. These service bureaus get a preset percentage of the daily call volume, says Ameritech's Walt DiGiulio, manager of results and analysis. “We can change the allocation during the course of a day,” he said. “One advantage is that if there is a fire or some kind of emergency, we can change the allocation to the outside vendors.”
Ameritech also gains other benefits from virtualizing.
“We're able to spread the workload more equally,” DiGiulio said. “There's less of a chance that someone is sitting idle.”
Ameritech uses a networking and workforce management system from IEX Corp. to project call volumes and staff requirements. The economies of scale are such that the company can handle call volume with fewer full-time reps. In fact, Ameritech is saving approximately $5 million a year through more efficient staffing, forecasting and load balancing. While call volume has increased 4 percent, staffing has decreased by the same amount. And service level — the measurement considered the holy grail of many call centers — is up by 6 percent.
These hard-dollar savings are the result of the technology that makes virtual call centers a reality.
Keith Dawson is a technology writer and editor of the Call Center News Service (www.callcenternews.com).