Vendors put VoIP in call centers

In the past, setting up a large call center involved a fairly strict formula, requiring hundreds or thousands of agents located at one site to be attached to a sophisticated (read: expensive) circuit-switched PBX. To help speed the adoption of IP convergence in call centers, two vendors last week announced voice-over-IP and IP PBX call center products aimed at large and small companies.

Aspect Communications Corp., which sells high-end call center switches called Automatic Call Distributors (ACD), last week announced its IP Contact Center suite, a set of IP call center server and client products. Unlike Aspect's WinSet voice-over-IP product, which can IP-enable a traditional Aspect ACD, the new product line is being billed as "all IP," which means no elements of circuit switching.

Also announced last week was the AltiCenter IP call center product from AltiGen Networks Inc., a maker of IP PBXs for small and midsize firms. Both products are intended to reduce the administrative duties of setting up call centers and the high price of traditional ACD switches.

Some companies have found that voice over IP and PC server-based PBXs can ease the complexity, cost and physical constraints of running a customer care operation.

Stream International Inc. - a product support firm with a staff of 10,000 agents in 17 call centers around the world - uses voice-over-IP products from Aspect to provide technical support service to customers of several Fortune 100 high-tech vendors and carriers. Stream uses Aspect's older WinSet voice-over-IP product to IP-enable several traditional Aspect ACDs, such as a Memphis, Tenn., call center that connects to additional agents in the company's Canton, Mass., office. WinSet voice over IP combines a voice-over-IP gateway that packetizes Public Switched Telephone Network calls and a softphone application.

"With the IP solution you can convert line-side calls to [voice over IP] and route them over IP to virtually any place in the world," says Lloyd Linnell, CTO of Stream.

Moving call centers overseas is a developing trend among companies with large customer service needs as agents can be hired less expensively abroad. Linnell plans on connecting an office in India to an ACD in Stream's Texas office over the company's private IP network.

Linnell also plans to deploy products from Aspect's new IP Contact Suite in other call centers instead of going with new circuit-switched Aspect ACDs. The new product suite includes an IP-based ACD, an H.323 voice-over-IP gateway and a package of applications such as a softphone and unified Web, e-mail and voice applications. Pricing for the IP Contact Suite starts between US$1,500 and $3,000 per seat, Aspect says.

Smaller firms are also taking advantage of IP PBX-based call center applications. Debt Free & Prosperous Living Inc., a Tempe, Ariz., debt-management firm, supports a 150-agent call center using AltiGen's AltiServ 4.0 IP PBX software, running on an Intel-based server. Because the call center is based on an IP PBX, the firm saved money on the initial price, says Ben McEachen, director of Debt Free. McEachen researched the product and found circuit-switched systems with similar functions that cost as much $500,000, compared with the AltiServ's price tag of around $10,000, or $600 per port.

While McEachen uses digital phones to connect to the AltiServ, he plans on moving to an all-IP system with AltiGen's newly released AltiCenter Call center server - a hardware/software product that scales up to 200 users and supports IP and digital phones.

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