Call Center Opportunity on the Internet

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By Kevin Beale

Change is a given in the call center industry. Innovation has followed after invention, and we’ve all had to adjust to the change.

Change seldom comes easy, and it often arrives on its own schedule. If it’s not managed well, change can be particularly painful. It can even be costly.

A big change is coming to the call center industry, probably the biggest change since the birth of the industry. It’s been building slowly and deliberately over the past 30 years, fueled by advancements in digital technology. Soon the fertile marriage between the telephone and the personal computer will result in a re-born call center industry.

The Internet explosion of the past few years is opening up call centers to a whole new world of business while opening up call centers to the whole world.

Being in the call center business in a few years will mean being connected to the Internet if you want to be in business.

Worrying about market shrinkage is about to become a thing of the past. Creating new markets by using technology imaginatively is the wave of the future, and the pundits say that future could be upon us within five years, probably sooner.

The time has come: A benchmark was passed late last month when AT&T board chairman, Michael Armstrong, made good AT&T’s promise to get serious about Internet Protocol (IP) net working services. Armstrong used his ComNet ’99 trade show keynote speech to set the stage for the rollout later this year of AT&T’s long-awaited IP services and capabilities.

“It looks like we’ve got a common protocol called IP to take us across the areas marked information, entertainment and telephony, “Armstrong told his industry audience in Washington, D.C.

Armstrong said AT&T has decided that the ubiquitous Internet Protocol is here to stay. “A transmission standard, the IP, has been developed and accepted worldwide,” Armstrong said, “and now it’s time for hardware to catch up.”

Translated into plain language, that means AT&T has decided that the Internet and its related industries are for real. The changes ahead of these industries will be manageable, and it will be mega-profitable for AT&T to develop IP-related technologies.

Opportunities abound: The Internet as we now know it grew out of the ARPANET of the early 1970s when the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sought a way to quickly and easily share federally funded research findings with researchers at far-flung locations throughout the nation.

Today the Internet is fast becoming a worldwide means of doing business. Last year, one of the original ARPANET partners, the General Electric Co., the largest manufacturer of consumer goods in the world, announced that it won’t do business with a vendor if that business is not conducted via the Internet.

The World Wide Web, the public component of the Internet, is fast becoming an essential tool for the contemporary call center.

Industry analysts estimate that the Internet gives a call center access to 30 million to 40 million new customers and that that potential market is growing by more than 1 million potential new customers every month.

There’s money to be made: The growth of Web-based e-commerce is changing the age-old model of customer interaction and the kinds of assistance customer s expect of a call center.

The Internet gives a call center the means to reach a larger audience and expand its customer base. Viewed from the historical perspective, a call center is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the opportunities of the Internet.

For a call center, the Internet is a two-way street. It gives the call center outbound access to everything and everybody by putting its operators on-line all the time; and it gives everybody else, from casual surfers to serious clients, near instantaneous access to the call center. New Web-enabled IP applications make it possible for a call center to greatly expand the value of the services it offers its clients.

IP technology makes it possible for clients to have instant access to their on-call schedules. It gives clients the ability to update their status and retrieve messages with little, or no, involvement with an operator. Clients can link their Web pages to a call center so customers can get the answers they need when they need them, using chat, call-back, and sooner than you think, voice transmission applications. There are already thousands of potential customers who have Web pages in place now, but don’t have the manpower or equipment to provide a live operator response that would make a Web page a truly interactive medium.

With a little imagination and only a bit more hardware, the contemporary call center can even offer Web hosting services to its customers. This would go a long way toward tying a customer to your call center even tighter than before.

What you will need: The contemporary call center probably already has some of the computer and telephony equipment needed to take advantage of Internet e-commerce opportunities, and until business takes off, you probably will not need to add staff. Three elements are needed for a call center to be fully connected to the Internet: a connector, a pipeline and a gateway.

The connector is an Internet service provider with at least 56K access speeds. It connects the call center’s pipeline and gateway to the Internet much like the local telco connects the call center to the telephone grid.

ISP subscription rates are generally based on traffic volumes. The more you use the ISP, the more you will pay, just like the telco. Look to spend $20 to $200 a month for an ISP subscription to start out.

The pipeline is itself a connector of sorts. It’s the ISDN or T-1 lines that connect the call center to the telephone grid and consequently to the ISP. It’s a bill you probably already pay.

The gateway is a permanent Internet connection, not a dial-up connection. It needs to be able to allow many people access to the Internet, both operators and callers, at the same time. That means a server will need to be added to a proxy server.

The proxy server is the call center’s actual Internet presence. It is connected to the Internet and accessible 24 hours a day via the pipeline and the connector. Look to spend $2,500 to $10,000 for a proxy server.

Veteran surfers will tell you that any PC that can run 32-bit programs, like Microsoft’s Windows 95, can navigate the Internet; so you likely can use your existing operator stations. I would not recommend using anything less than a Pentium 166 with 32 megabytes of RAM running the Microsoft Windows 95/98/NT operating system.

The software that runs on your operator stations is what makes the Internet work for you. In the past eighteen months, several adventurous vendors came into the marketplace with Web-enabled telephony software. Expect the software to cost as much, or more, as adding an additional operator station.

Make the most with imagination. Recent news reports that shoppers spent millions of dollars over the Internet this past Christmas season should prove that e-commerce and the Internet are for real.

You already have much of the hardware needed to cash in on Internet opportunities. With a little imagination and a minimal investment in Web-enabled software, you can control change and cash in on the business opportunities available on the Internet.

Kevin Beale is software development manager for Amtelco, a manufacturer and supplier of call-center hardware and software located in McFarland, Wisconsin. Amtelco has been marketing a Web-Enabled Telephone Agent for the Microsoft Windows(r) platform for nearly a year. You can email Kevin at or call him at 800-356-9148.

[From Connection Magazine – March 1999]