By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
For years, starting when the teleservices industry was in its infancy, call center managers have likely wish that their staff could work from remote locations.
The reasons for this vary, from tapping into a different labor market to providing a local presence and gaining greater efficiency by tying together multiple call centers.
As technology advances and becomes less costly, and as more options emerge from telephone carriers and the Internet, it has become possible to have a reliable, remotely located agent station.
The most common use for remote agent stations is connecting multiple locations. Aaron Boatin, vice president of Ambs Message Center, has connected three offices together using dedicated T1 circuits. A Startel 5700, located in Jackson, Mich., handles all call traffic and client information for the three locations. LAN traffic is TCP/IP and sent over one channel of each T1.
Agent audio is compressed using Adtran multiplexers for one location, while the other site uses a separate T1 channel for each station’s audio path. The company’s main office has ten stations, as does one of its satellite offices, with the third location having five positions.
Each location taps into a separate labor market and all agents are cross-trained on all accounts.
Medcom, in Columbus, S.C., also connects three offices. While Ambs Message Center’s three offices are all in the same state, Medcom’s locations are in three different states.
Robbie Parnell, system developer, said Medcom also cross-trains its agents on all accounts. Medcom uses a Telescan Earthnet system for its call processing and a dedicated T1 circuit, with Adtran channel banks, to connect its offices.
“The only problem,” Parnell said, “has been the backhoes” – which have twice cut the fiber optic cable carrying one of his T1 circuits. He advises knowing the path that a dedicated T1 will take and using that as part of the evaluation criteria, as opposed to price alone. He is currently looking for an alternate provider for the problematic T1 circuit.
Michigan Message Center has been using remote agent stations to connect offices together since 1989 and added home-based agents a few years ago. Its primary CTI platform, Amtelco’s Infinity v5.1, lends itself to both home-based agents and remote office installations.
Kurt VanderScheer, vice president of engineering, said, “The technology employed for remote offices was primarily determined by the desire to keep the agent experience at remote offices as close as possible as to that of the host office.”
To attain this goal, offices are interconnected via point-to-point T-1 circuits. Network data is routed as a typical dedicated WAN (wide area network) using Cisco routers.
Agent audio is a dedicated connection that rides on individual channels on the T-1 and terminates directly on the Infinity ACD. Remote maintenance is easily accomplished with VNC (virtual network computing) desktop sharing.
Michigan Message Center’s home-based agents connect to the office network via the Internet over an encrypted VPN (virtual private network) tunnel.
“To be effective, home agents are required to obtain high-speed Internet service meeting minimum bandwidth requirements of 256 Kbps,” VanderScheer said.
For audio, home-based agents use a standard phone line and simply dial into an Infinity account configured for agent audio. For security, VanderScheer requires home-based agents to have their computers protected with anti-virus software and a properly configured firewall.
MedCom Professional Services, Inc. in Levittown, Pa., also uses remote stations to permit agents to work from home. Chris Bell, president of MedCom Professional Services, indicated that remote agents have allowed him to implement “just-in-time” staffing.
Although multiple means are available to connect to the Internet for the data portion of the remote station, MedCom’s vice president, Tom Sheridon, is opposed to dial-up because of speed and reliability problems.
Instead he prefers DSL, which provides good bandwidth, to extend the network to the remote station. Some remote agents connect using cable modems, although they have experienced unacceptable service interruptions.
At the call center they have a fractional T1 with a dedicated IP address and firewall. Network address translations (NAT) use port mapping through the firewall to provide for highly secure connections.
So far Sheridan has used the Internet only for CSR (customer service representative) data screens and for messaging. The voice path is connected via a preprogrammed DID number into the company’s Startel 5700 switch.
He reports that this method has had no significant audio problems. “Even though we could layer in voice over IP (VoIP), standard phone lines are cheap and reliable. When managing remote agents, simple works best,” he concluded.
“One agent,” Sheridon noted, “who relocated 600 miles away, uses an unlimited long distance plan” for her audio connection. He believes these unlimited long-distance plans will become more common in the future, meaning that MedCom will never have to lose an agent to relocation.
MASCO Services Inc., in Boston, has two remote agent stations off its Avaya switch; they were added to support an initiative to reduce traffic in congested Boston. According to Gary DuPont, director of telecommunications, one remote station uses the Teltone Office Link product.
It is a flexible, affordable solution that allows a remote agent to dial up and log into their Avaya ACD. Once logged in, the agent uses a 2500 compatible telephone with 10 to 20 programmable speed dial buttons for ACD access codes.
A call whisper feature on the ACD identifies the call type to the agents. The client database is available via high-speed Internet connection and VPN.
Their other station uses the Avaya Definity Xtender allowing remote agents to dial up and log into the ACD over standard analog lines, using Avaya proprietary digital ACD telephone sets, which interface with the PC. Again, high-speed Internet access is required and as well as a VPN.
Betsy Petty, owner of Always In Touch in Rapid City, S.D., also employs a home-based agent. In her case, however, it wasn’t to retain an existing agent, but rather for a new hire, who was employed as a home-based worker.
After a few weeks of AccuCall training in the call center, Petty felt that her new hire was ready to begin working at home. The remote station was “very easy to set up, with a little bit of assistance from CadCom,” Petty said, adding, “It only took about 15 minutes.”
Petty also has a remote position in her home, which she uses for administration, programming, monitoring, and answering calls when needed.
She has been using remote agent stations for about a year. In her configuration, the remotes connect to the AccuCall system through the Internet for the data component and use dial-up for the audio. The remote stations are fully functional, including the AccuCall voice logger.
Kevin Bachelder, director of IT for Ansaphone, Inc. in Quincy, Mass., has implemented remote agent technology for his company’s Alston Tascom Evolution system.
Currently, several members of the Ansaphone management team are able to take calls from their homes during unplanned traffic peaks or unexpected call volumes, such as during snowstorms.
Their Tascom digital phone switch allows them to use any outside telephone number as a call taking position and then the end-user connects to a PC in the office using software, such as PC Anywhere, for the data portion of the call. Bachelder is currently doing some internal testing of the Tascom software to get it running well under Citrix, which “is a way of delivering a remote desktop without having to install remote control software or needing a high-end PC on the receiving end.”
Because this kind of “connectivity can be delivered through a Web browser it makes it a very easy and fast way to have an outside agent or agents, because all they need is a phone and a basic PC with decent speed Internet access such as DSL,” Bachelder added.
John Detrich has also used the Citrix server for connecting remote agent stations. His implementation was with an Amtelco Infinity telemessaging system and PI 2000 order-taking system from Professional Teledata.
“An advantage of using Citrix,” Detrich said, “was that if the connection is lost, the agent can log back in within a couple of seconds and continue on the call where it left off.” A disadvantage of Citrix, he said, was the cost of equipment and software.
Detrich mentioned that a second method of provisioning remote agent stations is to use VPN (virtual private networks) and go through a firewall. A clear advantage of VPN is that it is highly reliable.
However, when a VPN connection is lost, all accounts assigned to that agent are then transferred to other agents or sent back into the system queue. Another disadvantage with VPN, Detrich added, “is that it was only rock solid when used with Windows XP.”
At the remote location, Detrich had agents use high-speed connections, such as DSL, cable, or dish. He found DSL to be the most stable; the dish was the second most stable (although only one person used it). The last choice was cable modems; outages of four to six hours were not uncommon.
None of the preceding call centers are using VoIP for agent audio, although several locations are considering it or watching technology developments for future deployments.
(With VoIP, all that is needed is a stable Internet connection at each end; audio signals are sent from one location to the other over the Internet. As such, VoIP eliminates dial-up audio connections and additional phone lines, and has no usage charges.)
Joe Miller, president of Checkpoint Communications Co. in Greenville, N.C., has been successfully using VoIP for more than a year. In his implementation he has two remotely located call centers. At each one, he has a fractional T1 circuit installed and connected to the Internet.
This Internet connection handles not only the data for the stations, but the agent audio as well, along with incoming DID traffic and outgoing calls. Connected to each fractional T1, Miller has a Tenor VoIP MultiPath Switch from Quintum Technologies installed.
At the main call center, data is split out via a standard network port and connected to a hub on his Amtelco Infinity system. Agent audio, incoming DID, and dial-out lines are each connected to their respective ports on Infinity. Corresponding connections are made at the remote office.
The network port is connected to a hub on the local network for the agent stations. The agent audio goes to headset boxes at each station, while the DID and dialout ports are connected to the DID trunks and phone lines provided by the phone company.
Miller tested the service for close to a year before running serious traffic through it. Cable modems and various versions of DSL did not produce the stability and audio quality that he needed. Eventually he migrated to the more reliable but more costly fractional T1.
“VoIP doesn’t require much bandwidth, but it does need to always be there,” he said. He is also quick to stress that when VoIP is being used, all non-call center traffic (such as email and Web access) must be routed through an alternate Internet connection in order to maintain optimum audio quality.
These are the keys to a successful VoIP implementation.
Miller is sold on the quality and reliability of his VoIP service and the Quintum switch behind it. The Quintum switch provides for a dial-up back up in the event that there is a problem with the T1, but his company has used it infrequently.
In his current configuration, Miller runs four remote agent stations and has the capacity to go to eight. The implementation is scalable, so he can go beyond eight by adding more bandwidth and expanding his Quintum units.
When asked about the audio quality, Miller says it is as good as or better than normal phone conversion and that “no one has complained about quality.”
What Miller has built using Infinity and Quintum will be “a big benefit for acquisitions” as a company can retain the staff at the acquired call center, but still obtain economies of scale – regardless of where the call center may be located.
This is “very, very big for tying offices together,” Miller concluded, and may be the wave of the future.
Using the Internet for Remote Agent Stations
For sites considering remote agent capability using the Internet for the station network connection, Tom Sheridon offers the following advice:
- You should have a static IP address for the call center’s Internet access. Otherwise, your remotes will have difficulty connecting with your system. There are some ways to get around this (that go beyond the scope of this article), but having your own address is the simplest approach.
- Next, get the technical side working reliably.
- Automate as much of the connection process as possible.
- Thoroughly test and then train a couple of key people. (You can even set up a “remote” position in the call center and use it there until you have all of the bugs worked out.)
The goals are to make your remote position work as well as it does in the call center and to guard against unauthorized access to your system. There is no single approach to accomplish these things and it will take some time and effort for you to figure out the best approach for your company.