The Sound of Service
When it's done right, Voice-over Internet Protocol can revolutionize online customer service.
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The World Wide Web provides unprecedented opportunities for consumers. People with jam-packed lives can grocery shop in their pajamas at midnight, do their banking in the wee hours, and get the hottest holiday gifts without fighting for a parking space at the mall--all with the click of a mouse.

Usually, such transactions are seamless. But when they are not, online shoppers want fast, responsive customer service and they want it delivered by human beings, not software.

More and more companies realize this fact and are offering a way to communicate with a service representative in the contact center directly through their Web sites using a PC-to-PC or PC-to-telephone link. These pioneers are leveraging emerging technologies to provide more options and a higher level of service to their Web customers. While there are both risks and rewards associated with the use of Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP), as the technology is called, there are techniques used to increase VoIP's effectiveness and maintain acceptable levels of service quality.

Hearing Voices

What is VoIP? VoIP is a standard specification for transporting sound as data packets through the Internet. The process involves converting an analog signal at the source (your voice through a microphone) into a digital format with an ADC (analog-to-digital converter), transmitting the data as a series of packets and then converting it back to analog with a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) at the destination.

Early adopters of VoIP included point-to-point users who wanted to avoid long distance carrier toll charges. Today, businesses have many more reasons to add Internet telephony, sometimes called "Web phones," to their Web sites. For instance, a browser-triggered conversation provides the right service at the right time on the right platform. Having someone readily available to explain the details without requiring customers to disconnect from the Internet to make a call leads to a quicker purchase decision. Also, it will reduce shopping cart abandonment and increase sales.

Enabling voice interaction through the Web site adds another channel instead of replacing one when the connection becomes severed while dialing. During a conversation, the customer can be served more links to various products and self-service pages, enabling incremental toll-free number lines to remain available for valuable phone-age customers.

With Internet telephony customer interactions can be managed on a single platform. Through computer telephony integration, the customer's voice can be readily integrated with other media and interaction channels.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a Web phone enhances the Internet experience by giving it a human element. Therefore, organizations that are known for high quality customer service can extend the service to the Web. Online customers will be more satisfied and hopefully more loyal as a result.

Quality of Service

Internet telephony is a relatively young technology, and you should know the risks before diving in. These risks can often lead to Quality of Service (QoS) issues, which result in degraded calls and alienated customers.

Adopters need to be sure their solutions address QoS issues to avoid common problems.

For instance, end users with older equipment are more likely to experience poor QoS. For customers with a 28.8 dial-up connection, trading audio packets may conjure up an image of a snake digesting a pig. Data transfer acceleration techniques need to be applied to overcome the latency problems associated with older, narrow-band network connections. Over time, as online customers increasingly use cable and DSL modems, many of the end user QoS challenges will be overcome.

Another problem is that the interaction process can be somewhat awkward initially. Some applications require various combinations of keystrokes and mouse clicks to turn on the microphone when the end user wants to talk. This minimizes annoying feedback from the PC speakers during the conversation. Feedback is not a problem though, when using a headset with a microphone. Instead of a simultaneous, or duplex, two-way conversation, the exchange becomes a series of simple transmissions.

Finally, the PC-based PBX (Private Branch Exchange) is not as reliable as traditional proprietary PBX systems. Unfortunately, PCs are volatile and tend to crash from time to time. Implementations will require the added cost of redundant systems to avoid extensive down time.

It is important to remember the technology is not yet mature. Standards are still being developed and refined. However, it is rapidly gaining acceptance as many leading vendors are creating VoIP products and solutions.

Problem Solving

There are a number of ways to tackle QoS issues at the on- and off-ramps, as well as on the Internet information super-highways. Digitizing sound offers several advantages from a technology perspective. The signal can be compressed and accelerated to improve both delivery and quality, and packet routing can be prioritized to minimize transmission delays and dropped packets.

Keep in mind that the Internet is not actually a real-time medium. It's more like near real-time. You don't need to be reminded of this if you have a 28.8 or 56 kbps dial-up modem. You probably notice that downloading audio and video files requires significant buffering on your local workstation prior to playing them. This is because the media player interprets the data faster than the network can deliver it. The recipient often sacrifices quality of sound and image to experience multimedia over a modem.

Internet service providers (ISPs) approach the issues that can plague VoIP in a number of ways. First of all, there are numerous compression algorithms that can be applied when converting the analog signal into bits. The key is to use a standard format that reproduces a clear voice, but consumes minimal bandwidth. Some service providers offer a downloadable applet that manages the data compression on the user's workstation.

Service providers may also classify packets as urgent. Why? So the priority bit-pattern in VoIP data packets can be set so they can be routed faster than other traffic sharing the same lines. The priority bit-pattern will flag a voice packet to receive a specific forwarding action, or per-hop behavior, at each network node encountered along the trip. Lower priority packets will be held back until the high priority packets have been routed.

When evaluating VoIP for possible use in your company, keep in mind that all ISPs are not the same. Web phone ASPs often partner with ISPs equipped to handle the heavy loads and priority needs of their data. This is critical because many ISPs are set up for basic Internet access, but not for VoIP.

If you do decide to implement a VoIP solution, also keep this in mind: Local Area Networks (LANs) at the contact center should be over-engineered to guarantee the necessary bandwidth for peak call volumes.

Internet telephony is clearly poised for a breakthrough. To remain competitive, an increasing number of companies soon will view customer calling capability through the Web site as a "must have" rather than a "nice to have." When implementing a solution, selecting the proper balance of experienced partners, proven processes and engineering is critical for success.

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