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Future Tense

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 10-01-2004 Print

Future Tense

That's why most analysts recommend a gradual approach to adopting VoIP.

Boeing is implementing a wholesale change only because 88 percent of the company's telecom equipment was at least seven years old. Otherwise, the way to roll out VoIP is one step at a time, starting with new office buildings, and eventually phasing out the older equipment over a five-year period or more.

"There hasn't been a lot of hard data right now that says if you switch out a lot of your traditional equipment, you will see an ROI, so a lot of companies are hesitant," says Ted Chamberlin, principal analyst at Gartner Inc.

"Right now I don't think there are any immediate needs to move to VoIP except in the local area, between office to office."

In other words, let's all take a deep breath and count to ten.

As the University of Kentucky Hospital demonstrates, making VoIP strategic within an enterprise requires some imagination. Unfortunately, that's exactly where most of the interesting applications of the technology still reside—in the imagination.

After expounding on one of the more compelling uses of IP telephony, one vendor suddenly realized that the customer for the service he was describing, alas, didn't actually exist.

Still, some concepts are more real than others—such as, for example, the virtual call center.

The idea behind the virtual call center is that customers can call a single number, and that call can be directed, based on a prescribed set of rules, to the most qualified available agent, anywhere in the world.

In other words, no more costly call-center buildings in India or Canada, phones beeping and electricity humming. Instead, call-center employees can work from home, and be spread throughout multiple time zones for 24-hour service.

To the customer calling in, it works just like any other call center.

JetBlue Airways Corp. is already doing this. And Cisco Systems is currently working with a bank, the name of which they wouldn't reveal, to set up a customer-service number that directs the caller to whichever bank branch is still open, and has the skill set the customer requires.

"Instead of just forwarding the call to voice mail, it figures out who is calling, goes through the rules engine and finds the most logical place for them to land," says Rick Moran, vice president of product marketing for IP communications at Cisco.

On the more conceptual side, Moran envisions a day when vendors will use IP telephony to deploy virtual sales reps to retail outlets around the world. Moran says that he is currently working with a large retailer to set up video kiosks inside stores, so that if a customer has a question about a particular product, he or she can initiate a real-time multimedia session with a customer sales rep from the manufacturer who could help close the deal.

The sales rep could demo the product remotely, or show video of the product in use, all the while maintaining an ongoing conversation with the potential customer.

Moran says that it would be a relatively cheap way for a manufacturer to differentiate its products in the ever-competitive shelf-space battles of retail.

"For less than 500 bucks you put an LCD screen on the shelf itself, drop a cable into the store's network, and you're up and running."

It's hard to imagine most manufacturers having enough sales agents to deal with every curious teen killing time at the local Best Buy Co., but when combined with virtual call centers—who knows?

Mitel's Paul Butcher detailed a similar concept for a bank branch with limited resources.

When a customer comes in looking for an expert in refinancing, say, or debt management, the branch directs the customer to a separate room and initiates a multimedia session with an expert at another branch.

If this all sounds suspiciously like videoconferencing, take heart. In the IP world, the term is "collaboration," which conveniently avoids the nasty stigma associated with the perpetually disappointing technology.

Though sexy and seemingly feasible, at present these concepts reside solely in the marketing materials of VoIP equipment makers.

Of course, the real-life examples of IP telephony are impressive in their own ways. At the University of Kentucky Hospital, the occasional page still blares out from time to time.

"There is some resistance to change," says Nurse Manager Borders. And the speech technology gets confused at times. But the improvements in customer service and productivity have been significant enough that hospital officials are looking at broadening the system to the entire hospital, not just the emergency department.

Tracking down wayward doctors is a full-time job, notes Borders. "I think we'll see even more value when you can reach a physician in the cafeteria."


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