I’m tired of hearing all the broad generalities out there about VoIP. Lots of people say they’re doing it, but if you peel back the layers of the onion, you’ll find that VoIP is a lot like sex: people are talking about it more than they’re actually doing it. So let’s (at least) talk about it!
First, we should define what true Voice over Internet Protocol (known as VoIP) is: Use of a single channel to process and transmit both voice and data over a common network. For the technically challenged, this means that all the stuff goes through one big pipe. There is no channel-sharing where, say, a pipe with 1.5 Mb per second capacity (a T-1) is divided into 24 sub-channels of 64 Kb each, with maybe 12 sub-channels carrying data and another 12 sub-channels carrying voice. In true VoIP, all everything flows over that one big pipe together, with the data packets and the voice packets intermixed. Since the sub-channels are not rigidly separated, if there is no voice traffic the entire 1.5 Mb is available for data, and if there is no data traffic the entire 1.5 Mb is available for voice.
What else characterizes true VoIP? You only need one set of switches and routers. Industry-standard network equipment is used. And the PBX (sometimes called a “soft switch”) is of an open architecture, meaning it runs on non-specialized, off-the-shelf technology (Windows, Unix, or Linux hardware and software). True VoIP is also called a “converged solution.”
Why do we care? More bang for fewer bucks! Converged solutions should be (caveat emptor!) significantly less expensive than traditional, hard-wired PBXs. They also include a mind-boggling array of features that have never been available before, and which legacy solutions don’t provide. Let me take you through the features I think are most interesting. If your institution says it has deployed VoIP, see how many of these you have in operation today:
Users “log on” to their phones just like they now log on to their networks. The “personality” of the telephone handset is the same, no matter where a mobile employee (such as a loan officer supporting multiple branches, or a roving teller manager with responsibility for multiple locations) happens to be. Pre-programmed numbers float with the individual. “Hot keys” are identical. “Soft” phones, which are just an application on a PC or laptop, are available for employees at home or on the road traveling, or for those users who just wish to use PCs as their phone devices. A call center can exist in a single location or it can be distributed into multiple locations across the branch network. Call center agents can work from remote locations but still be part of call center teams or work groups. An agent working from home is transparent to a customer. The call center really becomes just a collection of extensions assigned to certain skill groups.
Some implementations provide the capability for mobile workers to take better advantage of cell phone technology. When this feature is activated, these workers will receive calls on their desk phones and their cell phones simultaneously. (It is important to distinguish this capability from simply forwarding calls to a cell phone—with this newer capability the caller’s ID will display on both the office phone and the cell phone at the same time.) Furthermore, a person who answers the call on a cell phone can transparently hang up the cell phone and continue the conversation on an office phone, thereby reducing cellular minutes. Furthermore, if a cell phone call goes unanswered it can be deposited in the voice mail system—meaning there can be one mailbox instead of two. This allows one number that works “anywhere” to be published for an employee.
Employees remain fully accessible to clients at all times, with full access to voice mail, fax, and e-mail messages via phone, cell phone, or Web interface. Simply clicking on an icon enables viewing a fax, reading an e-mail, or listening to a voice mail. All of that can be done from home, office, or remote locations, with the ability to reply, copy, and forward messages seamlessly throughout the organization. Caller ID is transferred with a call (most traditional systems drop incoming caller ID when a call is transferred), so callers can be identified and phone tag is minimized.
End-to-end encryption is available. This means that every packet, beginning with the originating station and ending with the receiving station, can be encrypted.
An employee confronted with an emergency or a threatening call can get assistance from a supervisor immediately by pressing an Emergency key. Activating this key does not place the caller on hold. At the supervisor’s set, an Emergency lamp flashes and a continuous buzzing sound is emitted. The ID of the calling agent is shown on the supervisor’s telephone display. When the supervisor joins the Emergency call from their (remote?) office, they are immediately participating with the agent and caller. Caller-ID and other information about the call is automatically printed on a maintenance terminal.
Some systems allow selected telephones to activate a call trace that results in a printed report of the calling and called parties. Calls from any extension can be recorded, not just calls from certain telephones with specialized recording equipment hard-wired. Recording may be triggered by the line a call comes in on, by caller ID, by the dialed number (for outbound calls), or based upon an employee entering information into a field on a database. Recording may record the entire call, or begin whenever the agent clicks “Yes” in a particular field or enters a dollar amount in a specific field on his or her desktop computer. Some solutions are even able to go back to the beginning of the call and capture the entire conversation, including the dialogue before the “record” key was pressed—Tivo arrives at the bank!
Skills-based or conditional routing is widely available. Based on the options selected by a customer, the account number entered, or key words in an incoming e-mail’s subject line (remember, we’re discussing integrated messaging here!), the PBX/soft switch can automatically match customers’ needs with employees’ skills. Software makes it easy to make use of contact center staff “after hours” while operating departments take most calls during customary business hours. Announcement options can be controlled by conditional routing; the bank can determine which announcement to play based on the type of call, availability of agents, time of day, date, estimated wait time, age of the call, all of these combined, or a number of other conditions. The bank, via scripting commands, controls all these options and can change them “on the fly.”
Real-time statistics (calls in queue, agents available, average hold time, percentage of abandoned calls, etc.) can be “scrolled” across the bottom of every agent’s screen providing easy and inexpensive guidance as to whether or not “optional” calls should be closed out quickly.
Some IP telephones have more than one switched Ethernet port, so that one jack connects to the LAN and the other to a desktop IP device (such as a computer). Some provide an infrared-compatible port on the front of the set for support of external devices such as a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA); a PalmPilot can become an automatic dialer for the telephone: you select the person you want to call, tap Address View to show the menu, select Beam Address, and the call is dialed.
Since less-expensive, “off the shelf” hardware and software components are used, one set of CAT-5 wires connects everything. You can literally plug a telephone in where a computer used to be (and vice versa). MACs (Moves/Add/Changes) are greatly simplified because system administrators, not expensive telephone engineers, can make changes as individuals or departments change locations.
Tired of driving around your city (or state) to attend committee meetings? Streaming is the process of sending audio and video over a local area network (LAN) from one viewer to many viewers, and streaming can be used to conduct live broadcasts of meetings or events with VoIP. For example, employees can view a live speech from a CEO or a video presentation that has been previously recorded. An open discussion—such as a loan committee meeting or a training session–involving people in multiple conference rooms and people in individual offices can be conducted. Other people can simply watch the video conference discussion from their individual offices. Video conferences can also be originated externally from the bank through an ISDN connection and then broadcast to all bank locations through the bank’s phone switch.
So what are the “gotchas” with VoIP? There are some—and they are not inconsequential! We recommend the following:
Absent such mitigating factors as the inability to expand a current system without a major investment, a merger that makes both existing systems inadequate, or loss of maintenance support on an old system, the benefits are numerous and real but a hard-nosed Return On Investment determination is difficult. (Momma warned you about always doing an ROI analysis before you buy new technology, didn’t she?)
With VoIP, voice and data are no longer disparate technologies, and an integrated approach provides many benefits.
With data, if there are temporary glitches in your network you’ll probably never see it. A hiccup of a few milliseconds is undetectable when your system is “painting” a screen of data on a terminal, but it will be noticeable to a listener. Voice and other real-time communications such as video do not allow for re-transmission of dropped packets. (Internet Protocol, because it was designed for transmitting data, is able to re-send packets if any are dropped–software checks to see that they are in sequence and fills in the missing pieces.) In the VoIP world, every customer who calls in, or is transferred from one location to another, “sees” your network and personally experiences its quality. First-tier network integrity is a must for successful VoIP.
In conclusion, just as we needed a Kinsey Report to help us understand the differences between what people were saying and what they were actually doing in the bedroom, perhaps this report will shed a little light on contemporary VoIP practices (they’re probably kinkier than you thought!). More importantly, if it helps readers understand what is going on vs. what the conventional wisdom considers “normal,” it will help us all enjoy our networks a little more.