Providing technical support for Information Technology (IT) or Software products world-wide is challenging enough; supporting call center software that controls and drives contact center operations is even more demanding. These operations are perceived as mission critical and demand immediate problem resolutions, often skewing the normal work-flow plans. Unlike normal software and IT systems, voice telephony based contact center solutions are more visible and attract significantly more attention from the stake-holders when things are perceived to be not functioning in the expected manner. In today’s business culture of wanting everything as a commodity, it is a difficult task to convince the upper management for the required investments up-front, like setting up fully redundant systems, doing proper trial runs and planning the production runs thoroughly. This is also largely in part due to the commercial success of excellent open source telephony platforms like Asterisk, forcing the contact center domain to become more commodity driven.

At Indosoft, when we introduced Q-Suite as a multi-channel ACD, our Director of support services wanted it deployed internally to manage customer support for our contact center software. We provide remote technical support and sometimes are the first line of IT support for many contact centers world-wide. These support operations are manned directly by our highly trained technical staff, who do other technical work like installation and training as well. They are not on the phone all the time like a contact center employee.  A conventional contact center is operated on the basis of standardized metrics whereas our technical support help desk supports live contact centers acting more like the customer’s IT support with the additional responsibility of supporting VoIP telephony. We had to plan the deployment of the call center ACD in such a way that it allowed the staff to be a skilled technical worker who can deliver effective contact center support to the end customer.

Taking advantage of the multi-channel capability of the contact center ACD within Q-Suite, our help desk support line was integrated to handle phone support, email support and web based trouble-ticket support.  We use a powerful web based trouble ticket system that is accessible to our customers for creating and updating their information on the support issues. For every new request, the system generates an auto-email that provides acknowledgement to the customer. Every new issue gets a unique ticket number. When new trouble tickets are created or existing trouble tickets are updated, an email is also sent to the contact center ACD.

The heart of the contact center software is the multi-channel ACD. It can queue phone calls, emails, and web generated trouble tickets in queues. Any number of queues can be setup, with each queue having an assigned priority and a set of skills required to handle it. The ability to push phone calls, emails and web requests into any particular queue is controlled using the Visual Call Flow Builder tool. Skills based routing in conjunction with queue priority is used by the contact center ACD to route calls to the most appropriately skilled employee available at the time to handle the Help Desk.

One  interesting routing tool available within the Visual Call Flow Builder is the Inbound Call Router which has a unique and powerful call routing decision making mechanism essential for Help Desk support management. Using the input value obtained either from the call (like a DID or callerID) or from the caller through an IVR, this tool can compare the value to a list of values and determine where the call should be routed. The list of values can be in the database or uploaded from a file. For example, a list of postal code might determine how the calls should be routed. The destination could be a queue, an extension or even an external DID.

The Q-Suite has a powerful daemon that watches for events happening within the call center ACD and provide notifications. This event notification can be used to generate visible or audible alerts for certain events. If the technicians are busy with existing work, they may not be taking new calls. Should a call be flagged as a high priority call either by the event daemon, this alert will be seen by all the staff. The inbound Call Router can also be programmed from the Visual Call Flow Builder to pick-up key variables/parameters associated with the call so that the Help Desk technician will have the right pop-up information for the phone call.

We have been able to effectively combine the multi-channel ACD functionality within the call center software to provide an integrated Help Desk solution where the technical  staff can engage in phone, email and web support integrated to a trouble ticket system. Q-Suite based solution with its powerful call center ACD can scale to multiple Asterisk servers and provide effective customer support for phone, email and web-driven Help Desk operations.

A Visual IVR Builder is an essential part of any call center ACD. The Visual Dialplan Builder within Q-Suite 5.7 allows the user to create and rapidly deploy multi-level interactive voice response (IVR) applications at ease. It is a visual call flow builder with icons to provide a graphical flow of the call. The sophisticated IVR and call distribution functions within the Builder allows vertical and horizontal call-flow development with the ability to transfer control to different pages with the IVR. It also offers revision management.

The call center software in Q-Suite 5.7 offers skills based routing for all queues including Chat, Email, Web Callback and regular inbound voice calls. When a voice call lands on a DID, it may be directed into a queue based on the the call flow developed using the Visual IVR Builder. Non-voice calls are inserted into different queues through an API. All Queues have skills which are tags that identify attributes required for handling the calls in the queue. Queues also have priority. Similarly, all agents have skills with an associated skill level. When calls are waiting and an agent becomes available, queue priority dictates the order of call distribution. On the contrary, when agents are waiting and a call comes in, the skill level dictates call distribution.

The IVR can be effective in processing channel and call variables that can be passed on to the agent along with the call. This allows Web based agent applications to open the right customer page when the call is delivered to an agent. The introduction of TTS (Text to Speech) and ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition) libraries within the Dialplan Builder can help automate customer interaction and reduce customer wait-time.

Powerful tools like the Visual Dialplan & IVR Builder greatly simplify the task of migrating large contact center operations to Asterisk clusters using Q-Suite 5.7.

Large call centers require multiple Asterisk servers in a cluster to handle the call volume. Load balancing will allow distribution of calls within the Asterisk cluster. The High Availability Sip Proxy within Q-Suite is designed to provide load balancing as well. It will distribute the incoming calls to the different Asterisk servers in the cluster which are the media server for voice traffic. Q-Suite’s Call Center ACD can scale to multiple Asterisk servers and manage call queues and distribution, irrespective of the media server associated with the call. This allows Q-Suite to offer skills based routing for large contact centers where the call volume transcends beyond a single server to multiple Asterisk servers.

The High Availability Q-Suite allows seamless transition from an active Proxy to a state synchronized standby Proxy, triggered by the Overseer Watchdog mechanism which provides the monitoring and decision making capability for Q-Suite. The monitoring mechanism is geared towards identifying possible disruption to calls and the decision making mechanism handles all the aspects of transitioning to a standby. The overall system is a part of Q-Suite’s call survival mechanism available for special mission critical systems.

Call recording is vital to contact center operations. Q-Suite 5.7, the industry leading call center software for Asterisk based contact centers, now offers network based call recording through integration to Orecx. In larger call center installations requiring voice recording, off-loading voice recording to network based call recorder increases the concurrent call handling capacity of individual Asterisk servers controlled by Q-Suite.

Q-Suite will offer full featured call recording through Orecx. This can be exclusive or in addition to the inherent call recording capability intrinsic to Asterisk.  Q-Suite provides for automatic recording of all calls or selective recording of calls based on campaigns, queues and agents. It also provides supervisor dashboard to listen to recorded calls for quality control and monitoring.

 

Q-Suite started out as a Call Center ACD designed for Asterisk based contact centers. Today, Q-Suite 5.7 has evolved into a mature, robust and sophisticated ACD capable of supporting mission critical deployment through its powerful High Availability module. Q-Suite based deployments offer both High Availability and Call Survival through an elaborate Overseer Watchdog mechanism.

A built-in SIP proxy within this patent pending Call Survival mechanism of Q-Suite offers additional capabilities like SIP over TCP. Even though UDP is preferred for SIP for the obvious reason of having a mechanism tolerant to packet losses, SIP over TCP with its reliable and connection oriented protocol is preferred on occasions. Now Q-Suite offers both SIP over UDP and TCP and provides a  robust ACD to deploy Asterisk based systems.

Technology changes usher new products that dramatically lower cost. This trend is visible in the domain of Call Center ACD and telecommunications. The shift introduced by Asterisk in VoIP telephony is the driving force behind the development and evolution of a sophisticated mission critical ACD from Q-Suite.

Call recording is an important aspect of any contact center operation. Asterisk has an inbuilt call recording capability that is really good. The demanding call work-flow and associated call recording requirements for serious contact center operations are the responsibility of  the call center software used with the Asterisk platform. This is more so for large call centers that scale beyond a single Asterisk server. This requirement gets convoluted as the call center ACD and Dialer software is tasked to trigger call recording based on the actual call flow, agnostic of the Asterisk servers associated with the call. Also, call recording consumes CPU usage within Asterisk servers diminishing the overall call handling capacity of the contact center setup.

Looking to provide a reliable network call recording option, Indosoft has integrated Q-Suite 5.7 call recording features and triggers to OrecX call recording solution. This provides opportunity for setting up redundant call recording infrastructure and enhance the overall call processing and call handling capability of the Asterisk platform.  This is particularly well suited to  managed contact center service providers and large call center operations. By adding OrecX to a Q-Suite based Asterisk platform, Indosoft can now offer its clients a more comprehensive and capable contact center solution.

Settling on Asterisk as the telephony platform for call centers is a no brainer. It is by far the most flexible and powerful PBX available and is supported by Digium and the open source community at large. Its features are so overwhelming that spending top dollars to acquire any other telephony platform with limitations is not the way forward.

Having settled on the telephony platform for your call center, let us look at the next piece, the call center software. Setting up an Asterisk based call center requires a powerful software that can leverage the power of Asterisk to deliver the functionality required for a call center. Contact center industry is a mature business domain with demanding requirements. You will require a scalable feature-rich ACD and Dialer engine capable of supporting unified communications through its ability to handle Web, Chat and Social Media.

Architecture is another important consideration. With the easy availability of Cloud infrastructure and VoIP, the call center platform should have the inherent flexibility to accommodate distributed multi-site operations. This gives the ability to decide the location of the infrastructure and the agents to respond to the demands of the business operations. With the growing availability of bandwidth and connectivity, the contact center software should not been seen as imposing limits on the distributed architecture.

Let us look at some of design considerations while setting up an Asterisk based multi-site call center operations. If there is a need to setup the  call center ACD in a centralized location accessible through network, the consideration boils down to bandwidth and connectivity for the multiple call center sites. It is not necessary that the remote call center location have no infrastructure. This should be driven by the cost of acquiring bandwidth. If bandwidth with connectivity is not a commodity item, you can place some hardware in each site to minimize its consumption. There are some useful points in this article.

A scalable call center software for Asterisk should be capable of providing central control over the ACD and call routing. This allows customer facing queue and IVR setup in such a way that they can be serviced by agents from any location. Such a distributed architecture is essential for providing round the clock service to the clients around the world. There is considerable efficiency gain both in infrastructure management and workforce management. Above all, an Asterisk based multi-site installation is cost efficient to setup and manage.

Contact center operations demand all sorts of reporting. Though broadly classified as real and historical reporting, it is the level of details that decides the comprehensiveness of the reporting. Starting with CDR (Call Detail Record) for every call, the internal data points of a call center activity database should collect information on call history, agents (contact center representatives), queues and campaigns. These reporting requirements are for more extensive and elaborate compared to what is available for a PBX.

CDR has information on the specifics of each and every phone call. A further breakdown within the CDR will provide details of the sub-events within a call, like putting a call on ‘Hold’ and taking it off. Call History is associated with call related data handling, with an agent associating a ‘Wrap-up’ for each call history.  It is a many to many relationship between CDR and Call History. For example a single call history may have multiple CDR because the agent could have re-dialed the customer while still in the same screen.

Q-Suite ACD provides a comprehensive database that tracks all facets of cradle to grave reporting. Data from agent session management, queue and campaign can be tied CDR and Call History. External programs can subscribe to Q-Suite ACD for real-time broadcasts of ACD events. Supervisor screens show agent, call, queue and campaign activity in real time. With the availability of extensive reporting data,  there are different ways of displaying critical real-time reports to convey a pulse of the contact center activity.

It is not an easy decision but we can feel the trend. The growth of IP (Internet Protocol) Network and the availability of Bandwidth at lower costs are pushing organizations to consider data centers for their infrastructure. There are compelling reasons to setting up a Contact Center in the Cloud.

Cloud in our context is a well recognized data center with excellent connectivity and decent infrastructure. Some of the immediate advantages of  Cloud for a contact center operation are,

  • Ability to setup geographically distributed contact center operations and work-force
  • Take advantage of SIP terminations for telecom connectivity
  • Scale on-demand both infrastructure and Telecom connectivity with minimum lead time
  • Advantage of better infrastructure management through co-managed service

On top of all this, a Cloud infrastructure helps to convert up-front Capital cost to monthly service cost and reduces the requirement for expensive in-house IT resources. An Asterisk based contact center with a good software for managing your Call Center ACD and Dialer requirements will dramatically reduce cost and allow you to grow on demand with a superior distributed architecture and an open platform.

Asterisk is often referred to by many as the “Swiss Army-knife of Telephony”. It is a Soft-switch, a complete software based PBX switch with a full feature PBX and a VoIP stack supporting SIP, IAX and H323. It is also a hybrid switch with TDM support for ISDN PRI (T1/E1). The last few decades have been the age of software, propelled by the incredible power and flexibility of software driven systems. No wonder, Asterisk within a span of 10 years has overtaken all it peers and is the undisputed leader this field.

Contact center industry has immensely benefited from Asterisk. It has dramatically driven down the cost of setting up customer contact operations. I remember watching closely an advanced 100 seat contact center setup in 2000 which came around 10K per seat.  This enormous cost was driven by the technology stack of Dialogic boards, Microsoft servers, Dell hardware and Interactive Intelligence driven contact center software. It was supposed to deliver productivity increases to justify this high initial capital investment.  The weight of the Capital cost and the inability of the project to deliver revenues to sustain on-going costs killed the company.

Today you can setup a distributed and sophisticated 100 seat contact center more powerful than ever for  less than a one-twentieth of this cost. How did this happen? We can attribute it all to the power of the open source technology stack for contact centers. One key component in this stack is Asterisk, the hybrid IP telephony switch. Open source based technology platform provides an opportunity to assemble many of the important components of the technology stack required for setting up a next generation contact center at incredible cost savings.

With software driven systems (open or proprietary)  risk mitigation is important for mission critical systems. Software systems can exhibit bugs that can manifest in an unexpected fashion causing disruption to normal operations. It is important to select a contact center ACD that uses the power of software, detects mal-functioning sub-systems and provides redundancy and fail-over capabilities. A redundant system with fail-over mechanism is capable of ensuring that on-going and new calls into the contact center and ACD are preserved. Contact centers operating with a mission critical mandate require such a fail-safe mechanism for the calls to survive a single failure at any given time.

The availability of such an ACD and Dialer software for Asterisk makes this technology stack complete. With Q-Suite 5.5, Indosoft presents you with the capability of setting up a mission critical contact center technology stack on Asterisk. The contact center software has a sub-component built in to watch, detect and fail-over to redundant sub-components. Inbound call centers will benefit tremendously from this capability to continue operation without disruption when there are disruptions like hardware failure.