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By John Edwards
With its rock-bottom pricing and extensive feature set, VoIP-powered Skype enables just about any business to deploy an enterprise-class call center on a shoestring budget.
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For as little as $10 per agent, per month, vendors such as OnState, PrettyMay Team and SKY-click provide Skype-driven call-center solutions that support virtually every type of call-center function and activity, including voice mail, auto attendant, IVR (Interactive Voice Response), call routing and call recording.
For outbound call centers, Skype technology allows calls to be made worldwide at rates that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago: as little as 2 cents per minute between continents, and nearly always at rates far below those charged by conventional telcos.
While inbound call centers don't have to worry about the cost of outgoing calls, these facilities can take advantage of Skype to cut infrastructure costs. A Skype-based call center doesn't require various types of call-routing technologies or telco-oriented hardware, and existing data networks can often be used. The software itself also tends to be relatively inexpensive. PrettyMay Team, for example, offers a $150 package that supports as many as 30 lines.
For virtual call centers, Skype technology provides a cheap and efficient method of linking agents spread across cities, states or even continents with callers, call recipients, and call-center supervisors and managers. Record keeping is also simplified, since call originations, destinations, durations, dates, times and other relevant data are automatically recorded. Tech-support centers, meanwhile, can use Skype to send SMS text directly to user devices, as well as provide conventional voice-based support services.
Many businesses need to offer automated information services — such as store locations and hours, travel directions, and storm alerts — to employees or customers. All of the major Skype-based call-center technologies allow businesses to set up automated, prerecorded messages that users can access and listen to at their convenience.
Perhaps the biggest benefit that Skype provides is fast and easy integration with Web sites and internal computer systems, enabling call centers to support services like Web-initiated callbacks and screen pops that instantly present caller information to agents.
Despite its multiple benefits, Skype isn't perfect, and businesses thinking about adopting the technology need to be aware of its limitations.
Like other VoIP services, Skype's audio quality is highly variable. Most of the time, voice quality ranges from perfect to acceptable. But sometimes — depending on the condition of the Internet connection between the call center, Skype and the user — the audio may sound jittery, garbled or out of phase. Skype service is also subject to occasional dropouts and spontaneous disconnects.
On the positive side, Skype service is rapidly improving as the company strives to improve its technology — and as ISPs become more experienced at handling high-priority VoIP call traffic. Still, businesses expecting service matching the quality of higher priced, traditional telcos will likely be disappointed.
The other big drawback that Skype-based call centers face is limited scalability. While some Skype call-center vendors promise three-digit-or-higher agent counts, the real-world practical limit is about 20 or 30 agents. Larger deployments tend to exceed the limitations of current Web-based voice technology, making it necessary to use hardware to direct and manage calls.
The Bottom Line
Skype call-center technology is both inexpensive and mature, but adopters must be willing to accept its limitations.
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