Streamlined Customer Care with VoIP

Have you ever waited on the line for a customer care representative to help place that very important order right before Christmas, or help you figure out how to resolve a technical issue with your iPod that you’re eager to start using? And right when they gave you that special “free shipping” deal, you get some static on the phone. Guess what’s next: The call gets dropped — after 30 minutes of waiting on the line!

That’s the customer care nightmare that most e-tailers want to avoid as they prepare to capitalize on the next holiday season, as they ring up another record year of online shopping from the US$23.2 billion in 2004.

After all, a competitor’s site is just a click away, or in this case, a customer care call is just one click away. Wait, did I say “click” for the customer care call. That’s right, with the growing prominence of Internet Telephony or the popular Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the day is not too far when most customer calls will be routed through the Internet backbone and initiated by a simple mouse click.

Quality, Price Considerations

Ensuring that you can deliver your customers the quality and reliability that they have come to expect with plain old telephone service (POTS) will be key as you transition your customer care to VoIP.

About 37 percent of consumers surveyed at large are still apprehensive about the quality of communication over VoIP, according to a recent report by eMarketer. Moreover, as many e-tailers offer live chat to assist customers with high-ticket items, crystal-clear interaction over VoIP will be critical to enhance brand affinity.

Product price and online experience are two of the most critical elements that affect customer satisfaction and impact brand loyalty.

So, how do retailers offer attractive prices and manage their razor-thin margins in this competitive industry, while still offering customers a high quality online and customer care experience? Many e-tailers have resorted to VoIP as a highly cost-effective option to e-mail or traditional phone-based customer call centers.

The cost of engaging in live chat is about $1.20 per interaction, compared to e-mail, which is $2.40 per interaction, or traditional phone calls, which cost about $6 per interaction. You can double or triple productivity of customer care centers with VoIP-based live chat.

At the same time, VoIP adoption is growing among residential customers at an unprecedented rate. Compared to 1 percent of homes in the U.S. that have VoIP this year, analysts predict a staggering 19.6 percent of U.S. homes will have VoIP by the end of 2008. This widespread adoption is fueled in part by the growth of broadband, as 36 percent of U.S. households or 42.3 million homes will be using broadband by end of this year.

The growing acceptance of VoIP both in the enterprise and consumer marketplace will result in a majority of customer calls being routed over VoIP in the near future.

Monitor the End-User Perspective

So, how do e-tailers ensure high-fidelity communication over VoIP, despite the fact that a majority of the network path over which calls traverse are out of their control? E-tailers depend on VoIP equipment providers, and residential DSL or cable providers in the last mile, and the network carriers in the Internet backbone to route their customer-care calls with relatively higher priority to minimize the number of dissatisfied customers and impact on their top-line. How do they accomplish this goal?

Delivering your end-users and customers a quality customer care experience starts by monitoring the end-user perspective periodically. You cannot manage what you cannot measure. Rather than waiting for users to complain about degrading customer-care calls, proactively test with “litmus-test” users who place calls with representative audio files from geographically dispersed locations over multiple network providers.

Cost-effective monitoring of VoIP call quality from various geographic locations is critical and available from outsourced monitoring providers, including Keynote Systems. By monitoring your end-user’s perception of your customer-care call quality, regardless of where the issue exists, you already have a head start on managing network and VoIP providers based on your end-user’s, your customer’s, expectations.

Different performance factors hold differing weights for various e-tailers. However, the conversational quality, as measured by the Mean Opinion Score (MOS), is one of the most representative factors of VoIP quality.

There are various standards that could be used to measure the MOS of customer-care calls, but by-and-large, P.862 or PESQ (Perceptual Evaluation of Speech Quality) is, perhaps, the most widely accepted standard that indicates the experience end-users have when interacting with customer care. The MOS measured on a scale of 0 to 5 (5 being the best quality possible) is based on various network and audio metrics that affect transmission of voice packets over the network and reproduction of the audio file by the codec on the speaker and receiver end.

Performance Factors

In addition to MOS, other performance factors that e-tailers need to monitor include:

  • Service availability. How frequently are customers unable to connect to customer care?
  • Dropped calls. How frequently do calls get dropped in the midst of a conversation?
  • Audio delay. Delay between utterances, leading to overlapping conversations — remember those international calls in the early 1990’s?
  • MOS geographic uniformity. Is the conversational quality consistent across various geographies?
  • MOS acceptability level. What percentage of the calls are above a minimum acceptable MOS level?

Each of the above performance factors affects the end-user experience, and yet many of them are beyond your control. How do you handle such issues?

One option, adopted widely for Web applications, is structuring effective service level agreements (SLAs) with network carriers to ensure acceptable levels for each of the above performance factors.

For instance, ensure that dropped calls not exceed more than 1 percent of the total call volume, especially in geographies that represent your highest-value customers.

When they do exceed this threshold, hold carriers to a commitment of a few hours to resolve the issue. At the same time, ensure that conversational quality indicated by MOS is comparable to traditional phones at a score of around 4.2. By having network carriers buy-in to such end-user perceived quality factors, you can collaborate with them on a common end-goal — ensuring consistent, high-quality communication for your end-users.

Diagnosing Communication Issues

So, what happens when your “free sales tax” campaign leads to twice the number of online customers as you expected, leading to a much higher volume of customer care calls? How can you ensure that these customer calls, especially those of high-value customers, don’t get dropped in the midst of the purchasing process?

By constantly monitoring the end-user experience with your customer care VoIP application, from various geographies, you have a head start on enforcing SLAs with your network carriers. But how do you know that the low MOS your customer in New York experiences is due to your network carrier or by a buffering issue in a codec within your PBX?

To separate network issues outside the call center from network or equipment issues within your PBX, you can deploy a VoIP private agent that leverages the same “litmus-test” synthetic transactions as the ones outside your firewall. This apples-to-apples comparison between the external and on-site synthetic monitoring will allow you to triage the issue and assign it to the network carrier to expedite the resolution process.

To assist with the diagnosis, you can drill-down to the individual metrics that constitute the performance factor under consideration and share this insight with your network carrier. For instance, when MOS drops below 3.5, you can determine whether out-of-order packets, excessive packet loss, high jitter, etc., are causing the issue. The same process can be extended to resolve issues within your PBX as well as to identify network elements, VoIP equipment, or software codecs on the equipment at the heart of the issue.


The cost benefits of VoIP make it very attractive for online retailers and call centers that contract with online retailers to adopt this emerging technology for their customer care applications. Moreover, VoIP enables retailers to offer streamlined customer care, combining “instant messaging” with “live chat” to provide customers a rich shopping experience, and enhance brand loyalty.

However, as with any emerging technology, the concerns retailers have with VoIP’s conversational quality and reliability are very real. Is VoIP ready to live up to the dial-tone reliability and crystal-clear communication standards that traditional phone has offered to consumers over the years?

Online retailers can mitigate the performance risk associated with VoIP by leveraging trusted third-party monitoring vendors to understand the end-user experience from various geographies.

By incorporating various performance factors that affect the end-user experience into SLAs with network carriers, and separating issues between their PBX and the external network, e-tailers can collaborate with network carriers to deliver a consistent, quality user-experience. Consequently, they can provide advanced streamlined customer care and realize the maximum cost benefits of the emerging VoIP technology.

Dharmesh Thakker is senior product manager for service level management solutions for Keynote Systems Inc.

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