in collaboration with Mary Mazon

Until recently, when we talked about business continuity planning (BCP), the focus had mainly been to prepare for major unforeseen events happening in parts of the world. For example, an earthquake in northern California or a severed undersea Internet cable rendering some data centers or office locations inaccessible. Companies have learned from past experiences to ensure that their applications and data are hosted in more than one data center, preferably in different cities or countries. In the case of contact centers, companies have also learned to place their agents in multiple locations so that calls can be routed to another contact center site with minimal impact to service when unfortunate situations arise.

The start of 2020 brought a new challenge and opportunity to our contact center service – working from home on a global scale. The response to get agents connected with the right tools and infrastructure required creativity and inventiveness.  Cisco partnered with Google to develop the Contact Center AI Rapid Response Program which makes it possible to launch a Virtual Assistant in just two weeks. These Virtual Assistants can respond to frequently asked questions and provide the latest information from public health authorities.

Devising a plan when no plan existed

Like most other global enterprises, Cisco’s BCP targeted three main areas – outages, natural disasters, and other impacts to the environment. Examples of some measures that Cisco has put in place to address these potential hazards include:

  • Building redundancy into our infrastructure deployment
  • Leveraging access to the AT&T/Verizon Network Cloud to redirect toll-free traffic when needed
  • Strategically placing agents around the globe to cover for temporarily disabled sites

One situation our BCP did not cover was working from home on a global scale. At Cisco, our contact center environment was enabled for part-time work-from-home use cases.  Many considerations go into this type of program – laptop availability, Internet connectivity and remote access to tools and services. One variable out of our control is bringing high quality voice channels to agents wherever they are located, and in this case, homes across the world. But the first problem we had to solve was getting our agents onto the Cisco platform from their homes.

Getting Remote Workers Online Around the World

Expanding the remote agent community in Hong Kong, where the work-from-home mandate initially happened, became a priority. First, any Cisco employee who works remotely requires VPN with Multi-Factor Authentication (Duo) to login to Cisco’s network. However, Cisco’s contact center agents were not typically using VPN access since most agents were not expected to work from home. Therefore, these agents needed to quickly learn how to use their new VPN and Duo.

Next, the agents needed a way to connect to the contact center platform. At that time, a solution called Cisco Unified Mobile Agent (UMA) was already available, allowing agents to use any PSTN phone and VPN broadband connection for agent desktop communications. With UMA, Cisco IT was able to address the immediate priority of allowing some of the most critical contact centers to function from the agents’ home. Internet bandwidth requirements were not as stringent because the agents could use their PSTN phones.

However, we needed a different approach that does not have some of the challenges that UMA brings. For example, agents’ calls are unable to be recorded, supervisors cannot monitor agents’ calls in progress, and VoIP cannot be used in India due to the country’s telecommunications regulations.

To achieve that, some of the best minds in Cisco IT’s Extranet, Network Services, Voice, and Contact Center Applications & Technology (CCAT) organizations came together with a plan that needed each group’s expertise. The combined team fast tracked the approval of Jabber v12 softphone, which supports the multi-line function critical to contact center agents, to be deployed quickly throughout Cisco. VPN capacity was expanded globally to support the entire Cisco workforce with Access Control Lists (ACL) put in place for countries with exceptional regulatory demands. A CCAT engineer developed an application to provision Jabber softphone to more than 6,500 agents supporting seven languages. Automating this task using the application drastically reduced the time it would have taken to perform the task manually from 1,000 hours to less than 40 hours.

The result was a complete change of critical business workflows in under two weeks while minimizing impact to customers and employees. This could not be done without a strong team and contact center platform built to be flexible, secure, and resilient.

Telecommunications regulations in India posed another challenge when it came to contact center agents working remotely. Cisco’s Technical Assistance Center (TAC), Employee Services and Technical Support (ESTS) and Customer Experience (CX) center each has significant operations in India, addressing thousands of customer and employee calls each day. Although Cisco had already put in place a voice architecture that addresses the “Other Service Provider (OSP)” rule for our office locations in India, the Government of India’s Department of Telecommunications (DOT) prohibited contact center employees from using VPN and working from home.

We along with NASSCOM and OSP Association of India helped successfully lobby the DOT to temporarily relax restrictions. Within 3 days, we modified our VPN solution to meet the new requirement that at-home agents connect through VPN using static IP addresses.  VPNs typically draw randomly from a pool of IP addresses for each user, meaning no user will have the same IP each time they connect over VPN.  Our fix was to withdraw one of our VPN headends out of the pool and create a unique “tunnel group” (or URL) for each call center employee on the headend.  Each tunnel group is then assigned a pool of just one IP address.  We repeated this – providing a unique VPN IP address – for more than 3,000 people, utilizing automation and scripting to accelerate the process.  The DOT has since lifted the static IP requirement – and as of writing this, extended the work-from-home allowance for contact center agents through the end of 2020.

The things we cannot change

For all the things we could control in this situation, we found solutions. However, a reliable Internet connection at the agent’s home continues to be a factor for our contact center work-from-home setup. Some of our agents use hotspots, some agents share an Internet connection in a single home, while others have lower quality Internet connections in their homes. Most people think immediately of bandwidth and download speed when they talk about Internet connectivity. Although those are definitely important factors, other variables affect the quality of a voice or video call. A voice or video call is a two-way communication, so upload bandwidth is just as important if you want the person on the other end of the conversation to hear you clearly. Your Internet service provider (ISP) might route your Internet traffic through multiple hops before reaching the VPN server. This will also cause a sub-optimal experience. Imagine driving on a scenic route along the coast when you need to arrive at your destination as quickly as possible – it’s not going to happen!

There are ways agents can mitigate the variables to improve their call experience. For example, using a wired connection instead of wireless, turning off video and using audio only, closing any unused background applications on the laptop that refresh data persistently, or telling the kids to get off their Internet games! If things do not improve after checking all these, then they might need to contact their ISP.

To help customers who are running on Cisco’s on-premises Unified Contact Center Enterprise (UCCE) or Unified Contact Center Express (UCCX) platforms, Cisco has published a Work-from-Home Solution Deployment Guide describing various options available. At the end of the day, the most important focus is on improving customer experience and helping our agents provide that great experience to our customers. Enabling all of Cisco’s contact center agents to be able to work from home in such a short time frame with no service disruption is a huge achievement. There were some lessons learned that will help Cisco IT to stay ahead of the game in ensuring that our contact centers’ ability to provide superior customer experience is not compromised whatever the conditions may be.

A video-on-demand presentation titled “Inside Cisco IT: Taking Cisco’s Contact Center Resiliency to the Next Level (DGTL-BRKCOC-1051)” is available on Cisco Live 2020 Digital On-Demand Library.