Annoying pests who invade your home. Inmates memorizing your credit card numbers and home address. Customer service reps who do not speak your language, or quite possibly any human language. Long hold times. Long annoying commercials instead of pleasant hold music. Byzantine call-routing menus designed to make you go away. Voice-stress analyzers that reward yelling and swearing.
I doubt you'll find many people with positive things to say about call centers. And why should they? The poor things are misused and abused in all kinds of ways. But it's not the fault of the technology. Which, like all telephony gear, has long been overpriced and under-featured. Voice over IP has revolutionized call centersjust as it has practically everything else in the world. Can you build a call center on free software? Yes, you can.
Call centers fall into two general categories: customer service, and annoying phone spammers. Customer service call centers typically handle tasks like:
- Taking orders
- Fixing problems
- Providing information and general assistance
Those are the functions that many businesses needsomeone to answer the phone and be helpful. Perhaps these should be called answer centers instead of call centers.
Then there are the call centers that are literally call centersthese are the folks that pester us as though we were paying for our phone service just so we could serve as extensions of their marketing. It's rather amusing browsing publications that target this type of call center. They use benign phrases like "outbound dialing," "predictive dialing," " customer care," "marketing relationships," "interactive intelligence," and "text-to-speech systems for totally automated collections". Now that's progresscompletely eliminating the humans. You can complete the cycle by setting up an Asterisk server at home to talk to the telemarketer's telephony server, and never have to touch a telephone yourself.
Not all phone spammers are really spammers, of course. Volunteer organizations benefit from using automated dialers to remind members of meeting dates and other events. Businesses that offer genuine opt-in for certain services might as well reap the benefits of automation as well. For example, my bank calls me when they have specials on things I'm interested in. That is a good thing. Not like some businesses that elevate a trivial one-time purchase into a lifelong intimate relationship. Read my lips: OPT-IN.
Building a Call Center with free software
When is a call center not a tool of the devil? When it's yours. Asterisk, our favorite iPBX, is a great foundation on which to build a call-center, but it does not come with all the tools that a call center needs. For that you want AstGUIClient. AstGUIClient is free in both senses of the word: free of cost, and open source software licensed under the GPL. This means you can modify it as you please, and you can distribute your modified versions, or even sell them if you can find people willing to pay money. (But don't forget the part where you must make all derived source code available, and without whining, because you're reaping the benefits of an entire free software ecosystem that you didn't have to create.)
AstGUIClient is a customer-management and call-center suite that runs on top of Asterisk. It's not an Asterisk configuration tool, but an AJAX-based Web interface to your Asterisk server. It installs on your Asterisk server, after which your customer agents, or customer service representatives, or predatory sales weasels, or whatever you call your staff only need the Firefox Web browser. Most browsers work fine, but Firefox is cross-platform, standards-compliant, and not prone to inviting malware home, so you might as well standardize on it. With the AstGUIClient you can monitor calling queues and individual calls, record calls, check voicemail, transfer calls, park calls, create conferences, and all kinds of things.
AstGUIClient includes the VICIDIAL dialer (pronounced Vee-chee-dial). This is a dialer power tool that has all the functionality of expensive, buzzword-laden commercial dialers: a robo-dialer that screens calls before transferring them to a human agent, custom hold music, time zone dialing rules, call recording, report generators, support for remote logins, remote transfers for agents, and more. If there is something more you want it to do, just grab your nearest PHP geek and put her to work.
AstGUIClient scales nicely, supporting load-balancing and distributed servers. AstGUIClient is stable and works well, but installation is a fair job. It's a source build, and it requires MySQL, Perl, Apache, PHP, Sox, and LAMEin addition to Linux and Asterisk. If you have an existing MySQL database then you only need a MySQL client on your Asterisk server to hook into it.
AstGUIClient/VICIDIAL are good for managing complex inbound and outbound calling scenarios, but what do you use for customer data and relationship management? Try SugarCRM. SugarCRM comes in three editions: Open Source, Professional, and Enterprise. The Open Source edition is free of cost, and it's a powerhouse.
The fine folks at AstGUIClient have written an excellent howto called Scratch Installation that covers installation and configuration basics, and user and administration manuals are available from Eflo.net.