Cloud computing helps firm bring call center in-house, integrate apps

Cloud computing allows a firm to bring its call center in-house to improve customer service, plus integrate applications and provide executive dashboards. Here's how.

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Extra Space Storage Inc. wanted to take back its call center from an outsourcing company to give customers a more personal and more reliable experience when choosing self-storage space in one of its 685 facilities. It also wanted to integrate a lot more applications with a customer relationship management (CRM) system. The result: a call center built on cloud computing.

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For Extra Space Storage, the call center solution needed to be flexible -- not just for the 50 call center agents but also for the rest of the 2,500 employees, who needed reliable remote access to several systems: a point-of-sale (POS) application, a new Software as a Service (SaaS) CRM application and a new help desk issue tracking system. Most employees are in the field at the facilities, where customers rent space for furniture and other items.

The self-storage space provider also needed to quickly bring more than a dozen acquired facilities into the call center fold, and integrate the various facilities management systems -- acquisition, construction and operations -- behind one interface.

The trick was turning around a pretty large-scale project quickly, with minimal additions to the IT headcount. The company also didn't want to build out its network infrastructure or buy additional hardware or software; its contract was up to renew its help desk application licenses, for example.

For Bill Hoban, CIO of Salt Lake City-based Extra Space Storage, the answer was simple: build a call center in the cloud.

The company already had a POS application running off-site, in a data center run by self-storage management services provider Centershift Inc. "The step to cloud computing wasn't a hard step," Hoban said. "We wouldn't have to build out our infrastructure, and we were already comfortable running software systems on hardware and a network that didn't belong to us for the last eight years."

Hoban's team decided on Salesforce.com Inc. for its SaaS CRM application and inContact Inc.'s SaaS-based call center suite to handle the telephony piece. The inContact software and switch pass information to the Salesforce.com CRM application. The integration between the POS, CRM and telephony applications was done using Cast Iron Cloud, an integration service that has preconfigured templates for integrating common SaaS business applications and processes.

"With Cast Iron we migrated 6 million records from our POS system to Salesforce.com, with [Cast Iron's] professional services constructing the code," Hoban said. "We saved in the range of $97,000 because they did it so quickly and we didn't have to hire or bring in a third-party consultant for the coding."

The company saved another $75,000 by building its internal help desk ticketing system into Salesforce.com, versus renewing a contract with its existing help desk provider.

Setting the stage for cloud computing

The initial rollout of the integrated cloud suite, which included a new application to track hundreds of bank loans on its facilities, was completed in three months. At that point, Extra Space Storage's 28-person IT shop took over. Two application developers and a software systems manager took two weeks of training on Salesforce.com and its coding language, Apex, plus one week of training from Cast Iron Systems Inc. so they could create the configurations for moving data in and out of the disparate systems.

"We don't have to rely on any external consultants to do any of the work," Hoban said.

For example, the staff was able to load the data it had on 30,000 competing storage facilities held in a SQL Server database into Salesforce.com in several hours, not weeks or months. All of the company's departments now have access to competitive demographics and the ability to mystery shop pricing and units of competing storage facilities nearby.

The business uses for the combined systems seem endless, Hoban said. The chief financial officer has a dashboard that displays all the loans on each facility so he can see which ones are due, or he can budget for the loans over the next several years. The chief operating officer now has an integrated view of three separate business channels -- customer walk-ins, website requests and call center requests -- to better match operations with customer demands.

Hoban says he can't put a total cost of ownership on the cloud computing project, although he saved a nice chunk on the cost and maintenance of the phone switch, which is managed in the cloud by Midvale, Utah-based inContact. And although numbers haven't been drawn up yet, Hoban said he believes sales are up because customer reservation rates have increased. Monthly operational costs for the entire project are about $290,000 a month, or about $3.5 million a year.

"Bringing the call center in-house, with the people who know the business answering the phones was the first step, but now [the agents] have one view of all the information they need: background on the person calling, the closest facility and the pricing and units available, and what the trucking hours are. All that pops up on the POS screen before the agent says welcome," Hoban said.

The price of cloud computing

It costs Extra Space Storage about $425 a month, per facility to run its cloud-based customer service call center, which includes the salaries of 50 call center employees, 50 Salesforce.com CRM licenses for production and development systems, network infrastructure costs such as voice and data, marketing costs, 50 inContact cloud-based call center adapter licenses, 150 inContact phone switch voice ports and an enterprise-wide SaaS integration vendor Cast Iron license for production and development systems.

We were already comfortable running software systems on hardware and a network that didn't belong to us for the last eight years.
Bill Hoban
CIOExtra Space Storage Inc.

Broken out, the SaaS/cloud portion of the call center -- the Salesforce.com, inContact and Cast Iron licenses -- cost each call center about $225 per month, out of the $425 fee.

"Talking to the CFO, you'd think the conversation would be about retrenching, given the economy," Hoban said. "But what happens in 24 months, when [the economy] starts to free up? We'll be ready to move forward, and to do that we had to spend money in hard times."

Other companies may not be investing as much as Extra Space Storage, but they are investing in cloud computing in stages. And they are recognizing that investing in cloud computing poses less risk, said Jeff Kaplan, founder and managing director of ThinkStrategies Inc., a consulting firm in Wellesley, Mass, who said he believes cloud computing is an outgrowth of the success of SaaS.

In the "old" on-premise world, just piloting a new piece of software can require buying server and storage systems. "All of this becomes a fixed asset before you figure out that a pilot project hasn't panned out," Kaplan said. "Cloud computing mitigates that risk."

There is also a large community of like-minded developers in the cloud space who are happy to share experiences and contribute to shared knowledge bases. Such communities are taking on a life similar to the open source movement, Kaplan said.

"In the end, cloud computing offers a pay-as-you-go pricing model that allows companies to make more modest investments in resources, and scale based on actual demand," he said.

 

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Christina Torode, Senior News Writer

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