Securing Remote Access to the Network

By Hyun Soo Park  |  Posted 2009-05-27 Print this article Print

By combining virtualization and teleworking, Ascend One was able to increase customer satisfaction and improve the productivity and morale of its call center employees.

Securing Remote Access to the Network

Our next step was to ensure a secure virtual private network (VPN) connection from agents’ homes to our data center. Even before we virtualized the contact center, we had provided a select group of development and support engineers with secure remote access over an IPSec VPN, facilitating round-the-clock support.

However, we didn’t want our remote contact center team to have to deal with the ins and outs of network software configuration. Instead, we developed a standard configuration for a contact center desktop, which included all the software and settings needed to access our CRM over IPSec. We then supplied Dell with a disk image of the configuration, and the vendor shipped preconfigured Dell Optiplex PCs to agents’ homes—ready to run right out of the box.

Still, we’d often end up having to send an IT technician into the field to provide support for the IPSec VPN. With the growing number of remote employees, it became burdensome to support a dispersed team that way, so we contracted with Dell for onsite support.

The costs of outsourcing support motivated us to simplify our remote access even further. We realized that clientless alternatives to IPSec VPN, such as Secure Socket Layer (SSL) VPN, could be much easier to deploy and manage.

After evaluating a number of solutions, we deployed a SonicWALL Aventail SSL VPN. It was easy to configure, so we didn’t incur extra training or consulting costs, and it supported two-factor authentication, as well as standard browsers and video conferencing. By installing a $25,000 SSL VPN solution, we saved at least $400,000 in hands-on support of customized, drop-shipped PCs.

The Bottom Line

As a result of virtualization and teleworking, we’ve seen a tangible, positive impact on our bottom line. When I started at Ascend One, our call center was one of the largest single-company facilities in Howard County, Md. Now our home office is much smaller. Virtualization has done away with a significant portion of our facilities and operating expense.

We’ve seen call center agent productivity increase by

10 percent. By adding our first remote team in Portland, Ore., we immediately provided our customers with three extra hours of time-zone coverage, without the burden of extended shifts and overtime in our Maryland location. We can respond faster by finding qualified counselors who might not otherwise have been available to us and by tapping labor markets in areas that enjoy lower costs of living.

By distributing our work force nationwide, we’re far less seriously impacted by regional weather conditions, and we can ensure better ongoing coverage and support for our customers. We are now extending remote access to portions of our corporate and administrative staff, and enhancing our employees’ job satisfaction, as well as our business continuity and disaster recovery capabilities.

We’ve also seen lower agent attrition rates. Employees self-select their participation in working remotely. Participation and subsequent increases in retention have exceeded our expectations. Employees receive higher job satisfaction from reduced expenses on meals and commuting, as well as from more flexible life/work balance. For instance, an employee who has a spouse in the military can relocate without impacting his or her ability to continue doing the job.

We use technology as a means to maintain extraordinary levels of contact with our remote employees. For instance, we use Microsoft Live Meeting for presentations and video participation, which helps to keep our remote agents engaged and connected.

Our managers are trained to support remote teams effectively. They focus on keeping remote employees connected and engaged with the entire corporate community during every stage of the employee-employer relationship. Further, we apply a high degree of contact, inclusion and feedback to make sure that all of our remote employees have an equal opportunity to participate in any company event.

We have also initiated Geo Learning to provide training for our remote team members. They can log on any time, day or night, to complete training classes, such as courses to help employees provide better customer service or cope with change.

At the same time, we have a company intranet portal that is easily accessible both onsite and remotely. It includes information such as job aids and standard operating procedures, so people at home don’t have to maintain libraries of printed documents.

We also plan to develop online help functionality, so that a counselor will be able to click an object and launch a pop-up to receive context-sensitive coaching. Using Microsoft Instant Messenger, agents in Portland can securely IM staff in Maryland as if they were down the hall. Everything that onsite agents get is also given to remote agents. To deliver it all, we rely on our virtualization architecture technology.

Technology, however, is only a means to an end. At Ascend One, we recognize that the real challenge in managing virtualization technology is in managing the people who work with it.

When I look back, I’m impressed by what we have been able to accomplish. Ultimately, the focus and investment need to be at least as much on the human factors as on the technology.

Hyun Soo Park is senior director of IT at Ascend One.

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