Fashion Designer Gets Hip to IP

Overhauls network to converge voice and data.

An opportune time for installing IP telephony is when legacy PBXs need replacing or data networks get overhauled. Liz Claiborne Inc. found itself in both situations in 2003 and quickly got busy.

With a significant presence in the New York/New Jersey area, the apparel and accessories giant has been preoccupied with disaster recovery since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, says John Kovac, vice president of IT. That's one reason Liz Claiborne now runs a four-server Cisco Systems CallManager IP PBX cluster in the region. "I could lose three CallManagers and still deliver phone service to everyone," he explains.

Kovac says that if he did have to restore that fourth server, it would take "a couple of hours," compared with the seven days required to restore the configuration of the company's former, aging Siemens circuit-switched PBX. "That was a fair amount of risk we wanted to remediate," Kovac explains.

In mid-2003, Liz Claiborne decided to replace a Sonet-based OC-3 155Mbit/sec. managed data service in metropolitan New York with a private, high-speed Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing fiber network. "We needed more bandwidth just for the data," Kovac explains. At that point, it seemed reasonable to piggyback voice onto the data network and replace the PBX infrastructure with a more redundant IP infrastructure that also had converged functionality prospects.

The new network connects seven buildings in the New York/New Jersey area, plus offices in Atlanta and California.

By converging data and voice networks onto a routed IP network, Liz Claiborne has reduced its long-distance calling charges and the number of dedicated T1 lines. The company is also moving from a mix of many other vendors' circuit-switched PBX systems in several sites throughout the U.S. Because IP telephony has the advantage of a feature called extension mobility, Liz Claiborne saves on professional services to support moving employees (and sometimes whole departments) from one location to another.

Integrated Apps and Benefits

A huge consideration with the entire infrastructure was the close working relationship among sales, design and manufacturing personnel scattered throughout New York and New Jersey offices. They conduct frequent meetings in various offices, so extension mobility has proved particularly useful, says Kovac.

For example, those who attend meetings at another Liz Claiborne office can log onto a Cisco 7960 IP phone in a conference room and use their personalized buttons to retrieve messages from the Cisco Unity voice-mail system as if they were in their own offices, he says.

For now, the designer and marketer is also making lightweight use of integrated voice/data applications via the XML interface for enhanced phone use.

"If we want to deliver an announcement to an employee or conference room without a PC, we can send messages to the phone screen," explains Anthony Iadisernia, director of IT. "We also have an XML application tied to our global [Lightweight Directory Access Protocol] directory, so users can bring up a directory, click on a name or function and call anyone in the company."

Liz Claiborne is also testing Cisco VT Advantage, an application that layers videoconferencing onto Cisco CallManager and IP phones, to help reduce travel time and expenses. The company expects to go live with the application sometime next year, Iadisernia says.

Call Center Improvements

Liz Claiborne is using the Cisco IP Contact Center Express application suite, which, together with the CallManager IP PBXs, provides automatic call distribution (ACD), interactive voice response, network-to-desktop computer telephony integration and historical call reporting.

For example, the system's ACD feature delivers 800-number calls to an agent specializing in one of Liz Claiborne's 31 fashion brands, integrating the phone system with the agent's desktop and showing a screen with information about the caller.

"We've been able to reduce our abandoned calls by 75% because we can now do better staffing and route calls to appropriate people based on skills," says Iadisernia.

In the circuit-switched world, the company had hard-coded phones designated as ACDs, he says, leaving no flexibility in call-agent location.

"Perhaps the single biggest benefit of IP telephony is it virtualizes the user, so they have no ties to physical equipment," observes Irwin Lazar, a senior analyst at Burton Group Inc.

He points to JetBlue Airways Corp., which uses a centralized Avaya Definity PBX with VoIP card in its call center. Along with IPsec VPN and Digital Subscriber Line connections, the setup allows all of the airline's reservation agents to telecommute, eliminating call center expenses.

Kovac says Liz Claiborne's biggest challenge with the project was organizational. Separate data and voice networks were built and supported by separate organizational teams. Once the networks converged, priorities were confused, because voice staffers naturally protected voice first and data folks did the same for data. If something went wrong with a phone situated between a desktop and a switch port, it wasn't clear who was responsible, and multiple personnel were often contacted.

So the teams were merged and cross-trained. They were then re-divided into a "services" group, which handles user and support issues, and an "infrastructure" group focused on implementation.

"Now, data people aren't making changes to a router that would affect voice, and voice staffers aren't making changes to a switch that will affect data," says Iadisernia.

Wexler is a freelance writer in California's Silicon Valley. Contact her at joanie@jwexler.com.

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