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Answering the Call

Answering the Call

Everyone's had a bad experience with a call centre. But now companies are investing in advanced technologies to connect with customers, not put them on hold.

Reader ROI

  • How CIOs can champion customer service within their organization
  • How to boost caller satisfaction with your company's contact centre
  • The pros and cons of VoIP

With a corded phone clutched in one hand and a spatula in the other, the man gazes anxiously at a piece of meat sizzling on his stove. He's on the line with his credit card company, but instead of speaking with a live human, he's stuck in a series of automated prompts. Even as his dinner bursts into flames, he's unwilling to let go of his phone for fear he'll miss a chance to speak with the next available agent. He tries to put out his flaming dinner with a broom, only to have the broom catch fire.

This telling exchange between caller and company - part of Citibank's "Simplicity" card ad campaign - isn't just a clever send-up of a common customer service problem. It also reflects growing frustration with automated self-service applications that don't work. Citibank's response is the "dial 0" campaign, which stresses that it's easy to call its 800 number and find a real human being. But while Citibank proclaims it will no longer trap callers in an automated loop, most companies are still struggling to improve clunky call centre technology that can make it hard to get quick and efficient service.

Organizations that are listening to customer frustration are responding in several key ways: by updating call centre technology, by making it easier to reach a human agent if necessary and - in some cases - by moving from far-flung call centre agents to at-home customer service representatives. This strategic about-face marks the emergence of a new breed of call centre - one that employs technology to connect with its customers, not put them on hold. It also represents a pull-back from a trend that started five years ago, when industry leaders such as Dell and General Electric sent their call centres offshore and automated as many calls as possible to cut costs. Companies achieved substantial savings with these tactics, but first-generation touch-tone systems were cumbersome for customers to use and offshore agents were sometimes hard for callers to understand. The result? Customer backlash.

Recent surveys show customers are vastly dissatisfied with the service they get when they call their bank or computer help desk. Now, forward-thinking companies are realizing that, while they still want to save money, they need to focus more on satisfying customers or risk losing them in droves. To improve communication while reducing cost, they are integrating the existing call centre model with newer technologies. These range from Voice over IP (VoIP), which makes it easier to oversee a remote workforce but poses some technical challenges for early adopters, to software that sends easy-to-answer calls to an interactive voice response (IVR) system while connecting the most valued customers with complex requests to highly trained agents.

Customers are a company's most vital asset. For that reason, CIOs need to know about technology that can help their companies improve customer applications and satisfaction. While contact centres are often managed by operations staff, CIOs generally maintain the networks and the systems that run them. They can also be in charge of purchasing and implementing new technologies such as voice recognition, work management systems that track agent schedules, and CRM applications that provide easy access to customer information. Clearly, the CIO can play a key role in fine-tuning call centre service.

"All the technologies we need for the next generation of call centres are with us today," says Steve Boyer, CIO of call centre outsourcer StarTek. "It's a matter of figuring out how to integrate them, adapt them and use them to attract and keep customers."

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