Labour is the priciest aspect of a call centre, so the name of the game has long been pure efficiency: Crank through the highest possible volume of calls with the smallest possible number of agents. Though it sounds like a worthy goal, efficiency carried to extremes often has meant rows of cramped cubicles with phone reps riffling through layer after layer of green-screen windows, hunting for key customer information scattered among myriad databases. Morale is low; eyestrain and turnover are high. These difficult conditions reflect the operation's corporate status as a transaction centre at best, a complaint centre at worst. "We're very conscious that many people look on call centres as the sweatshops of the 20th century," says Jeremy James, call centre services director for The Thomas Cook Group Ltd.'s Global Service Centre in Peterborough, England.
But a visitor walking into Thomas Cook's new call centre facility, which opened last summer, is more likely to think Sweet Shoppe than sweatshop. A 24-hour cybercafe stands in the middle, complete with Internet terminals for employees who crave Java (of either sort) on their breaks or at the end of a shift. The clean, modern setting reflects a change in call centres that runs deeper than decor. The sweatshops are still out there-but not at companies that have an eye on the future. Rather than simply field complaints or chalk up orders, inbound call centres are taking on new goals, new metrics and new systems in an effort to build goodwill and loyalty among their customers. The logic is elementary: Customer service equals customer loyalty equals money. And the cost of serving and retaining an existing customer pales in comparison to the cost of securing a new one. "We have changed our thinking from 'cost of agent' to 'value and service to customer,'" says Mike Hughes, CIO for Thomas Cook's Global Traveller Services unit, which provides travel and financial services for corporate clients.
CIOs still have the basic challenge of putting the right information on the agent desktop as quickly as possible. That's plenty of work in and of itself, since customer service representatives may need to access customer records, product information, billing systems and innumerable other databases to handle a single call. But the goal has evolved. Now the idea is to balance efficiency with more sophisticated call centre aims such as customer retention and cross-selling. Achieving that balance is no easy matter, and the CIO must tread carefully or risk tipping the scale.
The Struggle for Efficiency
Call centre efficiency is always imperative, and from the CIO's chair it is first and foremost an integration issue as many different technologies from a mishmash of vendors come together in the call centre. When all those pieces are linked smoothly, customer service representatives can handle calls with aplomb.
The situation at Sprint PCS is typical: "We use more than a dozen different applications on the desktop," says Sherry Browne, CIO at the Kansas City, Mo.-based subsidiary of Sprint Corp. Sprint PCS operates an all-digital wireless communications network that competes with cellular networks. About 4,800 "advocates" (as the company dubs its call centre staffers) fill 2,500 seats in 11 physical locations, handling new account activations as well as questions or complaints from existing customers, who can connect with the call centre simply by picking up their phones and dialling *2. A voice response unit (VRU) takes the incoming call, asks the customer for identification and the purpose of the call, then routes it automatically to the correct facility. An automated call distributor (ACD) transfers the call to the next available agent; at the same time, a computer-telephony integration (CTI) server pulls the customer's individual records from various back-end databases and pops that information up on the agent's desktop as he or she answers the call.
ACD and CTI are reasonably mature technologies that most call centres have in common. The real complexity for most operations lies in what appears on the agent's desk. Efficiency falls through the floor if the customer service representative has to fumble through multiple windows into multiple databases, searching for the right information. At Sprint PCS, a core customer database connects to the company's billing engine to handle questions regarding invoices. In addition, the advocates need up-to-date information about promotional pricing plans that are specific to the caller's geographic location. To streamline the agents' access to all that data, Browne's IS group has developed several overlay applications, which are linked to a back-end transactional data layer. "It looks to the advocates like they're in one application, even though they're really talking to eight or so," says Browne.
That speeds call handling, benefiting the customer as well as increasing the representative's efficiency. And if the system has a problem, agents use a trouble-ticket application to alert network administrators; the system is hooked to a virtual mapping application that shows areas covered by the digital network and helps pinpoint locations in which customers report their calls have been "dropped," or cut off.
In an ideal world, individual vendors would offer an end-to-end product line for the call centre, with built-in links from the CTI server to a consolidated customer data set. Currently they don't, so CIOs have to cobble together the pieces themselves or rely on systems integrators. "There are some common technologies that are best for large, state-of-the-art call centres. Today they are not hooked together the way they should be," Browne says. Happily, vendors are showing some promising signs of consolidation and cooperation. For one thing, enterprise software providers are getting into the act with customer relationship software. SAP AG, for example, released a customer relationship management suite in 1998 that includes a module for coordinating call centre services. That means companies going the ERP route may find some built-in integration of customer-facing systems with back-end financial systems. Browne also mentions three vendors in the areas of sales and marketing-Siebel Systems Inc., The Vantive Corp. and Clarify Inc.-that are particularly aggressive about trying to connect the dots. "They occupy different product spaces, but they seem to recognise that it's difficult to have disconnected pieces," she says.
Still, off-the-shelf integration won't be around for quite a while yet-and hooks for some idiosyncratic industry-specific components may never come out of a shrink-wrap, notes David Burkett, president of IT consultancy Compass America Inc. in Reston, Va. That makes outsourcing a tempting option for many CIOs, who might rather let professional call centre providers worry about keeping up their integration skills. But if long-term customer relationships are really the key to the future, outsourcing call centre operations may be a big mistake.
"The person who takes those calls is your face to the customer," says Julie Fitzpatrick, a senior vice president at Technology Solutions Co., a Chicago consultancy specialising in customer-relationship management. "If you're going to close the back door and get more out of your most valuable customers, you don't want to give up ownership of that relationship."Instead of shying away from the integration chore, CIOs are adding still more data and applications to the mix in an effort to distinguish their companies through exceptional customer service.
Building Loyalty Individually
Thomas Cook's call centre handles roughly 75,000 calls per day around the clock, coming in from around the world. Yet when a Chinese traveller stranded on a Hong Kong street corner needs to find the closest place to replace his lost traveller's checks, his call to Thomas Cook is answered immediately by a native Cantonese speaker. How is this possible? The company's CTI servers, from Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories Inc., in conjunction with software from Chordiant Software Inc., identify the geographical origin of the incoming call, determine the language most likely to be spoken by the caller and route the call to the most appropriate agent. The Global Service Centre's staff collectively speaks about 30 languages; the company actively recruits worldwide for its call centre agents.
Language is just the first element in the company's efforts to meet the specific needs of each caller. CIO Mike Hughes says the company has also loosened the scripts its agents follow in answering calls in order to allow them to customise their service. "We encourage the agents to apply the cultural values of that particular segment in the way they handle the call," he says.
Then there is the technology. Thomas Cook's application arsenal starts with an integrated customer-relationship management system from Chordiant. This system is integrated with a geographic information system that can display the exact street of the caller's location and then graphically depict the locations of the closest travel service providers, even if they aren't run by Thomas Cook.
These technologies help agents respond to the customer's particular situation as quickly as possible, thereby rescuing the Chinese traveller in Hong Kong.
Companies also personalise their service by collecting increasing amounts of information about their customers, the underlying idea being that it's most convenient for a customer to do business with the company that knows him or her best. Sprint PCS has an ongoing IT initiative involving an application appropriately dubbed Loyalty, which assembles key pieces of warehoused data, such as how much callers spend per month, what services they use and how often.
The resulting customer profitability analyses are instantly available to call centre staff. "If we know that you're a high-end user with a couple hundred dollars in calls each month, we may proactively respond to your call by providing you with information about new equipment or services based on your usage patterns," says Browne. If the caller is a frequent business traveller, for example, the system can prompt the agent to let her know about new coverage areas in the PCS network.
Does this type of individualised attention come at a cost to the call centre's hard-won efficiency? "Absolutely," says Bill Collins, Charleston, S.C.-based manager of planning and analysis for reservations and consumer affairs at National Car Rental System Inc. "For us, building the database is where we're taking the productivity hit," Collins says; call centre representatives cannot log as many reservations per hour as they used to because they are working to extract more information than usual for each customer profile. He says that's a necessary sacrifice. "If you don't spend the money [in lost efficiency] upfront, you aren't going to get the full payback on your systems down the road," he says.
National has a few efficiency tricks up its sleeve to balance the time lost to the increased data collection. For example, an incoming caller first hears the standard five-second National greeting from the rep to whom the call is routed by the company's ACD from Rockwell International Corp.'s Electronic Commerce division. Actually, though, the greeting is a recording made earlier by that same rep. The caller doesn't know he is listening to a recording since the voice remains the same once the caller starts to interact with the agent. The agent, however, is relieved of some of his job's repetitiveness (reps can handle as many as 130 similar calls a day) and can interact with the caller with greater concentration. Collins says productivity is up measurably since the company started using this procedure and will increase further when the system is enhanced to allow the rep to review the caller's records in that five-second interval.
One way National Car Rental hopes to use its data in the future is through selective outbound calling. For instance, some customers may rent only one time each year. National's call volume peaks each March due to spring break demand, for example. Next year, the company aims to identify its historical spring break renters and call them in February, when call volumes are lower, to sign them up again. The proactive strategy is designed to both boost repeat rentals and smooth out the peaks and valleys in call centre volume.
Just as the data collection process can slow call centre representatives, so can using that same data during a call. Data warehouses are not typically designed for the on-the-fly analysis that the call centre environment demands.
Call centres require information to be delivered to the desktop in seconds, packaged and synthesised so that the agent knows immediately how to use it, says Technology Solutions' Fitzpatrick. "But there needs to be an independent data entity -- a 'relationship engine' -- that recognises what the customers have and matches that with the company's internal resources" to provide fast, efficient call centre service, Fitzpatrick says. Meanwhile, CIOs must take into consideration the performance they can squeeze out of their particular data engines-a data warehouse chock-full of useful customer information begins to chip away at efficiency if that information isn't easily retrievable-and balance the amount of data presented against the necessary efficient call handling.
Another way of building customer loyalty is to give the customers multiple channels for accessing information. In fact, the term call centre is out of vogue in some circles, replaced by contact centre. This term reflects the convergence of multiple forms of customer communication-phone, fax, e-mail, kiosks and increasingly the Web. The call centre serves as the nexus for such requests.
For now, the primary role of the Web for most companies is to reduce call centre volume while at the same time letting customers help themselves. That will change. Web sites aren't always as complete or self-explanatory as the surfer-or the business-might like. "Success in e-commerce is going to be extremely integrated with customer service functionality," says Don Rosacker, CEO of Flowersandgifts.com, a Web-based company in Minneapolis. A significant portion of the populace is still reluctant to complete a transaction over the Web without first talking to a live agent, according to Lauren Christiansen, the company's director of consumer client services. "We're going to use technology, but it won't accomplish what we want unless it makes the customer still feel like he's dealing with a person," she says. So the Web as a service channel is merging more closely with the call centre: Visitors can click a button on a Web site and get a direct connection to a live service rep, either for an IP-based phone conversation or a Web chat session. Flowersandgifts.com, which has built a call centre group to handle live interactions, uses an all-in-one server that integrates its automated call distributor functions with Web callback and Web chat. The company uses software from Interactive Intelligence Inc. to help filter incoming e-mail, another Net-based customer service channel, so that it can be answered quickly and appropriately. These new technologies present some hurdles; most notably, the unpredictable bandwidth of the Internet makes the quality of voice conversations via the Internet shaky. Those concerns (plus the current paucity of microphone-equipped Web surfers who demand voice over Internet) have prevented many companies from joining the early-adopter wave. But the convergence of multiple channels into the call centre is a clear trend and one that promises gains in both efficiency and customer loyalty.
The proliferation of applications and communication channels and the need to cement customer loyalty promise to keep the CIO and call centre personnel talking for a long time to come. For Thomas Cook's Mike Hughes, that communication isn't too hard to maintain, as he is the chief operating officer for Global Traveller Services as well as its CIO. Sprint PCS's CIO Sherry Browne works in lockstep with Faerie Kizzire, the senior vice president who heads up customer care and the physical and staffing concerns in the call centre. "To say she and I work closely together would be an understatement. We do our operating plans together," says Browne. The customer care department's budget is expected to reflect savings for any applications delivered by Browne's IS group. This type of communication ensures that CIOs can do their part to deliver the right balance of fast, efficient call centre performance and maximum value from each customer.
(Senior Writer Derek Slater can be reached at email@example.com.)
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