Higher Calling

Higher Calling

As call centres become a nexus of sophisticated new information systems, this white-hot area of growth, innovation and business opportunity is becoming a priority for IS executivesMark the following statements True or False: a) Setting up a call centre can precipitate disaster by tolling the death knell of the entire concept of "total relationship management". Forcing customers to navigate an interactive voice response (IVR) system is an excellent way to frustrate them, virtually guaranteeing they will be upset and angry by the time they get to a human operator. b) Call centres can provide virtually any business with greatly reduced sales and service costs or greatly increased revenues and profits. In an era of sliding margins, marked decline in human productivity and increased stakeholder demands, call centres can help companies adopt the customer service and retention strategies they need to survive.

If you answered "True" to both statements you probably already have a high degree of insight into the secrets of good call centre management.

Yes, call centres can provide a potent means of addressing that new business imperative, customer relationship management -- why else would most Fortune 500 companies have at their core a technically advanced and highly efficient call centre? But they will generally achieve this only where they deploy technologies designed to replace human beings with sensitivity and where the IT department gives others on the senior executive team (particularly the marketing people) a say in how the call centre is set up and managed. That's because good call centre setup involves at least as much psychology as technology. Many analysts say the call centres of tomorrow will be vastly different to the call centres of today. Why wouldn't they be, since many call centres to date have been set up so badly as to defeat the purpose for which they were intended in the first place?"Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with having said: 'Men, horses and cannon are useful in battle, but strategy and planning win wars'. When talking about high-tech call centres, few will argue with such a statement," says Rod Jones, a Johannesburg-based independent strategic planning and call centre consultant.

Jones prepared a paper called "Requiem for a Call Centre" for Call Centre Solutions 98 in Sydney late last year. (The paper detailed reasons for the failure of a major call centre business after three years of operation.) "In fact, in South Africa, as is the case throughout the world, it is possibly the residual by-product of Napoleon's horses that we need to identify and to avoid.

And there is a tremendous amount of this particular variety of equine by-product that needs to be shovelled off the sidewalk to success," Jones says.

Jones told CIO that strategy and planning were the critical starting points for developing any new call centre or optimising an existing site. Any one of the world's most successful call centre operators would confirm that contemporary technologies -- no matter how exciting their functionality -- were, and probably would always be, nothing more than "enablers", he says. "In a nutshell, call centre technologies 'synergise' the most valuable and costly call centre components -- the people. If the primary call centre strategic planning is coming from an IT/technology direction only, disaster or, at best, extremely difficult times lie ahead," Jones says.

It's a sentiment endorsed by Peter Perialas, senior vice-president in Computer Sciences Corp's financial services group, who says CIOs who think about technology first when addressing call centres will find themselves chasing their tails. "The smart CIO is going for the underlying corporate strategy," Perialas says. As the call centre becomes a nexus of sophisticated new information systems, this white-hot area of growth, innovation and business opportunity is becoming a priority for many CIOs. According to research from the USA by AT&T Global Information Services (now NCR), 81 per cent of CEOs feel they don't know their customers and 51 per cent say IT hasn't helped. Now leading-edge companies are using call centres to feed back customer know-how into the organisation, to highly beneficial effect.

But hard-earned experience shows that without an uncompromising focus on customers and the marketplace all the wizardry of the 20th century will come to nought, says Resource International senior partner Niels Kjellerup ( "Too often call centres lose sight of their basic mission to provide easy customer access and take time out of the process, and they degenerate into a numbers game where the outcome of calls is drowned under the pressure to take as many calls as possible as cheaply as possible," Kjellerup warns. "Technology enables the call centre to seemingly take more calls at less cost by simply placing customers in endless electronic waiting lines; but the real purpose of customer access is lost when call outcomes no longer really matter." The CEO of Brisbane City Council recently banned the use of IVR in recognition of the fact that citizens dislike it so intensely. It was a wise move, Kjellerup says. Research consistently highlights the fact that customers hate IVR and electronic waiting. So using technology effectively to falsify levels of service by appearing to answer calls when the customer is actually left waiting not only defeats the purpose of the call centre but serves the company badly by hiding the fact. Indeed, companies with a keener understanding of customer psychology will inevitably gain a competitive advantage by simply serving customers as soon as they call and by focusing on the call outcome, Kjellerup says. "When IVR & CTI technology are used to keep customers at arm's length it is not in the long-term interest of the company. The CIO should make this clear by asking for the business reasons for such an application rather than focusing on short-lived productivity advances," he says.

It's all a question of balance, says Trade Centre Products sales and marketing manager Martin Smith. Most companies look to their call centre to improve the way they deal with customers; but it's all too easy to detract from customer service provision by implementing too much technology. "Voice processing is not there to replace human beings but to enhance the service you are offering the customer. The biggest problem that a lot of organisations face is in the way they have implemented this technology," he says. "Okay, a voice machine is not part of a union and it doesn't argue about its pay packet, but it is a very clinical face to an organisation." The secret is never to consider the technology as a replacement for staff, Smith says, but rather as an enhancement to the services you are trying to deliver to your customer base. It's also about considering the demographics of your customer base. A clothing retailer marketing to under-35 year olds is more likely to find acceptance of voice recognition technology than a travel company aimed at seniors.

Be very careful in developing the scripts used to present company information, and launch the system to a closed user group, Smith says. Write to your VIP customers telling them about the new service and explaining the intention is to improve customer service, then run a trial on that basis before implementing the system. Smith's company just supplied Melbourne telemarketing service company Data Connection with more than $1 million of call centre technology as a turnkey solution, in what is believed to be the first significant installation of Rockwell technology in Australia. Data Connection runs an intensive computer bureau mapping customer buying behaviour -- possibly the most automated intelligent mailing service that can be found in Australia -- and a call centre service. Data Connection managing director Marc Marantz says many companies are making fundamental mistakes in implementing call centres -- mistakes that could be avoided by starting off with an outsourced solution.

That would let the organisation "cultivate their client base correctly onto a call centre", he says. When companies decide to do the work in-house, a whole team of people, not just the IT department, should be involved.

"The phone has been on our desk for 50-odd years," Marantz says. "It is not a new instrument; but in the marketers' stable it's a new marketing tool.

Training the telemarketer and managing and reporting on the environment involves a statistician, a human resource manager and a person who's sensitive to customer needs. That way in a dynamic environment we're not just feeding back, let's say, a typewritten script but actually helping the customer to achieve a satisfactory conclusion." For Data Connection, sensitivity to customer needs means focusing on what the company calls "the other 90 per cent". The reasoning goes like this: set up a help, sales or information line and just 10 to 20 per cent of incoming calls to that line will be directly germane to its intended purpose. Companies should use CTI technology to analyse the other reasons why customers called. This information can then be fed back into the marketing department.

Marantz says too few marketing managers get involved in call centres, which tend to be handled by operational or finance people, because they are typically established to do some sort of back-end process for the company. And the technology can be more hindrance than help. "Most of the up-market phone systems are over-engineered from an authoring point of view. They offer so many benefits and reports that they are more often confusing than not. That is why the marketing objective of the company needs to be spelt out clearly: because then the information manager can make sure the technology base will support that type of request," Marantz says.

Shared Services

There's a new paradigm in call centres these days that Australian Information Processing Centre IT consultant Philip Bailey calls the shared service centre.

In the shared service centre there might be one or more departments running on a single platform, or one or more companies. Either way, there's a fundamental difference between this new paradigm and the way that perhaps 80 per cent of companies are now using their call centres. Instead of bundling a lot of activities into a single environment so that they can do more of the same, in the new paradigm the call centre is seen as a strategic core competence of the organisation and it is leveraged off. For a financial institution, for instance, this might mean putting effort into making the call centre feel the same to a customer as the branch office. "When you went into a branch a teller used to be able to do almost anything for you. Now you go to a call centre and they probably can't do very much for you at all, other than just ask questions about your account or product," Bailey says. "If it's to become a core competence you've got to be able to do more than that. You've got to be able to recognise the customer when they call, and bring up a little bit of information about them that says they have a cheque account, a term deposit and a housing loan."Knowing more about the customer lets you add value to the call. Adding a history of the interaction between the customer and the organisation makes it easier to resolve problems and thus to add even more value. The aim is to exceed the customer's expectations in terms of service delivery, while recognising sales opportunities. That way you can achieve true one-to-one customer relationship management.

But to underpin that, Bailey says, you need five key things: 1. Your resources must be better than your competitors'. Don't take a teller out of your bank branch and expect him or her to operate well in a 1000-seat call centre. Interacting with a customer for a teller involves body language.

There is no body language in the call centre environment. Call centre representatives must be very good listeners and good at dealing with people remotely, and they must be well managed via development and training programs.

"If you don't get that right it's the first step in the turnover cycle to losing customers and staff," Bailey says.

2. You have to know more about your customers than your competitors know about theirs, because then those customers will stay. That means strong customer relationship management systems that can talk to all your systems and bring up a profile of the customer, both historical and current.

3. You have to make it easy for your customers to get assistance with a single phone call. You should aim for 95 per cent of all calls to be dealt with by the rep that first answers the call. In leading-edge call centres that rep will be the same one the customer rang last time, because the system will recognise the call and divert it to the right operator.

4. It has to be simple for reps to service the customer. "You can't toggle between 10 screens. You can't give continuous hand-offs throughout the place to finally find someone who thinks they might know how to answer the query, where in the process the customer has explained five times what he wants," Bailey says. "You have to give the tools and the information to those representatives to deal with the customer and make it simple for them to service the customer." 5. "You don't know how far you've gone until you've measured how far you've come," in Bailey's words. That's a roundabout way of saying measurement is paramount and management information is paramount. But be careful. Measuring the number of calls taken or the time taken to answer them can be important from a productivity point of view, but the real value is being able to interrogate the systems the customer information is held on. "Then you can tell which customers are calling, what they are calling about and how you are dealing with that information, and pass that back to the marketing and sales people," he says.

Recipe for Success

Jones, who was deeply involved in the overall development of the call centre industry in South Africa, knows first hand about failed call centres. In his own words, he invested in a "disastrous call centre business" in the early '90s. Since then he has taken out a huge loan from his family and set off on a "worldwide voyage of discovery" to find out what makes call centres work. Now he says to achieve even a modicum of success the call centre needs to establish a finely-tuned balance between its enabling technologies, the people driving it and working in it, and its customers. "Notwithstanding the presence of all other so-called 'success criteria', without a vibrant, challenging call centre culture doom and gloom will soon become a reality," Jones says. "In far too many organisations, the call centre is the place where errant employees are sent to do penance for some dastardly deed. And who is often put in to run the call centre? Mrs Smith off the switchboard," he says. "Call centre management is a science . . . The call centre manager is a hybrid species. He/she needs to have high-level understanding of leading-edge technologies. He/she needs to understand the business processes and the commercial drivers. He/she needs (perhaps above all) to be the ultimate human motivator.

"I learned, to my immense cost, that call centres are about people and not about technologies. Technology should be an enabler; something to help the call centre manager to produce measurable efficiencies; measurable (commercial) successes," Jones says. Truly successful organisations, he says, are very, very serious about their relationships with their respective publics. They maintain accurate records, and make huge investments in expanding and enhancing this data and managing it in the context of board-approved strategies. The call centre is the heart of the enterprise knowledge management machine, with even "artificial intelligence" making huge inroads into organisations in support of their "knowledge management" strategies. It sounds like the sort of approach that could reasonably be expected to ensure the call centre helps the organisation to retain customers, rather than lose them.

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