The call center as we have known it is dead. The melding of communications and computing technology is transforming the call center into something new-a powerful engine of customer interaction. Call centers originally grew from a desire to leverage technology and make internal resources more efficient; today, their role is more strategic. Now, customer interaction centers are a powerful interactive interface with the consumer, enabling better customer relationship management (CRM) and e-commerce. The synergy is generating new sales and service applications that are linking like synapses to transform call centers into the brain of multichannel, multimedia customer interactions that drive loyalty to the organization.
Customer interaction centers focus on leveraging technology to increase a company's competitiveness. The convergence of voice and data technologies enables companies to go beyond standard telephone-based voice support and embrace richly functional new environments. Fully integrated media has become available to call centers in real-time.
The term customer interaction center generally describes a unified call center system that can track customers' needs no matter which channel they use to contact the company: telephone, face-to-face, Web self-service, e-mail, chat, voicemail, interactive voice response (IVR), video or fax. Even postal mail is scanned and integrated into the contact center and CRM systems. The goal is to provide consistent service across these various touchpoints.
"There is no doubt that the call center is turning into a customer interaction center as companies increase the types of interactions that the call center handles. The different types of interactions have more than doubled over ten years," says Marcus Heth, vice president of call center and telephony at Oracle in Redwood Shores, Calif. "We actually have a couple of customers that are bringing video into the customer interaction center," he notes. "In one case it is a bank, and the bank has video kiosks at their branches. Customers can walk up to a video kiosk and perform banking transactions as opposed to going to the teller."
"I think as we go forward, there will be even more forms of communication," predicts Joe Adams, vice president of marketing communications at Interactive Intelligence. "People are just going to choose what they like, and it's going to be up to the company to integrate all of these technologies and make sure that nothing slips through the cracks. Everybody is going to have to take an interaction-management mentality."
As the many channels of the center are blended with the Internet, new levels of customer support can be developed. Information channels can be supported 24 hours a day, every day. Customers can be empowered by externalized business processes and rich online environments for automated support, leaving sales and service representatives free to be used more effectively.
The term customer interaction center describes a unified call center system that can track customers' needs no matter which channel they use to contact the company.
The customer-centric philosophy extends to e-business. Many companies have focused their Web strategies on e-commerce but until now have not taken a holistic view of customer interaction, of which the Web is a part. Adding live or personalized online assistance represents a maturation of e-commerce, as a company's support infrastructure for its e-business model becomes vital to its overall health. When customers can sample a competitor's services by clicking a mouse, service differentiation is critically important to retaining customers.
Willem Ellis, CEO of ATIO Corporation in Minneapolis, says improvements in the customer interaction center stem mostly from customer demands, rather than technological advances, although rapid advances in communication technology and the Internet have indeed provided convenient ways to communicate and interact.
"I think the consumer drives it, by the consumer's instant need for gratification," Ellis says. "It's really building on the early successes of e-commerce where people could go online anywhere, anytime, and really satisfy their needs independent of their location, time of day or any other artificial inhibition."
Oracle's Heth agrees. "On the business side, this is really about increasing revenue and retaining customer loyalty," he says. "In today's world, to increase revenue means to sell and service your customers to the fullest extent. To properly sell, service and retain customers, and promote loyalty, you need to know a lot about that customer."
A key feature of these customer interaction centers is their ability to track all of the interactions that customer has with the organization. "If I know where, when and why a customer is touching my company, and if I can attach good intelligence to that interaction, then I can turn around and better sell and service them, as well as provide better product," says Heth. "One way of doing that is to try to centralize those interaction points. You want to provide a consistent mechanism with which customers interact with the company."
Pulling Up Anchor
Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, virtually everything in a traditional call center was owned by an outside company. Monopolies of proprietary systems were deployed over the public-switch telephone network. Call center technology focused on reducing capital and operating costs, not on creating business solutions that could drive revenue and retain customers. Such applications were rare until computer telephony integration (CTI).
CTI initially used middleware to bring together proprietary pieces like PBX, IVR, ACD, voicemail and fax servers. Integration was a bottleneck, however, because proprietary hardware platforms were running proprietary operating systems and proprietary software platforms. A lack of open systems remains a challenge. "Most people have taken the route of CTI, but I don't see that working," comments Adams, "simply because of integration."
Trying to obtain useful information out of these disparate systems is a problem. "The customer data is horribly fragmented across different systems because of all of the different vendors involved," says Heth. Because each system keeps its own interaction data in its own database and under its own schema, "it's virtually impossible to put it all together."
Adams agrees. "The problem is that today, most of those technologies are separate-separate voice systems, separate fax, separate e-mail, separate Web," he says. People in the traditional call center might not know where e-mails go, for instance, in which case matching a customer's previous e-mail contacts with the center would be difficult.
Effective customer contact tracks customers and their needs across different media. "You don't force the customer to go through the identification process and explain his case again and again to different people," says Ellis. "The information transfers seamlessly, even across media. For example, a customer may send an e-mail in the first case, and then later talk to someone on the phone and may complete the transaction at a brick-and-mortar outlet of the business."
Julia Burroughs, director of marketing and strategic alliances at Call Center Systems (CCS) in Dallas, a division of Bell Atlantic, agrees. "We think a better way of approaching things is a more integrated approach in terms of blending your engines among voice, e-mail and the Web and having a software solution that handles more of a blended environment."
In next-generation contact centers, Web applications, software, databases, PBXs and Centrex systems will be integrated. How they will be integrated, however, is not so clear. There are different approaches, some which are open and network-independent and others that leverage the best of legacy technologies. Software applications will certainly play a major role, and this industry is about to witness a flurry of innovation as PCs take on the roles of devices like ACD, IVR, voicemail, fax and Web servers.
"People are still experimenting with technologies as separate alternatives for dealing with the customer, but we are starting to see people bring it all together in a single box or, more likely, a single piece of software," notes Robert Mirani, Research Director for CRM strategies at The Yankee Group. "We are seeing Lucent, Aspect and Interactive Intelligence, for example, as well as the software companies and CTI companies like Genesys and GeoTel, coming out with software approaches.
"The idea is that when you have to make changes or upgrade, you don't have to buy a new box. You need to have some kind of box to do the signaling and the switching, but as for the real brains behind the queuing, the routing, the reporting and the management of the customer, that's increasingly being done in software-gathering all of the information about those interactions in a single database and then building in some personalization across all of the touchpoints and different channels."
All-in-one servers represent a unified approach and can be cost effective for advanced functions. Stamford, Conn.-based GartnerGroup projects that branch and small-office environments will have a more than 20 percent adoption rate of all-in-one server technology by the year 2003.
The Enterprise Interaction Center by Interactive Intelligence is representative of this class. It's based on a Windows NT communications server that can replace proprietary communication devices such as PBXs, ACDs, IVRs, voice mail systems, fax servers, Web gateways and CTI middleware systems. At the same time, components can be added to allow Web chat and collaboration, Web callback and voice-over Net; voice logging; automatic call routing and predictive dialing. Integration isn't a headache, since there's virtually none.
"We are very much transitioning into multimedia call center solutions, but the types of call center customers that we are dealing with view their call centers as very mission-critical parts of their operation. They are not really interested in integrating the most bleeding-edge technology that's out there." Julia Burroughs, Call Center Systems
The Yankee Group notes that there are some tradeoffs and limitations with these more cost-effective approaches. "When you are looking at totally open systems, like Windows NT-based systems and Java, it's really hard to say you could go much over 200 agents," remarks Mirani. "We're still a good two to three years away from completely open systems in our opinion. It's not only the number of agents but also the complexity of what you are doing. If you are just taking a call and routing it to the next available agent, fine. But if you are using CTI, looking at the database, and if you've got some complex rules you are applying, the open systems now don't really meet the needs of the really sophisticated call centers."
Oracle's Telesales product represents a strongly Internet-oriented approach. "Since all of our applications are on the Net, whether they be applications run by the customer interaction center agent, a customer application that they are using over the Web, or whether it is a person sitting in a branch office, we are providing some sales automation to them," explains Heth. "This is all over the Web using browsers and browser technology, so they have access not only to the same applications, but to the same data and repository."
For example, a bank teller can see everything about a customer-that the customer did interactions over the Web and has recently called in the IVR and transferred some funds. "Oracle is unique in that we are providing a solution and vision that supports all of the interactions and all the different media, and it is completely integrated into a single schema and into a single interaction repository," Heth says.
Larger companies like P&G, Bank of America and AirTouch require highly reliable, high-volume systems. For large players, next-generation interaction centers are built around their already powerful legacy systems. These can be linked to the Web. "We are very much transitioning into multimedia call center solutions," Burroughs notes, "but what we are finding out in the marketplace is that the types of call center customers that we are dealing with view their call centers as very mission-critical parts of their operation. They are not really interested in integrating the most bleeding-edge technology that's out there. We really look at reliability and fault tolerance in the platform not only from a hardware perspective, but from a software perspective so that you can ensure the call center will have 99 percent-plus up-time."
More integration means there will be a shakeout of vendors as companies try to implement multimedia solutions. "Over time, companies do not want to deal with 20-25 different vendors. I think they want to deal with two to four primary companies," says the Yankee Group's Mirani. Getting all of the systems to work together is a major concern of companies purchasing the software. "It is a real problem because you have to involve so many different vendors to provide a customer interaction center solution, and all of those vendors' solutions need to be integrated. That comes at significant cost and risk," he adds.
While the industry explores which of these approaches manages customer interaction best, there is agreement that new solutions will increasingly be Internet-based. Web-based solutions are causing a scramble for strategic partners. "That's why Cisco bought not just GeoTel but Webline recently; Webline had collaboration-server technology," Mirani notes. "Quintus, which is primarily a CTI company, just bought Acuity, which is a Web-based interaction company."
"Most companies will need to put far better business plans in place to manage the complexities of assembling and integrating CRM programs across their organizations. Those that don't will fail to achieve business impact." Stephen Diorio, IMT strategies
Full steam Ahead
With a Web-integrated customer interaction center, customers can increasingly be satisfied in real-time without the assistance of costly service representatives. Today's telephony is expensive, and costs mount as customers are placed in a queue or on hold. Internet self-service and e-mail provide a tremendous opportunity to reduce costs per transaction. An interaction center might be able to reduce a bank transaction to 10 percent of the in-person cost, for example, but Web self-service might be as low as one-tenth of the live agent cost.
The live representative, however, remains an integral part of a customer interaction center. With self-service and automation handling more mundane tasks, customer service agents will assume even greater roles. In addition to providing explanations and clarification, they can be used more strategically-to upsell to customers, for example. However, multimedia interaction centers create significant challenges to staffers, who need to navigate applications and browsers at least as swiftly as customers can. Keeping the interfaces simple and integrated will help, but training and management are becoming more important than ever. Agents will need appropriate skills to handle more demanding, more customer-facing work. E-mail, chat and other online forums, for example, require that responses be written accurately and clearly. Online videophone will intensify the importance of a professional image.
start-up network service providers, Internet service providers, existing telcos and telemarketing service agencies are all developing solutions to take advantage of new opportunities in the customer interaction centers. As Web-television, video kiosks, Web-phones, handheld devices and a host of other gadgets proliferate, new communication channels will be born. Customer interaction centers will be the key to retaining customer loyalty as these multimedia devices increase.
"It's really turning the business process inside out and creating a very unique opportunity for e-businesses to build personalized contact with their customer base," notes Ellis. "People still want to talk to people, and this provides a new opportunity for e-businesses to learn more about their customers and to build a competitive differentiator, thereby increasing the loyalty of their customers."
Today's busy customer, whether an end-consumer or a trading-partner, is embracing new communication technologies that are effectively changing expectations and desire for convenience. Technology is also necessitating that companies react to such changes if they want to serve their customers well. While the future will predictably bring more novel forms of communication, the need to consistently support CRM across all media will be the constant.
The industry is very much in its infancy. Today, making the commitment to integrated customer interaction is similar to being launched into a swirling sea of many currents. The challenges are immediate, and many companies are unaware of what lies ahead. "It's like somebody trying to sail across the Atlantic Ocean without a compass, sonar or sextant," says Stephen Diorio, president of IMT strategies, stamford, Conn. "The only reason companies don't know they're in trouble yet is that they're still in sight of land. Most companies will need to put far better business plans in place to manage the complexities of assembling and integrating CRM programs across their organizations. Those that don't will fail to achieve business impact."