Aberdeen Group surveyed 380 executives earlier this year, asking them to identify their technology investment priorities for contact centers over the next 18 months. The most surprising takeaway is that 45 percent maintained that the contact center was a "critical" part of their company's product and customer strategy.
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Whether the goal is to grow revenue, improve employee and customer satisfaction, or comply with governmental legislation, more organizations are turning to their contact centers to lead these initiatives. And why not? Industry pundits estimate that 80 percent of a customer's interaction with a company is through customer service. It stands to reason that organizations would want to capitalize on this customer contact.
In fact, so compelling is the argument for smart call center investments that large companies like Continental Airlines and Bell Mobility are ratcheting up their customer care initiatives, despite heavy pricing pressures and revenue declines.
In a report published earlier this year by Aberdeen Group, 380 executives were asked to identify their technology investment priorities for contact centers over the next 18 months. The most surprising takeaway from the report, according to author Christopher Fletcher, vice president and research director at Aberdeen, is that 45 percent of executives surveyed maintained that the contact center was a "critical" part of their company's product and customer strategy. "[The report showed] the call center is a very highly valued and very well-respected channel with which to manage customer relationships. I was surprised at that. I thought many would neglect the call center," Fletcher says.
To build better business relationships organizations are realizing they need to spend money to make money. "This is not about minimizing expenses; it's about creating a relationship, which requires additional expenses," says Lior Arussy, president of Strativity Group, a contact center consultancy.
What follows are three stories of companies that have transformed their contact centers to grow revenues, build satisfaction, and meet government regulations.
From Cost Center to Revenue Generator
With roughly 3.9 million cellular customers, Bell Mobility is Canada's largest wireless carrier. Despite its large customer base, by the year 2000 the competition was closing in.
Bell Mobility, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bell Canada, was still gaining customers, but the competitive pricing pressures forced a decline in revenue-per-user that was so steep that revenue growth remained flat. That's when Bell Mobility had an epiphany. "We looked at the call center and realized it was an opportunity to do something great--turn it from a cost center into a profit center," says Derek Pollitt, associate director of CRM strategy development and deployment.
Doing this, though, would require agents to cross-sell and upsell to customers in a targeted fashion features like call display, call answer, mobile browser, or other services offered by Bell Canada, such as a landline connection or a high-speed Internet connection. Bell Mobility already encouraged its customer service representatives (CSRs) to sell to existing customers when they called in for service. However, there was no formalized sales process and CSRs were uncomfortable with selling, they presented suboptimal offers, and Bell Mobility missed out on potential revenue.
Despite the advantages of the call center conversion, Pollitt was still nervous about the implementation. "To be honest, I was hesitant. The nature of the Canadian wireless industry is price competitive. It's one of the cheapest places in the world to own a cell phone," he says. "And, I saw risk. If we didn't configure the [CRM] tool right, we could do serious damage to customers and shareholders as well. The tool could reprice customers and drive customer satisfaction and revenue out of the company. When you reprice customers you're not building relationships. You're competing on price and not value-add."
Nonetheless, Pollitt would not let his fears get in the way. After viewing several vendor solutions Bell Mobility selected E.piphany Interaction Advisor for its real-time analytics and rolled it out to 550 agents in four months. The solution was fully operational by September 2001. Now when Bell Mobility customers call E.piphany Interaction Advisor immediately identifies them from their phone numbers, analyzes dozens of customer attributes accessed from the back-end billing and customer systems, and immediately populates agents' computer screens with the most appropriate messages and offers in the system. Within six months of the go-live date Bell Mobility noticed a 75 percent decrease in time-to-market.
And customers don't mind the sales pitch during a service call, Pollitt says. "We survey customers on a month-to-month basis," he says. "Over 80 percent of our customers are ranking us very high in customer satisfaction. As a result, our customer churn numbers are the lowest of any carrier in North America."
A Direct Flight to Satisfaction
Continental Airlines hit some heavy turbulence in 1994, suffering from 60 percent annual agent turnover throughout the company's national and international call centers. According to Andre Harris, director of reservations training and quality assurance at Continental Airlines, the company couldn't train new hires fast enough to match the pace of departing employees. "Part of the reason [for the high turnover rate] was that the marketing department launched a huge product campaign that would change our business--and didn't tell us. The impact on the call center was incredible," Harris says.
Calls came rushing in to the contact centers at such an overwhelming rate that reservation agents were abandoning some 300,000 calls per month. Naturally, this weighed heavily on customer satisfaction levels. "We knew what the feedback was. We just didn't want to hear it," Harris says.
To keep up with incoming calls, each reservation agent was required to put in one hour of mandatory overtime each day. For a nine-month period that year, supervisors were spending most of their days answering phone calls, which meant they couldn't perform some of their primary duties like call monitoring and agent evaluations. Even when things calmed down enough for supervisors to monitor agent performance, managers were measuring and rewarding agents for the wrong things. "If you didn't end the call with, 'Thanks for calling Continental,' you got a zero on your call evaluation, a zero for the month, and we pulled your incentive. Some people could lose $300 or more just because they didn't end one call with, 'Thanks for calling Continental,'" Harris confesses.
Fortunately, at the end of that year a new chairman and chief executive, Gordon Bethune, slid into the pilot seat to help steer Continental back on course. After speaking with his managers he learned that agent performance metrics were not being appropriately measured and rewarded. Harris says that that's when he told managers, "What gets measured and rewarded gets done."
So from 1995 to 2000 Continental worked on fine-tuning the way it measured agent performance by setting more realistic goals and doling out more rewards. Once the measures were set, the next step was to improve the monitoring of agents.
Continental had been using tape recorders to capture conversations between its reservation agents and customers, but this practice reduced team leader productivity and limited coaching--too much time was spent setting up recorders, tracking agents, and scrambling to catch phone calls. To help resolve these problems, the airline chose Witness Systems' automated quality monitoring solution eQuality Balance in late 2000. eQuality Balance captures customer voice and data interactions for random quality assessments. The airline also chose eQuality Evaluation, which enables simultaneous evaluation and scoring of agent performance and provides a performance summary to managers.
After a three-month pilot program Continental managers were receiving the simultaneous evaluations, agent performance scoring, and performance summaries. This was enough to convince the company to launch a staggered rollout of the eQuality Balance solution to all domestic centers in early 2001.
Six months after Continental installed Witness's eQuality Balance and Evaluation products, the airline saw an
8 percent increase in e-ticket sales and a 22 percent increase in vendor transfer programs like car rentals.
Although pressures still exist to bring the company back to profitability, employee satisfaction is currently higher than it was prior to the Witness implementations. Harris maintains that when the right agent performance metrics are measured and rewarded it improves employee satisfaction. This is evident in Continental's annual voluntary reservation agent--turnover rate, which has dropped to less than 1 percent this year.
Additionally, the eQuality Balance solution has helped improve customer satisfaction levels. When talking with agents, Continental customers rated accurate information as their number one concern (surprisingly, a courteous agent ranks number three). So Continental fixed the eQuality Balance solution to automatically give a reservation agent a below-target score on a particular evaluation if he gives inaccurate information. "As a result, our errors have decreased year over year by a significant amount and therefore we have fewer complaints coming back to us about inaccurate information," Harris says.
Recording for Compliance
The recent spate of government legislation, like the national Do Not Call registry and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, is having an effect on contact centers. The healthcare industry is not immune. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires organizations to comply with minimum security and privacy standards for health data. This aims to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the nation's healthcare system by encouraging the widespread use of electronic data interchange in healthcare.
Group Health Cooperative, a $1.7 billion consumer-governed nonprofit healthcare system, currently provides coverage and care for one in 10 Washington state residents. In its efforts to provide ongoing compliance with the HIPAA privacy and security regulations, it created a department to deal solely with any possible breaches of patient confidentiality. To ensure compliance with HIPAA regulations, Group Health turned to NICE Systems for its call recording capabilities.
The organization installed NICE Universe for quality monitoring, which captures voice, email, chat, and screen activity along with call details. Analysis tools highlight opportunities for improvement. The platform can make random, full-time, selective recording, and can record on demand.
Group Health Cooperative's quality assurance program has changed because of HIPAA, says Tammie Kidd, training and QA supervisor at Group Health. To ensure Group Health isn't disclosing any private information, even to its customers' family members, for example, it has added an extra level of verification within its call script, according to Kidd. Agents are now required to get and verify the caller's social security number or date of birth before proceeding. If there is any question regarding its compliance efforts, calls are recorded and filed, and can be retrieved at will.
Group Health plans to install an additional system, NICE Total Recording, for its consulting doctors' line. These professionals will be handling phone consultations and dispensing medical information. The organization plans to capture every call to ensure it's giving out the proper information.
While HIPAA compliance was a strong motivator to implement NICE Universe, Group Health Cooperative noticed additional benefits. "Before using the NICE recording system, we conducted live monitoring, and it was very time consuming," Kidd says. "We were only able to monitor one call a month per agent, and that wasn't enough to get a really good sample of their skill set and performance levels."
After factoring in overhead, salary of supervisors, and the cost of evaluating agents when you are only able to conduct one evaluation per month, the cost per evaluation was roughly $120, Kidd says. After the NICE installation Group Health increased its number of calls monitored each month to eight, while decreasing the cost per evaluation by nearly $100, she says. Additionally, Kidd says overall customer service--quality scores have increased by 5 percent, from 85 percent to 90 percent.
These types of customer care solutions--those that help agents sell, improve satisfaction, and help ensure compliance with government regulations--are forcing managers to change their perceptions of call centers as a cost center. The call center cannot be merely an efficiency operation anymore, Strativity's Arussy says. "Things cannot continue the way they are. If they do, the efficiency-relationship model will frustrate more people. Then the costs to acquire new customers will grow higher, and you will be fighting against competitors and frustrated clients. That's the worst situation to be in."
Contact Senior Editor David Myron at dmyron@destinationCRM.com
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