From July 30 to August 2, Chicago played host to the latest installment of the International Call Center Management Conference and Exposition (ICCM), held concurrently with the Customer Relationship Management Solutions conference.
As expected during a time when speculative strategic spending is viewed with suspicion, the buzz on the show floor was decidedly reserved and primarily professionally focused, save the odd booth cheerleader or actor dressed up as a "detective" to support a dubious attention-grabbing skit. A considerable amount of energy was directed not at completely overhauling CRM infrastructure, but doing more with the resources and capabilities already in place. "The new area of focus is not just efficiency, but effectiveness," says E.piphany director of B2B programs Stephanie Langenfeld. "It's not just about how many calls you turn over in an hour, but [measuring] customer satisfaction after the call is completed and reducing the number of times customers have to call."
New technology wasn't completely off the radar. Virtually any vendor with any sort of hand in the call center market touted some sort of support for the emerging concept of the completely IP-powered contact center. While VoIP has been slow to gain widespread consumer and B2B adoption, several companies advanced the notion that the entire internal operations of call centers should be built around IP so that application data, Internet-based customer queries and voice can all be handled through a single wire to the agent's desk.
Cisco Systems demonstrated a number of stations connected with its IP-based desk phones, and product manager Ross Daniels indicates that the company is currently shipping thousands of units per month, largely to the customer support market. And yes, despite the fundamentally different technology behind them, they do have a familiar dial-tone sound.
While the concept of driving all call center activity off of a single information feed is alluring in its simplicity, it also introduces the danger of a single point of failure, and vendors were largely at a loss to cite firm ROI figures for abandoning traditional voice networks for a 100 percent IP solution. Robert Tevis, group product manager for Siemens Information and Communications Networks compares the situation to the early days of ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) and other revolutionary communication standards. "We're at the start of the transition, so a lot of people are finding the investment higher on the front end, which is normal in any business," he says. "They're early adopters. The promise of VoIP is that it's a single wire, so you're not maintaining multiple networks," which can significantly reduce the need for specialized IT resources.
One of the more novel approaches to applied digital telephony came from Voice Print International of Camarillo, Calif. Its Voice Vault call recording technology is touted both as a lawsuit protection and customer satisfaction tool. On the premise that the benefits from the relative ease and low cost of recording customer transactions should be shared, captured calls cannot only be reviewed by internal staff, but made available for customers as well. An individual could dial in at a later date and request a playback to refresh his or her memory about the details of a transaction, or a company could attach call voice logs to confirmation e-mails as a solid receipt for a service request.
Siebel Systems put on the first public demonstration of its Siebel 2001 suite at the show. The new system features a Web-based client bolstered by DOM (Document Object Model) and Java technologies to support more complex and push-oriented data than standard HTML can comfortably manage. In keeping with the IP-powered contact center theme, a new universal queue that ranks and prioritizes all incoming customer contacts, regardless of the channel of origin, was a major highlight among the new features.
The company also demonstrated a semi-automated e-mail support system, which analyzes the content of a customer request and suggests likely canned responses based on past experience and the category of the message as defined by the agent. The results (including whether a customized reply is needed) are fed back into the recommendation engine for further consideration.
Siebel System's Matt Malden declined to speculate directly on how Microsoft's announced intention to drop bundled Java support from Windows XP and new editions of Internet Explorer might complicate deploying the new Java-reliant software in the enterprise. He mentioned that Microsoft was a beta customer of the Siebel 2001 suite, and that if necessary, the client could be rebuilt using different technology. (Windows and Internet Explorer users will still be able to run Java programs using free software from Sun or other sources.)
Workforce optimization specialist Blue Pumpkin is trying to help contact centers deal with the complexities of staffing the always-busy multichannel contact center through scheduling software that now addresses not only an agent's proficiency with a particular topic or communication skill, but with a particular channel as well. Now, for example, agents can be graded and assigned not only by their ability to speak in a second language, but also by how well they can answer e-mail in that language. Agents can also be given different priority levels to be assigned to a particular channel or channels of work, so an organization's best Web chat specialists are not relegated to call duty while chat sessions go unacknowledged.
Amid the expected sessions devoted to hiring, training and retaining call center personnel was a panel discussion outlining the trend toward building offshore call centers, going so far as to provide a nation-by-nation workforce and climate profile. According to the presenters, for example, Canada's reputation for manners is not undeserved, so its call center agents may not make good cold callers. Meanwhile, India's cost structure and talent base is worth serious consideration, but its technology infrastructure calls for caution.
The next conference in this series, Advanstar's Call Center and CRM Solutions, will be held in Las Vegas, February 12-13, 2002.