Trends and Technology
In these times of restrained enthusiasm and constrained budgets, technological innovation is still in vogue in corporate customer service hubs. Much of the emphasis today is on improving and expanding the reach of customer contact--and making it as affordable as possible.
As more operations look to globalize, for example, thin-client agent desktops can make it faster and more affordable to equip a remote location or contractor with full access to the customer service workflow. This technology enables such strategies as "following the sun" with multiple worldwide sites, outsourcing call centers in lower-cost countries like Ireland, India, and the Philippines, or telecommuting.
For one, the majority of airline JetBlue's call center agents work from their homes using simply a dedicated Internet connection. "JetBlue gets access to a larger labor pool than will turn up in a building somewhere," says Lawrence Byrd, CRM evangelist at telecom company Avaya Inc., in Basking Ridge, N.J.
The once-hot concept of the universal queue has yet to make a major impact in today's call centers, in part because industry estimates indicate that phone contact still accounts for at least 70 percent of contact center traffic. Newer channels like email are still predominantly handled in a separate queue by a separate pool of agents. However, these channels are treated if not as universal, then at least as separate-but-equal.
"Call centers are now putting in email ACD [automatic call distribution], tracking when they come in, how long they stay in the queue, and how long until messages get closed," says Oscar Alban, principal market consultant for software developer Witness Systems.
Another underutilized strategy is skills-based call routing. According to Service Quality Management Group survey data, only one third of major contact centers currently use it, but Ellen Malcolmson, senior vice president of customer service at Canada's Bell Mobility, strongly recommends the practice. "It's helping us in retention--we are able to enrich the jobs of more senior reps, positioning them to handle more complex interactions," she says, crediting her firm's investment in Nortel Symposium with also providing a major improvement in customer perception.
Although many call centers choose to stay with traditional PBX and ACD systems, IP telephony is an attractive route for new or upgrading facilities. A robust IP telephony infrastructure can allow contracted customer service resources, like a third-shift or overflow call center, to log in to the parent ACD, says Zoltan Poleretzky, a senior manager at Cisco Systems Inc. That could translate into a lower hourly or per-incident cost, and eliminate the cost of paying to use the contractor's switching and queuing equipment.
Since the emphasis is often on making more with less, refining and repurposing information is gaining popularity through knowledge management tools designed to simplify agents' access to data. But Tim Hickernell, senior program director at META Group, advises caution in vendor selection. "Especially vendors hawking full-text indexing and search--these are time wasters for agents because they're so imprecise," he says, recommending the use of natural language and easy-to-follow taxonomy-based systems instead.
For its part, pharmaceutical sales software vendor Dendrite is in the midst of integrating both a regularly updated knowledge management system for better Q&A handling, as well as a cobrowsing system for the tens of thousands of field users it supports, at its new Chesapeake, Va., contact center. By tying electronic "coaching" requests through the center's Genesys queue to data pulled from the firm's Clarify CRM database, Dendrite reps will be able to see what application the customer is using and better understand what training and experience the user has before getting on the call. "We think we'll be able to close issues faster, and [cobrowsing] is a good platform to do remedial training on," says Kyle Dolbow, group president of support services.
Tools for Managers
Like Dendrite, many call center operators are recognizing that customer service and productivity tools can also be used to improve agent supervision. The actual technology of making and receiving calls is secondary to front-line management, says Elizabeth Ussher, a META Group vice president. "Any kind of tools or processes that help with retention or help with training [are] of primary importance to call center supervisors," she says.
It is now possible, for example, to capture the entire voice and data exchange in real-time. This significantly improves the accuracy and meaningfulness of employee evaluation. "If you understand your objectives and can be measured against them in a timely, meaningful fashion, then it's not just somebody coming and reprimanding you for something you didn't know you did," says Eric Greenwood, CIO of professional services at Toronto-based customer care outsourcer Minacs Worldwide Inc. Using software from Witness Systems and data collected via CTI, Minacs delivers a frequently updated performance dashboard to agents, which Greenwood says is key not only to self-policing, but also to job satisfaction. "The thing that drives people to another job is frustration, and frustration comes in large part from ignorance. The more information you can provide people with, the more you can manage attrition rate."
Auto maker Saturn Corp. uses data capture to monitor how agents use their desktops during calls, and to take corrective steps when Web browsing or personal email contact intrudes on call time, says EDS account manager Steve Fort, who comanages the Saturn automotive contact center. EDS and Saturn also use the approach to help fine-tune the center's Siebel application, observing how reps use the system and streamlining the interface or adding additional menu options to correct early confusion. "We learn a lot from data capture," Fort says.
E-learning also is getting a great deal of attention as a just-in-time, low-cost method of improving agent performance on demand, and the contact center lends itself well to running a successful e-learning plan. "There is so much technology in the call center [already] that complements e-learning. You have agent monitoring and analysis, so examine which agent needs to know what, and find out when there's down time for the agent," META's Hickernell says.
Despite the dozens of metrics and thousands upon thousands of hours of recorded calls, some see an even more important step yet to come in bridging the gap between the service/support organizations and the rest of the business. "What I haven't seen the vendors do yet--but they could prove me wrong--is...to really map all of this information to company-wide goals," says AMR Research analyst Lindsey Higgs. "[Whether] cost-savings or revenue generation, increasing product exposure, how did [contact center performance] actually end up mapping to that? That is what I'm seeing as the missing link."