The call center industry is changing at such a rapid pace, you may feel it is
impossible to stay up-to-date. Indeed, not a day goes by when we don't hear news
concerning the ever-expanding channels of communication between businesses and their
customers, and, of course, the technologies that make them possible.
In the whirlwind of constantly evolving technologies, it's not hard to see how easily
businesses can lose sight of some of the vital issues that have historically been at the
heart of every call center; namely human resources and customer relationships (or customer
relationship management, CRM, as it is now called). Don't get me wrong - new technologies,
especially those necessary for e-sales and e-service, are vital to the success of all call
centers as we enter the new millennium. In fact, if you look at Figure 1, you will see that a successful call center is really the sum of
the three parts on the triangle: customer relationship management, cutting-edge technology
and human resources.
Having said that, let's look individually at the three parts. I'll start with human
resources, provide a close look at some of the technologies essential for conducting a
call center business today, and in the end, I think it will be apparent how these
components will help you to manage customer relationships.
It goes without saying that finding qualified call center staff (especially in today's
economy) and retaining them is one of the most difficult challenges for all call center
management. Since countless articles have been published on this subject since this
magazine's inception in 1982, I invite you to visit our Web site (www.tmcnet.com) or contact our customer service
department (800-243-6002) to find more information on the subject of hiring and retaining
call center staff.
But what about training? In the old days of index cards and paper scripts, call centers
could pretty much rely on the pat advice of generalist sales trainers and still be
successful. Today, with the advent of high technology, that just won't cut it.
Here are some pointers for managing human resources in a high-tech call center:
1) Hiring People With The Appropriate Skill Levels
High-tech call centers need people who not only have excellent customer service and sales
skills, but people who are also able to operate the new technology in the center. If
TSRs/CSRs are not comfortable with the equipment, they tend to focus on manipulating the
technology and forget to give the proper amount of service to the customer. Obviously,
this will give your customers the impression that your people are uninformed about your
product or service and, worse yet, that you don't care about their needs.
Hiring people with technology skills can sometimes be a challenge. These people are in
demand and might expect a higher wage than what you are prepared to offer. Recruiting
efforts have to be strong and your offer needs to be the best in the market to secure
them. In some markets, there are very few people with the skill level your center
requires. That means you have to hire people who you think will be able to learn and adapt
to the technology within a timeframe that does not impact your business. You will also
need to refresh sales and service skills and teach them about your product during the same
2) Training People To Work On High-Tech Systems
When your staff is not familiar with technology, you have to be prepared to train the
basic computer skills in addition to the specific skills needed to work with the new
technology. This could even include teaching "point and click." On the other
hand, you will have people who will catch on quickly to the technology. Training all of
these people at the same time requires careful planning. And if the person doing the
training also functions as a center supervisor/manager, you will need to consider: 1) the
amount of time they will be taken away from regular supervisory duties, 2) how much
selling time you will lose from your new reps, and 3) how that impacts the center
The approach the trainer takes is also very important. The trainer should be able to
immediately identify the people who will never be comfortable with the technology. If
these people are allowed to remain in your employ, they are likely to quickly leave anyway
because they are not prepared for the pressure of live calls. This could place you in an
unfavorable staffing situation.
Also, the trainer needs to identify the people who need a lot of hands-on guidance.
These people can be paired up with people who are comfortable with the technology. With
this strategy, you will be able to continue a steady pace in training while giving
students who require it extra attention.
E-tools For E-sales And E-service
Finding and managing the right people to help launch your call center into the new
millennium is only part of the ultimate solution. You need to adopt a variety of new
technologies -- call them e-tools -- that together with your properly trained human
resources can allow you to create the most cost-effective and productive e-sales and
e-service organization possible.
Let's take a look at each of the various technologies and their potential impact on how
your call center operation can take advantage of new, Web-based, e-commerce business
CTI. CTI (computer-telephony integration) technology has become a
staple of many call centers' competitive arsenals, and for good reason. For a customer
dialing into a call center, the goal of CTI is to allow that customer to satisfy all of
his or her informational and transactional needs with a single phone call, rather than
making that customer call multiple phone numbers for different departments and repeating
his or her account history and information at every step of the way (sometimes referred to
as "running the maze").
For those who make the investment, CTI technology can provide an important competitive
edge. Results can be measured in increased revenues, lower costs and improved efficiency
-- especially in call center environments where agents can handle more incoming calls,
place outgoing calls more accurately, process orders and handle collections more
effectively, and generally provide a much higher level of personalized customer service.
With these kinds of results, telecommunications and computing resources can be run as
revenue-generating profit centers rather than traditional cost centers - a fact that would
make any business manager smile.
The leading CTI call center applications include inbound call routing (sometimes
referred to as "skills-based routing") which uses network services such as ANI
(automatic number identification) or DNIS (dialed number identification service) or
automated attendant systems, to automatically route an incoming call to the most
appropriate department or to a specific customer service agent based on the careful
utilization of database information. Outbound call management is also an important area.
CTI links between phone switches and database resources can make the most of such
sophisticated ACD functions as intelligent and predictive dialing.
Another key application is real-time, coordinated routing of voice calls and terminal
data screens (a.k.a. "screen pops"). Again, this application leverages ANI and
DNIS information to simultaneously deliver specific data files along with a phone call to
a receiving agent's workstation. Similar to the above, but with a twist, simultaneous
voice/data transfer applications involve the transfer of inbound phone calls and the data
associated with these calls from one company extension to another.
Another vastly popular call center CTI application involves host database access and
retrieval, and relies on the use of IVR, or interactive voice response systems, to allow
callers to use their touch-tone phones as virtual computer terminals, issuing commands to
the host computer to access specific account information or perform various types of
The applications described above rely on the telephone as the device of choice for
accessing customer support services. With the advent of e-commerce on the Web, are we to
assume that these tried-and-true applications will go by the wayside? No, not on your life
(or the performance of your call center staff)! As business moves more and more to the
Web, the need to communicate and provide service by phone doesn't just go away. It will,
in fact, increase. Many people will continue to browse Web pages for selection and price,
and then call into a call center to place their orders. When a prospect has a question
about a product, service or any other aspect of a transaction, and that question is not
answered by a Web page, he or she will call into a call center to get the answer. When the
order doesn't arrive on time, or the wrong item is shipped, the customer will not fire up
an Internet connection -- rather, he or she will dial an 800 number to complain.
The challenge is to integrate the processes that revolve around the use of CTI into
your e-sales and e-service business model. When a customer I.D. and order number are
generated by a shopper who is making an online purchase, this information, along with the
order details, must be quickly and efficiently delivered to the legacy database systems in
use for your more "traditional" phone and direct-mail-based transactions. If for
some reason this is not technically feasible, and you need to deploy a separate database
system to handle your Web-based transactions, then you need to link your existing CTI
infrastructure to this additional system. Yes, it will mean changing voice prompts and
adding new menus to your voice response system - but it will be well worth the effort.
Just imagine the incredible loyalty and gratitude that will flow from an online customer
who dials into your IVR system, enters his order number and is quickly routed to an agent
who knows his name, the details of the transaction and is ready and willing to help!
IWR. Otherwise known as interactive Web response. An online customer
-- by virtue of the very fact that he or she is conducting business online -- would
probably be incredibly receptive to the idea of being able to check order status, billing
information, cancel orders or simply change user name and password information - online.
Doing this also requires careful integration of back-office database facilities with your
Web servers and is becoming an essential feature set for any serious e-commerce venture.
CALL CENTER Solutions magazine is a great place to start your research for the
Web-enabling products that can provide you with this functionality.
Internet Telephony. Those of you who read our sister publication,
Internet Telephony-- magazine, will be familiar with the general concepts behind Internet
(or IP) telephony. In a nutshell, Internet telephony relies on a special breed of
technology, including specialized software, gateways and gatekeepers and a packet-switched
network (an Internet protocol or IP-based network) to transport voice, fax and video. The
"transmission" of voice and fax over an IP-based network is incredibly more
efficient than sending it over the traditional PSTN (or public switched telephone
network), and it allows for the provisioning of a multitude of innovative enhanced
What does this have to do with your call center, you ask? Put yourself in the chair of
a Web surfer who is perusing your company's shiny new online catalog. Questions arise, and
the answers can't be found. "Call me" buttons are spreading across the Web that
allow surfers to request a callback from a call center agent on a second phone line,
alleviating the need to hang up on her ISP to make the phone call.
Better yet, Internet telephony applications are becoming available that allow this
surfer to initiate a live, telephony session with a call center agent -- directly from her
PC and over the existing dial-up connection. This application has often been referred to
as "click to talk" or "click to call" buttons on a Web page. And the
beauty of it doesn't stop there. In addition to being able to answer questions in
real-time, applications have been developed that allow the agent to also "take
control" of the surfer's browser, leading the surfer to the requested information as
well as related content -- for the purpose of suggesting additional or alternative items
for purchase! In terms of e-sales and e-service and an effective Web-enabled call center,
Internet telephony is the 800-pound gorilla.
E-mail Management. One of the biggest challenges of conducting
effective e-sales and e-service is handling the flood of e-mail pouring into businesses
going online. Think back (unfortunately not far back enough) to the times you've sent an
e-mail to your ISP or to an e-commerce site, only to never receive a reply. Or almost as
bad, you get an autoreply telling you that because of the huge number of messages coming
into customer service, there will be a "longer than normal" wait. It's safe to
say these experiences didn't generate strong feelings of goodwill. Thankfully, a number of
innovative products are becoming available to help automate the receipt, response and
filing of these messages so that prospects and customers get timely responses to their
e-mail. Search out the companies that create these applications, test their products and
get them running at your company as soon as possible.
Data Warehousing And Data Mining. One of the most critical issues
facing the call center operation today is making effective use of the tremendous stores of
data at their disposal. Effective and proactive data management plays a key role in
determining the overall competitiveness of an operation.
A data warehouse is more than an archive for corporate data and more than a new way of
accessing corporate information. A data warehouse is a subject-oriented repository
designed with enterprisewide access in mind. It provides tools to satisfy the information
needs of managers at all organizational levels - not just for complex data queries, but as
a general facility for getting quick, accurate and often insightful information. A data
warehouse is designed so that its users can recognize the information they want and access
that information using simple tools. One of the principal reasons for developing a data
warehouse is to integrate operational data from various sources into a single and
consistent structure that supports analysis and decision making within the enterprise.
Operational (legacy) systems create, update and delete production data that
"feed" the data warehouse. Therefore, a data warehouse is typically a blending
of technologies, including relational and multidimensional databases, client/server
architecture, extraction/transformation programs, graphical user interfaces, and more.
Data mining solutions, which can depend on existing data warehousing facilities, allow
you to explore large quantities of data to discover relationships and patterns and make
decisions that can ultimately lead to a number of competitive advantages. Data mining can
help specifically with:
- Customer retention (keeping existing customers),
- Customer acquisition (finding new customers),
- Cross-selling (selling customers more products based on what they have already bought),
- Upgrading (selling customers a higher level of service or product, such as a gold credit
card versus a regular credit card),
- Fraud detection (determining if a particular transaction is out of the normal range of a
person's activity and flagging that transaction for verification),
- Market-basket analysis (determining what combinations of products are purchased at a
With respect to e-sales and e-service, the Web and online customer service represent
some of the best opportunities to collect high-quality demographic information from your
prospects and existing customers -- in the form of online surveys and after-sale
questionnaires. Follow-up e-mail, with a hypertext link to point recipients to a site for
reply, can address each and every item in the above bulleted list -- and provide you with
a multitude of new sales opportunities that you would have never otherwise uncovered.
Customer relationship management is, ultimately, what drives the profitability of any
business. Without satisfied, loyal customers, there is no business and, therefore, no need
for a call center, its people and new technologies.
As we've discussed in other articles in this issue and a number of recent past issues,
there are many philosophies and strategies that contribute to effective CRM. What cannot
be lost in all of this important advice, however, is the importance of effectively
leveraging and coordinating your human resources with new technologies, which together
allow you to provide the ultimate experience that contributes to customer satisfaction and
We sincerely hope you will join us at CTI EXPO Fall '99 December 7-9 in Las Vegas to
see all of what I have written about in action. There will be plenty of product
demonstrations as well as numerous conference sessions to give you further information on
the subjects vital to running today's call centers.
As always, I welcome your comments!
Executive Group Publisher