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May 1999

With More And More Technology, Let's Not Forget Human Resources


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.

Human Resources
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 ( 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 timeframe.

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 operations.

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 opportunities.

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 transactions.

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 services.

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 given time).

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 customer loyalty.

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!


Nadji Tehrani
Executive Group Publisher

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