The Call Center
BY LAURENCE J. FROMM
Call centers and the Internet are two of the hottest topics in customer care, and the
intersection of the two is sizzling. In short call centers are near the top of any
companys list of strategic, mission-critical technology assets. And meanwhile, the
Internet is destined to expand and alter customer care.
According to Call Center Solutions (formerly Telemarketing) magazine,
more than $700 billion worth of products and services were sold through call centers in
1997, and that figure is expanding by 20 percent annually. More than 70 percent of
business transactions take place over the phone, according to the Gartner Group. And
worldwide telecommunications deregulation means greater availability of telephone service
around the globe.
As industries continue to deregulate, in the United States and elsewhere, former
monopolies will now have to earn their customers. Fifteen years ago, the deregulation of
long-distance phone service in the U.S. spurred long-distance carriers to improve their
inbound call centers and add outbound calls to their marketing programs. With deregulation
of energy and local phone service on the horizon, and with cable TV facing competition
from satellite and broadband access, expect more of those evening telemarketing calls.
INDUSTRY AND TECHNOLOGY CHANGES
Electronic commerce alone is expected to grow almost 800 percent over the next four years,
to $35.3 billion by 2002, according to eMarketer. Most traditional mail order
businesses � retail computer sales, for example � are better carried out online. Online retailers are growing
rapidly in business areas that once resisted mail-order sales. Plus, e-commerce opens up
completely new areas of business. The global yard sales enabled by companies like eBay (www.ebay.com), for example, allow millions of entrepreneurs
to open their own virtual storefronts.
The call center industry is also in the midst of change. According to the Yankee Group,
the market for call centers will just about double in the next four years, from $1.6
billion in equipment sales in 1998 to $3.1 billion in 2002. Call center equipment used to
be segmented into either inbound (automatic call distributors, or ACD) or outbound systems
(dialers or predictive dialers). Increasingly, however, new call center designs are
offering blended solutions that can be flexibly reconfigured into either inbound or
outbound solutions to maximize call center staff resources.
Moreover, new call center designs offer greater capability. In a traditional design, an
ACD is surrounded by augmentable applications, including interactive voice response
systems (IVR), fax-on-demand (FOD) systems, and call-logging devices. Internet gateways
are the latest example of call center add-on gear. Some vendors, including Rockwell (www.rockwell.com), Interactive Intelligence (www.inter-intelli.com), and CELLIT (www.cellit.com), offer call centers that include some or
all of these various capabilities, eliminating the need for complex, multi-vendor
integration efforts. These new-breed call centers are typically built around open systems,
enabling their vendors to choose from an entire industry of components to maximize their
flexibility and breadth of solutions.
THE INTERNET BRINGS CHANGE
The Internet layers more changes onto the mission-critical call center by enabling more
communication media types and network topologies. While a few call centers are already
using the latest integrated Web technologies, expect more capabilities to be included on a
wide scale. For example, agents will be able to push appropriate Web pages to Web surfers,
and surfers will trigger callbacks when the next agent is available, minimizing hold time.
Web surfers will also be able to e-mail or text chat with customer service agents. (Some
companies using text chat for customer service, interestingly, report that a single agent
can handle more than one simultaneous chat session.)
Web surfers will use voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology to connect to existing call
centers, for better customer support and lower costs. Many mail order companies would like
to funnel their customers to the Web, where customers can service themselves and reduce
customer service agent and call center costs. By offering customers a quick and easy way
to talk to live agents � via IP telephony �
mail-order companies are hopeful more customers will go the Web first, knowing they can
get the help they need, when they need it. Some e-commerce companies are also finding that
early trials of push-to-talk capability on their Web sites increase sales by up to 50
percent by reducing the number of customers who bail out before completing their purchase.
Internet telephony will also be used to connect to agents, offering greater flexibility
at a lower cost. Flexibility increases because agents can be linked to the call center for
both voice and data with a single IP connection, facilitating the placement of agents at
home. Many call centers would like the option of at-home agents, which saves real estate
costs and enables agents to more easily work only the hours of peak traffic. An obstacle
to home agent use today is the need for separate voice and data links into an agents
home. Internet telephony overcomes this obstacle, particularly as more homes get broadband
access. And it can also save technology costs, since circuit switches are one of the few
technology products with diseconomies of scale � the bigger
the switch, the higher the per-unit cost. Packet switching avoids the N x M circuit-switch
diseconomies and enables systems to scale ever higher with decreasing per unit costs.
THE CHALLENGE AND OPPORTUNITY
In typical call center fashion, many of these Internet capabilities are added to existing
call centers via integration of third-party devices from companies like Webline (www.webline.com) and others. As new generations of call
centers develop, these capabilities will be included in the core design, just as new call
centers now offer integrated IVR and FOD. With broad access into a call center, and packet
telephony connections to distributed agents, the call center of the future consists of
call routing software directing the flow of packets among computers and customer
service agents on one side, and customers and prospects on the other.
The explosive call center market, coupled with the Internet tidal wave, represent
unprecedented opportunity and challenge for call center vendors. Companies that can
quickly adapt and enhance their products have a tremendous advantage. Todays leaders
who find it difficult to modify their design approach will see their market share erode.
The new leaders will be companies designing their products and their companies to not only
embrace the changing technology of today, but to easily embrace the changing technology of
Laurence J. Fromm is vice president, new business development for Dialogic
Corporation. Dialogic is a leading manufacturer of high-performance, standards-based
computer telephony components. Dialogic products are used in fax, data, voice recognition,
speech synthesis, and call center management CT applications. The company is headquartered
in Parsippany, New Jersey, with regional headquarters in Tokyo and Brussels, and sales
offices worldwide. For more information, visit the Dialogic Web site at www.dialogic.com.