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March 2000


The Outbound Call Center: New Technology Requirements For A New Role


Editor�s Note
In the first two months of our �Building A Perfect Call Center� series, we covered how to choose a location and, once you have settled on a location, how to design the layout of the call center and how to furnish it. Now it is time to turn to the technology of a call center, and this month we will examine the technology that goes into an outbound call center.

Traditionally, outbound technology has been based on a predictive dialer, which allows the placing of many nearly simultaneous calls, with only live connects being passed on to agents, saving agents valuable time they would have used in manual dialing. But in the last few years we have seen, through the growth of e-commerce and customer relationship management (CRM), new demands placed on outbound call centers. Sure they will continue to place outbound sales calls, but now they are increasingly being tasked with placing calls for customer care purposes or for upselling or cross-selling. This month, Edward J. Sarkisian of EIS International takes you through the steps of setting up an outbound call center while Austin Logistics� Phu Le describes �best time to call� technology.

Today we are witnessing dramatic and sometimes revolutionary change in nearly every aspect of the traditional outbound call center, from its mission to its position in the enterprise. No longer a single-function, telephony-only operation, the outbound call center, like its inbound counterpart, is being transformed at an unprecedented rate into a multifunctional, multimedia, customer service contact center.

The predictive dialer is the foundation of the modern outbound contact center; for years it has been the technology of choice for telemarketing, telesales and fundraising campaigns. Today, the predictive dialer has evolved into a critical part of a comprehensive call management system and is emerging as a sophisticated customer service and retention tool.

As the role and organization of the outbound call center change, so do the center�s technology needs. Advanced call management systems, incorporating powerful computer-telephony integration (CTI), data management and call blending capabilities, are vital to the outbound center�s expanded presence in the enterprise. Two specific industry trends � the emergence of the contact center as a vital resource for customer relationship management (CRM) and the growing acceptance of the virtual call center � are the principal driving forces behind the evolving technology considerations and requirements for the primarily outbound call center.

Trend 1: The contact center emerges as a vital resource for customer relationship management.
As businesses focus increasingly on their customer relationships, the contact center � usually the primary (and sometimes only) customer forum for live interaction with a business unit � is emerging as a fundamental component of an enterprisewide CRM strategy. According to the Oxford Group, a high-tech marketing and research firm, approximately 60 percent of contacts from customers are coming into the enterprise via the contact center. This fact, combined with the emerging role of customer service as a point of market differentiation and catalyst for customer loyalty, is heightening the importance and elevating the stature of the contact center in the enterprise.

For companies ranging from entrepreneurial start-ups to Fortune 500 powerhouses, a vigorous commitment to customer service has become the cornerstone of enterprisewide marketing initiatives. The renewed commitment to customer service is having a profound impact on the role the contact center plays in the corporate enterprise.

New uses for the predictive dialer. The traditional outbound call center, in particular, is experiencing dramatic change in its functionality in the new customer-centric business environment. In short, it is being transformed from a traditional sales vehicle to a valuable tool for strengthening customer relationships through care calls and cross-selling and upselling initiatives.

Historically, organizations did not make outbound customer care calls. Managers of outbound, transaction-oriented call centers were reluctant to yield revenue-generating capability to a function labeled as overhead. Not so today, as organizations are beginning to recognize that customer care calls are a wise investment, and that predictive dialing technology is the key to enhanced customer service at a reasonable cost.

Customer care, or courtesy, calls provide a point of customer contact and are designed to gauge customer satisfaction, offer a forum for feedback and communicate valuable information on issues important to customers. When coupled with cross-selling and upselling initiatives, the calls also can be a pipeline to future sales.

Blending and inbound. More and more, traditionally outbound centers are finding a need for adding inbound and blending capabilities to meet the challenge of their expanded role within the enterprise. As a result, the line between inbound and outbound call centers is beginning to fade, and organizations are demanding sophisticated technology that allows a single center to serve both inbound and outbound functions, with equal success.

Trend 2: The virtual call center is growing in popularity.
With dramatic advances in networking, organizations from all industries are building �virtual� call centers, in which multiple sites are linked and function as a single contact center. The virtual call center can be described as several groups of agents � often, but not always, in separate locations (individual call centers, remote offices, homes) � who are treated as a single entity for call handling, reporting, management and scheduling purposes. Another defining characteristic of the virtual call center is that the center�s disperse architecture is transparent to the consumer. Virtual outbound call centers, when implemented properly, can offer several important advantages, including performance improvement, enhanced reliability should a system or site become disabled, lower telecommunications costs, time zone efficiencies and access to an expanded labor pool.

The virtual call center has been gaining in popularity for several years, and a recent report from the analyst group, Datamonitor, proclaims that, �the virtual call center�s time has come.� Within the U.S., the report predicts, penetration of virtual call centers in relation to all call centers will grow at a compound annual rate of more than 40 percent through 2003.

The functionality of the virtual call center is evolving to support the center�s role in achieving enterprisewide CRM goals. No longer is each contact center treated as an individual depository of information. Instead, the caller�s needs and relationship to the enterprise drive the routing of the call to the most appropriate resource in the enterprise. All agents, voice response systems and electronic access systems are viewed as a single resource pool.

The implementation of virtual outbound call centers drives the demand for more sophisticated call management technology. Enterprise strength is critical in the virtual call center environment. A call management system must be flexible, allowing for a variety of configurations, ranging from a single site to multiple sites, a single ACD/PBX to a multivendor environment or a few agents to potentially thousands. System openness is also essential, as various components and technologies must be integrated in the virtual call center. Effective monitoring, strong reporting and integration tools and call blending capabilities are among the other technology considerations for the virtual call center environment.

Technology Considerations For The New Outbound Call Center
Selecting a call management system for a primarily outbound contact center can be a daunting challenge. This challenge is heightened by the growing need to integrate inbound and blending technologies into the traditional outbound center to meet its CRM role. State-of-the-art call center technology is an expensive investment, often costing thousands of dollars per outbound seat, and the number of vendor options seems to multiply daily. A solid purchasing and implementation strategy will help to ensure a wise selection and campaign success.

The Basics � More Important Than Ever
With the expanding role of the outbound center, call center technology basics are more important than ever. When selecting a new outbound system, remember to start with the fundamentals before directing attention to system innovations.

Does the call management system offer sophisticated pacing technology that permits limitations on nuisance calls and keep agents talking?
The predictive dialer�s pacing algorithm controls the dialing rate in an effort to minimize agent idle time and maximize productivity. In doing so, however, the dialer �abandons� a certain number of calls when there are not enough agents to answer all the connected calls. In recent years, these abandoned or �nuisance� calls have fueled public outrage and demands for legislative action. The most sophisticated algorithms permit user control of abandoned calls while maintaining productivity.

Is the system �feature-rich,� providing powerful tools and options to boost productivity and improve campaign results?
Important features include:

  • High-speed voice and answering machine detection that ensure a natural call flow and enhance agent productivity.
  • Flexible campaign management capabilities that let supervisors determine parameters for system functions that affect campaign activity and results.
  • Extensive information management and reporting capabilities that are vital to campaign productivity and effectiveness. Look for systems that offer extensive information access, retrieval and processing capabilities.
  • Extensive list management and control capabilities that allow users to define target calling lists without repeated list rebuilding. The ability to compile and manage �do-not-call� lists is especially important in the current legislative environment.
  • Flexible scripting that enables users to develop personalized, multipage, on-screen scripts using conditional branching and logic fields. Some systems allow a user to modify a script that is running and replace the original with the modified version online.

Is the system user-friendly for agents and supervisors?
Look for an easy-to-learn system that will put agents on the phones quickly and not keep them sitting through extensive training programs or waiting for supervisor assistance in the midst of a calling project.

Does the system offer adequate scalability?
Choose a system that has the flexibility to protect the center�s technology investment and meet its needs both today and tomorrow.

Does the system have a proven track record?
While many systems can perform in a demonstration situation under ideal conditions, some cannot handle the rigors of field use. Look for a reliable system that consistently delivers results in an environment similar to your own. Ask for and check references from potential vendors.

Are comprehensive system features/tools included in the base price?
Don�t be fooled by a low per-seat cost. When evaluating and comparing call management systems, determine which features are included in the system�s �base� price. Many manufacturers offer only limited features in the base price and package other essential and desirable features as �options� available for an additional (often large) fee.

New Considerations For The Evolving Outbound Center
The growing popularity of the virtual call center and the expanded role of the outbound center as a vital CRM tool necessitate more flexible and sophisticated contact center technology. After considering the basics, be sure to explore the following technology considerations necessary for today�s outbound center.

Does the system offer an open architecture that allows interoperability and the incorporation of best-of-breed solutions from multiple vendors � factors critical to the virtual and multimedia contact center? If not, does the vendor have a migration plan for systems that don�t have open architecture?

For state-of-the-art campaigns, which often incorporate fax, e-mail and Web capabilities along with telephony, open systems that permit the incorporation of best-of-breed solutions from various vendors are highly desirable and offer the best options for technology investment and system growth. A second option is a vendor who already has incorporated desired technologies from other vendors into its systems.

Does the system offer flexible and extensive reporting capabilities critical to the expanded role of the contact center as a vital CRM tool? Can it produce reports in real-time? Does it have the ability to export data to industry-standard database programs (Microsoft Access and others) and to manipulate those data?

Look for systems that offer extensive information access, retrieval and proc-essing capabilities.

Is the system equipped with sophisticated MIS capabilities such as the ability to implement forecasting and access historical data (customer profile and transaction data) in real time, both features essential for CRM and virtual call center environment?

CRM-focused contact centers require event-driven, network-based, computer-telephony integration (CTI) solutions that gather, store and deliver data to the agent�s desktop, where it can be used to personalize customer interactions.

Does the system have the inbound and blending capabilities or options required to fulfill the center�s CRM role and to leverage the potential of the virtual call center?

The blended system should have third-party transfer and skills-based routing capabilities needed to identify and route callers to the best-possible resource in the enterprise. This means that the agent can receive a return call from a customer and can handle anything the customer needs, either by accessing data or by conferencing or transferring the call to someone who can handle the issue. Some centers have set up systems whereby one agent becomes the customer�s �single point of contact� for all concerns.

Does the system allow the user to access external databases to facilitate �one and done� contacts (let outbound callers look up information to answer questions that may be posed during the call) that improve the customer relationship?

Look for a system that supports the ability to respond quickly and forge strong customer relationships.

Can the system be networked to other sites and call management systems for use in the virtual call center environment?

Look for a flexible, open architecture that will work with the existing infrastructure and facilitate expansion as well as the incorporation of new contact center applications. It is necessary to employ open systems that support standards, such as TCP/IP, and have the ability to scale upward to accommodate new applications, such as VoIP and voice recognition.

When selecting technology for the outbound contact center, it is imperative to ask detailed questions about the technology and its capabilities, costs and its potential impact on the center and the organization. In this age of frequent mergers among technology vendors, it also is prudent to thoroughly research a potential vendor partner and factor the impact of a corporate merger or sale into the purchasing and implementation strategy. Call center technology is a long-term, expensive investment. A solid purchasing and implementation strategy will result in a wise choice that will help assure a successful customer contact center.

Edward J. Sarkisian, senior vice president for Worldwide Marketing, Sales, & Customer Operations, is responsible for EIS� global sales and marketing activities.

Outbound Call Center Technology: Software Optimization Solution


In the outbound call center business, increasing staff productivity and keeping costs low is a challenge. With rising costs and competitive pressures, call center management is forced to examine new ways to boost productivity.

Through innovative technology, several call centers have already found a solution that provides a quick payback and directly impacts the bottom line. This advanced technology, often referred to as �best time to call� software, provides outbound call center decision support that creates an optimized calling schedule that determines which valuable customers to call and the best time to call them. With the aid of this technology, call center productivity can be increased by at least 15 percent.

It works by building a database of prior call history for use in segmentation, scoring, reporting and staffing. This database aids in developing and deploying proprietary, customized statistical models that predict the likelihood of contactibility (right-party contact, wrong-party contact and no contact), response and promise to pay. Using these estimates, a call center produces schedules based on available resources. It can increase right-party contact rates, decrease staffing costs and allow you to spend more time with high-priority accounts. Each of these gains, in turn, can affect the bottom line by decreasing costs and increasing the return on investment.

This outbound system can increase the ratio of right-party contacts to attempts, and right-party contacts per agent, by more than 20 percent, which is estimated to be the equivalent of adding one agent to every five agents currently on staff. It can provide an improved degree of flexibility with regard to strategy management, segmentation, variable generation, strategy definition, champion/challenger testing and campaign design. Call center managers can test various call targeting strategies on unique account population segments and perform an ad hoc analysis. For example, clients could identify all accounts with more than 10 attempts in the last 30 days that did not have a right-party contact and send a file of those accounts to its letter-generation system.

Using the champion/challenger technique, managers can quantify the benefits of technology and continually test and refine call-targeting strategies. The automated scoring platform enables monthly development of custom statistical models to predict the likelihood of contacting customers at different times of the day. It also determines the likelihood that customers will make a promise to pay once contacted. Because the automated modeling increases right-party contacts and high-priority contact rates, a call center receives better contact estimates, which in turn produces increased productivity gains.

This system optimizes the entire group of accounts to call based on call center resources and objectives. It determines whom to call, when to call, the value of each call and the number of agents available. Using the data on staffing and performance, the software combines customized daily reporting with hourly performance information to evaluate long-term staffing scenarios.

Because this technology is flexible enough to work in any environment, the maintenance, installation and use are easy. The user simply inputs the agents� schedules and the software does the rest.

This outbound call center solution distributes workloads across multiple dialers and multiple sites, integrates with different dialers and different file formats, incorporates into a normal download process and delivers records in real-time.

Following are some important points to look for when selecting an outbound call center technology.

Customer service. Although outbound optimization call center technology is at its peak, call center management will need to request some type of help from the optimization software provider, whether it�s installation, hardware integration, scorecard building or custom model development. Take a look at the company�s references and listen to what their past and current clients have to say. These clients have gone through everything you are about to go through. Ask them detailed questions about the vendor�s bedside manner, demeanor and disposition.
Control. Choose optimization software that allows complete control of your call targeting strategies. This will decrease your maintenance cost, lower your resource expenditure and allow you to have more authority over your own personal tactics and approach.

Customization. Whether your goals are to obtain the highest balance accounts, increase your right-party contacts or identify your most productive agents, customized statistical models can help. Select outbound optimization software that allows you to custom tailor your tactics to achieve your goals.

Optimization. There are four common methods of call scheduling: random, segmentation, prioritization and optimization. Random calling represents the simplest method; calls are attempted each hour without regard to any underlying account information. Segmentation, on the other hand, is quite common. Accounts are classified into a variety of segments based on the profile or status of each account. Each segment of accounts can be scheduled at a different time of the day. Prioritization assigns a relative priority value, or weight, to each account. Once a value is assigned for each hour, accounts are scheduled into the time period with the highest contact probability and sorted in order of highest to lowest priority value for each hour of the day. Accounts contacted in earlier lists are removed from later lists, and the resulting lists are resorted with the remaining accounts.

Optimization takes prioritization one step further. The optimization process determines the best combination of accounts to be called in each hour to achieve a specific operational objective (e.g., maximize right-party contacts), given certain constraints (e.g., actual collectors available). In addition to considering each account�s priority value for a given hour, optimization considers all values in all hours. Essentially, optimization determines the impact of scheduling each account on the remainder of available accounts. The result is a statistically optimal schedule of accounts to be called.

When considering your outbound call center technology, do your research. Choose a company that best meets your goals and needs. Make sure you are aware of your objectives and that you choose a customized solution to achieve those objectives. Finally, don�t forget that optimization is your best bet. Optimization considers all contact rates for all accounts in each time period and produces the best overall solution. The right outbound call center technology can help you achieve your goals of a productive and effective call center, and that saves you money.

Phu Le is marketing director of Austin Logistics Inc., which develops, markets and supports productivity solutions for collections, marketing and risk management in business segments such as consumer credit and Internet transactions.

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