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July 1999

Tactics To Turbo Charge Multinational Call Centers


Multinational companies might want to rename call centers as profit centers. If done right, multinational call centers can unite voice and data in a powerful one-two punch that can generate revenues, reduce overhead and move companies ever closer to their customers - a must-do in highly competitive markets.

With call overflow and load balancing features now available on a global basis, multinationals can optimize their use of call center resources without geographic boundaries. As a result, they can ensure that every single customer call is answered. For instance, by overflowing calls from a local, in-country sales office to a centralized European call center, a major European airline was able to accommodate many additional customer calls, which drove up bookings and prompted the airline to offer - and successfully fill - an extra flight per week between London and Vienna.

According to an analyst with GartnerGroup, with the lure of such benefits, even usually tight-fisted companies are willing to invest significant money in their call centers. But it takes more than just a healthy budget to make a call center yield the benefits that businesses seek.

To really turbo charge a call center, a multinational must first match business needs with technologies, address infrastructure issues, reduce costs and understand cultural differences within its customer base and within call center operating regions. In addition, it is essential that companies procure "borderless" solutions from vendors who not only have the technical know-how, but also understand the nuances of the international marketplace so that a phone call placed from Japan, routed through London, and then answered in Dublin, seems as seamless as a call made locally.

Consider The Infrastructure
Multinationals keen on placing call centers in countries where regulations are favorable and labor is cheap and plentiful should first consider how well the country’s telecommunications infrastructure is developed. The Asia-Pacific region has emerged as a hot spot for development, with many multinationals opening facilities or moving operations to countries like Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. Most countries will vie for multinational business as a way to stimulate the economy and create jobs, but despite their efforts, they simply aren’t set to guarantee that call centers will have reliable, consistent service. Malaysia, for example, has tried to position itself as the new Silicon Valley, offering attractive tax incentives to draw investments away from Hong Kong and Singapore, but the telecom infrastructure simply isn’t there — and won’t be for the near term. The U.K. and, particularly Ireland, are hot spots right now because the infrastructure is in place, the regulations are favorable and there is access to workers with the language skills to accommodate a global business.

The U.K. leads the pack in terms of numbers of ACDs (automatic call distributors). And usually there is a close correlation between the number of ACDs in a country and the number of call center agents. The only difference is in Ireland where the proportion of call center agents to ACDs is actually much higher.

While there is little a company can do about a country’s underlying technical infrastructure, there is a great deal it can do internally to ensure that its own infrastructure can support call centers. This includes obtaining enough bandwidth to modernizing the network to handle intelligent features.

Build Or Buy?
Companies should also consider how much of the infrastructure should be built in-house versus how much should be bought or outsourced to a third party. All have their advantages. Build-it-yourself solutions, while custom-tailored to a company’s business goals and often more flexible, require a large up-front capital outlay and internal expertise that overworked IT departments may not have to spare.

Buying a solution from a competent vendor or even outsourcing all or a portion of it offers companies a way to outfit call centers with tried-and-true remedies, helps them keep abreast of advancing technology, allows them to tap into the expertise of professionals who live and breathe call centers and ensures reliability.

Most important, companies should have contingency plans in place, in case natural disasters, or even technical difficulties occur. If a call center goes down for even one hour, it can seriously dent a company’s revenues as well as interrupt business. A major airline recently discovered the importance of contingency plans when its new European call center opened for business. Plagued by technical difficulties in its vendor’s network on the first day of operation, the airline lost thousands of customer calls and millions of dollars in revenue in the week call center operations were compromised. Had one existed, a contingency plan could have been invoked within 15 minutes and saved the airline a fortune in both dollars and customer good will.

Avoid Culture Clash
To operate across borders, as multinationals must do, call centers must be planned with a global audience in mind. Increasingly, multinational companies are offering 24-hour service to customers located around the globe, whether these customers are other businesses buying professional services or individual buyers on a home shopping network. Routing calls to an agent who speaks the appropriate language is as critical as being able to update inventory and, using “follow-the-sun” technology, switch calls from call centers closing for the evening to those in different time zones that are opening for the day.

Multinationals must also consider the cultural differences among the members of their customer base and understand their calling habits. From a budget and operational standpoint, it may sound like a wonderful idea to follow the trend to consolidate multiple, small call centers into fewer, centralized centers located in select countries and populated with multilingual agents, but some callers may not find that appealing.

Customer preferences can vary greatly from country to country. One company found that its Japanese callers didn’t want to talk to a Japanese-speaking agent residing in another country. In fact, they stopped calling altogether. Upon further investigation, the company discovered that callers wanted to deal with someone local who could relate to the local community.

Technology’s appeal also can vary greatly from customer to customer. In more advanced call center markets where the use of CTI is widespread, consumers are generally pleased when an agent greets them by name and knows every business interaction they have had with the company. But in countries where the retail outlet still rules, many callers find CTI disconcerting, at the very least, and offensive, at worst.

Most consumers in the U.S. and certain European countries are comfortable with interactive voice response (IVR) technologies and for them the benefits are clear: they get through to the appropriate representative the first time, every time and, in some cases, they can complete transactions without having to speak to anyone. In other countries, consumers will simply refuse to interact with a machine.

But customer profiles, preferences and receptiveness to new technologies are ever-changing and multinationals must be prepared to respond quickly to shifts. An online services provider found that its audience shifted over time from younger professionals and students who made service support calls in the evening to retirees who discovered the Internet and wanted to access agents with questions during the day. As a result, the service had to add more agent resources to the daytime hours.

Considering the user base and minding cultural differences often means turning a blind eye to strategies that have worked well in the U.S. market, where call centers are a booming business. There’s been a backlash of sorts against some of the practices, such as evening phone calls to private homes, that have made telemarketing a success in the U.S. Germany, for instance, has put restrictions on calls and caller identification practices.

In some European countries, it is inadvisable to offer customers toll-free numbers — a local phone number that suggests a local presence is more appealing and can reduce the cost of supporting those calls. In fact, it is estimated that up to 60 percent of cross-border calls received by international call centers are made to local in-country PSTN numbers.

In one country, children were tying up the toll-free lines of car rental companies with prank calls, at much expense, so the companies banded together and agreed they would drop their toll-free numbers in favor of local toll calls. That way, the pranksters were thwarted, the costs were reduced and no one gained a competitive edge over the others by offering a free way to call in.

Drive Down Costs
The final way to turbo charge the phone center is to reduce the overhead and costs associated with running these potential revenue-makers. One way is to consolidate call center functions from many locations to just a few.

Reducing the number of centers usually results in a reduction of the workforce, and that’s where the bulk of cost is generated. According to industry sources, 75 percent of the costs associated with the call center come from supporting agents with things like desks, chairs, phones, headsets and computers. Additionally, latching on to fleeting trends can prove costly as well.

Phone-based banking is a prime example of a market that everyone — from analysts to vendors to banks — predicted would explode. But its rise was short-lived as the Internet grew in popularity and customers began adopting computer-based banking practices. Many companies are unwilling to put in the kind of planning and forethought needed to turbo charge a call center, opting instead for the quickest solutions to get a service up and running.

In the end, though, the planning and forethought payoff. A powerful call center strategy can pump up revenues, reduce costs, change business practices and deliver the all-important returning customer into the waiting arms of the multinational company. But it means paying particular attention to infrastructure issues, customer calling habits and the cultural differences that exist across borders.

Bernie Shaw is business development manager for BT North America, Inc. Her role is built around high-level interaction with U.S.-based clients to better understand their global business drivers. Prior to joining BT North America, Bernie was based in London with Concert Communications Services. As the primary interface between Concert and BT for the Global Voice Portfolio, Bernie was instrumental in helping BT quadruple the value of Concert Voice sales over this period. Prior to her Concert appointment, she worked with BT as the global marketing manager for Call Centre Solutions, bringing together BT's systems integration, outsourcing and network delivery organizations to deliver pan-European customer solutions.

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