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July 2003

Are Your Customers In Call Center Hell?

By Jay Henderson, Vertical Networks

Branch offices and retail stores are still the primary customer interfaces ' and the main revenue drivers ' for many enterprises. However, few enterprises realize that their call center systems may, in fact, be doing more to harm local customer relationships than to enhance them. One of the main problems is the inability of remote offices and stores to collect, track and share intelligence about incoming customer calls with either the main call center or other remote locations. Another is that many enterprises have not adequately mapped all of the call flow scenarios that bring callers into remote sites, which prevents these sites from appropriately routing calls, or tracking them after they are automatically routed. Finally, a lack of connectivity between branch telephony infrastructure and corporate inventory, CRM or customer databases isolates remote locations from critical data. The result? A customer experience that most companies could only wish on their competitors.

Here's a retail example that starkly illustrates what's happening to customers thousands of times a day, unbeknownst to many retailing businesses and IT executives. A customer calls the local number of a store with which he or she does business to determine if a certain size and type of jeans is in stock. However, the system transparently routes all calls to the main call center in Idaho or Kansas (to enable in-store staff to focus on in-store customers). The caller has a specific question for the local location, but the agent at the main call center has no identifying information about where that call came from, or what that customer might be looking for. In fact, the main call center agent will not have any idea whether the store in Paramus, NJ has those jeans in stock in the customer's size.

So after waiting in queue, and then not receiving the desired information, the customer is transferred back to the store, where a live operator routes her to the sportswear department. There the phone rings for five minutes before anyone answers it. The salesperson, after going to the aisle to check, returns to say they do not have the item in stock at this store. "Do you have it at your mall location?" asks the customer. "I don't know," says the salesperson, "you'll have to call there."
The scenario above is not an isolated incident. According to a recent survey by Begley Consulting, in calls to the nation's top 27 retail chains there is a 1 in 4 chance that the caller will either be cut off after being put on hold, reach a busy signal or fail to reach either a person or machine.

In addition, all of this transferring of calls adds up, even when long-distance rates are low. Not only are these situations occurring with alarming frequency, but worse, companies are not tracking, capturing and reporting on them.
It's not hard to imagine how both the top line and the bottom line of a business would be significantly improved if these calls were handled and routed effectively at the local site. Intelligence about the call would be made available to the resource at the main call center, or alternatively, at the local site the store clerk or automated system would do a look-up in the corporate inventory database and route the caller to the nearest store that had that item available.

So how can this be accomplished? It's accomplished by implementing call center capabilities on site in the remote locations, and by tying distributed intelligence from those sites to back-end enterprise applications. While large call centers have had the technology to do just this for some time, small sites have been shut out.
Of course, you have to have technology at both the main call center and remote sites to support a distributed model. We'll get to that in a minute. But it's not just about technology. Here are the steps for successfully implementing a distributed call center:

1. Know thy customer.
The organization must map out and understand: Who is calling? Where is the customer calling from and to? Why is the customer calling? This information often already exists in corporate databases, ERP and other enterprise applications. If it does not exist, enterprises should create a SWAT team to call a sub-segment of customers to understand what is happening when they call. Only by analyzing customer calling patterns can the enterprise design a highly efficient and effective distributed call center.

2. Understand whether your organizational structure is making the problem worse.
Where does the expertise or particular talent in the company reside? In many cases, callers are not being directed to where the appropriate resources actually are.

3. Investigate the dynamics of existing call flows.
What percentage of your customers are successfully completing a transaction in one call? What percent have to talk with two or more agents? How you staff your distributed call center will depend upon what you learn.

4. Determine which call center capabilities are required at the branch.
An Integrated Communications Platform (ICP) with robust call center software needs to be deployed at each branch. There are many competing systems in this category. This approach enables branches to continue to leverage local phone and network services, but also to benefit from tight links to strategic corporate databases. Connectivity allows calls to be automatically routed to the most appropriate location. A call from a known credit risk (based on a lookup in the corporate database by the local agent) could be automatically transferred to the corporate credit department rather than handled locally.
Critical call center functionality for branch sites includes:
Flexible call routing and queuing. Based on the number dialed (DNIS), the originating number (ANI) or touch-tone digits entered, the call center application on the ICP system routes a caller to the company representative with the right expertise.

Interactive voice response. Enabling self-service frees local staff to handle more complex requests. Flexible script-based applications should be available to customize an unlimited number of nested menus and prompts. By integrating the IVR system with enterprise databases, branch locations can quickly route calls based on the caller's individual account information.
Integration with enterprise applications. The ICP software should integrate with back-office applications via ODBC, COM and other standards-based APIs to enable detailed customer information lookups. In addition to IVR input, calls can be directed using a wealth of data including: inventory levels, store hours, staff availability, holiday schedules or call queue levels.

Monitoring and reporting. Call center capabilities at the remote site should provide a high degree of visibility into day-to-day operations at all remote locations ' for tracking customer contact data to identify peak calling times and call abandonment patterns ' by department and facility; measuring staff productivity by monitoring call handling and queue statistics ' by individuals and groups; and analyzing trunk traffic and network utilization across all sites.
In addition, centrally located enterprisewide management is imperative for provisioning, managing, controlling, monitoring and reporting on applications running on distributed platforms. According to Gartner, "Networking capabilities [for managing multisite call centers] introduce resource efficiency savings of at least 15 percent."

The neighborhood store or branch location continues to be the customer service "front line." Enterprises are just beginning to learn how distributed call center technology can be deployed to help to impact the top line.

Jay Henderson is director, applications, for Vertical Networks (www.verticalnetworks.com).

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