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Technology Highlights

September 2001

Inside Swedish Call Centers


In the companion piece to this article, The Swedish Call Center Outlook, you read about the opportunities Sweden offers companies wishing to set up call centers. As well as presentations by the Invest in Sweden Agency, the group of journalists assembled in Stockholm was treated to briefings by companies operating in Sweden and escorted on tours of call centers in the area.

Philip Cohen, an international call center consultant based in Sweden, gave an overview of dynamics of change that are affecting the operation of call centers. With the advent of new media, such as e-mail, Web chat and collaboration, more calls are being generated based on the new media, but better call-handling technologies, skills-based routing, speech-recognition technologies and easier database access by agents are making it possible to handle more calls with fewer agents. Although agents are answering fewer routine questions, they must be better educated and master more skills. Job variations and multitasking add to the challenge of finding agents and also add training costs for the agents to master new skills. While the number of e-mail contacts is increasing, Mr. Cohen noted that e-mail is still a series of monologs and on average it takes four times as long to resolve a problem by e-mail as opposed to doing it by phone, highlighting the fact that the strength of the phone is that it is a medium for dialog.

Mr. Cohen believes that generally, people look to the Internet to try to find cheaper prices, but companies need to find a way to upsell and cross-sell these customers and so are looking to push customers to the phone. The habits of Internet users also change with familiarity with it. The more you use the Internet, you tend to use it less often as you do less surfing and become more systematic and purposeful. In other words, you transform it from a curiosity or a toy into a tool. And using it as a tool, you tend to find out the simple things for yourself, which leaves the difficult questions for sending queries to experts. But as people are asking more complex problems for expensive products, they expect an educated agent, again reinforcing the need for better-educated agents.

As other media are added into the mix, they make their own contributions and pose their own problems, but the telephone is still the consumer-preferred medium, with about 80 to 90 percent of all contacts still being by telephone; it is still the place where selling takes place. Mr. Cohen stressed that to help companies provide a differentiator between themselves and their competition, they need to develop the perception that their call centers are providing a better grade of service. Call center managers need to convince management that service is a competitive factor, a survival factor, not a cheap, quick fix.

Magnus Sjlund, president, Telia Promotor AB, a subsidiary of Telia AB (Sweden's largest telecommunications company), spoke about the services provided by Telia Promotor and also about problems facing call centers in general. Telia Promotor provides consultant services and solutions for customer management. Telia Promotor's specialists focus on the contact center, CRM and Internet services and have delivered services for more than 13,000 agents.

According to Mr. Sjlund, as more media are added to contact center channels, universal queues will be needed to give agents access to all activities and contacts and automatically follow-up when needed. Mr. Sjlund also cited an estimate that by 2003, 25 percent of all contacts will be by e-mail, so closer attention will have to be paid to e-mail service levels as businesses begin to analyze how they are servicing their customers. Additional pressures are being put on contact centers as Web sites evolve from brochure sites to interactive sites to relation sites that use personal info. Other contact center trends cited by Mr. Sjlund include voice authentication, mobile agents and the creation of the virtual company contact center, where all personnel can act as agents to reach higher service levels and the customer can be treated with a personal touch regardless of method of entry to the company. Contact centers with new Internet technology allow companies to take care of their customers despite channel, time and location.

Telia Promotor's contact center product portfolio consists of a range of products covering solutions for different branches of business. Most of Promotor's delivered systems are based upon three platforms: Virtual Call Center (VCC), a network-based contact center solution developed by Telia and sold as a network service; the Genesys platform developed and marketed by Genesys, which is a link-based solution targeted to mid-size and large companies and sold as a customer-based solution; and Telia CallGuide, which was developed by Telia and is independent of type of exchange. The Telia CallGuide is a solution for contact centers ranging from 10 to 2,000 agents that provides an IP-PBX, IVR, fax, phone, chat, e-mail, Web and WAP capabilities, as well as universal queuing, skills-based routing, screen pops, screen transfer, soft phone, statistics and callback and call me services, campaign capabilities, speech recognition and text-to-speech.

SITEL Nordic
Tomas Olsson, business director, SITEL Nordic, provided background about SITEL and SITEL Nordic, which is located in rebro, Sweden. With more than 22,000 employees, SITEL is one of the largest outsourcing companies in the world. Focusing on large organizations, SITEL uses its 72 contact centers in 19 countries to help clients with not only teleservices, but also on developing relationships through e-media contacts.

The company that was to become SITEL Nordic was founded in 1989 when Hkan Svanberg founded Svanberg & Co. SITEL acquired Svanberg & Co. in the fall of 1997 and retained Mr. Svanberg as its managing director. SITEL Nordic now has 313 workstations and 330 employees who handle contacts to and from all Nordic countries. Mr. Olsson reported that the management of SITEL Nordic is driven by the philosophy that every employee is important. To foster a culture of respect, all new employees are taught a greeting from the Nataal region of South Africa: "Sawu bono," which means "I see you," and the response, "Sikona," which means "I am here." The phrases are used to illustrate the fact that I am aware of you and you have my complete attention and empathy. At SITEL Nordic, this translates to being there for customers and fellow employees alike. And it must be working, as Olsson reported that SITEL Nordic has a 95 percent retention rate.

Martin Karlsson, vice president, channel integration at Nordea, enlightened the group about Nordea and its Internet and telephone banking program, Solo. Nordea has the largest customer base of any financial services group in the region, including 9 million personal customers, more than 600,000 corporate customers and 500 large corporate customers. Nordea has 1,260 bank branch offices, 125 insurance service centers and is a leading asset manager in the Nordic financial market with 97 billion Euros under management. As part of the Solo program, Nordea supports 2.4 million Internet customers.

Mr. Karlsson explained that Nordea provides a consistent logic through all customer interaction channels so there will be a uniform customer experience no matter which channel a customer may choose. The group's electronic banking services are used more than 6.4 million times a month. The services may be used for a range of banking services including account management and invoice payments, buying and selling of shares, mutual funds and bonds, as well as for electronically signed credit facilities and foreign payments, e-commerce payments and electronic invoicing, identification, signature and salary. Nordea still handles more than 7 million manual interactions per year (60 million including IVR interactions), and has 1,000 CSRs in 12 contact centers. Providing integrated service is part of Nordea's CRM program. As Mr. Karlsson said, "It's not the technology, but what it can do for the customers. For our customers, it allows us to provide simplicity and convenience while building trust."

Ericsson ASQ
At the Ericsson Radio Systems call center in the Stockholm suburb of Kista, Ericsson vice president Katarina Mellstrm detailed how the ASQ (answering sales-related questions; pronounced "ask") group operates. Run by a core executive team and divided into three groups, ASQ operates 24/7/365 and handles more than 3,000 cases per month.

ASQ's Intranet Support group answers questions from Ericsson market units from around the world. The Internet Support group answers questions from the general public that come in through a question template at www.ericsson.com. The e-Business Support group handles questions from Ericsson's extranet portals that are set up for Ericsson's key customers. According to Ms. Mellstrm, agents are thoroughly trained and have deep knowledge of Ericsson's products and services. As part of the Ericsson plan to keep agents' skills sharp, one-third of their working time is dedicated to training courses, practical training and job rotation to different product units, thus developing front- and back-office skills while developing their competence.

Ericsson has employed a Remedy help desk application, and e-mail questions that come in to the units receive an auto-response saying they received the inquiry and provide an estimated response time. Looking over the shoulder of one agent in the ASQ Intranet group, I was impressed at how skillfully he was handling diverse inquiries. Besides using permanent employees, Ericsson uses students from the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology to fill in on nights and weekends. Ericsson sees this as a chance to find and develop highly skilled workers for the future.

The next stop on our call center tour took us one of the four call centers in Sweden of SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System). Over the past three years, SAS has been working on a comprehensive program designed to strengthen its competitiveness and profitability. As part of this plan, internal work is focused on developing customer relationships. At the heart of this are, of course, SAS's call centers, which are open for customer inquiries from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. When calls come in, they are routed to the first available agent. Agents are given 10 weeks of training before answering calls, so they are well equipped to handle any inquiries that come their way. And come they do, as SAS gets around 4 million calls per year and 5,000 e-mail messages a month.

SAS's 300 agents are comfortably seated at ultra-modern, ergonomic workstations that were designed by one of Europe's leading ergonomists. The agents can also relax in a sunny kitchen and lounge with a nice view of suburban Stockholm when not manning the phones. Highlighting that SAS is a good company to work for, many agents go on to other jobs within SAS

In the town of Linkping two hours south of Stockholm are the offices of Convergys Sweden. (For those of you who missed our annual Top 50 Teleservices Agencies rankings Convergys ranked number one worldwide in inbound transactions.) Worldwide, Convergys has 50 integrated contact centers and more than 40,000 agents. Jonas Berggren, general manager, Convergys Linkping, gave us a tour of a couple of Convergys Sweden's call centers and a brief background on Convergys Sweden.

The organization that is now Convergys Sweden started out as Exit Marketing, which was founded in 1984 by local university graduates. Convergys acquired Exit Marketing in 1998, and it has grown to 300 employees and houses 210 workstations in three separate buildings in Linkping (a new facility that will have the capacity for 400 agent workstations is currently under construction). Convergys concentrates on financial services, telcos and technology. Convergys' agents receive 2 1/2 to 3 weeks of training on campaigns, and average 2 to 3 years of experience with Convergys. Mr. Berggren said that Convergys looks for agents with excellent communications skills and their pay is based on achieving constant results.

One client campaign we saw was a B-to-B and CRM for Compaq, where Convergys helps Compaq dealers with outbound acquisitions and lead generation. On another campaign, Convergys agents are using Kana PowerClient for e-mail handling for their client Utfors, a broadband provider selling T1s and fiber for building wiring. Aiming for a two-hour turnaround for all e-mail, six agents handle 2,000 e-mail contacts a month for Utfors.

A third campaign we looked in on was for Europe Loan Bank, where bilingual native speakers in Swedish and Finnish handle consumer questions about mortgages and loans. The client's Web page has a call-back function, and the agents receive prompts to notify them which country is calling. During peak hours, all six agents on the campaign handle incoming phone calls, and during down time, agents answer e-mail inquiries. As part of the program, the Convergys agents are notified when the bank's customers receive an error message on the bank's Web page. In such instances, the Convergys agents proactively contact the customers, without waiting for their client to contact them. This group of six agents answers questions from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and answers 80 percent of all calls within 20 seconds, and all e-mail within a day.

Transcom AB
In Linkping's sister city of Norrkping, we visited one of five sites in Norrkping of multinational teleservices agency Transcom. We met with Richard Krull, telemarketing project director, and Eva Melin, site manager, who provided us with information about Trascom and Transcom's Swedish operations. Transcom was founded in 1995 and has grown very rapidly, with centers in Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Luxemburg, France, Austria and Sweden in Europe, Casablanca in Africa, as well as several sites in Indiana in the U.S. Transcom has 2,000 employees in Sweden, with 230 agents and 193 agent workstations at the site we visited. At this particular site, 70 percent of the calling is outbound, with around 90 percent of that being b-to-c calling. Mr. Krull and Ms. Melin explained that another center in Sweden handles e-mail, online chat and inbound calls. Outbound agents at this center make calls on behalf of Tele2 as well as other clients in the banking and gasoline station industry, but a large percentage of Transcom Sweden's clients are telecom companies, for which they handle 1,000,000 inbound calls a month and place 300,000 outbound calls a month. Indeed, the agents were busy as beavers as we toured the facility.

Mr. Krull and Ms. Melin stated that clients have access to remote monitoring, to help ensure calls are handled to their liking, as well as to Transcom's own high standards for quality (Transcom was a 2000 Gold Award winner of our annual MVP Quality Award). A turnover rate of 20 percent at this particular center is higher than the rest of Transcom because it is primarily an outbound center and, as for the industry in general, turnover is almost always higher for outbound agents. New employees receive a week of introductory training and then training that can range up to three weeks on the individual campaigns. Although the agents seemed young to a middle-aged man like myself, Transcom agents in Sweden average 1 1/2 to two years on the job and have an average age of 27, so the enthusiasm they show for their work is more than just youthful exuberance.

Also in Norrkping we visited the office of the young company DBW (Doing Business With Us), where the management staff of Robert Johanson, platschef Norrkping, Joakim Svejd, VD, and Henrik Gorgensson, vice VD, gave us a quick tour of their facility and background on DBW. Former Convergys employees, the three founded DBW in 1999 as they were eager to start their own company, and also wanted work in an atmosphere more relaxed than that of a larger agency (indeed, a large portrait of Kramer stares down from one wall).

DBW has 60 employees and specializes in outbound b-to-b sales and lead generation for telecom companies. Working in groups of five with one person as a team leader, agents at DBW are calling for their clients from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. Only full-time employees call during the day, but DBW employs college students for calling at nights and on weekends. The directors told us that some of the advantages of being a smaller agency is that they can be more flexible and charge lower prices, and yet still afford to pay their young workforce (whose average age is 23) more than other service agencies in the region. The agents at DBW must be successful in their work, as the company has plans for expanding from 40 workstations to 60 in October.

Throughout my tour of Sweden, I was impressed with the quality and knowledge of Swedish workers and the efficiency of the communications infrastructure and so have no qualms about recommending Sweden as worth a very close look if you are looking to expanding your offerings into the Baltic region.

[ Return To September 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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