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Virtual Realty: The Virtual Call Center For Branch Office Organizations

By Stephen R. Kowarsky, CosmoCom


Many organizations thrive by having both the critical mass of a very large national or global entity and the physical presence and customer relationship potential of a small local business. Banks, insurance companies and real estate companies all come to mind as examples. We'll explore how these types of organizations can benefit from a unified virtual contact center that seamlessly includes both central call centers and local branch personnel in a single system.

To make the exploration very specific (and more interesting), we will build it around the example of a national residential real estate company ' we'll call it 'Virtual Realty' ' with hundreds of local offices. Most of the concepts presented here will easily translate into similar ones that would apply to banks, insurance companies and others. In fact, the applications for banking and insurance are arguably more obvious. The real estate business is oriented around decentralized sales, and its need for centralized customer service is limited compared to that of banks and insurance companies. It is incumbent upon real estate businesses to add enough value that their local agents benefit greatly by being members of the chain as opposed to setting up shop as local independents. Also, the real estate business is extremely personal in nature, and many calls are made to a specific person rather than to the company as an entity. Still, as we'll see, the creative combination of central and local resources made possible by a modern virtual call center has a real contribution to make to the productivity and success of such an organization.

We begin with a partial analysis of some of the major call types that Virtual Realty wants to cover. We will then set forth some of the call scenarios that the Virtual Realty's virtual contact center would provide, contrasting this with how non-virtual call centers would try to cover the same needs.

Incoming Calls

Dialed Number
Virtual Realty can categorize its incoming calls in a number of ways. One useful method is by the number dialed. There are three main types of numbers Virtual Realty uses:

' Individual broker DID or mobile phone numbers;

' Branch office numbers; and

' National toll-free numbers.

In the real estate business, as in many others, individual mobile phone numbers are replacing all other means of direct communication with a specific person. The issue is that the organization loses all control of these calls and actually loses track of them completely. Many of them go to individual voice mail and depend solely on the person called for a response. This is not an ideal situation. Of course, any improvement would have to respect the understandable desire of agents to protect and preserve their personal relationships with their customers.

Calls to branch offices are usually answered by a branch secretary or administrative assistant, whose most common responses are to provide the mobile number of the person being called (when the caller had a specific person in mind), or to take down information and have 'someone' get back to the caller. It is expensive for every office to employ its own call answering personnel. More important, this is often a 'hit or miss' proposition, since communication between brokers and office personnel is often limited.

Calls to a national toll-free number almost always go to a central call center reaching personnel trained for specific tasks according to the number dialed or caller choices from an automated attendant. At least some types of calls would be better served if they went directly to the relevant local office if qualified personnel were available at the time of the call. If not, the central resource is a good solution. Virtual Realty has developed a staff of 'inside sales' people who work to support the local agents, with compensation programs designed to make every call a win-win for the inside person and the local agent. While this pool is a shared resource, it is not physically 'central,' but rather consists of people in a variety of locations, including a number of home workers and junior agents in some of the local offices. Virtual Realty does have a physically central IT staff that has created the centralized customer information and listing information systems described in this article.

Type Of Caller
Let us also identify some of the most important caller types that Virtual Realty works with:

' Sellers calling for the first time;

' Buyers calling for the first time;

' Relocation customers calling for the first time (both sellers and buyers);

' Sellers already working with the firm; and

' Buyers already working with the firm.

This is obviously a subset of the inbound calls, but it is sufficient, in conjunction with the various Dialed Number possibilities, to explore the ideal options that open up in a virtual contact center environment. Note that with just these five caller types and three dialed number types, we have identified 15 different call scenarios, more than we can completely cover in this article.

Buyers and sellers calling for the first time represent a low volume of traffic. In many cases, people will get a referral to an agent before calling for the first time. And those already working with the firm will tend to only call the agent directly.

Local Office And National Calls
It's clear that some kind of automated-attendant dialog sorting out the above five (and other) caller types would be helpful in providing the most appropriate treatment. Callers would be identified as existing customers or first-time callers. As existing customers, they would enter their customer number. If new, they would be classified as buyers or sellers. One of the most appealing features of the virtual contact center is that it would provide the same dialog for both national and local office calls. Of course, the fact that a call was made to a specific local office will always be part of the final routing decision. But all calls will have the benefit of consistent, professional handling and a standardized categorization process.

DID Calls
The virtual call center eliminates the need for individual brokers to give out their cell phone numbers, and solves the problem of losing track of calls. The system itself acts as a single-number server. Brokers can receive calls at their desks when they are in the office, and at their mobile phones when they are not. They can create schedules and call treatment rules, even at the level of defining that calls from specific numbers or specific customers be forwarded to them, and that others will go to voice mail. Every effort is made to locate and connect the call to the person called, but if this is not possible, a subset of the standard categorization dialog is used to identify calls that should be answered live by someone else rather than shunted to voice mail.

First-time Callers
First-time callers, both buyers and sellers, are among the most critical contacts that Virtual Realty has. Sellers calling for the first time will simply go on to make the next call. Usually whatever company answers first (or calls them back first) with a good salesperson wins. Buyers calling for the first time may call again if they are interested in a specific listing, but they too are likely working with a list and will move on to the next number on the list immediately. Therefore, a major objective is to make sure that every one of these calls is answered by a qualified salesperson 24/7. Fortunately, the virtual call center enables them to achieve this objective no matter what number is dialed.

The system always knows when qualified people are available in each local office. Calls are qualified and routed preferentially to the appropriate local office, but other localities and/or the central facility can always cover the call. Virtual Realty maintains a centralized staff of 'inside sales' people who work to support the local agents, with compensation programs designed to make every call a win-win for the inside person and the local agent. Sellers do not have to wait for a callback to have all their questions about the Virtual Realty program answered, and to receive the information designed to convince them that Virtual Realty is the company of choice to represent their properties. No buyers have to wait to talk with someone about the specific listing that caught their eye driving by, or to have a substantive conversation about the kind of homes they are looking for. The inside people will not have the scope of information available to the local agents, but they will have access to a database that can answer many basic questions, and they will know how to talk to the buyers in a way that preserves their interest in working with Virtual Realty.

Existing Relationships
Sellers and buyers already working with someone in the firm receive customer I.D. numbers they use whenever they call Virtual Realty. A database routes their calls with maximum intelligence, giving first priority to reaching the local people they are working with, and according next priority to any specific instructions that were entered by their local agents regarding specific callers. In the absence of special instructions from local agents, the calls will be answered centrally by inside sales people who will have access to individual customer records and who will be able to fill in intelligently for the people they have been working with, and leave properly screened and qualified messages for those people reporting on the calls and prioritizing the callback needs.

Relocations typically interact with at least two representatives of Virtual Realty, one on the sell side, and one on the buy side. With the virtual call center, they can easily reach both in one call, can easily conference with both reps at the same time, and can easily have either or both sides covered by one of the central reps, if necessary. Customers gain the impression that they are dealing with one entity that is interested in their total relocation package, rather than in just one part of it.

Outbound Calls

Lead Generation Campaign
Virtual Realty conducts an ongoing outreach campaign to homeowners throughout the company, offering them a 'free market appraisal' of their home from one of their expert representatives. The objective of the campaign is to identify sellers and convince them to engage Virtual Realty as their representative. Virtual Realty constantly purchases lists and runs this campaign using the inside sales group during periods of low incoming call volume. Qualified leads are automatically distributed to the appropriate local office and further distributed to individual agents at the discretion of the local office manager.

In addition, any Virtual Realty local agent can 'plug in' to the lead generation at any time by simply 'going available' in the campaign. This action triggers the campaign manager to use lists in the available agent's target locations and to route calls to the agent. Any leads qualified in this way automatically belong to the local agent who qualifies them. This is a productive use of agents' free time, and is particularly helpful to the younger agents who have not yet developed extensive personal networks that provide a steady flow of leads and listings.

The virtual contact center unifying branches and central (or virtually central) resources enables Virtual Realty to offer an unprecedented level of customer service.'They never miss one of those critical first calls.'They are always available to talk competently with an existing customer, even if that customer's regular agent is not available. Lead generation is ongoing, and any agent can participate in the program at any time. Their customers are delighted, and they have developed the reputation of being the best relocation agents in the business. Finally, the virtual contact center creates a tremendous advantage in terms of creating sufficient value to the franchise to keep agents as members. All of these benefits must be made possible by an intelligent virtual contact center. CIS

Steve Kowarsky is executive vice president of CosmoCom (www.cosmocom.com), (news - alerts) providers of on-demand contact center technologies, and is a frequent industry speaker on virtual contact centers.

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