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The Inbound New Year, And A New Year Of Inbound

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director, Customer Inter@ction Solutions



Despite the fact that this column is appearing in the January issue of this magazine, I'm writing it on December 21st, the old-fashioned festival of Yule, or Midwinter, which marks the winter solstice. This time of year always seems to lead numerous writers, journalists, analysts, commentators and anyone else behind a keyboard to look backwards and forwards simultaneously (whether we want them to or not). As we all know from grade school, January is named in honor of Janus, the Roman god with two faces who looks both backwards and forwards at the same time. This being a call center magazine, I'll try to limit my observations to all things telecommunications. You needn't fear I'll get maudlin ' it's hard to get misty-eyed sentimental about cellular phone service, voice over IP or data security. Or, if you do, I'll be bold enough to suggest that you may want to consider taking up a hobby during the New Year.

Though this magazine has covered the call center industry for nearly 25 years, the 1982 version of the industry and the 2006 version bear little resemblance to one another, except in their end goals of aggregating and automating telephony-based and electronic customer service and sales. But nobody's business behavior happens in a vacuum. It's usually an echo of how we behave in our personal lives.

Things that would have been worthy of a CNN.com headline just a few years ago, such as 'Majority of Americans' primary communication with others is via e-mail' or 'Most consider their mobile phones their primary phones' elicit only a yawn now. Though legislation regulating outbound has certainly been a contributor to that selling method's decline as a sales tool, technology has foiled outbound, as well. Neither cellular phone numbers nor residential VoIP numbers are listed in phone directories (and there's a prohibition against calling cell phones anyway), so the available pool of consumers both willing and able to receive phone solicitations dwindles each year. Many younger consumers are ditching land-line phones entirely and relying on cell phones.

I keep a VoIP phone in my living room. When it rings, I know it's either my mother calling or my dentist's office to remind me of my next teeth cleaning.

As a result, business-to-consumer companies will increasingly be relying on 'turning inbound into outbound' in the coming years. Upselling and cross-selling used to be gravy income'nice if you could get it. As many companies nowadays have contact with their customers only when the customer calls the call center, upselling and cross-selling are becoming a more established part of the business plan. This requires more skilled inbound agents. As companies increasingly move to consolidate their processes to save time and money, yet are under pressure to escalate revenue, today's inbound call is like a cosmological event horizon for many companies. So many things could happen during that call. The customer might start the conversation annoyed at a billing problem or a return. The agent might mishandle the call and enrage the customer, causing him or her to churn. Alternatively, the agent might defuse the customer's annoyance, take care of the problem in one shot, building the customer's loyalty to the company, and end the call having upsold the customer beyond what he or she is already spending with the organization. At the same time this make-or-break scenario is going on, many things are ticking: average handle time and queue length; impatience on the part of other callers in queue (some of whom may be platinum customers), call recording (which will ripple into the agent's performance evaluation); and ROI on the call center's equipment investment.

Additionally, the customer service doesn't end when the happy customer hangs up. If he or she follows up with one more question in an e-mail 10 minutes later, it's critical that he or she doesn't receive contradictory or confusing instructions, which would un-do all the telephone agent's good work in about three seconds. The number of consumers shopping via the Internet soars far beyond all predicted expectations each year.

What does this all mean? It means that it's not farfetched to refer to today's call center as the single most critical element of any business-to-consumer company. Many companies have been slow to recognize this. You know which companies these are: the ones that provide you with a frustrating experience every time you call. What I wonder when I deal with these companies is'where do they imagine they're going to build their revenue? Via orders coming in by smoke signal? Are they going to hire a base-plus-commission direct sales force 50,000 strong to sell $24.99 items face-to-face in shopping mall parking lots? Perhaps they sit and wait for the tooth fairy to fly in the window and drop boxes of orders into their laps.

If it wasn't so journalistically trite to call 2006 'The Year Of The Contact Center,' I would do it. But it is, so I won't. So I'll call 2006 'The Year Of Cheese-making,' and merely operate with a hidden agenda all year.

Happy New Year. CIS

Tracey Schelmetic may be reached for comment at [email protected].

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