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The call center, as an entity, has often been tasked with “making more with less.” Customer expectations are rising, labor costs are rising, competition is rising. So what’s going down? Budgets, frequently. But in the past, companies could rely on a high degree of spending from consumers and businesses. The potential sales were there, they merely had to compete for them. Fast-forward to 2008 and, whether you agree the U.S. is at the beginning of an official recession or not, it’s impossible to pretend that the economy in general, and consumer and b-to-b pennies in particular, are not being pinched.

So what steps can call center entities take to cope during an economic downturn? For answers, we turned to executives from prominent contact center solutions and service provider companies. Executives were asked, “What is the most important technology for the call center to invest in during slower economic growth times?” Without further ado, we present their sage advice.

Mark Lepko, President
Altitude Software North America

The economic slowdown represents an opportunity for contact centers looking for ways to differentiate while cutting costs. Today, there is a clear shift in contact center operations, with contact centers focusing on first-call resolution as a priority, aiming to reduce costs and maximize agent performance. The ROI arising from technology solutions that help achieve reduced numbers of second calls for the same inquiry is really quite significant. Studies indicate that, in some situations, 50 percent of calls could have been avoided if correctly handled on a first call.

Although the problem is identified, the solution is not easy to implement. It requires a combination of providing training/coaching to agents, defining the right processes and having the appropriate technology infrastructure in place. In this respect, a unified agent desktop solution is essential for contact centers aiming for more efficient and productive agents while improving success rates in helping customers with queries. Since agents have to simultaneously manage multiple interaction channels, use business applications and guide the conversation with the customer through a script, all relevant information must be a click away.

A unified agent desktop is a huge step towards getting the right answers within acceptable periods of time. The unified desktop not only saves time, but also optimizes agent performance in what amounts to a direct impact on the contact center bottom line.

Tom Chamberlain, Director of Business Process Marketing
Aspect Software

In a slowing economy, companies are clearly focused on increasing efficiency and maximizing resources in all operational areas. In the contact center, this means automating the right processes to enhance service levels, not hinder them; leveraging automation technology like predictive dialers and voice portals; taking advantage of other applications that can increase first-call resolution.

Voice portals and self-service solutions. Self-service tools, when implemented correctly, make the best use of agent resources by automating routine portions of an interaction, like providing account balances or confirming appointments, and seamlessly transferring the call to an agent for more complex portions. Automating routine transactions is critical to efficiently handling more calls. Additionally, voice self-service is a valuable solution for customers that call regarding sensitive, private issues that they would not want to share with an agent, such as high debt information, credit card numbers, repossession or foreclosure status. This technology is essential in a slow economy because it allows contact centers to do more with less. However, the key to the success of this technology is to ensure it is designed to give customers the information they need, not prevent them from talking to agents.

Predictive dialers. Advanced outbound dialer technology is another way for contact centers to improve efficiency, which is particularly important for sales and collections contact centers during a slowing economy. Solutions that offers campaign development tools, call table filters, predictive dialing, call blending, browser-based agent desktop, real-time statistics and historical and custom reporting can maximize the number of calls handled and ensure that agents reach customers at the right time to increase debt collection and to improve sales rates. This enables companies to increase revenue and reduce operating costs in the contact center.

Unified communications. More companies are seeing the value of a unified communications strategy that incorporates the contact center, and are realizing that UC offers a unique opportunity to help improve first-time call resolution and contact center efficiency. By interoperating contact center applications with UC technologies, contact center agents can shorten problem-resolution cycles, answer customer inquiries quickly and more effectively upsell services and/or products to prospective customers because they’re able to identify subject matter experts more quickly and easily. Leveraging standards-based and unified contact center solutions enables this easy interoperability with presence engines and other UC tools. This is another example of how contact centers can improve processes and efficiencies to save money and maximize agents’ times and improve overall customer loyalty, which is extremely important during a slow economy.

Roger Woolley, Senior VP Marketing
Autonomy etalk

In a slowing economy, it is extremely critical for a company to be able to retain its existing customers. But in order to meet the needs and expectations of your customers, you must have a means of first understanding what those needs and expectations are. This is where speech analytics, and more specifically multichannel interaction analysis, can be of utmost benefit to the entire business, not just in the contact center. By automatically mining the conceptual and contextual meaning of recorded and in-progress customer interactions, the business can uncover customer insight to customer service via a variety of touch points — from sales and marketing to customer support and business operations. Only when this information is known can the business truly understand its customers and ensure they stay loyal.

Lou Ann Jones, Director,
Customer Contact Solutions

There are a couple of technologies that are valuable to the contact center in a slowing economy. Self-service with speech is key ― we can serve a customer effectively while minimizing human intervention which is a substantial cost saving and has a rapid return on investment. Self-service can cut wait times for customers down to nothing and increases agent productivity and agent satisfaction.

In addition to self-service, outbound proactive contact with automated agents maximizes agent productivity by screening out non-productive interactions, like answering machines, and in many cases does not require human intervention: for example, bill pay, appointment reminders, flight change information and fraud alerts. We know that “voice” is king — but automated transactions can be offered to give the customer the “choice” to do business they way they want to do business.
Getting and maintaining customers is a competitive necessity well executed technology like self-service and proactive outbound contact help keep the competitive edge while keeping an eye on the bottom line.

Rick Glew, VP of Marketing

Customer satisfaction and keeping a watchful eye on the bottom line are no doubt important in both good economic times and bad. However, when the economy shows signs of slow growth, operational expenses seem to undergo extra scrutiny. In the contact center, that often means taking a fresh look at the organization’s biggest expense — the agent population — and whether or not the team is operating at its full potential.

After a thorough evaluation of scheduling, service and skill gaps, many organizations turn to automated workforce management (WFM) tools for improving staff scheduling and agent management. These tools have proven to bring a number of efficiency gains to the contact center. From enhancing agent productivity and boosting morale to lowering costs and increasing customer satisfaction, WFM tools offer substantial bottom-line savings. And it doesn’t matter if the contact center has 50 agents or 10,000. Whether the center is small or large, WFM technology has become a must-have for centers seeking ways to reduce costs while increasing productivity — particularly in light of the slowing economy.

Steve Boyazis, Executive VP
InfoCision Management Corp.

There are two investment areas that make sense during slower economic periods. The first area involves items that build operational efficiency. The second involves the customer relationship tools that help you build a connection with the consumer over multiple interactions. The management challenge is picking the area that brings the highest ROI. If you struggle with agent utilization, for example, you have several different options; from scheduling software and queue management systems to improved IVR and voice messaging that will help to keep consumers on hold a few extra minutes. On the CRM side, anything that builds your business intelligence database for clients with whom you expect to have a long-term relationship will have great returns. It will allow you to build history into future calls, identify the best times to reach certain consumers, gauge appetites for cross-sells and help you integrate a full multimedia campaign.

In summation, since about 55 to 65 percent of a call center’s cost is in operations, the first choice should be to make sure you are utilizing operating resources as efficiently as possible. Then, if you have a customer base with which you expect to have a long-term relationship, the real ROI comes from business intelligence and anything that helps you build lasting client connections.

Matt Taylor, Product Marketing Manager
Interactive Intelligence

A particularly valuable technology to call centers in a slowing economy is workforce management. It’s critical that when inbound demand slows, call centers are able to quickly and easily adjust staffing requirements by either re-allocating or reducing staff. To maximize the value of WFM, customers should be sure that their system gives them tight integration to their ACD so they can receive accurate and real-time data, enabling them to most effectively plan schedules and make changes on-the-fly. The ability to create schedule simulations is also key to account for potential future variances. In addition, the system should include real-time adherence with instant notification of compliance so customers can immediately act on irregularities. Another important component to maximizing staffing is blended dialing technology.

The ability to instantly re-allocate inbound agents to outbound agents can significantly help call centers create demand when business is slow. A very cost-effective way to conduct outbound campaigns is with automated outbound IVR technology, which frees up agents to focus solely on revenue-generating activity. Finally, whatever technologies call centers use, it’s critical that the underlying architecture is open, software-based and extensible so they can quickly and cost-effectively create new applications and modify existing ones to adapt to whatever economic conditions the future brings.

Paolo Coppo, Marketing &
Business Development VP

The necessity of at least partial automation of customer support via CRM (mostly due to economic reasons), is anything but new. There are a huge number of companies that have considerable costs and resources dedicated to call/contact centers and that depend on them for a significant part of their business and support.

There is usually some conflict between the needs of people calling in, and providers that provide the service. Callers want to have their needs quickly and courteously met. From the end user’s perspective, nothing beats having an empowered and well trained person on the organization’s front end. But from the provider’s perspective, well trained and empowered customer service representatives are expensive. In the same way, providers want the call center to please customers in a cost-effective manner. Users and providers do not use the same criteria when measuring VUI usefulness and effectiveness. The user’s criteria are, for example, “Can I get the information or perform the transaction I want?”; “Is the result worth my effort to get it?”; “Do I feel like I’m receiving a valuable service?” The provider’s criteria are: “Does it reduce the load on customer service agents?”; “Are users satisfied with the experience?”

By these criteria, a VUI that gracefully and elegantly ends up routing most calls to a human operator is not meeting providers’ needs. On the other hand, a VUI that never routes a call to a human operator is not meeting the needs of some end-users. Achieving a balance between the sometimes-conflicting requirements of end users and providers is part of the design process.

Ed Margulies, Senior Director of Product Strategy, CRM Service Products

The most valuable technology in call centers in a slowing economy is hosted infrastructure technology and the software-as-a-service (SaaS) business model that goes along with it. There are three big issues our customers are talking about that support this view: 1) “Try Before You Buy.” During economic downturns, more conservative approaches are often adopted in the area of testing and validating call center technology. SaaS offers a viable and more conservative way to validate technology before a larger investment is made. 2) “Capital Budget Constraints.

” During slower economic periods, capital equipment budgets are often lowered or altogether eliminated. SaaS alternatives shift what would have been a capital expense to an operational (and short-term) one. 3) Finally, “Workforce Flexibility.” For contact center managers, both recruiting and managing the workforce during economic downturn is crucial. For example, some contact center workers are feeling the pinch in commuting costs and the costs of meals when they are not at home. The cost of gas alone gives prospective employees pause in determining “where” they want to work. With many SaaS solutions, remote agents are enabled therefore providing a lower-cost alternative for workers — and especially their employers.

Brian Smits, Global Director of Marketing

To help the call center industry in this difficult economy, TouchStar is helping our clients build their outsourcing business by marketing for them and we are also offering trials of three technology solutions that can immediately drive profitability. The three solutions include: a Best Time to Call application, our on-site or hosted predictive dialer, and our new unified communications solution.

The “Best Time to Call” application identifies the best time and method to contact specific records; this significantly increases productivity. Many call centers already know that predictive dialing can be used to increase revenue or reduce labor expenses; we continue to see growth in predictive dialing sales because our systems integrate with any PBX and because telemarketing works. Our “Unify” application unifies multiple communications devices and applications while enabling automated activity logging across platforms and a single unified interface for click to: call, e-mail, chat, text, etc. Unify is built for call centers and businesses that have multiple customer segments and the need for multiple user interfaces and contact fields. Unify can save call centers money by consolidating their systems and reducing support costs.

Oscar Alban, Principal Global Marketing Consultant
Verint Witness Actionable Solutions

In today’s economy, it’s more critical than ever for organizations to focus on not just what is happening, but why. With speech and data analytics and customer feedback surveys, companies can transform customer interactions captured in their contact centers into actionable intelligence — intelligence they can use to take action that can make an impact on the business.
Understanding the underlying causes of performance trends and outcomes is critical to determining exactly how to more effectively improve quality, lower costs, generate revenue, increase customer satisfaction, and achieve other important business objectives.

Speech analytics automatically categorizes and analyzes call content to reveal the root causes of customer contacts, and surface trends that might otherwise go undetected without listening to thousands of calls. Data analytics uncovers call scenarios that either help or hurt your ability to meet key performance objectives. And customer feedback surveys provide that critical “outside-in” view of how consumers rate their customer service experiences.

These analytics solutions can reveal product and process issues — including those in the back office — that impact customer service quality and satisfaction.By enabling root-cause analysis, speech and data analytics and customer feedback surveys can help organizations transform customer data — structured and unstructured — into meaningful information. Armed with data, not hunches, organizations can better understand customer service issues and take appropriate action to optimize workforce performance and operational effectiveness.

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