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June 2009 | Volume 28 / Number 1

Insight Into the Minds of Contact Center Managers

By Keith Dawson (News - Alert)

Recently, Frost & Sullivan conducted a major survey of contact center practitioners in which we asked them a wide variety of questions about the tools they use, their plans for the future, and the issues that are of concern to them. The results indicate that though they are keeping an eye on developments in the economy, call center managers are trying to consolidate operational gains made in the past several years.

One of the questions asked was what new contact channels are people planning to add during the next twelve to 24 months. A striking 42% of respondents reported that they had no plans to add new customer contact channels — no Web, no collaboration, no SMS. Just a continuation of the current agenda, which for most centers means handling customers via voice, e-mail and possibly chat.

There appear to be three reasons for this reluctance to expand into new contact channels. First, customers are not necessarily demanding them. Most of the time, customers reach for the traditional modes of contact: they are well trained in using toll-free, IVR and e-mail to initiate a conversation as part of transacting business. Second, customers, like the contact centers they connect with, are taking a wait-and-see stance as many new contact channels emerge. It is too early to know whether the next must-use channel will involve Facebook, Twitter, an iPhone (News - Alert) application or something completely unforeseen. With so many new options, none have emerged as critical. So there is an understandable reluctance on the part of contact center decision-makers to spend on technology to cope with those new channels, at least some consensus emerges on what customers will demand.

Third, and most important, is the awareness that having the technical ability to handle a contact channel doesn’t mean that a company has the business processes in place to deliver good service using that channel. Contact center professionals are a pretty savvy bunch when it comes to marrying technology with the behind-the-scenes people management skills that are required to attend to customer satisfaction. They know that there has never been a magic bullet technology that, when implemented, makes customers happy and encourages them to spend more. It’s the relationship between agent and customer (and all the processes that go into informing that agent at the point of interaction) that makes the call go smoothly, or badly.

As a result, we see contact centers conservatively reluctant to expand the technological menu of choices at a moment when collectively they seem to know they need to improve the effectiveness of their current contact choices.

One insight in the Frost & Sullivan survey that lends credence to that view was in a question that asked “Have you actually integrated your multiple channels into a single view of the customer?”

Only one out of four respondents said yes, they had. Two thirds said no. Close to half, 46%, said they haven’t now, but will in the next two years. But it takes time to integrate the processes and workflows and to find skilled agents and train them properly on new contact channels.

When we asked them what kinds of tools they were interested in buying over the next purchasing cycle, the answers were surprising. Two of the top three answers were analytics: #1 was analytics for improving internal operations and performance, and #3 for getting a better understanding of customer behavior.

And when we asked directly about headcount plans, 57% had no plans to either reduce or increase headcount over the next year.

What all of that seems to suggest is that centers are recognizing a need to consolidate gains and to streamline processes. The old stance of cutting heads in a center when times get tough seems to have softened into a more sophisticated business management stance that combines labor efficiency with process efficiency.

I believe that managers are looking for clear and direct business cases that are rooted in solid ROI and process improvement before they make an investment in next generation technologies. I think that many contact center practitioners feel that they haven’t fully taken advantage of the fundamental infrastructure tools that they’ve already got from the previous generation — the quality monitoring, workforce management and performance management tools. These tools are so rich in functionality that many centers have only just begun to scratch the surface in making them all work together for more efficient operations.

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