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Publisher's Outlook
December 2001

Nadji Tehrani

How To Buy "The Right" Products And Services For Your Customer Interaction Center


[ Go Right To: Buyer's Checklist ]

Judicious selection of products and services for the call/contact center has never been more critical. Companies today are faced with a paradox, which many have never faced in the past. On one hand, revenues for most are down. On the other hand, customers are demanding more and better services, which require technology investments. What should companies do? My best advice is to do whatever it takes to meet the demands of customers, which means you need to make very intelligent decisions when it comes to product and service selection.

With that thought in mind, I asked some of our most savvy associates here at TMC to provide you with their best advice for making purchasing decisions for the call/contact center environment. Laura Guevin, editor of Communications Outsourcing magazine, provides guidelines for outsourcing; editors Tracey Schelmetic of Customer Inter@ction Solutions and Kevin Mayer of Communications Solutions magazines discuss how to approach business technology investments; and our chief technology officer, Tom Keating, and our Webmaster, Robert Vahid Hashemian, reveal their approaches to buying communications technologies and software.

Consider Teleservices Agencies
If you are looking to add capacity to your contact center and also gain the benefits of a marketing/sales/service partner, teleservices agencies can provide you with a reliable alternative to building or adding to your own contact center. Teleservices agencies can provide you with instant access to years of teleservices experience. Among the many benefits of outsourcing are: the facilities teleservices agencies have in place that allow you to reduce or eliminate the expense (both in time and money) of recruiting, training and maintaining contact center staff (who are often difficult to hire and have a propensity to be short-term employees); the elimination of the need to establish or expand your physical site; the ability to eliminate or reduce expenditures for technologies that are changing and advancing at breathtaking speed; the expansion of your business hours through a teleservices agencys 24x7 operating schedule; and the time to increase your productivity by concentrating on your core competency.

TMC provides you with many tools to help you choose a teleservices agency, including: a booklet, Telemarketing Service Agencies -- Everything You Always Needed To Know; the annual rankings of the Top 50 Teleservices Agencies; the annual MVP Quality Awards; numerous Publishers Outlook columns on the subject, as well as a monthly feature in Customer Inter@ction Solutions on teleservices outsourcing to guide you in your selection of an outsourcing partner. (To purchase copies of any of the above products, call 800-243-6002 ext. 130 or visit www.tmcnet.com.)

Outsourcing Your Customer Interaction Solutions Technology
If you wish to build out your infrastructure but want to avoid long-term technology investments, Laura Guevin suggests considering outsourced technology service providers: Outsourced services have emerged as healthy competitors to premises-based solutions for many communications needs, and customer interaction and CRM solutions are no exception. From teleservices agencies to outsourced technology solutions, there are a huge number of options for todays contact center needs. Outsourced solutions offer a customizable level of service from which customers may pick and choose which aspects of their technology and manpower they wish to outsource, as well as the types of service level agreements (SLAs) they wish to negotiate.

Its important to remember that you are in a position of power as a customer when negotiating for an outsourced service. Todays service providers realize they must be flexible and specific when contracting their services, and an SLA that provides you with regular reports on the quality and amount of service being provided is essential. You may want to be alerted directly if service levels degrade. Many of todays providers offer alarms and status reports that may be sent directly to you via e-mail, pager, PDA and, of course, phone.

Now that you have determined you would like to outsource some or all of your contact center functionality, the next big decision you must make is how much you will outsource. Are you interested in a complete package that handles call routing and management, IVR, logging and monitoring, e-mail and customer service representatives to handle incoming queries? Perhaps you have trained CSRs on your premises and a traditional call routing infrastructure, but are looking for additional functionality like intelligent e-mail routing, VoIP and text chat. Then again, maybe you have the technology in place, but are looking for a way to cut costs, such as routing calls over the Internet or a managed data network.

Once you have determined the level of functionality you wish to outsource, you will need to evaluate the pricing structure and SLA to determine if they are adequate for your needs. Research several companies in the space you are interested in. You may find it difficult to do a line-by-line comparison of the services each offers, as many companies structure their offerings in different ways, so be sure all your questions are answered, and that you have a clear idea of the types of services you will receive, the timeline for implementing those services and the level of quality and availability you can expect. Many players in the outsourced communications arena are newcomers, but that shouldnt disqualify them. Talk to their customers and find out if they are satisfied with the level of service they are receiving.

Wise Business Technology Investments
Tracey Schelmetic continues: I regularly encounter many companies whose management shake their heads and wonder why their customer service ratings have not only not risen, but have actually dropped. Why, they wonder, are we still not a lean, mean, integrated customer service machine? We spent a fortune on state-of-the-art systems!

Too many companies become dazzled by the high-tech plethora of new tools, and purchase them before evaluating what their needs are and what types of products would suit their company climate and goals the best. For instance, a new Web-based customer service software package is useless if your employees know how to do little more than turn on a computer and have never even looked at a Web page. In such a case, your company might benefit from a scaled-back and easier-to-use version of the sexy software that first caught your eye, at which time your company could funnel the money saved into some e-learning software or hands-on training to teach your employees how a computer works and how to communicate via the Internet. Chances are, your ultimate return-on-investment will be much greater and your employees will wind up happier and more skilled (and therefore less likely to leave).

Companies that are currently making zero capital technology purchases are using logic as faulty as the overbuyer in the above example. In a flattening economy, your customers expect even better customer service than they would in a booming economy. If youre using a system that was put into your call center in 1984, chances are your competition is flogging you in terms of quality of customer service.

Its the right balance of technology, services and people that make a flawless customer experience. The bottom line is to avoid either of the mistakes above: buying with the heart, not the head, or avoiding purchasing decisions based on a penny wise, pound foolish mode of thinking.

Kevin Mayer suggests: When considering technology investments youll need to weigh best of breed approaches, which allow maximum flexibility in the selection of business solution components, against approaches relying on a single vendor for a well-integrated end-to-end solution. Youll also need to weigh the short-term advantages of optimizing current business processes against the long-term potential of pioneering new processes. Finally, youll have to decide whether youre most comfortable with taking the path of the early adopter, possibly seizing the first-mover advantage, or with adopting a conservative wait and see posture, which may seem the safe bet, at least initially.

For all of the usual considerations, we can easily cite specific technology trends that demonstrate how up-to-date these considerations remain. For example, it is a truism that you should try to leverage your investments in legacy systems. Now, lets cite a familiar legacy investment, and how its value might be extended. Lets take interactive voice response (IVR). IVR systems that are limited to accepting touch-tone input may continue to deliver value, even though you might want to upgrade to an IVR system capable of accepting spoken input, via speech recognition technology. Even in the worst-case scenario, a forklift upgrade, you may be able to salvage the scripts youve refined over the years, superimposing them onto the new, voice-activated system. In fact, you may decide to select a new system based on its ability to accommodate your favorite scripts.

Another truism is that you should position yourself to follow a sensible upgrade path. Again, we can easily illustrate this point. Consider customer relationship management (CRM), which is meant to help you manage multiple customer interaction channels. With the right CRM platform, you should be able to add new interaction channels over time. Of course, you should be able to centrally manage voice- and fax-based interactions, as well as e-mail interactions and Web chat interactions, in addition to whatever other interactions come along and gain popularity.

Yet another truism is the need to account for your investments total cost of ownership (TCO). Just one dimension of TCO is the need to avoid costly downtime. This need is becoming all the more pressing as mission-critical business applications move from traditional platforms, mainframes and PBXs, to so-called next-generation platforms, which are typically more distributed, relying on client-server architectures or highly distributed, IP-based systems. The challenge is to make the newer systems as reliable as the traditional systems, even as the newer systems introduce more sophisticated functionality. Typical solutions include redundant and fault-tolerant hardware platforms, high-availability failover software and clustered server systems.

Finally, one last truism is the need to understand that ROI involves more than simply reducing head count. In truth, reducing headcount is only half the story. If you make the mistake of thinking that its the whole story, youll soon run afoul of the dreaded productivity paradox. To understand the productivity paradox, consider how technology typically automates the simplest business processes. Then, consider how automating the simplest tasks means that all the work that remains will involve the more challenging, complex tasks. These tasks will demand the attention of more expert personnel, or personnel who have been equipped with more powerful tools.

The guidelines we have provided should provide a useful template for you for wise investments in the coming year. I wish you a happy and prosperous 2002 and, as always, I look forward to hearing from you.

Nadji Tehrani
Executive Group Publisher

[ Return To December 2001 Table Of Contents ]

Buyer's Checklist

Tom Keating writes: As a CTO (chief technical officer), I know that purchasing various technologies throughout the calendar year can be one of the biggest capital expenditures for most companies. In recent years, CTOs have had free reign to pretty much order what they wanted without much interference from CFOs and CEOs, but that has changed dramatically because of the dot com crash and slowing economy. CTOs have much stricter budgets with tighter constraints and now CEOs and CFOs want to see hard numbers as to why purchasing a particular technology will benefit the company. While technology is often a productivity enhancer, measuring productivity and formulating it into hard dollars is not easy. CTOs have had to become more adept at not only determining technology needs, but also in the creation of pie charts, graphs, etc., and presenting them to CEOs and CFOs to convince them of the need to spend money.

So just what are some of the factors a CTO examines when making a technology purchasing decision? Ive come up with the following check-list that I use, and other CTOs can adapt to suit their needs:

  1. First, a CTO should identify a type of product that fulfills a particular need and can be cost justified. An example of a product that most (if not all) call centers require is an ACD to route calls. A CTO can cost justify an ACD simply by explaining that the alternative to an ACD is hiring (and paying for) a number of receptionists to transfer calls to the proper extensions.

  2. After determining the need for a particular type of technology, a CTO needs to research the products in the marketplace. Im sure most CTOs do what I do -- start with the market leaders. Why? Other than the fact that market leaders usually have the best products, we have to trust that these vendors will be around 5 or 10 years from now. You dont want to risk the vendor going under and being caught holding the bag of a product that is no longer supported.

  3. Next, a CTO usually does a feature-comparison of several vendors to determine which one is the best fit for their business rules and procedures. As part of their feature comparison, items such as ease of use and security are analyzed. In addition, a CTO will try and choose a product that has the most open standards compliance, such as ODBC, XML, SIP, H.323, etc. Choosing products that are based on standards and are not proprietary allows for better integration with third-party products, which is also a crucial component in making a purchasing decision.

  4. After comparing various vendors, I like to narrow it down to two choices. At that point I haggle between the two vendors, playing them off each other to try to get them to lower the price or sweeten the deal.

Unfortunately, since the CTO is one of the corporations biggest spenders, he or she also bears the brunt of any budget cutbacks. But because technology is often a time-saver, it directly results in improved productivity and indirectly results in increased revenue. Balancing the short-term benefits of cutting back on purchasing technology versus the long-term benefits of implementing technology to increase revenue is the challenge many CTOs face. While the free-wheeling spending days are over, companies mustnt turn their backs on investing in technology. The benefits of technology to help improve productivity, increase revenue and cut costs are just too great to ignore.

Robert Hashemian contributes: With the economy in a weak cycle, buyers are more than ever in the drivers seat when dealing with vendors. That does not necessarily translate to value for the buyers. Bargains may abound, but so do substandard service, inferior quality and unacceptable policies, some of which are not quite evident until after the purchase transaction is completed. So while buyers have the upper hand for the moment, they also need to be extra cautious when selecting a vendor. As a Web developer, purchasing computer hardware and software as well as Internet services is a part of my job, so my opinions are slightly tilted toward that area. Most of it, however, is everyday common sense that can be applied to any situation, be it farm equipment or an ERP system.

Here is my list of policies to look for when selecting vendors:

  • Support policy: This is a real nightmare when it comes to some software products. Once you buy some companies products, it seems impossible to contact those companies for support. Often, a companys Web site has a vague e-mail address tucked away in an obscure page for support. What is the likelihood that the inquiries to that e-mail address are answered promptly? If the vendor doesnt provide a clear process for contacting its support department, including phone, fax, Web and e-mail, perhaps another vendor can.

  • Security policy: This is a tough one to spot, but buyers should be entitled to know how their information is stored and what security steps the potential vendor has taken to safeguard the collected data.

  • Privacy policy: While the release of vital data due to a security breach is an unwanted problem, bad or no privacy policies let companies release such information voluntarily. Companies that do not allow their clients to determine how their private data should be used should be considered suspect.

  • Delivery policy: In the software business, rapid delivery is a must. I often find myself doing business with companies that provide immediate software download upon payment. While this real-time approach cannot be applied to everything, a flexible delivery policy is a necessity.

  • Information policy: A viable and robust information infrastructure allows the buyer to efficiently interact with the vendor regardless of the means of communication. Online banking is a good example of a flexible service where a customer can access his or her financial records through the Internet or telephone. Good fulfillment requires a solid information infrastructure.

  • Return/reimbursement policy: The computer industry does not have a good track record for having fair return policies. Given the potential for abuse, that can be understandable. However, if a vendor does not have a fair return or reimbursement policy, perhaps that vendor does not have enough faith in its products or services.

  • Pre-sales support policy: Sometimes buyers arent clear on their requirements or what product or service best fits their specifications. They should expect potential vendors to clearly answer their questions and recommend the best approach. Recently, while on a hunt for a new bar code generation software, I wasted a lot of time on a vendors Web site trying to determine which of its products would best fit my need. A simple phone call to the company could have cleared things up for me quickly, but I couldnt find a phone number on the Web site, so I ended up going to another vendor.

  • Demo policy: If a picture is worth a thousand words, a demonstration is worth a billion. Fortunately, many software products on the market today allow users to experiment with a demo version to determine suitability. If a vendor does not provide a demo version, thats a red flag.

  • Rebate policy: I hate dealing with rebates, which are basically ploys to get the buyers profiles. But what I hate more is when the rebate check or the free gift, or whatever was promised, is not delivered. The industry if rife with these stories of broken promises. If a vendors word cant be trusted, how can their products or services be?

Paying attention to these policies has made me a smarter buyer. I hope it does the same for you.

[ Return To December 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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