Brave new call center

As the virtual nerve center of the catalog industry, the call center often functions as a cataloger’s only point of interactive customer contact. As such, your call center technology, whether inhouse or outsourced, goes a long way toward building and reinforcing your image among customers. n Advancements in telemarketing technology allow catalogers to provide customers w ith unprecedented levels of service. That also means the call center’s role is expanding beyond a vehicle for accepting orders to a highly sophisticated marketing and customer service medium.

As the new millennium dawns, the direct marketing industry will witness a dramatic transformation in the customer contact center. Technology will enable catalogers to operate virtual access call centers (VACCs), contact centers that customers can access by phone, fax, e-mail-even video, which some companies already use but which many more will turn to soon.

In a 1996 report, Stamford, CT-based technology industry research firm the Gartner Group outlined the abilities of the VACC:

* accommodates customer communications via any communication medium at any time from anywhere;

* serves the caller using a communication method that may or may not include a voice transaction;

* satisfies the caller through a highly effective transaction process that meets both caller and business objectives.

In this environment, the call center may not be a “center” at all, but an informed set of workers connected more by their common mission than by a physical location. The success of a virtual call center will depend on the integration of the best of inbound and outbound technologies.

Expanded points of contact Traditionally, most customers placed orders or requested information by calling the catalog and speaking to a phone rep. Now, though, more consumers interact with contact centers via extended interactive voice response (IVR). With IVR, callers convey information by keying in touch-tone responses to computer-generated or recorded voice prompts. Since labor accounts for more than 50% of a call center’s operating costs, IVR saves catalogers money by conserving call agent time.

Fax and Web access will become increasingly important methods of contact as well. Already, many Websites allow customers to request telephone callbacks, and an increasing number of sites support online contact with telemarketing options.

As the demand for callbacks expands, many catalogers will need to implement call blending, a process in which a single contact center staff manages both the inbound and the outbound functions.

Call blending in the VACC The traditional call center separated its inbound and outbound processes. But since the early ’90s, switching technology has allowed centers to simultaneously manage inbound and outbound operations using a single labor pool.

In state-of-the-art call centers, sophisticated blending technology can dramatically increase the efficiency of the operation by transferring agents between inbound and outbound functions. The dynamics of the blending process, however, create technological and human resource challenges. Call center managers, for instance, need to determine when to switch agents from one application to another for maximum efficiency.

And while outbound telemarketing requires individuals with assertive personalities and strong selling skills, the usually service-oriented function of inbound telemarketing requires problem solvers with empathetic personalities. It’s the rare individual who has all of these traits.

Look for the emerging field of software-agent technology to minimize call center agent skill discrepancies. Using artificial intelligence, software agents-groups of small expert systems that each have a specific area of expertise but work together-could enhance agent performance by introducing real-time expertise into a live interaction. For example, a software agent could review a customer’s transaction history and display the relevant data on the phone rep’s screen in real time. The rep could then say something like, “By the way, Mr. Smith, how is your ice maker working now?”

By 2001, we should be much further along with direct applications for this technology in a blended environment. It may ultimately lead to limited outbound agent automation and the dynamic routing of inbound calls based on such factors as various agents’ knowledge of products, problems, or people-or even based on the social attributes of particular reps.

Communicating components Perhaps the greatest hurdle to achieving the virtual call center has been the inability to seamlessly integrate the necessary technologies and functions-from databases and IVR systems to e-mail and Web integration software. In this increasingly complex environment, no single vendor will be equipped to deliver a total solution.

Integrating all of the hardware and software required for a VACC is complicated, because the call center industry uses proprietary standards for individual system components. Few systems are designed to communicate with one another, and vendor alliances don’t always translate into compatible technology. As it stands, most marketers opt to buy an “integrated solution” that will link different systems.

Some industry experts believe that the best approach to integration is to create an open architecture, which allows various hardware and operating systems to work together. Instead of using one supplier for all components to ensure compatibility, mailers could then incorporate “best of breed” software solutions for different functions.

The futures of the direct marketing and call center industries are inextricably linked. Exciting technology developments that encourage the widespread implementation of the virtual access call center will greatly expand the range and effectiveness of the catalog industry’s service and sales strategies.

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