Call Center Technology: What’s New?

A few years ago, catalogers were investing fast and furiously in new systems. Now they’re focused on leveraging the investments they’ve already made.

“Given the economic situation of most organizations today, most call center managers will try to get more out of what they already have,” says Gary Lemke, president of RealMarket Research, a Carmel, IN-based market research firm that specializes in the customer relationship management (CRM) and call center industries. “I see this as a year not of quantum jumps but of calculated steps in progress.”

New applications have to show hard dollar returns before managers will consider adding them. “Call center managers all say the same thing: ‘If you can’t show me where I can improve productivity, don’t show it to me,’” says Paul Stockford, chief analyst with Saddletree Research, a Scottsdale, AZ-based call center consulting firm.

That said, there are a number of applications that meet this criterion. Many marketers have reaped satisfying returns on investment in products that link data from multiple channels, simplify communications among departments, and make staff training more efficient and effective. And while the companies cited below may not be strictly catalogers, they have the same CRM and call center needs as catalogers do.

Pooling data from multiple channels

“We see 2002 as the year that convergence really shows up,” says George Peabody, vice president of next-generation communication for Boston-based research firm Aberdeen Group. As call centers morph into contact centers, where customers can reach companies via the telephone, Internet-based phone calls, e-mail, and Web chat, savvy managers are using technology to gather customers’ information onto a single infrastructure.

PetMed Express, which sells medications for pets via the phone and the Internet, was one company that needed to coordinate customer data from multiple channels. Previously, data on callers, such as their name and address, stayed within the telecommunications system and was not connected to PetMed’s mainframe, which would have allowed the sales reps to use the information on follow-up calls, says Richard Kirsch, director of information systems for the Pompano Beach, FL-based marketer.

To rectify that situation, PetMed rolled out the Customer Interaction Center from Interactive Intelligence in Indianapolis. The application costs $3,000-$5,000 a seat for a package that includes interactive voice response (IVR), customer tracking, call recording and routing, and e-mail capabilities.

PetMed’s customer service representatives (CSRs) now get real-time screen pops, which provide a customer’s name, address, and other data, before they even pick up the phone. In addition, customers can refill their prescriptions via the IVR system, which handles about 25% of reorders.

The application has allowed sales to jump about tenfold during the past year while staffing has only doubled, Kirsch says. PetMed receives 4,000-5,000 calls a day, which are handled by 50 reps.

Along the same lines, MobiFon S.A., a Romanian provider of mobile communications, fax, and Internet services, found that supplying agents with information on customers’ past contacts and purchasing profiles allows them to more effectively handle inquiries. MobiFon, which has more than 1.6 million subscribers and employs about 500 CSRs in two call centers, wanted to reduce the average call-handling time for customer inquiries. “We also needed to implement a software solution to better deal with customers,” says Mihai Bolog, MobiFon’s CRM project leader.

In November, Bolog installed two CRM applications from St. Louis-based Amdocs Ltd.: ClearCallCenter and ClearSupport. The applications allow CSRs to see on their computer screens if a customer frequently questions his bill, how much business he typically does with the company, and other details. Higher-volume customers are automatically routed to more-skilled agents with greater decision-making authority.

Although MobiFon could not yet calculate an ROI on the application, it has reduced the average call-handling time by 20 seconds, to about two minutes and 20 seconds, “because the information is in one place,” says Bolog.

Sharing data among departments

Another group of applications enables contact center managers to share data from their departments with other parts of their organizations, such as marketing. The application may analyze customers’ purchase histories to determine what other products may interest them. This helps companies promote items customers are more likely to buy, boosting average order sizes and repeat business.

Discount brokerage Quick & Reilly leverages its customer information across departments with the help of the Chordiant 5 Marketing Director application from Cupertino, CA-based Chordiant Software. “We use it to identify leads within our system and database,” says Konstantin Karpilov, Quick & Reilly’s senior manager of database marketing.

For instance, the software can identify all customers holding $100,000 or more in certificates of deposit (CDs) that are coming due. The program then forwards their names to call center agents, who can contact them and ask how they would like to reinvest the money.

The average cost of a Chordiant application is $1 million-$2 million, says Mark Buckallew, senior product marketing manager with Chordiant. But for New York-based Quick & Reilly, the investment has already paid for itself. Just by diligently following up with customers invested in CDs, the company has been able to retain $2 million in revenue each year, Karpilov says.

High-tech training

Many contact centers are also using e-training tools to quickly boost the effectiveness of CSRs. Service Net, a Jeffersonville, IN-based marketer of extended service contracts for computers and home office equipment, is a case in point.

A year ago, it became clear that Service Net’s 16 managers and trainers needed a better way to monitor the company’s 150 CSRs, says Jennifer Holland, general manager of customer experience. Recording a phone call, transcribing it, and personally following up with an agent could take a manager several hours. On average, each manager could monitor and follow up on only three phone calls an agent each month. “It was less than 1% of calls,” Holland says.

But last August, Service Net began using Click2Coach from Seattle-based Envison Telephony. Click2Coach, which costs $400-$800 a seat, automatically records calls. A manager can listen, then electronically forward his comments to a CSR. When the CSR opens the e-mail, he’ll see an evaluation sheet from the manager and can play a tape of the call.

The system has allowed Service Net to boost its quality monitoring, Holland says. The system also facilitates Web-based training. A trainer can electronically send agents two- to three-minute training videos on specific topics, such as handling customer objections.

With the additional training and monitoring, agents’ productivity and effectiveness are up. Even as Service Net’s call volume increased from 45,000 calls in August to 65,000 in January, the number of employee hours worked dropped by 2,500 a month during the fourth quarter of 2001. At the same time, errors made by the agents, such as setting up a claim on an inactive contract, dropped from 35 a week to about five a month. Service Net expects to recoup its investment by this summer, says Holland.

Another provider of e-learning tools for CSRs is Atlanta-based Witness Systems. An application with voice and data recording as well as a performance evaluation solution for a 100-seat contact center runs about $100,000.

As these examples show, the contact center is taking on an increasingly broad and important role within organizations. To get the most from the contacts, managers need to leverage their investments in technology, as well as the data contained in the system and the employees who work with them.

Karen M. Kroll is a freelance writer based in Minnetonka, MN.


One technology slowly moving into the contact center is Internet telephony, or voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP). Essentially, this is sending voice calls over Internet lines. “The pieces are there, as are the brains to put them together,” says George Peabody, vice president of research firm Aberdeen Group.

With VoIP, communication can be compressed, so that the same number of lines can carry more calls. In addition, both phone and Internet contacts travel on the same set of wires, says Lori Abrams, vice president of voice and computer services with Stream International, a Canton, MA-based provider of technical services. As a result, VoIP can reduce phone and infrastructure costs.

VoIP also makes it easier to convert one form of communication, such as a Web chat, to another, such as a voice call. “That gives each CSR more flexibility to interact on a multichannel basis,” Peabody says.

Abrams initiated a pilot run of VoIP in a 10-agent call center about 18 months ago, for one of Stream’s clients, using the IP Contact Server from San Jose, CA-based Aspect Communications Corp. The Aspect IP Contact Suite, which provides connectivity for voice, chat, and e-mail, costs about $6,000 per agent, says Neil Kennedy, Aspect’s director of product management.

The quality of the calls, Abrams says, was the same as they would have been on a traditional network. But while the six-month program did result in some savings — primarily because Stream was able to administer one system, rather than two, for both telephony and Internet communication — those savings weren’t huge. “I have not seen a big cost differential yet,” says Abrams. “Today VoIP is not priced to be a cost saver.” She predicts that the savings will eventually happen, as Internet telephony allows for lower administration costs. In addition, as the technology becomes more popular, prices should come down. While Stream is no longer working with that client, Abrams says that the former client does plan to roll out a VoIP application with about 200 agents by the end of the year.

Contact center managers considering Internet telephony need to understand how their IT architecture will support VoIP, says Tim Kowalski, president of the CRM technology ventures division of ICT Group, based in Langhorne, PA. Some ACD switches require third-party software to convert IP calls into a voice call. It also makes sense to determine if the network bandwidth can handle VoIP.

Applications using wireless devices are also slowly gaining acceptance in contact centers. So far, however, these are being used primarily to help field personnel manage their customer contacts, rather than to allow customers to contact a firm via a wireless device, Kowalski says. For instance, CollaGenex Pharmaceuticals, a Newtown, PA-based pharmaceutical firm, recently outfitted a dozen of its 100 sales reps with Hewlett-Packard’s Jornado handheld devices. ICT Group is hosting the application. The reps can use the devices to record doctors’ signatures for drug samples (before dispensing samples, the reps are legally required to obtain doctors’ signatures), procure product information from the company, and electronically catalog their customer contacts, says Neal Stone, CollaGenex’s director of sales administration. He estimates that the reps may be able to eliminate several hours of paperwork each week.

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