Blend Ambition

SHANGRI-LA, OHIO — “Blended call centers have really changed the whole industry,” says Steve Bland, CEO of Acme Telemarketing Co., as he looks out from his office veranda toward the rolling parkland and formal gardens that surround the Acme Campus.

“It used to be very different here,” Bland says, catching a bouquet tossed up to him by a passing operator. “Three hundred percent turnover, unreliable staff — you know the drill. But that was back in what my reps call the B.B. era,” he says, “before blending.”

A flock of smiling reps look up at Bland and wave as they amble across a swath of green lawn toward the workers’ recreation pavilion at nearby Lake Bland. “They’re on their way to the lunchtime rowing team quarter-finals,” he explains. “We’re so productive these days — what with inbound, outbound, e-mail, chat, and telepathy — we have time for all kinds of things.”

Even dedicated New York Times readers may notice that certain details described above don’t quite jibe with reality. So far, anyway, the blended center doesn’t seem to be living up to its hype. Although innovative software and switches have created interesting opportunities for customer service managers, true blended call centers — whether that’s defined to mean a call center that routes both inbound and outbound calls through a single agent or a center that bombards an agent with customer contacts from a variety of channels — isn’t nearly as ubiquitous or as successful as telecommunications vendors once predicted.

THE TROUBLE WITH PARADISE

Blending seemed like a good idea on paper. Since an unpredictable fraction of staff time in every inbound center is spent waiting for the phone to ring, why not have your agents fill up their dead time with outbound calls, or get them to answer the e-mail? After all, why should the company subsidize their solitaire games?

The idea makes sense. Unfortunately, some experts say that in practice it’s usually not so simple to execute. For one thing, blending inbound with outbound can sometimes cut your center’s revenue as well as its costs. “It works great in theory, and you can run the numbers and prove it, but what people are finding — and why you don’t really see a lot of true inbound — outbound blending — is that the skill set of a person doing an inbound call is often very different than that of a person doing an outbound call,” says Nathan Stearns, director of training and consulting services for IEX, a Richardson, TX-based workforce management software provider.

“I’m not so sure it always works in management of personnel,” agrees Basil Bennett, president and CEO of WillowCSN, a call center outsource agency headquartered in Miramar, FL. “Not everybody is set up psychologically, emotionally, and also from a competency point of view to do both inbound and outbound.”

Even modest experiments in inbound — outbound blending have run into trouble. In one recent study of 20 different companies, Service Quality Measurement Group Inc., a Vernon, BC-based consultancy that benchmarks customer and employee satisfaction at customer contact centers, found that after companies tried introducing cross-selling pitches to their inbound calls, customer satisfaction dropped from an average of 67% to 59%.

At the same time, these cross-selling experimenters saw their employee satisfaction drop even more after their campaign was introduced — from 37% job satisfaction down to 27%, according to Sarah Kennedy, an SQM partner.

Sometimes service-oriented reps find themselves depressed at being suddenly evaluated for their sales skills, Kennedy says. The agent begins thinking, “I was hired for service, valued for my service skills, now if I don’t meet target, I’m a worthless piece of you-know-what.”

At the same time, blending can lead hard-charging, sales-oriented reps to hurt the cause as well. For instance, according to Kennedy, sales-oriented agents have been known to hang up on a caller who’s looking for service but doesn’t sound like a revenue opportunity.

However, there are still some true believers in the virtues of blending. Gary B. Cohen of ACI Telecentrics in Minneapolis, a call center outsourcing firm, says that he believes blending inbound and outbound can save companies a great deal of money.

So why aren’t more companies doing it? “I think it’s a structural issue more than anything,” Cohen says. His reasoning: Inbound calls are generally directed by operations departments, while outbound calls are supervised by marketing. “It’s a really difficult thing for their department heads to say they’re going to work together on this,” he says.

E-MAIL AND MORE

The other kind of blended center, in which reps cover contacts through more communications channels, also seems to have run into more snags than anticipated.

Over the past few years, a number of software vendors publicized the idea of centers staffed by “one vast clump of beautifully trained agents who seamlessly migrate from one communications style to another depending on demand,” says Geoff Burr, president and CEO of Castel Call Management of Beverly, MA. Unfortunately, he says, there’s just one catch: It doesn’t work. The software can do it, but the people can’t. “We’ve not ever found a single place where it works,” Burr says. “While that may on some level be a Holy Grail, it’s not one we’re chasing.”

The truth, Burr says, is that each communications channel is different — which means that fielding those other kinds of communications requires different skills. “The agents who can handle Web chat are different from the agents who can handle e-mail are different from the agents who can handle voicemail are very different from the people who can handle a live speaking environment,” he says.

Hiring renaissance reps who could handle it all would be prohibitive, say Burr and other call center experts. “It’s like saying, well, if we staffed our entire call center with Ph.D. psychologists we could get higher customer service,” he says. “Yeah, but we’d be paying our agents $150,000 a year. It’s not going to work.”

Even something that sounds simple has turned out to be problematic. “We’ve had several customers that have attempted to blend e-mail and traditional inbound calls, and what they [often] find is that someone who is skilled, trained, and has a personality type that’s very comfortable talking can’t type worth a flip,” IEX’s Stearns says.

But ACI’s Cohen is more optimistic about communications blending than some other experts. Between spell check and heavy scripting, he says, his company finds that it’s possible to avoid most of those difficulties.

WHERE BLENDING WORKS

While the successes of call blending don’t seem to be as ubiquitous as initially advertised, that doesn’t mean blending never, ever works.

Collection agents, for instance, do well with inbound and outbound blending, according to Burr, whose company counts collection agencies among his top clients. And in the catalog business, says Paul Kowal, the president of Kowal Associates, a Boston-based teleservice and fulfillment consultancy, while shifting an inbound agent to cold-calling might be problematic, a relationship-building call with a current customer is “a gentler kind of switch” that is more likely to be successful.

Beyond those areas in which blending is effective, some experts see two other kinds of communications blending as having potential as well: Data. Kowal says there is now a tremendous opportunity to track customers across touchpoints, giving retailers an opportunity to know their customers in a way that hasn’t been possible since everyone shopped in general stores, “when Mr. Jim at the local general store greeted you when you came in and [you] said, ‘Hi, Jim, I need some coffee,’ and he’d know whether to pull the Maxwell House or the Folger’s off of the shelf because he knew you and he knew your preferences.” Outsourcing. Call center outsourcing for catalog operations represents only about 10% of retail call volume, according to some estimates. Most of those arrangements handle peaks, experts say, but new technology may provide increasingly efficient ways to handle incremental spikes in demand — and new incentives to trim in-house staffs. Such switching technologies as Castel’s Agent Anywhere software make it possible to add seats nearly on the fly by routing calls out to agents based outside the center, even back to the agent’s home office. WillowCSN, for example, which works with 1-800-Flowers and other retailers, has built its whole business model on routing calls to its network of home-based agents.

PLEASE HOLD

In call centers, as in other human enterprises, new technology doesn’t just solve problems — it also creates new headaches. In some industries, such as banking, up to 85% of inquiries are now handled automatically, according to SQM. That’s great news from an overall cost perspective. But as customers are given more tools to serve themselves, being a call agent is likely to become an increasingly skilled job in the coming years.

“The stuff that ends up getting to a human is going to be the more complicated, more value-laden, but also more problem-laden interaction,” says Kowal. “It’s going to take some heavy retraining of the people we have to try and just have them keep up.”

Where are those new agents going to come from? “That’s the sad part,” he says. “I don’t know how we’re going to deal with that.”

Bennett Voyles is a NYC-based business writer. He can be reached at benvoyles@yahoo.com.

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