While end user interest in call centres has never been greater, organisations are finding that implementing them is not cheap.
The announcement by mobile network provider Orange of an £8 million call centre in Plymouth is just the latest in a series of investments in call-driven customer service facilities.
Orange's investment came hot on the heels of an announcement by UK-based services company Cogent Communications of a 1100-strong call centre in Scotland offering outsourced call centre services to UK businesses.
But Orange's investment is on the low side. A £30 million bill such as that faced by investment bank Charles Schwab Europe is more typical. Thames Water spent £30 million on its call centre in 1993, and Bupa forked out £50 million on its state-of-the-art site last year.
According to analyst Ovum, even a paltry 50-person call centre costs £1.5 million a year in staff wages alone, with maintenance costs running at three times that figure.
Because call centres are so expensive, organisations are keen to find ways of increasing self-service so customers get what they want for less. The Internet may offer the fastest way to do this.
Ignore the Net at your peril, warns Clare Reid, managing economist of consultant Business Strategies. “The growth of the Internet has the potential to make the computer telephonist redundant,” she says. “It's far smarter to web-enable your call centre, integrating voice and data for real-time interaction.”
While the call centre will remain central to business strategy, it will do so in a vastly different form, predicts Ovum. It says centres will outgrow traditional computer telephony integration (CTI), where IT is integrated with phone systems.
Organisations will be able to bring the same degree of control to the entire interaction process that CTI brought to telephony.
What this means in practice is the creation of an all-singing, all-dancing call centre that directs customers to the most appropriate channel. Contact media integration technology integrates the Net, interactive voice recognition technology (IVR) and CTI.
Why bother? First and foremost, to save money. Wembley International, the company behind Wembley stadium, cut costs by adding IVR to its call centre (see Network News 19 August 1998).
The technology automated 45 per cent of incoming calls and allowed the firm's agents to focus on more complex and profitable interactions, such as specialist sales and cross-selling. Wembley International is planning to extend the call centre to the Internet, offering online booking for tickets.
Integrating Internet and voice recognition systems may reduce call-time and running costs in the call centre, but that's only half the story. Integration also drives up profits, particularly in the profit-elusive area of ecommerce.
“There is a disparity between the financial returns promised by ecommerce, and the profits currently being realised,” says David Bradshaw, senior analyst at Ovum. “Web-enabled call centres allow businesses to overcome this inertia, and turn online spin into financial substance.”
Internet-enabled call centres make the online process more effective, augmenting ecommerce processes with live interaction. In addition, the Internet allows the agent to expand cross-selling by using its two killer applications: call-back and 'show and tell'.
Call-back means returning calls from customers quickly, while 'show and tell' offers the agent the opportunity to guide customers through sales literature, complete application forms, or fix technical problems.
Talking loud and clear
Although this technology is in its infancy, the Net is not the only self-service approach to improving call centre efficiency. After years of disappointment, voice recognition, and more particularly natural language voice recognition, have overcome many of the call centre's weaknesses.
Natural language voice recognition is available on many levels, from natural interaction (where the user states their entire requirement in natural speech) to structured interaction (where the system asks a series of questions and interprets the answers).
It removes the need for structured menus and key-driven responses, cited by customers as two of their biggest dislikes of today's systems.
The UK is the second largest user of this new technology in the world after Germany, according to Ovum. Users claim successful transaction rates of more than 95 per cent in some cases, thanks to structured error-handling.
However, don't expect that by simply web-enabling your call centre you will tackle your customer queries efficiently. Organisations must ensure that their online operations are also slick. Accountant Ernst & Young, in a report published last week, says online banks are struggling to respond to customers satisfactorily.
Thirty-six per cent of European banks offering an online face to customers take eight to 12 hours to respond to email queries, with only 17 per cent responding in 10 minutes or less, says Ernst & Young. So customers resort to contacting the call centre. As a result, banks are having to increase that investment.
The trend in call centres has been towards big budgets and a large physical presence, but this does not necessarily guarantee the best service.
Instead, customers need to look to the web and to emerging speech recognition and interactive technologies to process calls efficiently. This way, the call centre will not just pay its somewhat pricey way, but will create new revenue opportunities.
Call centres: gimme the numbers
International Call Centre Benchmarking is an annual survey of 205 call centres worldwide. Last year's report found that:
- Only 40% of call centres are Year 2000 compliant. Worse, one in 10 call centres does not even know if it is or not.
- Absenteeism is an increasing problem for call centres. In 1997, 4.7% of staff were absent on any given day. The figure rose to 6.1% in 1998.
- Twelve per cent of companies are planning to develop their call centre into a multimedia communication centre.
- Almost half (48%) of centres are growing at a rate between 20% 100% per year.
- The average length of service in a call centre is 31 months, and the average age of agents is 28 years.
Researcher Datamonitor predicts spending on call centres this year will top £500 million in Europe, with an annual growth rate of 30 per cent. This translates into 100,000 new jobs per year for the next five years. Call centres in Europe will increase from 9700 to 18,500 by 2002.
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