As customer relationship management gains more mindshare in thedbury looks at the technologies being used to enhance relationships. corporate market, call centre technology will become a focal point for companies wanting to retain a sense of identity with their customer base.
Implementing the right call centre technology and practices will enable companies to respond more to customer demands and keep their levels of repeat business high.
Call centre systems fall into the same category of customer relationship management software in terms of business benefits. Don Haddaway, head of global telecommunications at Thomas Cook, says that it's about delivering customer service cost effectively, enabling them to talk to the person that they want to as soon as possible, without being bounced around an organisation needlessly.
Hitting the right chord
Incoming calls to Thomas Cook's call centre hit a T-Server computer telephone integration (CTI) framework from telephony solution provider Genesys, which routes them through to Customer Service Software (CSS) from Chordiant.
The system holds customer information in a database, enabling the company to route customer details from one call centre representative to another, without having to ask customers for information all over again.
Haddaway's system features the basic components of any good call centre solution integrating CTI. He uses a reliable automatic call distribution (ACD) switch that will be able to route calls around an organisation, and integrates it with a customer information database and workflow system.
There are other aspects to call centre technology that can be folded into a solution. These include interactive voice response (IVR) systems that enable less complex queries to be handled without human intervention, and outbound dialler systems that enable call centres to be proactive.
The back-end integration described as the heart of any good CTI call centre implementation must also be mirrored at the front end, according to Mark Lewis, managing director of document scanning and capture company Input Software.
Lewis says that making yourself available on the telephone is only one part of the equation. Making sure that you have adequate information about the customer is the other. If you are starting your business from scratch, then you will be able to gather much customer data electronically as a routine part of your call centre operation, but there may still be letters and other paper-based documents that need to be accessed quickly. If like many businesses you are implementing a call centre in a business that traditionally deals with paper, you will face even more of a challenge in accessing that information quickly when a customer calls.
Rob Winder, product marketing manager at Genesys, argues that Thomas Cook is one of the first companies moving into CTI, but that it won't be the last. "We've been through the early adopter phase. Anyone into call centre adoption is moving into CTI," he says.
According to Lisa Looper, European marketing director of call centre customer management software vendor Information Management Associates, the US is ahead of Europe in terms of call centre technology takeup, although the Europeans are leading in one area - online banking.
Surely we shouldn't be talking about online services in a call centre context? Au contraire, says Looper; intelligent communications managers should be thinking in terms of multi-channel information centres incorporating services such as Email and Web access in addition to the humble telephone.
Call centres should be a hub into which companies can plug a myriad of different access media, catering for customers' different needs.
Give me a call sometime
The type of sophisticated Web-based communication technology being promoted by vendors includes the call-me button, where customers surfing a Web site would be able to fill in their details and schedule a time when a call centre operative would call them. Alan Furness, business development manager at ICL operational services, says that an ideal application for call-me buttons is technical support.
"We were looking at call-me buttons 18 months ago," he says. "If you have the right ACD in place, then there is no problem. It came out of the telesales market, originally." If customers could list their queries in a form and arrange for someone to call them, it would help to eliminate frustrating waiting time, for example.
The other type of Web-based activity is the provision of voice telephony using IP networks. The idea of being able to surf a Web site and then contact a call centre representative immediately without having to log off promises to make the interaction between the caller and the call centre much richer.
This is an optimistic message, but as is so often the case with the technology business, it's generating more excitement in the vendor community than in the customer base.
Why are Web-based call centre technologies so unlikely to take off? The main reason, according to a Datamonitor report, is a lack of bandwidth - the Internet infrastructure in the UK is still not advanced enough to provide the high bandwidth necessary for intuitive, high-quality communication.
ISDN links are still rare in the home, while cable modem and ADSL technologies are still in the trial stage in the UK.
If you are going to rely heavily on computer technology to fuel your call centre activities, it must clearly be treated as a mission-critical system. Maintaining both performance and reliability is vital.
Clustering technology is a perennial technology in mission-critical applications.
The CSS software used by Thomas Cook, for example, runs on a two-node failover cluster of Sun Enterprise 5000 units with a total of eight processors.
Its Genesys CTI application runs on an NT server connected to a T-Server switch. Both the cluster and the NT server are connected to a switched Ethernet network.
Firms get wise to clustering
Companies traditionally active in the clustered server market are beginning to recognise the importance of call centre management, and they are tailoring their product and server offerings to boot. Sequent has stress tested Siebel 99, Seibel's customer relationship management application for back-ending call centre installations, on its platform. The hardware vendor is offering a performance guarantee for Siebel 99 running on its own kit, based on a report produced for individual customers based on an analysis of their requirements.
"Our benchmarking activity has led to the performance guarantee where we will contractually commit to a given response time," says Jeremy Lovett, CRM business manager for EMEA at Sequent. "There will be networking implications and there will be things like backup and disaster recovery. The benchmarking means that we will be able to sign off all of these things."
IT professionals may be attracted to call centre technology because of the efficiency of the technology, but the financial director often needs something more tangible in terms of cost savings.
According to Thomas Cook's Haddaway, the primary driver for CTI call centre technology is money. The second is customer retention, because if people are treated well they will come back to the service, he explains.
Vendors would like call centres to be the multi-channel communication hubs of the future, with customers able to access personalised information using a variety of different media.
The UK is getting used to the idea of call centres, and technologies such as CTI are gaining a foothold in the market now. As for hot technologies such as Web-based telephony and call-me buttons - companies selling these technologies will soon learn that it's best for customers to run before they can walk. It will take a long time for this advanced call centre technology to get out of the early adopter phase. In the meantime, the back-end integration needed for a truly comprehensive CTI-based system will give most implementers more than enough to think about.
Case study: TSB
- Lloyds TSB has been investing heavily in call centre technology.
Julian Cook, senior manager for telephony system development, explains that the organisation runs separate call centre services to mirror its operation as two separate banks. TSB PhoneBank has 750,000 customers, while Lloyds Line has 200,000. Both have been running for nearly five years, and in March the company added to its investment by launching an interactive voice response (IVR) system for its Lloyds customers.
- Why develop an IVR system when Lloyds customers already have a call centre? "It's cheaper to do it so we want as many calls as we can on IVR," Cook explains, adding that it's a tenth of the cost of a conventional call centre.
- Cook says that a consistent front end for all call centre staff is vital if the company is to minimise its training overheads and increase the effectiveness of the system. It consequently uses IMA's Edge call centre interface across the board. On the TSB side, Edge enables staff to handle basic banking transactions, bill payments and balance enquiries, along with loan approvals, credit card applications and overdrafts. Lloyds has everything that TSB does, apart from the lending facilities.
- The introduction of the IVR heralds a sea of change in the company's approach to call centres, explains Cook. The call centres backed by human operators will gradually become able to handle more complex customer needs, becoming a financial helpdesk of sorts.
- Web-based CTI won't be on the cards for some time, warns Cook. Customers normally only have one telephone line, which makes it difficult to implement this effectively. However, Email will gradually be integrated, and some automated Email reply systems may also be introduced, he says.
- Cook concludes by warning companies to be aware of the dangers associated with call centre technology. For one thing, customer behaviour changes when call centres are introduced - it becomes easier to call a company numerous times with small queries than it does to go into a branch once with a set of queries. The increased number of customer interactions must be managed properly, he says.
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