Call centres drive better information management

As call centre technology continues to transform the standard business model, the need for companies to streamline their access to information is critical. When a call centre is linked with an information management system, far greater levels of efficiency and customer service can be achieved. David Hovenden reports.

Call centres drive better information management

Call centres have quietly been becoming the standard in the service industry for the past 20 years. Now, they represent a major area of corporate spending. According to industry analysts, Australian organisations spent $2 billion in the past year on call centre technology and that figure is growing at between 30 to 50 per cent per annum. There is little doubt, call centres are big business.

Why are call centres attracting such high investments from corporations? They have been tagged as one of the most competitive advantage delivering pieces of infrastructure an organisation can have. Simply having a call centre, however, is not going to result in an organisation's overnight success. Like most things, a call centre needs to be well organised and well run. The growing demands of the consumer and customer service markets are such that a poor call centre could do an organisation more harm than good.

Call centre evolution

A call centre in its simplest form is any group of operators who answer or make a deluge of phone calls. The first generation of call centres were more or less help desks. The second generation was the mass production phase. The Telstra 013 directory assistance service is an example of a second generation call centre.

The third generation starts incorporating such technologies as computer telephony integration (CTI) and integrated voice response (IVR) to give better customer service. It allows callers to get to the people that can help them more quickly. Callers could also be informed that they were in a queue and the next operator would get to them in approximately x amount of minutes and so on.

The fourth generation is mass customisation. This level of service allows a CTI system to identify the caller, interact with them, interact with the company's data warehouse, bring up appropriate information on the screen before a phone agent (screen popping) and allow high levels of personal service.

New areas of evolution include the use of Web browsers simultaneously with voice lines. Another new development is email or fax responses to calls placed without an agent ever being. In short, the call centre has become part of an overall business model, the boundaries of various technologies become transparent and the end users interface will be of little consequence. The more sophisticated the level of service a call centre delivers, the more it relies on good back office technologies to make it all happen. Third and fourth generation call centres are heavily reliant on good information management procedures.

"Call centres drive the need for electronic document management," said Geoff Forster IBM Australia's national marketing manager, Customer Care Solutions. "A call centre works in real time . . . if agents don't have quick access, then they can't function as a higher customer service call centre."

Caring for customers

The basis of any business is its customers. The more customers an organisation has, the more likely it is to succeed. The most traditional way of attracting customers was to open a shop front. The better geographical position a shop has, the more customers it attains. Advertising the shop's whereabouts greatly increased the number of customers visiting the shop. A distinct aim of call centres is to make geographical location irrelevant. IBM's Mr Forster believes this is well underway and is well accepted in the community. "As people transform their business to focus on call centres and e-commerce, the public is becoming more comfortable with transactions at a distance," he said.

Mr Forster identified four ways that organisations can now acquire and maintain customers. These are face-to-face communication, branch shop front, telephone contact and cyber collaboration. "In terms of high volume, low price transaction, the two main areas are telephone contact and cyber collaboration. Call centres are the hub of these two types of transactions."

The call centre advantage

As mentioned above, call centres can make geographical location irrelevant. They are in this sense a boost to catalogue shopping, an early and common form of call centre. "A call centre, in addition to lower costs, has the advantage of reach and responsiveness," said Mr Forster.

They also more effectively utilise an organisation's human resources. Company support can service anyone with access to a phone line. How quickly this can be done, depends on the efficiency of a call centre.

David Phillips, chairman and founder of Insight Technologies, says that a call centre's "core requirement is to provide total customer satisfaction. It's the front line, it's what the customer experiences."

Friedrich Mueller, director of FC Mueller & Associates, a sales and marketing consultancy, thinks integrated call centre technology allows for a much higher level of customer service. When a call is received by an organisation, the number is identified and if the caller is an existing customer, the organisation's business intelligence system can populate the phone agent's screen with all of that person's details prior to the call being taken. Good information management is the key enabler to delivering a slick-looking image of an organisation.

Good information management also allows for enormously increased marketing and sales data to be gathered by an organisation about its customers. According to Mr Mueller, a call centre also allows for greater levels of business intelligence to be gathered. The measurement of the operation of a call centre is very important. How long was the caller on hold for? Was the call properly handled? Was the caller happy? Did a solution get delivered by phone, email or fax? Once information such as this has been gathered, "data mining delivers trends to allow business to adjust products and services," he said.

A knowledge base of frequently asked questions (FAQs) can also be established. When channelled through the appropriate technology, this allows many users to help themselves to problems when it suits them and delivers a happier client, according to Mr Mueller.

Call centre hurdles

Many a good plan has been ruined by that most unreliable piece of machinery, the human being. Call centres are no exception. Call centres are staff intensive and as a relatively new profession, what constitutes a good call centre agent is still a bit of a grey area. But undoubtedly a call centre's people are its most valuable asset. A highly trained, pleasant operator can make all the difference in customer service. Being able to deliver that high degree of personalised service, while not being limited by geographic location is a call centres greatest strength. "A robot has only a small amount of the potential that a human has," said Insight's Mr Phillips.

According to Darren Sutherland, regional manager, Asia Pacific for Cornerstone Imaging, the biggest problems organisations are facing with their call centres is keeping staff. He says ergonomics is a large contributor. Working in a call centre can become very uncomfortable very quickly. "Call centre workers needs are much the same as those involved in imaging," he said.

Call centre operators generally need a big monitor in front of them with multiple windows open simultaneously about the customer they're dealing with. This means that they also need high quality monitors that won't give the agents headaches. Comfortable chairs, headsets and a pleasant work environment are all part of an effective call centre.

Call centres also have the potential to be very boring for workers. Mr Sutherland said that some organisations have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure worker productivity. "Chill out zones with televisions and lounges are not uncommon to ensure that people maintain their productivity," he said.

Said Insight's Mr Phillips: "A call centre needs to have its philosophy or premise right in the first place."

He said for a call centre to be effective, "there are three areas that have to interlink - business processes, technologies and the human element. If the three don't mesh, failure is likely."

As an information management solutions provider working with call centre implementations, Mr Phillips sees his role as making call centres more efficient. "Let's do 80-90 per cent of the monotonous work and let humans do the 10 per cent of intelligent work . . . if this occurs, costs are reduced dramatically."

The more information agents have access to, the more topics they can cover and the more interesting their work will be. "High levels of multi-skilling are a part of many call centres, this delivers workers with a higher degree of job satisfaction," said Mr Phillips.

Mr Mueller believes that "agents must be highly trained, they have to have very wide experience". And this means thorough customer service training. "If agents are not trained the best call centre will not work," he said.

"An area of critical importance is human resources, 60 per cent of an organisation's focus should be on training," said Mr Forster.

"No hand-offs, no referrals . . . this is the key to a call centre's success," said Mr Phillips.

Making it all possible

The back office is of as much importance as anything else in the new remote model. EDM, business intelligence (data warehousing) and workflow will all grow in prominence as the ultimate servicing of customers means doing everything in real time and more importantly, for Mr Forster, involving the customer in the business process. He sees having the customer able to track his transaction right through a system from basically anywhere in the world as delivering the ultimate customer loyalty. Already DHL is delivering such services with its parcel delivery business. Behind all of this is workflow. Without a workflow system, it is virtually impossible to track a transaction in progress in real time. Introducing a call centre represents an enormous cultural change for an organisation. It needs to be driven by a business reason, a technical reason and a human resources reason. It also needs careful planning.

"Big bang approaches basically have a high risk of failure . . . we wholeheartedly support an approach that is incremental in nature. This is so the organisation doesn't go into shock," said Mr Phillips.

Call the Web

The convergence of the Internet with call centres is already happening. The more sophisticated call centres are using Web technology both internally and externally to make them better.

"On the telephone, four menu items is the maximum amount customers can handle . . . more can be handled on the Internet," said Mr Forster.

Call centres are starting to have agents to support e-commerce. Gerry Forsythe, marketing manager, multimedia messaging, Lucent Technologies Australia, sees the integration of call centres with the Internet as the next generation of call centre. "Being able to interact with customers in a multimedia fashion is the next big thing," he said.

Using the Internet in conjunction with a call centre allows for much greater complexity in the types of transactions that can be handled. "Audit trails are great on the Internet . . . that's harder on the telephone," said Mr Forster.

According to UK-based IT research firm Ovum, the Internet poses a threat to organisations that do not have the ability to respond quickly. If a company's Web site invites browsers to email or call them, and if that company is unable to respond quickly it does not reflect well. You're better off not offering those services than offering them in a poor fashion, Ovum advised.