With the increase in consumerism, companies are constantly searching for ways to serve customers better, primarily to sustain profitability and increase customer retention in a highly competitive business environment. Some studies indicate that a single-digit percentage increase in customer retention can increase profitability by over 90 percent. Besides, ‘completely satisfied’ customers are six times more likely to become repeat buyers than merely ‘satisfied’ customers. Therefore companies are striving hard to leverage customer loyalty because of the better return of investment.
Call centers emerged as a concept to allow customers to interact with companies as a service. But over the years the fast growth of the Internet has enabled customers to dictate the way they want to interact with companies. This has brought about a paradigm shift in the way companies use communication to create competitive differentiators. Engaging customers has become one of the biggest priorities for enterprises. Simply responding to customers’ requests is not enough, companies have to move up and provide a value-added dimension to customers that will help them achieve new levels of customer engagement by adopting a proactive approach. These complex requirements for customer interaction have not only impacted the use of technology, but also drastically affected traditional business processes. In trying to scale up to the market dynamics, it is quite evident that call centers are evolving to incorporate more complex customer responses in integrated contact centers.
Contact centers, as the name suggests, provide customers with the ability to get in touch with companies in more than one way, unlike call centers that rely only on voice for interaction with customers. Consistent customer experience and customer loyalty have become prime drivers for any customer interaction strategy and with this radical shift in customer expectations, enterprises are seeking to incorporate new business processes at the same time as protecting existing investments.
The 24x7 Paradigm
Customers now want access to information on a 24x7 basis with a choice of self- or agent-assisted service. Their requirements are also manifest in the type of interaction they make with companies, whether by telephone, e-mail, live text chat or other forms of Web collaboration. Companies need to have access to accurate customer interaction data, regardless of where or how previous transactions have occurred. Customers prefer highly personalized interactions. This challenge has led companies to look for better management tools to cope with the changing face of customer relationships. These tools, while providing companies with the necessary means to address new relationship requirements, must also be able to support business objectives, offer flexibility and use minimum resources.
In a real-world contact center, the complexity of choosing the right solution increases because within the enterprise there are many stakeholders involved in the process of acquiring and managing the contact center. All have their individual needs and objectives to be met. Contact center managers, for instance, have priorities such as the need for reliable and accurate user-friendly tools to manage the contact center as they deal directly with customers. They also need real-time information to monitor agent performance based on various parameters such as call volumes, answer speed, and service levels.
Other primary concerns for contact center managers include reports that will help them prepare agent schedules and allocate resources.
Synergy with the Big Picture
CTOs have a different set of concerns to address in their effort to support this ‘mission-critical application’ in the enterprise.
They need to integrate the front- and back-office applications to provide enterprise-wide data sharing capabilities. A major issue with CTOs is to make optimal usage of the existing network resources (which might mean the use of a converged network for both voice and data applications) and control costs. In addition, keeping the overall total cost of ownership (TCO) low is also an important criterion for them. Looking at the big picture, the enterprise as a whole needs to present a unique image to customers, independent of the channels used. Real-time performance and revenue indicator dashboards are a must for the top management, as contact centers are no longer looked upon as cost centers but profit centers. They also need an enterprise-wide data-sharing platform in order to avoid duplication of effort as far as data and business processes are concerned.
Beyond the Obvious
Having looked at the overall requirements from the perspective of a fully integrated contact center, let us look at the essential ingredients that make an integrated contact center. There are three modes of operation of any contact center–inbound, outbound, and blended.
In the inbound mode, the contact center deals primarily with incoming calls. The outbound mode is mostly seen in telemarketing companies and they normally use dialing tools to make calls. The blended mode is the most commonly used mode of operations by contact centers. Even though in simplistic terms blended modes followed by contact centers refers to handling of both inbound and outbound calls, it is much more complex in operational terms. One might presume that agents who are used for making outbound calls may be used to handle inbound calls when the inbound traffic is relatively higher, the fact is that agents handling outbound calls may not be suitable to handle inbound calls, and vice versa. Apart from human factors, there are technological issues that make the blended mode of contact center operation more complex.
Let us examine the important ingredients that form a contact center and the issues related to each of them, with focus on the blended mode.
Most contact centers employ a call distribution unit that distributes the calls across the agents at the center. The simplest and the oldest method of call distribution is automatic call distribution (ACD). This entails routing the call to the next available agent regardless of the caller’s requirements. Intermediate technologies used something called multiple queue assignment (MQA), which allows an agent to receive calls from more than one queue.
The latest concept, which is used for distribution of calls in a contact center, is known as skills-based routing (SBR). This is the most efficient method of call distribution. Only a few select vendors in the market offer this concept and it allows contact centers to provide the best fit between the caller’s requirements and the skills of the agent. This powerful concept relies on a very simple mechanism to perform the task. It quantifies the various skill sets of agents and matches them with the nature of the enquiry. The call is then passed on to the available agent who is best equipped to handle the call.
Using the SBR engine, agents will only receive those calls that they are best equipped to handle depending on their individual skill set. This type of call distribution technique has many derived benefits. The matching of callers with a particular need to the agents proficient in addressing that need results in a far higher rate of first call resolution. This allows the realization of the one-stop-shop concept, minimizing call transfers between agents at the call center, and indeed the need to make additional calls to resolve a customer issue. Skill-based routing has the additional benefit in new agent integration as contact center managers can gradually increase the agents’ skills sets, answering priorities until they are 100 percent proficient in a particular task.
In the effort to go beyond customer satisfaction and achieve customer loyalty, it is important to consider all aspects of customers’ experience apart from connecting them to the right agent. While using SBR ensures that the most appropriate agent available at that point of time is allocated to respond to customer queries, there is an equally important concept known as call treatment, which, in simple terms, is all about how we treat the call while it is waiting to be connected to the agent.
Although it may look unimportant at first, experience has shown that poor or non-existent call treatment (for example, silence while waiting) will result in high call abandonment rates and high customer dissatisfaction.
There are many call treatments that can be offered to the customer such as ring back, silence, music, recorded announcements and even estimated time in queue information, each with their own advantages and drawbacks. An example of an effective call treatment option that gives the customer choice may be a voice session that offers customers an option to leave a message instead of waiting in the queue. It can be ensured that throughout various voice treatments if the customer prefers to wait, he/she will not lose their priority in the queue.
Towards Intelligent IVRs
Interactive voice response (IVR) systems are an integral part of contact centers. IVR platforms have been designed to offer self-services in order to relieve contact center agents of simple and monotonous information provision tasks that can be easily given by automated self-service means for a better cost. When wisely used, IVR platforms not only save costs by handling calls automatically but also increase agents’ motivation by routing to them more challenging calls. In addition to offering simple touch-tone-based self-service applications, IVRs offer new and powerful advanced speech recognition capabilities. This technology includes natural language recognition, allowing IVR platforms to offer more complex self-services driven by conversation language rather than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ type responses to rigid menu structures. Gartner Group predicts that by the year 2003, 30 percent of the new automated lines in call centers will respond to customers’ speech. The technology has an excellent RoI case with installations paying for themselves within six to eighteen months in centers with more than 50 agents.
Contact centers that are in the business of outbound calls, such as telemarketing centers, typically turn to outbound dialers or even ‘predictive dialers’ to add speed and efficiency. Outbound dialers can operate in a number of ways. In a simple mode of operation, the dialer may allow the agent to preview the intended call and the agent chooses when to progress with the call. In the most complex mode, predictive dialers will dial numbers using an algorithm that tries to ‘predict’ the availability of agent to handle the call, taking into account various real-time operational statistics such as call length, post-call processing, etc. This mode is the most efficient because the likelihood of having agents idle is very low. The predictive mode is found only on high-end solutions. Since this mode is using probability laws, it works best with a substantial number of agents. Below 30 agents, the behavior is too erratic to be efficient.
Over to Quality-of-service
Every contact center thrives on the quality of service provided to the customers, therefore monitoring of quality is a very important aspect. There are technologies available for this, but the concept of providing quality varies from vendor to vendor. Quality monitoring technologies essentially consist of providing the tools (software and hardware) to monitor and/or record conversations between agents and customers for further analysis. After the analysis, the results are used to improve contact center agents’ performance.
While there are many ways to monitor quality of service provided by contact center agents, the most prevalent method is ‘trunk intrusion’ where the quality monitoring system ‘taps’ into the incoming calls to record agent conversations. Besides monitoring individual agent’s performance, it is also important to monitor the overall performance of the contact center.
To cover this functionality, contact center vendors provide various real-time statistics such as number of people waiting in the queue, average waiting time for each caller, number of abandoned calls, etc. The information can be provided in various ways and levels of detail to call center administrators, managers and agents via PC displays or large wallboards. At the end of defined periods (e.g. hour, day, month or year), the statistics are made available for historical reports for further management and quality improvement purposes.
Some Other Tools…
Another important aspect implemented in world-class contact centers is workforce management (WFM), a tool that can be used by contact center managers to get the best results from available human resources. These specialized tools help plan human resource usage by producing schedules based on historical and real-time call patterns specific to their business modes.
Very few vendors supply workforce management solutions because of their complex nature, using sophisticated algorithms, statistics, probabilities, and mathematic models to provide the optimal resource planning schedules for contact center managers.
One of the most topical areas of contact center implementation is computer telephony integration (CTI). First, it is important to understand that CTI is not a product but a set of concepts and processes that define the way various information systems within a contact center interact with each other to support the various functions of a contact center. CTI brings screen pop functionality, where agents are provided with information about the customer on their PC screens based on the number the customers called; dialed number identification service (DNIS); calling line identification (CLID) or customer data as collected on an IVR. CTI also allows soft phone functionality that emulates telephone handsets on agents’ PCs. CTI must also work independently of the origin and destination of the call, making it network independent.
There has been a lot of hype regarding multimedia-enabled contact centers in the recent past. However, the level of understanding of what a multimedia contact center actually is varies. A multimedia contact center could be simply defined as an infrastructure that offers numerous media channels to its customers, and regardless of the media type, all these transactions are handled in a consistent and disciplined way according to the defined business rules.
A study by Gartner suggests that voice will remain the most prevalent and cost-effective type of interaction within contact centers for many years to come. Therefore, even though multiple modes of contact may be present in the customer contact strategy for many organizations, the ideal strategy for their contact centers today is to continue to leverage the value of their voice services and introduce multimedia services as their individual businesses cases develop. Indeed, greater RoI is available for many organizations by using new voice-based self-service (such as speech recognition) rather than Internet channels.
Another important aspect of contact centers is the ability to link multiple sites together to offer greater control and quality in services. Having ‘remote’ agents located outside main premises can push this concept even more. By having a global view presenting consolidated information, companies can implement and manage more efficient contact centers.
Putting together the Pieces
Having had a look at the various components that make up the building blocks of any contact center, it is obvious that setting up of a contact center is no easy task, because a contact center is a complex ensemble of various technologies, human resources, business processes, system integration, and operations. Many people believe that technology is the answer, but viewed objectively technology accounts for only 10 percent of the total budget of a contact center. However, it should not be misconstrued that technology is unimportant as it is technology that allows you to efficiently control and manage the resources that account for the majority of the expense, that is human and network resources, to maximum efficiency.
So when choosing technology solutions for contact centers, there are a number of important aspects to keep in mind. It is important to avoid being constrained by proprietary solutions from a so-called end-to-end contact center solution provider due to the continuously changing nature of the contact center environment. Being tied down by proprietary technology solutions does not provide the scope to change and evolve.
No single vendor can supply a complete contact center solution that is the best for everyone; therefore it is necessary to choose from a variety of best-of-breed solutions. Ideally one should choose vendors depending on their collaborative strengths with other best-of-breed point solution vendors. This allows contact centers to leverage industry wide standards so that there is ample scope to scale up operations if required.
The other most important aspect, which should be considered while setting up a contact center, is integration. Even though it is the most challenging aspect, it is also the least understood. The solutions implemented in a contact center should be able to talk to each other properly, else there can be substantial overheads and lengthy provisioning timeframes. Poor understanding of integration aspects can lead to poor cost evaluations and unsuitable network architectures. This escalates costs.
Further, it is equally important to carefully choose system integrators across various technology segments involved in a contact center, mainly because most integrators may be very capable in their area of specialty but may not be proficient in other technology aspects of a contact center. Therefore the best approach is to have specialists cover their respective areas. Apart from these technical aspects, training of various groups within a contact center is an important thing to consider. Poor or non-existent training of the groups involved can be catastrophic. Good training is mandatory to maximize the overall efficiency of the contact center.
Ravi Chauhan, vice-president, India and Saarc (enterprise solutions), Nortel Networks