Answering the call

With a corded phone clutched in one hand and a spatula in the other, the man gazes anxiously at a piece of meat sizzling on his stove. He’s on the line with his credit card company, but instead of speaking with a live human, he’s stuck in a series of automated prompts. Even as his dinner bursts into flames, he’s unwilling to let go of his phone for fear he’ll miss a chance to speak with the next available agent. He tries to put out his flaming dinner with a broom, only to have the broom catch fire.

This telling exchange between caller and company — part of Citibank’s “Simplicity” card ad campaign — isn’t just a clever send-up of a common customer service problem. It also reflects growing frustration with automated self-service applications that don’t work.

Citibank’s response is the “dial 0” campaign, which stresses that it’s easy to call its 800 number and find a real human being. But while Citibank proclaims it will no longer trap callers in an automated loop, most companies are still struggling to improve clunky call center technology that can make it hard to get quick and efficient service.

Organizations that are listening to customer frustration are responding in several key ways: by updating call center technology, by making it easier to reach a human agent if necessary and — in some cases — by moving from far-flung call center agents to at-home customer service representatives. This strategic about-face marks the emergence of a new breed of call center — one that employs technology to connect with its customers, not put them on hold. It also represents a pull back from a trend that started five years ago, when industry leaders such as Dell and General Electric sent their call centers offshore and automated as many calls as possible to cut costs. Companies achieved substantial savings with these tactics, but first-generation touch-tone systems were cumbersome for customers to use and offshore agents were sometimes hard for callers to understand. The result? Customer backlash.

Recent surveys show Americans are vastly dissatisfied with the service they get when they call their bank or computer help desk. Now, forward-thinking companies are realizing that, while they still want to save money, they need to focus more on satisfying customers or risk losing them in droves. To improve communication while reducing cost, they are integrating the existing call center model with newer technologies. These range from voice over IP (VOIP), which makes it easier to oversee a remote workforce but poses some technical challenges for early adopters, to software that sends easy-to-answer calls to an interactive voice response (IVR) system while connecting the most valued customers with complex requests to highly trained agents.

Customers are a company’s most vital asset. For that reason, CIOs need to know about technology that can help their companies improve customer applications and satisfaction. While contact centers are often managed by operations staff, CIOs generally maintain the networks and the systems that run them. They can also be in charge of purchasing and implementing new technologies such as voice recognition, work management systems that track agent schedules, and CRM applications that provide easy access to customer information. Clearly, the CIO can play a key role in fine-tuning call center service.

“All the technologies we need for the next generation of call centers are with us today,” says Steve Boyer, CIO of call center outsourcer StarTek. “It’s a matter of figuring out how to integrate them, adapt them and use them to attract and keep customers.”

The call center grows up

Shortly after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, he offered to sell his device to telegraph giant Western Union. Western Union declined and wrote in an internal memo that, “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”

Western Union was wrong, of course, and companies soon saw the new contraption as an excellent way to communicate with customers. As early as the 1920s, phones started appearing on the desks of those whose primary duty was to deal with customers, setting the stage for the advertising clich

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