Call centers grow up

Companies should turn their call centers into IT-equipped intelligence operations designed to provide e-learning, customer analysis and threat detection.

Best Buy, Starwood Hotels and Continental Airlines are doing just that, as if to disprove the notion that IT is history. They’re using an intelligent software suite from Roswell, Ga.-based Witness Systems Inc. to randomly record both voice and data communications in order to improve customer service and the bottom line.

For example, Continental’s four domestic reservation centers, which handle about 60 million calls annually, use IT for more than just measuring call levels. The airline takes the technology to greater heights, integrating the call review process with IT operations and business goals and letting management at company headquarters in Houston keep an eye on things.

This enables IT staffers to troubleshoot bugs and problems with the Web site in real time, thanks to electronic buckets in which reservation agents (there are nearly 5,000) place customer reports. Since the IT department can see the actual keystrokes that led to any problems, fixes are made more quickly. And those fixes are also less expensive to execute, because IT personnel don’t have to fly to a reservation center in the hope of seeing a recurring glitch.

The system also helps agents group problems, questions and concerns according to criteria the airline perceives as important.

The system records up to 10 random calls per agent per month, but it also lets each agent flag calls for examination by a supervisor. For example, an agent who has trouble closing sales can select calls for review by a manager, who can then help him improve his performance.

And in Houston, managers can log onto the Windows NT system from their desktops on a regular basis to look for recurring problems or trends, and to measure agent service and sales performance. They can also assess IT operations based on customer feedback.

By using IT, HR management was able to revamp the agent review process, whittling a list of 65 questions down to 14 and shifting the focus of the review process from administration to coaching and learning. Continental has also restructured its training program for new hires to reflect the customer service issues that show up in the call center.

Creative application of IT has made it possible to automate and link a variety of customer service data, making it easier to provide current information about flight delays or fare changes.

Providing an online evaluation form makes it convenient for managers to score as they listen to recorded calls. They can even mark calls and e-mail them for review by other personnel.

That’s pretty versatile and far reaching for a system that was originally conceived as just a security measure to monitor, capture and relay threatening calls within real-time parameters. In today’s world, that kind of vision and those kinds of results mean that IT is hardly passe.