The future of call centres is on the Web

A discussion on call centres brings to mind a vision of scores of computer terminals in a room with a person sitting behind each and every one of those terminals wearing a headset. The call centre representatives are busily tapping on keys as they try to keep up with the demand of people who have either called in for help or are the target of telemarketing pitches.

As sophisticated as those types of call centres are, today’s call centres (and, even more so, those of the future) require a skill set that encompasses more than phone etiquette and basic computer knowledge. The often-hyped idea of technological convergence is becoming a reality. Call centre workers are finding themselves in an environment that not only requires them to place or accept phone calls, but also to check and respond to e-mail messages and faxes, and to interact with customers via the Web with multimedia real-time presentations, IP telephony and text-based chats.

The cyber age

According to Iain Grant, managing director of Brockville, Ont.-based The Yankee Group in Canada, a research firm specializing in telecommunications, companies or network managers thinking about deploying a telephone-based call centre are behind the times.

“You’ve got two different vectors. One is a distributed call centre. You don’t need to have that bank upon bank upon bank of operators standing by. You don’t need to have the Gestapo guard seeing that everyone is sitting at their desk answering calls,” Grant said. “Everyone is sitting at home and they only get paid for the calls that they work on, which means you don’t need to have all that supervisory overhead. The other one, of course, is the cyber call centre. It’s not really a call centre anymore; it’s an enhanced Web site with human interaction. That’s fun stuff.”

Of course, for outbound call centres, the telephone is still the way to go, and will be in the future, he said.

Although there are not too many cyber call centres in the Canadian marketplace yet, some major companies are integrating the Web into their centres. For instance, Toronto-based Xerox Canada Inc. maintains a cyber call centre in St. John, N.B., which supports both Canadian and U.S. customers. The TeleWeb centre, as Xerox calls it, has been operational since 1999 and employs approximately 350 people.

One cyber call centre technology that Xerox is using allows call centre representatives to run customers through virtual demonstrations over the Web, said Martin Chiasson, vice-president, St. John TeleWeb operations at Xerox. The technology lets the representative show customers what a product looks like, how it works and what its benefits are right on-screen.

“[This is] all technology that’s been designed to help us speed up the sales process with customers, so that’s the win for Xerox,” Chiasson said. “But from a customer stand-point, it’s also to speed up their decision-making time so they don’t necessarily have to come and see our product live on-site or have it brought to their office, so that’s been a very useful tool to enhance our productivity.”

Another popular tool for cyber call centres is the “call me” button, Chiasson said. Customers visiting a company’s Web site can click on the button and access a virtual sales executive immediately via the Web. For Xerox, however, the “call me” button is still in the experimental stage while the company determines which of their customer markets get the most use of the feature.

According to Chiasson, the biggest challenge for setting up a cyber call centre is getting the centre’s employees up to the standards of a corporation in as short a period of time as possible. At the same time, while employees are being trained to deal with the new technologies in the facility, there can be problems within a company.

“[The challenge] internally is to get the rest of the organization understanding why this method of selling can complement the more known ways of selling, like the ways that people have been used to for a number of years,” Chiasson said. “Selling internally the value of such a program is, I would say, as much, if not a bigger challenge, than getting external customers to accept it because the world is definitely moving virtual and external people are very aware of the benefits of this type of selling.”

Taking it to another level

From a technical point of view, incorporating new technologies within a company can be difficult, Chiasson said. The first reaction of most companies is to try to modify existing technologies so the organization can adapt to the new cyber call centre, but that can create technical issues because the companies are trying to mix two completely separate technologies and two completely different ways of doing business.

Taking call centres to the next step means prioritizing the incoming calls, e-mails and Web requests so that the most pressing calls get handled first, said Dave De Abreu, regional manager, software sales for Canada at Cisco Systems Canada Co. in Toronto. Putting VIP customers into a priority queue and managing calls more efficiently will maintain a customer base, he said.

Call centres generally have two or three levels of expertise. The more difficult the question is, the higher the customer who calls in moves in the levels to get an answer, said Massood Zarrabian, president of the e-services division of Menlo Park, Calif.-based Broadbase Software Inc., an company that builds eCRM (electronic customer relationship management) services. By prioritizing calls, the more difficult questions can go directly to those with more knowledge, which increases the productivity of each call centre representative, he said.

In the future, Cisco’s De Abreu said, it’s expected that customers contacting a call centre in any way will get fast service, whether it’s an automatic response fax or e-mail or a phone operator on the other end. But right now, the problem with using e-mail, fax or the Web is the incredible slow-down in response time.

A trend that is affecting call centres is self-servicing, which enables users to solve their own problems without requiring assistance from a staff member, said Ron Ratzlaff, vice-president of professional services for Toronto-based Compaq Canada Inc.

“The self-servicing trend is to more and more enable you, as a user, to diagnose and solve your own problem rather than calling a call centre,” Ratzlaff said. Tools for self-servicing include Web sites and agents built into products.

And according to Paul McDevitt, senior vice-president for service and support at Toronto’s Avaya Canada Corp., which focuses on business communications systems, the importance of call centres has escalated from being a cost-savings initiative to being a front door for customer access and a sales channel.

Something companies might want to consider when it comes time for a call centre is partnering with someone to share the risk, Grant said.

“I’m an outsourcing enthusiast from a corporate management point of view,” Grant said. “It makes sure that your costs are known, your risks are known and your variable costs are known as well, which means a manager can be freed up to worry about other things.”

It’s all about outsourcing the risk, he said, and as new technologies are being implemented, there are significant risks that, unless a company is already familiar with how to integrate the technologies, are better to be shared. And according to Grant, even big companies now see the benefits to outsourcing their call centres.

The cost of business

One concern companies might have is that if they knew what they were doing, they could possibly run the call centre cheaper than the cost incurred for contracting a third party to run it, Grant said. As he pointed out, however, he could try to fix his car, too, but he’d prefer to take it to a qualified mechanic who knows what to do.

In Markham, Ont.-based Centrinity Inc.’s case, the company runs three North American and two overseas call centres. The firm chose not to outsource because it’s a business-to-business company, and the volume of calls that come through the call centres is not overwhelming, said Paul Kulybanycz, manager for customer support at Centrinity. Because of this, the company felt it was best to manage its call centre itself.

“Coupled with that, our software is pretty involved, server-based architecture. Trying to train an outsourcer would take a long time. A training course for someone that we bring in at this point in time takes at least a month before they’re even ready to go on the phone, so it is fairly in-depth and fairly technical,” Kulybanycz said. “Most of the outsourcers out there would have to have specific skill sets.”

According to Gary Holmes of Andover, Mass.-based Cerida Corp., a company specializing in outsourced business development products, companies whose core competencies do not fall into call centres or that do not want to be call centre managers should consider outsourcing a viable option.

Canada has an edge over the U.S. in terms of attracting call centres, Compaq’s Ratzlaff said. The cost of labour is lower and the languages of the two countries are the same, so there are a lot of U.S.-based companies that place their North American call centres in Canada. According to the Government of New Brunswick, there are over 70 call centres in that province alone, due mainly to the provincial government’s attempts to attract call centres from across Canada and the U.S.

“I think call centres will become the dominant channel of choice for sales in a lot of industries that are right now considering call centres as one way to acquire product but not the preferred way,” Chiasson said. “In two or three years from now, you’re going to see it become a major channel