Wringing the Cost out of Contact Centres

In today’s customer-focused economy, meeting customers’ expectations is a prerequisite for success. Consumer studies show it costs 5 to 12 times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one, so keeping customers satisfied makes solid business sense.

The contact centre is a vital link in the customer-service chain. Typically, it’s an expensive component of any organization’s Customer Relationship Management (CRM) strategy. But the good news is that new technology and good management practices can help lower contact-centre costs while improving customer service at the same time.

Having developed successful contact-centre and CRM models for large organizations such as Nestle Foods and General Motors, Eric Greenwood recognizes the need for synergy between business processes and technology in order to maximize every customer encounter. Greenwood is the CIO of Canada’s largest publicly traded contact-centre organization, Minacs Worldwide, which provides global CRM services by outsourcing direct and indirect call centers.

“To be successful, businesses must take advantage of the best practices inherent in most CRM packages today,” says Greenwood. “Businesses cannot dictate process independently of targeted CRM technology if they are to realize maximum benefit from that technology. If you look at technology in isolation of business, you’ll fail.”

Organizations need to develop a clear strategy before investing in CRM technology. If a company doesn’t have sound customer service, it doesn’t matter how much money is spent on CRM technology. Historically, most organizations have been product-centric in their orientation. CRM packages by definition are customer-centric. The rationalization of both processes and data is an essential first step to the successful deployment of CRM. By creating a synergy between business and systems processes, CIOs can develop a clear, cost-effective CRM strategy that targets their core customers.

Above all, CIOs need to invest in technology that will help them maximize contact-centre performance while maintaining operating budgets. In order to drive down costs, CIOs should consider shared data infrastructure, the use of remote workers, and advanced monitoring and management tools.

Common Data and Business Rules

In order to maximize contact-centre productivity and cut costs, it is essential to streamline internal processes and identify areas that typically cause delays. An area of concern in some contact-centre operations is that customer information is maintained in disparate silos, meaning that customer information is not being shared or is not accessible across the entire contact-centre operation in a common format (data definition). Streamlining contact-centre operation begins with common data (definition) and business rules across all channels.

“Being able to capture important customer information from the first encounter so that this information can be effectively used in subsequent encounters is an excellent way of decreasing handle time and speeding up customer resolution,” says Greenwood. “By developing a shared infrastructure based on N-tier thin-client technology, organizations can save on bandwidth, simplify maintenance, and deploy over conventional client server technology.”

N-tier centralizes business logic in the middle tier, leaving the client with little more than a Graphical User Interface. Clients become self-updating and self-

upgrading, and solution deployment becomes fully centralized.

Use of Remote Workers

Another method of simplifying network maintenance and maximizing resources is the use of remote workers. Today, staff accounts for 65% to 75% of a call centre’s total budget. In addition to providing cost savings through reduced staff at each location, the flexibility associated with ‘at home’ agents helps to address the peaks and valleys associated with most inbound campaigns.

“In times of high call volume, call centers can experience lowered service levels and delays. These delays can lead to customers abandoning calls, resulting in lost business opportunities” says Greenwood. “Remote workers enable businesses to maintain 24/7 customer support more cost effectively.”

CTI Cuts Time

A proportion of average call handle time (AHT) is spent identifying and retrieving relevant data. Utilizing innovations such as intelligent routing and pre-populated screen pops, Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) allows organizations to automatically route to the most appropriate agents and immediately present them with key information and pre-populated data-entry screens. This can reduce AHT significantly and thereby simultaneously improve service levels and reduce costs.

“If an average call lasts four minutes and you eliminate 20 seconds through the use of CTI, that can lead to direct savings of greater than three per cent,” says Greenwood.

Vital customer information such as caller history and data is stored on a CRM database and when a customer calls again, his/her information is retrieved from the CRM database and intelligently routed to the most appropriate agent to deal with that enquiry. With this information available to the agents, they can focus on resolving the customer query, greatly reducing average call length and increasing agent efficiency.

Improved Monitoring

Technology is making monitoring more sophisticated and provides the binding element between quality and performance. Monitoring and management innovations have evolved to the point where companies can access crucial data in order to analyze customer business trends and behavior. Advanced monitoring technology observes average handle time of calls, call length, individual agent handle times, queue times, and the number of times a caller is transferred from agent to agent, enabling managers to plan load-balancing sequences to redirect calls, based on time in queue, to maximize resources. This statistical monitoring is also valuable for assessing areas that need improvement, providing managers effective tools to address these areas and maintain operational efficiency.

Future of Call Centres

Over the next few years, voice recognition software is set to increase customer interaction with call centers. Research from Gartner Group indicates that organizations will gravitate to voice interfaces because of their superiority over touch-tone, and that an anticipated 25 percent of calls that are currently too difficult to be handled by interactive voice response (e.g. complex queries) will be handled by a voice portal by 2004. The customers’ ability to access all of their information by speaking in a natural tone will bring new levels of comfort and interaction with the organization.

With the increased multimedia capability integrated into call centers today,

the customer now has many options for communicating with the organization. Unified communications will consolidate all customer information into a universal medium and transform the call center, improving the management of contacts, information, and messages, thereby increasing responsiveness and customer knowledge. Agents will be able to access all messages from a single mailbox via their device of choice at the time, simplifying communication management and enhancing productivity.

Unified communications will also provide rules-based control of access and

information to let agents distinguish between urgent requests and routine or lower-priority interactions. This will allow agents to simultaneously manage real-time encounters such as phone or text chat and non real-time encounters such as e-mail, driving operational efficiency and enabling CIOs to focus time, talent, and management on the most critical needs of their business.

The main challenge for CIOs with respect to contact centres will be managing the transition between today’s capabilities and tomorrow’s promise. The next three to eight years should see a complete transition to a 100% digital environment. Protecting the organization’s existing investment in analog technology while bridging to new digital technology will be the next challenge as we move towards a completely blended multimedia contact centre.

Jerry Hrycajkiw is CFO of Avaya Canada, a provider of business communications

solutions and services that help make enterprise networks customer-driven.