Hold the phone

The traditional call centre is changing, and are now being dubbed “contact” or “transaction” centres. And rightly so, experts say.

Limiting by definition, the old term conjures up pre-Internet images of sitting in queue and waiting for an unknown time period only to get transferred to a call centre rep who may or may not be able to help you.

“It’s also very inadequate in terms of helping to get the message across to executives that they need to alter their perspectives to be more multi-functional,” said Karen McDonald, national practice leader for CTI at Vancouver-based Ecommerce+, a division of LGS Group Inc.

A “contact” or “transaction” centre, on the other hand, takes into account the increased access channels now available to customers, namely the Internet and e-mail, the technologies that make e-commerce possible.

“In order to have successful e-commerce, especially on the business-to-consumer side, you really need to connect that Web presence with the call centre. The .com model cannot survive without the live interaction made available through a call centre or customer interaction,” said Katrina Menvigian, senior analyst in call centre services at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

That said, most companies are still in the “ramping up” stage, analysts say, evaluating just how they will go about investing in the task of call centre automation and integration with the Web.

“There are many call centres that are struggling with just the fundamentals of managing a call centre of one type of transaction let alone many,” said Henry Dortmans, president of consulting firm Angus-Dortmans Associates in Ajax, Ont. “And how are they going to move ahead on a technology front when the processes aren’t in place yet?”

There seems to be no one answer. Depending on what type of business is involved and what goals are established, call centres now have to be customized, McDonald said, an idea that represents a radical departure from the past.

“It used to be there was only one way to do it and everybody did it the same way, that was the way it was,” she said.

Now, with e-commerce initiatives taking centre stage, service has become the only real differentiator, making service strategies less generic. However, according to Colleen Amuso, senior research analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Frankfurt, Germany, service is usually forgotten at the beginning of an e-commerce initiative.

“The sales or the revenue capacity, which can be much easier to quantify, are primary. But then, for example, a lot of the .com companies realize that once they’ve sold the product they need to do customer support.”

Yet despite the overwhelming number of companies that proudly sing the e-comm anthem, analysts say most are still only looking at integration between their Web presence and the call centre.

Amuso said “there are some companies who have integrated in so far as their e-mail and their calls come into the same centre, and in some cases the tracking is integrated, but I’ve only seen a few customers with that.”

David Fuller, vice-president at Toronto-based KPMG, agreed. “There are a lot of companies out there that offer customer care through some sort of Web-based interface. Realistically, when you dig behind the scenes really all they are doing is…interfacing over the phone instead of interfacing through the Web (and responding to e-mail).

“They haven’t changed a lot of their back-end systems. They’re basically using the Web as a different distribution channel if you will, almost a mailbox to take in customer issues, complaints and questions, and then getting back to them by e-mail as well,” Fuller explained.

Even more important and more challenging than managing different communication channels is managing interactions and transactions, said Michael Bettua, director of marketing for Silknet Software in Manchester, N.H. which sells Internet-based commerce and service software.

“Having a view into (the information systems) and giving the right agent within the company the right view” is imperative, Bettua said. He added that the biggest concern for his call centre customers now is “how do we take all the legacy information that we’ve gathered over the last 15 or 20 years from our back office systems…and actually provide that information to our agents and our customers.”

Bell Nexxia, the Hull, Que.-based arm of Bell Canada, provides Web-based customer service. The company is now offering self help through a technical knowledge base for Bell Canada Sympatico members using Silknet’s e-service, a thin-client, browser-based application that integrates the enterprise, customer as well as the phone, e-mail and the Web.

Maggi Williams, director of business development for the Bell Nexxia business centre, said the objective is to try and help customers with reduced human intervention.

After logging into a knowledge base, customers can search through a FAQ, perform a text search or explore a troubleshooting module. If customers don’t get the desired results, they can submit a query, in the form of a structured, workflow-managed, e-mail form, Williams said.

Based on the language selected by customers and the problem type, requests get routed to appropriates agent, who then respond. Customers can then continue to carry on e-mail correspondence with agents until issues are resolved.

For issues that don’t require human intervention, such as various aspects of account management, the request is routed to the correct management system. While there is some degree of human intervention at the moment, Williams hopes the process will be automated within a few months, once the middleware becomes available.

According to John Stone, manager of IT for the Customer Care Team at the Canadian Pacific Railway, the company’s customer service group has “the express interest of making it easier for our customers to do business with the CPR.” Though based in Calgary, CPR also has service centres in Winnipeg and Minneapolis.

“We had these two worlds: one of fairly introverted, introspective transactional, production-oriented environments in Winnipeg and Minneapolis, and a very externally focused service resolution one here in Calgary,” Stone said.

Needing a tool to promote integration and a focused view of the customer, CPR chose Vantive to help it bind service objectives and business processes into one common application that would integrate with telephone access paths “to give us one seamless view irrespective of location,” Stone said.

Now when customers phone in, automatic number identification and an interactive voice response (IVR) menu are employed, and the calls generate a screen pop at a representative’s desk that accompanies the inward telephone call, providing a view of the customer and his or her concerns.

Stone said CPR is also looking to evaluate Vantive Web server technology as a means of having customers interact directly with the company’s Vantive databases, giving them the opportunity to automatically access operating information, schedule, terminal hours and access delivery information.

IDC’s Menvigian said when it comes to automation the biggest issue is “being able to strike the right balance between self-service vs. personalized service.”

Williams agreed. “It’s one of those very fine lines that you have to walk. You want to be able to do everything you can for the customer, but you don’t want customers to feel that if they needed to they were unable to get you.”

A definite positive to this managed connection Bell Nexxia has with its customers is the insight the company gains into the type of information typically sought. This generates additional marketing and sales opportunities.

The change in customer service at Bell Nexxia occurred after the company used focus groups to examine the effectiveness of its IVR system. A high level of customer dissatisfaction quickly emerged, Williams said.

“The wait time to get to the help desk was longer than normal and we were getting a very high level of complaints. When we took the IVR away the complaints stopped and yet the wait times had not changed,” Williams explained.

What did change was perception, because clients no longer had to go through the IVR. Williams said the response from customers was “you can do all sorts of other things, but take that away.”

And that is the key. Finding out what customers want and how they want to communicate with the call centre is crucial. McDonald said customers want to deal with an organization the way they choose to, whether that be over the phone or by e-mail. The successful call centres will be the ones which not only recognize, but accommodate, this preference.

McDonald said through her work at E-commerce+ she is encountering two kinds of call centres. “There are the traditional ones that have been in business for a long time and then there is what we think of as emerging call centres.

“The emerging environments are definitely not overlooking the need to integrate media.”

Despite the need for integration, quality customer service remains king. “A commitment to outstanding customer service and customer care and getting the answer right the first time — all that applies whether you’re using an Internet and an interface medium or a telephone,” explained KPMG’s Fuller.

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