Improve customer service and cut costs

It's no secret that customer service is a critical part of doing business. With so much riding on satisfying customers, it's almost a corporate crime to ignore your call center.
Written by George Lawton, Contributor

It's no secret that customer service is a critical part of doing business. With so much riding on satisfying customers, it's almost a corporate crime to ignore your call center. IT budgets are being slashed left and right, but if you cut back on customer service and drive your customers to the competition, you're hurting your bottom line.

To keep customers happy when you're on a tight budget, you might consider the latest solutions for automating customer queries via the Web and telephone. When used effectively, these products and services can lower costs, improve efficiency, and sometimes improve the quality of information gathered from customers. What all this adds up to is satisfied customers and a solid business model.

Even a modest increase in productivity can significantly improve a company's bottom line, but reducing cost is not the only goal. You need to test your call center to detect problems before they affect your customers. The most cost-efficient call center is worthless if it drives your customers to competitors.

Combining calls and e-mail messages

People represent the most significant call center expense. Labor consumes 60 percent of a call center's cost, according to Dr. Jon Anton, director of research at the Center of Customer Driven Quality at Purdue University. In addition to the salaries, which range from $20,000 to $40,000, companies must pay for office rental, computers, telephones, call center hardware, and customer relationship management (CRM) software. In total, the average call center costs $100,000 per year per agent, according to Anton.

To extend the reach of their agents, companies are looking to use the Web, e-mail, and interactive voice response (IVR) to help answer more queries with fewer agents. Using IVR, customers navigate through a series of menus using their touch-tone phone pad.

Drew Knowland, director of contact center marketing at Empirix, says that while a phone call costs an average of $5 to $6, a call handled entirely by an IVR system costs about 75 cents. And if you provide enough information on your Web site so that a query can be handled entirely through the Web, it costs about a quarter. "If you are handling millions of customer interactions per year, these other channels could translate into substantial cost savings."

Companies can adopt a number of different strategies to improve the quality and efficiency of their call centers. One prominent strategy is blending communications channels. Joanie Rufo, research director at AMR Research, says that the most prevalent change in call centers is the transition to contact centers that direct phone calls, e-mail, and faxes through a single set of agents. This blended communications channel puts all queries through a single universal queue. To take advantage of this, companies will route queries based on the customer or the problem and not just the channel. Rufo notes, "If we have a gold customer contacting us via e-mail and a silver customer contacting us via phone, the first one should have a higher service level than the other."

Integrated call center systems typically consist of software running on PCs that contain special telephone processing boards. The cost of these systems can range from a few thousand dollars per agent, up to more than $50,000 for the most sophisticated implementations. Some solutions can be integrated into the existing call center, while others must be deployed from the ground up.

This will necessitate the development of a common set of business logic for managing inbound calls and e-mail messages. E-mail can be routed based on the customer's e-mail address. Phone calls can be routed by using automatic number identification (ANI) to determine customers' phone numbers, which can be correlated with their priority level.

But not everyone is sold on integrated call center systems. According to Chris Martin, research director at the Aberdeen Group, "the skill sets needed to deliver service and support via phone are different than those required to deliver service and support via e-mail or chat." In other words, phone agents need to be more emotive, while text-based agents should be more formal and complete.

George Lawton is a freelance writer and consultant based in Brisbane, California. Prior to writing for ZDNet Tech Update, George apprenticed with the Institute of Ecotechnics and helped build Biosphere II.

Another way you can improve your call center efficiency is through e-mail automation. E-mail inquiries are different from queries handled over the Web because the company must deliver information in discrete chunks rather than in interactive sessions. Though a Web site can pose a list of targeted questions in a form and return information to the consumer based on those results, e-mail correspondence is generally more free-form. However, companies can automate e-mail to some extent with software that creates answers or that helps customer reps input canned information that is relevant to an inquiry.

VOIP and voice recognition
Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is opening new customer conduits. For example, many contact center applications such as Cisco IP Contact Center, ECI Telecom ITX, and Teltone OfficeLink 2000, let a customer on a Web site click a button to text-chat or talk with an agent using VOIP technology or a standard telephone.

Anton believes that VOIP will play a growing role in customer service because consumers will be able to connect to an agent over the Internet while surfing the company site. But he's not as bullish on systems in which an agent calls customers back over the phone. "Being able to talk through the Internet seems like the winner, because few people have instant access to two lines," he says. "I think we will see both, but it is really elegant when the agent has access to your screen and is coming through your speakers."

Yet another development in voice technology is interactive voice response. Instead of having to navigate a long labyrinth of telephone menus, voice response simplifies the process. A customer can immediately find information using special phrases. Speech recognition systems can understand thousands of words compared to just nine tones on a touch-tone phone. For example, someone looking for a stock quote could call up a voice portal and say, "Stock price CNET," instead of having to dial through dozens of menus to find the same information.

Call center tools and services
Call center tools
-- Cisco IP Contact Center
-- ECI Telecom ITX
-- Empirix Hammer
-- e-Talk Recorder
-- Nice Special Voice Recording System
-- Teltone OfficeLink 2000
-- Witness Systems eQuality Balance
Call center services

-- Tellme Studio -- HeyAnita FreeSpeech -- BeVocal Cafe

"Voice recognition has been beat up on because it has always been dependent on having lots of fast memory and processing," Anton says. "But in the last couple of years, computer processing has gone up and memory prices have gone down, so all of a sudden voice recognition technologies are quite strong."

Recently, a number of major companies such as Motorola and AT&T finalized the first release of the VoiceXML specification, which provides a way to help automate access to Web content on the telephone. One of the nice things about VoiceXML is that like a Web page, an application can be created once and then be deployed on a number of standard servers. A VoiceXML server is connected to the telephone network, so it can be called from any phone. A standalone VoiceXML server might provide only static information, while a VoiceXML server integrated to the Internet could verbalize any information on the Internet. A number of service providers such as Tellme, HeyAnita, and BeVocal have created VoiceXML hosting solutions to help companies deploy these voice portals.

A call center is only as strong as its weakest link. Even the most sophisticated call centers can break down when machines crash or people get frustrated. To address these concerns, a variety of quality-control strategies can help ensure that you are getting the most mileage from your call center investment.

Automating call center testing
Though IVR systems can improve call center efficiency, they also open the door for potential problems. For example, the company might not find out about a problem for hours, because none of the affected customers are able to get through to a representative.

"The general rule of thumb is that manual testing techniques only find about 50 percent of all problems," says Knowland. "Many systems are inadequately tested and are not monitored prior to deployment."

To help alleviate this problem, Empirix developed Hammer, an application that takes the customer's perspective and bombards the call center with test calls to determine response times. During a test, the software places a call every 15 minutes for six hours. When a call is answered, the application enters a series of preprogrammed dial tones to navigate through the IVR menu, using speech recognition to determine if the correct IVR voice prompts are played, and measures how long it takes to get through to a live rep. It can work on any call center that uses IVR menus.

Though the internal call center applications mentioned below can track the amount of time a rep spends with a customer, they have no way to determine if a customer was accidentally disconnected or routed through the IVR system incorrectly. But neither does Hammer--it only tracks routing in a test environment. It doesn't track the routing of actual calls from customers.

Keeping customers happy
Most of us consumers are quite familiar with call center personnel who can't seem to get us the information we need or solve our problem. A number of vendors have created applications that automatically record calls to help train agents to provide better service. For example, e-Talk Recorder, Witness Systems, and Nice Special Voice Recording System integrate with the call center application so that they can record the conversation as well as the screens the agent used during the conversation.

"[CEOs] are no longer trying to hire minimum-wage people," Anton says. "They are saying we need knowledge workers that dazzle those callers and create repurchase and new sales."

New call center technologies will help support this dazzle. By adopting strategies such as voice recognition, improved monitoring software, and e-mail automation, your call center employees will have a better shot at solving customers' problems--and not creating more of them.

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