Call centre technology is developing at an alarming rate, but it is merely a means to an end, not an end in itself.
I used to deal often with a Web-based video store in the UK. I was a regular, loyal customer, not merely because of its wide range, reasonable prices and free shipping. If I had a problem or a query, I could send an e-mail and, within 24 hours, get a response back from a customer service rep whose name I knew and who would handle any follow-up queries.
Every once in a while, I'd get unsolicited e-mails, addressed to "dear Matthew", to let me know about imminent new releases I might be interested in. I didn't mind, because these suggestions were based on items I'd bought before and were almost always appropriate to my interests. The tone of the e-mails was friendly and personal, and even though I was thousands of kilometres away, I felt I had a real relationship with this merchant.
Then, one day, I got an e-mail exactly like all the ones I had received before, but it was clearly not for me. It was a small technical glitch, no doubt, but the illusion of personal service was gone.
Hillel Benedykt, CEO of Callscan Australia, has heard such horror stories before. "It takes a long time to build up that credibility and trust, and a nanosecond to destroy it," says Benedykt, whose company markets a range of utilities and tools to monitor call centre performance. Callscan also runs training courses in customer service, not simply to help customers use Callscan's tools, but so that people can make better use of their call centre regardless of the particular technology they're using.
Benedykt feels that technology has been given too high a focus in the developing call centre industry, while customer service has been overlooked. "The technology in it's own right will not deliver, because what we're talking about is old-fashioned customer service. We're just trying to deliver it over new channels", he says.
"Customer relationship management (CRM) and contact centres are just trying to provide that same level of service to thousands of people. Whether they're using the Internet, fax, or e-mail, they want the experience to be one of personalised service."
Personalised service is the battleground on which the e-commerce champions of the future will be determined. Customer retention, customer service and customer loyalty are the principles underpinning any viable business. The Internet has provided a range of new avenues for providing better value and better service, including e-mail and even real-time chat. Studies in the US have shown that, while it costs an average of $30 for a customer service operator to deal with a query by phone, handling queries by e-mail costs as little as $10.
Cheaper still is providing a constantly updated Web site where answers to commonly-asked questions can be found without placing a query. Answering questions before they are asked costs as little as $1 per query. Building such a database, which usually involves "mining" logs of phone calls and e-mails placed to the call centre, can be expensive. But once it is built, maintenance can be almost automatic and the cost savings only increase.
Everyone knows it costs less to retain customers than it does to get new ones, and new technologies are making the cost equation even more attractive. Even so, new call centre technology has not been implemented very widely in Australia, nor, according to Benedykt, has it been implemented well: for instance, Interactive Voice Response (IVR). This is the type of system used by telephone banking and bill payment systems, where you phone up and respond to prompts using the telephone keypad.
"That has a fair penetration - it's a self-service vehicle with a fairly basic menu of actions you can perform. But if they're not designed or implemented well, the acceptance is not high."
The problem with this type of technology is that it can make some customers feel "fobbed off" rather than well-served.
"Organisations may offer a different level of service to different grades of customers," Benedykt said.
"Financial institutions are pushing the low-value customers to self-service options. They want you to do your banking over the phone or the Internet. But for their high-value customers, they still offer personal service and a name of a person to deal with.
"Some companies have made [call centres] the only windows into the business," says Benedykt. If customers are unable to find a telephone number for a particular branch or a particular person, just a centralised, often automated response centre, "what they've done is put an obstacle in the way of providing service rather than providing a service vehicle".
For this reason, companies need to be careful and cautious about how they implement new customer-response technology, and how rapidly. The chief criteria should be: does it work reliably, and does it work to the benefit of our customers?
Borders.com, the online arm of American bookstore chain Borders, experimented briefly with a technology that would send an e-mail to any registered customers who abandoned their shopping carts during a session, and ask them why they didn't complete their purchase. This kind of unsolicited "hassling" does nothing to enhance the shopping experience or entice customers back, and Borders quickly dropped the idea.
Likewise, several companies have introduced online chat to their call centres. The benefit is obvious: on the phone a service representative can answer one query at a time, whereas several chat sessions can be running at once. The problem is that the technology isn't all that reliable yet and the slow connections still commonplace among home users can make such 'real-time' chat sessions anything but.
In fact, some of the most obvious benefits of call centre technology can be a drawback if the implementation is inappropriate. Take, for example, the ways in which call centres can be set up as 'virtual environments'. Operators can be working from home or from a number of decentralised locations, creating clear efficiencies for businesses.
However, this approach is not always the best one. "Take, for example, roadside assistance," says Benedykt. "If a customer places a call in Victoria, and the agent is in Western Australia, you might say 'I'm at the corner of this street and that street', and the agent might ask 'what state is that in?' The customer could be a little concerned they're not getting the local knowledge and the local expertise."
Another technology Benedykt feels is under-implemented is computer-telephony integration (CTI). The most obvious example of this is in taxi companies, where the operator is able to extrapolate from the caller ID information, who the customer is and where they are calling from. The information is then transferred to the on-board computer in the taxi; it is a more pleasant experience for the customer and a more efficient process for the company. A more sophisticated scenario would be in a company where an operator can find account details along with history and personal information about a customer while a call is in progress. Then, if the operator needs to transfer the call to someone else with more specialised knowledge and skills, the information can be transferred at the same time. This means that the customer does not have to repeat the query many times to multiple operators, and gives a more convincing impression that 'something is being done'. This technology is available from a number of vendors and with a number of variations and enhancements. It just hasn't been deployed widely yet.
The reason for slow adoption of CTI, according to Benedykt, is that it requires a great deal of integration with existing business applications and business processes. Companies may have been gathering and collating information about their customers for some decades, but all that information is housed on old host computer systems and old databases, and "we're talking about having this information accessible in real time".
This requires re-engineering of business processes and, often, the purchase of new technology. As the Y2K transition over the past few years showed, this is often not a painless procedure.
And, unfortunately, the shortcut that businesses often take is in training their employees. "People are among the biggest issues," according to Benedykt. "People account for 60 to 65 per cent of the cost of running a call centre. But if an organisation buys a piece of technology for, say, $300,000, very few are then going to turn around and spend $600,000 training their staff to be better skilled, provide better service or understand the technology."
It's only now that companies are beginning to realise that there is a skills gap in the call centre industry, and to address the issue.
That will tend to put more attention on the need to get people trained.
In short, technology is no quick fix. The options for modern call centres are expanding constantly, and it is easy to become fixed on the idea that introducing a new process will improve your call centre and thereby boost your business. But the key is on effective implementation, integration with business processes, and training people to provide good customer service.