Preparing for the Future

Featuring: Donna West, Jim Esser, Darlene Campbell, JR Criner, Mark Herlache, Paula Ford, Frank D’Ascenzo, Dan L’Heureux

We asked several industry leaders to take a look at what the future might hold, how to prepare for it, and what trends to expect. Each who responded did so in their own way and shared their unique perspective. Some prognosticators painted broad and general strokes, while others zeroed in on specifics with pin-point accuracy. A few forecasters had degrees of overlap, but all were insightful, thought provoking, and visionary.

Donna West

Donna West is President of Focus Telecommunications. She is also a founding member and President of the newly formed Unity Call Centers, an international marketing alliance of teleservice leaders. Donna sees the terrorist attach on the United States as being a turning point and defining moment for the country and the rest of the world. Her counsel and advice is to focus on providing higher quality service and effectively promoting it.

Crystal ball gazing is important – even if we are wrong – at least we’re thinking, evaluating, and preparing for possibilities.

The events of September 11 will probably amplify the trends of the past few years, those of purchasing on the Web, home based businesses, and cocooning in general. Americans will reevaluate their lifestyles; stability will increase in importance in our lives. More and more folks will seek the safe haven of home. We, in our industry, are fortunate that we can offer the ability to work in the comfort and relative safety of home. The workforce problems of the past decade will likely diminish as our technology affords us the ability to respond to this basic need.

Indications are that the economy will bounce back quickly and fiscal growth will once again bring prosperity. We will still be reluctant to allow such runaway growth as we have seen in the dot-com era. Cash and cash flow will once again strengthen our economy.

The specters of business failures over the last year will curtail frivolous spending; businesses with thousands of square feet of real estate and hundreds of employees will continue to downsize. Outsourcing will save on both overhead and payroll, especially for labor-intensive businesses.

ATSI and to some lesser degree industry user groups are making an effort to publicize and promote the teleservice industry. Already there is a subtle name recognition pervading the industry as the corporate rollups of the past decade bring the same companies to many cities. Strong independent teleservice companies and call centers will begin to join forces so that they can enjoy similar national recognition.

America’s long-suffering acceptance of poor customer service will continue to turn to impatience and intolerance. Companies with a truly great customer service will flourish. Companies that can offer not only quality and customer service to their own clients, but can also extend that quality and customer service to their clients’ customers, as well, will be in great demand.

The price for excellence will not be an issue for buyers and should not be an issue for sellers. It is time for this industry to slip out of the shadows. The technology is here and our vendors are responsive – our future looks bright. We are not being held back by our client’s perceptions – we are being held back by our own misperceptions. It’s time to forget our own image of what we were – and make the leap to what we can be!

Jim Esser

Jim Esser is Product Manager for Amtelco. Jim’s practical and sensible insights offer us eight prescriptions to prepare for the future:

Embrace technology when and where it is appropriate: Technology can be defined as the practical application of science to commerce or industry. Applying technology simply for the sake of technology may not be advantageous, but taking advantage of technological tools that allow you to offer your clients desirable new services, reduce your costs of doing business, or expand your market are clearly effective ways of growing your business in both good economic times and bad.

Invest in both you and your business: Make the commitment to invest time and money in both you and your business equipment to stay up-to-date and competitive. As the world, technology, and the market change and evolve, you can’t afford to let either your personal knowledge-base or your call center equipment fall behind. Keep yourself informed of changes in the industry. Use resources such as the users groups and industry organizations. Read industry publications, such as Connections Magazine, to learn about new market trends. Use the Internet to research topics with which you’re unfamiliar. Attend seminars (in person or over the Internet) that talk about new technology and services. Can you offer these new services with your present equipment? If not, it may be time to start researching the capabilities of new systems or complementary equipment.

Stay involved and active in the industry, as well as in professional and community organizations: Participate in users groups such as NAEO, OEO, SNUG, and TUG, along with industry organizations like ATSI, CAM-X and ATA. These groups are great sources of information and ideas from like-minded people that will give you ideas, further your knowledge, and expand your horizons. The most successful people in the industry are also likely to be the ones who are active in the trade organizations. Additionally, involvement with organizations at any level is a great opportunity to make contacts and form alliances. Professional and community organizations are a great way to find additional business contacts both inside and outside your local community.

Establish business alliances: An alliance mutually benefits all parties. Alliances can be made at many levels. For example, an alliance established with another business that is similar to your own call center may allow you to approach clients that are too large for either of your businesses to tackle alone. On the other hand, an alliance with a call center that is dissimilar to yours might allow you to work with prospects who have some special needs that you are unable to undertake, but that your business alliance partner can handle effectively and profitably.

Don’t ignore alliances with businesses and organizations that are outside of the industry. Working relationships with ad agencies, marketing organizations, and fulfillment houses can also steer business towards you.

Embrace the Internet – it’s here to stay: The Internet evolved faster and became ubiquitous quicker than any form of mass communications. This includes the telephone, radio, and television. And it’s here to stay. You can’t afford to ignore eBusiness. What can you do to take advantage of this? Think of the revenue-generating possibilities of adding Web-based operators to offer Web Chat, Web Callback, and Web Push services for your clients. Make it possible for your clients to receive messages – text, voice, and fax – by email, by PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), or by WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) devices. Add Web-based scripting tools to your business to offer your clients more services, such as registering callers for classes, scheduling appointments, taking and fulfilling orders, and providing location referrals, as well as disseminating messages, orders, and other information.

Be more aggressive at finding profitable new services and new clients: If you’re willing to explore new ideas and do some research, you’re bound to find clients in areas you hadn’t thought about, or which weren’t previously possible. Invite current clients to a meeting or take them to lunch, and ask what problems they’re encountering in their businesses. Then work with them to show how your business can help them to solve these problems. Maybe their limited staff doesn’t have enough time to handle certain office tasks. If this client uses you only for after-hours service, maybe they need to consider forwarding their phones to your center for a few extra hours every day, giving their staff more uninterrupted time to handle other business matters. Maybe they can’t keep up with the deluge of email. Is this a service your business could provide for them? Potential business is waiting out there; it’s just a matter of doing some research to find it and putting forth effort of secure it.

Diversify into new markets using your special skills as a call center: Just as there are profitable new services and new clients, there are also new markets that could use your services. Consider providing an outsourced receptionist service to local businesses. These businesses may also be interested in some of the enhanced services that you can offer, such as order taking and fulfillment, appointment setting, location referral, and many others. With many businesses looking to downsize, your services may provide the answer they need to reduce their payroll and become more efficient and profitable, all while helping your business to grow and succeed. Also consider hiring skilled sales professionals instead of simply relying on walk-ins and the Yellow Pages for new clients.

Maximize your work force as you add new services: Consider using technology to assist and amplify the efforts of your staff whenever possible. Many services, such as wake-up calls, appointment reminders, class registration, and fund raisers can be automated, thereby saving time for your staff, while you provide a valuable service for your clients and their customers. Automated services can often be done via email or phone. In many cases, calls can be initiated automatically, and transferred to an agent when necessary or when the called party requests it. Text-to-speech is another time saver for both you and your clients. Let your clients pick up their text messages via phone from the car, from home, or virtually anywhere, without interrupting your staff.

Darlene Campbell

Darlene Campbell is owner of Metro Message Services, Inc. and the current ATSI President. Darlene’s travels as ATSI President have taken her to many industry meetings and conventions, providing her with a broad panorama of inputs and ideas. Darlene sees technological advances as being our future, not our demise.

The future of our industry is exciting if you have or will be implementing e-services in your workplace. I feel that this is one undertaking that you cannot over plan for, nor over examine when it comes to selecting the vendor who will take you there.

We need to look at the people, technology, policies, and procedures. We need to rise to the challenge and we need to be asking ourselves these key questions:

  • Are we passionate (really passionate) about our business?
  • Do we want to take it another direction?
  • Do our clients’ goals drive our business goals?
  • Is our company committed to rapid evolution? (i.e. change?)
  • What tools do we have in place to examine our existing client base?
  • What methods do we have in place to project our future client base?
  • Have we analyzed the potential impact of the changing work environment?

There is unprecedented change in today’s technology, especially the migration from conventional telephony to IP and wireless based networks. The evolution of the operations support systems and growth of wireless networks are fueling our thought processes. We have to plan for operating systems to handle coexisting conventional networks and next generation deployments.

The market is changing and we are positioned to help our clients who are searching for proven solutions to help them retain their current customers and attract new ones. Take an approach as if you have been in this business of communications that has a fifty-seven year history and offer your experience, your trained staff, and your state-of-the-art equipment. You can help your clients solve their problems and grow their business whether it is through traditional communication channels or the Web. If you aren’t knowledgeable about e-business, then you need to get that knowledge so you can offer options to your clients.

Overall, the market for customer service applications will be less affected by this economic turn down than any other business. Business owners and managers recognize that customer retention is more economical than customer acquisition. As a teleservices owner or a call center manager, you can present your organization as the ultimate customer service agent. After all, you have been in the communications business since the day that you took that first call.

Customer service is communication. The call center is the interface where a company interacts with its customers and the outside world; it serves a critically important function in any business whether it is two people, during business hours, or twenty-five agents, 24 x 7.

And there is absolutely no excuse for not presenting the most professional image possible with today’s technology and the training that is available for the people in our industry. We must not make it difficult for our clients to do business with us. We need to position ourselves to show that we can provide communications options.

JR Criner

J.R. Criner is the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for CadCom Telesystems and has been a key player in CadCom’s diversification strategy and implementation, moving them into new markets and industries. His personal experiences and insight give him a unique perspective into the need for the industry’s own diversification strategy.

Over the past two years, CadCom Telesystems has moved from merely a telemessaging equipment provider to a broad-based call center solution and services provider. CadCom Telesystems has begun to provide call center solutions such as Web-enabled features, IVR, order entry, scripting, and more to call centers and teleservices companies of all types with 200 seats or less. The transition has positioned us well for the future. This specific change in our business suggests a general trend for the entire teleservices industry. Quite simply, that trend is diversification.

This trend and need has been dictated by the fact that over the last six years the number of traditional telemessaging companies has dropped from approximately 8,000 to 5,500 (give or take 10%). Compare that to Call Center Solutions Magazine, which reported that in April of 2000, the number of call centers in the United States alone was about 900,000. By 2003, that number was expected to jump to 1.2 million. In order to grow, traditional teleservices companies either have to implement a sustained sales and marketing campaign or achieve growth through buying their competitors. Indeed, over the last several years, acquisitions are by far the leading reason for the decrease in the number of telemessaging services nationwide.

Over the last few years, the value of most telemessaging companies has dropped from ten to twelve times gross billing down to six or seven times. Those that have retained their value possess diversified revenue sources in addition to their traditional messaging accounts. At the regional and national teleservices conferences over the last couple of years, we continue to hear comments such as “It seems like my competitors and I are just trading accounts” or “I have lost as many accounts as I have gained over the last year.” These kind of comments cry for diversification. The need for outsourced call center functions (both automated and live) is already great and will continue to grow. Order entry, outbound telemarketing, fulfillment, appointment scheduling, and computer aided telephone interviews are just some of the applications that can help diversify your revenue stream. Other ideas for diversification include becoming a cell phone dealer, a long distance reseller, alarm monitoring station, or a local phone service agent.

Diversification is a way to help ensure income stability for your business while retaining and even increasing your call center’s net value. It is up to each of us to challenge ourselves to make the changes necessary to ensure our longevity in the industry.

Mark Herlache

Mark Herlache is owner and president of Tel*Assist, one of the premier teleservices companies in the Chicago area. Mark offers three insightful strategies for us to implement today in order to be successfully positioned for a prosperous tomorrow.

The on-going economic slowdown, which will continue into the beginning of 2002, allows us many exciting opportunities. These include building and enhancing our business relationships with our clients and in improving our level of staffing competence. There are also opportunities to be found through the Internet.

Strengthen Client Relationships: During this economic downturn, businesses everywhere are becoming increasingly price-sensitive and cost-conscience. Our clients are no different; we can take steps to help them out in this quest and accommodate them by taking steps to make the services we provide for them to be more cost-effective and efficient. These efforts will be greatly appreciated and remembered by them. A possible side-effect may be some immediate sales opportunities. The certain benefit will be increased client loyalty, paving the way for referrals and more business when the economy improves. Now is the time to lay the groundwork for this and prepare for the future.

Improve Staffing: Throughout most of the United States (and much of the world), the unemployment rate has been increasing. While this is bad news for those seeking employment, it is good news for those seeking employees. This situation hasn’t been this bright in four years. This presents a real and inviting opportunity to improve our staffs’ level of quality and competence. In the past year or two, many of teleservice companies have, out of necessity, increased their wage and benefit packages in order to compete for qualified labor. With this improvement firmly in place and a softer job market, we are in an ideal position to be able to replace under performers. Once this has been accomplished, we can then look at our average performers as well. As new and more qualified employees are being brought into your company, be sure to view and invest in training as a process rather than it being a one-time event.

Internet: Lastly is the pervasive and ubiquitous Internet. While our history is in telephone support services, our future is one of Web support services. We need to embrace this trend and build our future on it. Alternately, we can become a casualty of technology or turn into a target for acquisition. In any respect, prepare for the most appealing eventuality!

Paula Ford

Paula Ford is owner of Answer Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia and a frequent and respected contributor to the ATSI list serve. Paula is able to succinctly and pointedly provide clarity and direction amongst diverse opinions and perspectives. Paula continues to experience a tight labor market in her community. Her experiences today foreshadows what is to come for the rest of us as the economy rebounds and the unemployment rate decreases further.

For myself, the major future issue continues to be a tight labor market, both in number and quality of applicants. The Norfolk/Virginia Beach area is the home of the Atlantic Fleet, which gives this area a big cushion in economic downturns. The unemployment rate here just rose to 3% from less than 2% last year. The leaves a tight labor market. Therefore, I see the big areas of opportunity being “virtual receptionist” and “appointment setting,” with an increasing use of the Internet and wireless technology.

New technology is a double-edge sword – take it from someone whose past includes an 8 track tape deck, Betamax VCR, quadraphonic sound system, and Apple Macintosh computer. Does anyone remember “fax-on-demand,” which died amid the Internet explosion? It’s a toss up on whether to buy in or stay out of any new technology. You can buy the next big thing which can become passé before it gets a chance to become popular or completely miss out by waiting too long.

I recently took over clients from a company which used cord boards. I wonder which would have been more costly for that service: absorbing all of the lost billing, excess labor, and mistakes resulting from a lack of technology, or buying new technology each time it came out? Half a million either way? One thing is for sure, if you wait too long it becomes financially and culturally impossible to catch up, but moving too quickly into the “newest thing” can leave you with something that’s passé before it’s paid for.

Frank D’Ascenzo

Frank D’Ascenzo is president of Axon Communications and ConnixUP Web Services. Frank’s visionary grasp of technology, both present and future makes his thoughts noteworthy and meritorious. One of Frank’s future focuses is in on-line applications.

Have you heard about Application Service Providers (ASPs)? These are businesses that provide on-line software via the Internet that performs a specific application – such as an accounting program. The basic idea is that you can use the ASP’s software and service, rather than having to purchase a separate copy of the application for your own PC and keep it updated.

One interesting ASP service I recently ran across is, a service that facilitates appointment scheduling between providers and clients. A recent article in Connections Magazine covered this topic and was entitled, “Make Money Scheduling Appointments.” and other similar services are ASPs with similar and competing products. So if you’re interested in providing an appointment scheduling service you should visit these websites to see what each has to offer. You’ll learn something about ASP service providers, which – even if not of immediate interest to you – will be in your businesses future.

Here’s what Interactive Week said in a recent article entitled, “New World Order – The End of Software As We Know It”

“Forget what you know about Web services. Forget what you know about application service providers. Microsoft and Oracle are quietly building a new software delivery and management model that could dramatically change the way corporations acquire, distribute and use software.

“These two software giants promise that companies will be able to access software and related services on demand… Be able to use new applications without installing them by, in effect, renting rather than buying them.”

When these corporate giants make their moves, our lives will change, just as they have changed over these past years. They, and others like TimesKeeper, will offer us a wide range of business and personal on-line applications that we can “rent” and pay for as we use them. Is this better? Will it be more cost-effective? Only time will tell.

Dan L’Heureux

Dan L’Heureux is an industry consultant and executive director of SNUG, STA, and WSTA, as well as the newly formed marketing alliance, Unity Call Centers, Inc. One of Dan’s recommendations for the future is for us to all take a closer look at preparedness.

It’s no surprise that the future of the call center and teleservices industry will continue to be affected by technology. You will read elsewhere in this article and this publication about wonderful new applications and hardware to service your existing clients and to break into new markets; things that only a decade ago were not imagined by most.

It’s my judgment, however, that while it’s critical to stay current and reinvest your “depreciation,” an area that is less glamorous and exciting is the area of service. Because everyone promotes “great service” as the mainstay of their call processing production line, we tend to make assumptions which may be shortsighted. At the risk of stating what has recently become obvious, that shortfall is the lack of preparedness. If we haven’t learned from the recent events that life and systems are fragile and precarious, I am not sure what it will take.

No one likes to think about what could happen, we prefer to think that everything will continue as it is, but let’s learn from this; there are prudent steps to be taken to minimize the lasting effects of events that are less than positive.

It’s time to go through your system to make sure you have organized and working spares, database back-ups, and disaster recovery procedures. These are steps most teleservices companies intend to do later, when they are not too busy running their businesses. However, if they are not in place at the time you need them, like the old television ad used to say…”I’m outta business.”

[From Connection MagazineJan/Feb 2002]

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