Don’t Put the Technology Cart Before the Horse

By Eric Miller

In the battle for increased market share, outsourcers continue to search for creative ways to provide new and different call center services. Naturally, many are focused on the benefits seemingly offered by some current technologies for use in the call center. But beware of getting caught in the stampede for quick implementation. What may appear to be a good idea at first may not look as inviting if you lack the back office functions, data, people, and processes needed to handle the new technologies effectively. In other words, there is a good chance of putting the cart before the horse in the race to implement new technologies to help differentiate your call center.

Certainly, new technologies offer many opportunities to help you provide better service, but in any successful technology implementation, the project should start with the basics of good planning, preparation, and implementation. Unless done well the first time, enhanced service levels, opportunities for new market share, and improved cost efficiencies may prove elusive.

It all starts with the data: Since you rely on stored information to deliver quality service, common sense tells us that the service is only as good as the data being used. Quite simply, no matter how good your people and technologies are, bad data will result in bad service. With the current call center model, this problem is minimized by seasoned and highly skilled Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) who know which source to go to for the most accurate data, depending upon the caller’s request. They have learned over time where inconsistencies might occur and serve to filter and translate the data to the caller. Unfortunately, in an environment of increasing self service platforms provided through Web access and Interactive Voice Response (IVR), particularly with natural language, the CSR is intentionally taken out of the process, which supposedly increases quality of service and improves cost efficiencies. But unless your self-service offerings access a single database of quality information, you run the risk of providing inaccurate information. This can often lead to a follow-up call to the traditional CSR. The result can be less than satisfied customers, increased (rather than decreased) costs, longer service times, and lower service levels.

Ensure that a single, clean customer information file is in place to support any technology that might be brought into the mix, from phone to email, Web chat, video, IVR, fax-back, or wireless. You may need to take the time to clean the data, eliminate redundancy, and resolve discrepancies, but the long-term impact on the quality and cost of the service is well worth the effort.

Providing audience-of-one service: The advancement of technology now enables us to service the customer on a more personal level. We have the ability to understand customers’ inquiry habits, preferences, and demographics, all increasing the opportunity to personalize while automating service for each customer. CSRs provide some level of personalization because of the person-to-person interaction involved. With technology we may lose the person-to-person interaction, yet still have the opportunity to tailor the service to each situation.

Establish a personalized customer profile as the foundation to automated service, whether provided through the outsourcer’s client company or built through ongoing interaction with the inquiring customer. What types of service do they prefer? Bills sent via email? Statements sent to their wireless devices? Limiting interactions to inquiries about products and services they already have? Do they prefer to interact mainly with the CSR? Or do they prefer IVR with abbreviated instructions?

If you don’t have all that information today, you can build it over time by informing clients of new services and directing them to your website to build a profile and select a PIN. Or, you can collect preferences and client details through each interaction, building and refining a profile over time. Good service is not a one-time event, but a continual process of improvement.

Building call center skills to match your needs: New technologies mean new access methods, translating to new entry and contact points to the call center. And these all result in a requirement for a set of skills not often found in today’s call center. While it may be nice to believe that the CSR superstar of today can step up to this challenge, it may not be a realistic expectation. The CSR may be extremely adept at handling phone inquiries and providing a personal touch, but can that person provide the same level of skill with written emails and Web chats? If this versatile a skill set is available, the worker will be at a premium and demand a much higher compensation. The best strategy is to populate the call center – now more of a contact center — with workers with a variety of skill sets so that they can handle differing services and preferred customer access methods.

Offering processes to support the service: With a variety of access points and a team of skilled service providers in the call center, process flows must be sophisticated enough to direct incoming service requests to the correct resources.

The true test of the strength of the process is to consider a hybrid inquiry where a service call may have been started through a Web access, then abandoned and followed up with a call to the CSR. Does the CSR know that the inquiry was started on the Web? Can the worker pick up the call where it was abandoned? Better yet, can the customer, in midstream, click a “call me now” icon on the website and have a CSR call them back to continue the service?

Making time for technology implementation: The customer information file now offers one source for quality data, personalized profiles are under construction, a team of people with the right skills are in place to handle any inquiry, and processes can support any combination of access methods. Now it is time to bring in the technology to complete the transformation of your call center to a contact center.

While it may not be the right time to jump on all the available technologies, you now have an operation in place that can accommodate certain technologies as your strategic plan dictates. A few for consideration might include:

IVR with natural language – IVR has long been a mainstay technology of call centers, but the maturity of natural language capabilities brings IVR to a new generation of self-service platforms. Callers can interact with technology more as they would with a human being, providing a more pleasing level of service, not limited by yes or no responses and the rudimentary limitations of the phone pad.

Web access – More and more the Internet is being used for easy-to-automate self-service initiatives. But, with the personalized profile in place, the service can be taken to new levels – personalized service and an interface to complex transactions where traditional person-to-person service actually presents an increased chance for error.

Email and wireless — While these technologies might appear to be the simplest to implement and just an extension of today’s call center service, beware of missing the obvious. If you are going to offer inquiries and responses via email, make sure that the process in place actually supports a two-way service. Have you ever been on a website, selected the “contact us” option, written a well thought-out email, and seemingly sent it to a black hole, never to get a response? This is the perfect example to demonstrate the need to ensure that processes are in place to support the technology. Mary may have responsibility to clear the inbox on a daily basis, but what happens if Mary is on vacation? Sounds simple, but the simple things are often overlooked.

Fax-back – Just as you will not eliminate the CSR, do not try to eliminate fax-back, even though it may be considered a technology that is past its time. If some customers are comfortable with fax-back as a method to obtain information, allow them to continue. Remember, this is about providing a personalized level of service.

Web chat and video conferencing – Both sound intriguing. But these technologies will take time to mature and find their place. They are worthy of continued evaluation, but they may be a bit before their time in real-world call center application. What is important, just as with any other technology, is to ensure that you have a good foundation in data, people, and processes to support these or any other technologies that may come to the forefront.

With the foundation in place and the technology in the correct role of supporting, not dictating, the processes, the call center can easily mature into a contact center.

Quality service levels, satisfied customers, improved efficiencies, and maintaining or reducing operating costs are all realistic and achievable goals when you keep the cart behind the horse in the journey of effective technology implementation in the call center.

[From Connection MagazineMarch 2003]

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