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About 500,000 people work in UK call centres, according to TUC figures, but for many people a call centre experience is not always a happy one.
This boom has been driven primarily by the motive of cutting the costs of sales and support, rather than improving service. Problems include long delays within various levels of the telephone menu system and having to repeat queries to successive agents, none of whom seems to have access to the details previously conveyed.
IT has the potential to continue cutting costs, but perhaps more importantly, to reverse the perception of poor customer service. The drive is towards the complete contact centre, where customers have access through a variety of channels, not just the telephone, and receive a response within an acceptable and agreed timeframe.
The other significant buzzphrase is the virtual call centre, where off-site homeworkers and staff cope with peaks in demand or handle specific queries beyond the competence of the principle call centre staff.
Three technologies, computer telephony integration (CTI), speech recognition, and interactive web response (IWR), promise to transform the current generation of call centres by converting them into flexible and efficient contact centres that are loved rather than loathed by those that use them.
Of the three, CTI has been around for the longest time but still has some way to go to reach its full potential. In its first incarnation, CTI was synonymous with "screen popping", that is taking the calling line identifier (CLI), such as the phone number of the caller, to retrieve information about them and their ongoing query onto the screen of the call centre agent.
Many people now have three CLIs for their home phone, office phone and mobile, so the call centre needs to have all three associated with the customer's name in a database. A problem is that people call from phone numbers other than those in the database, meaning the customer is not always recognised. In fact, when calls are made from an internal PBX, it is usually possible only to identify the organisation rather than the individual caller.
Other means of identification may be used, such as a code entered on a touch-tone phone. Once the caller has been identified, all relevant information about an ongoing query is held together and can be forwarded as a single entity from agent to agent within the call centre.
The second core technology starting to be seriously deployed by call centres is speech recognition. It will not be possible in the foreseeable future for a customer to be completely understood by speech recognition software, but a handful of keywords such as "accounts payable" or "technical support" can be identified. The call can then be directed to the group of agents best able to deal with the call, helping the centre provide a more fine-grained, accurate routing of incoming calls than is possible with interactive voice response (IVR) using touch-tone phones.
The third technology, IWR, is only at a trial phase for many call centres, but potential benefits have already been identified. The call centre can be connected to a website and offer alternative means of communication that may be preferable for the caller and, at the same time, is more cost-effective for the call centre. The principle options are e-mail, text chat and help buttons on websites.
Other important technologies, such as queue management and load balancing, can route calls to overflow centres or part-time home-based agents during peak times. An important technical issue is to ensure that such agents have adequate IT facilities, such as communications bandwidth, ideally equivalent to those available in a dedicated call centre.
The role of two longer established call centre technologies, automatic call distribution and IVR, should not be neglected. Together, and increasingly in combination with speech recognition, these ensure that calls are routed to the right agent on the basis of skills or availability.
Until now, the business case for call centres has largely rested on reducing the cost of selling, marketing, providing information or customer support. In turn this can increase competitiveness and gain customers by undercutting the competition.
In the case of banking, First Direct led the field in providing a "no frills" telephone-based banking service with none of the usual charges. The move to internet call centres can yield further savings by reducing the number of agents needed to support customers or users.
It is also worth pointing out that call centres are not confined to consumer operations, but can also serve internal staff in helpdesk or support capacities. The same principles and costs for a customer-based call centre still apply. The more help and information that can be given via a website or e-mail, the lower the cost of support.
If a call centre is a direct replacement for a service involving direct human contact, it can only be justified if the same level of customer service is maintained. A business proposition should include realistic proposals, including estimates of staffing levels, to ensure this. In many cases it should be possible to improve it.
In some cases, as originally with First Direct, a call centre provides a radically new service, which is not necessarily better or worse than before, just different. Some people will prefer it, others will not. The ideal contact centre will comprise communications options to suit all tastes. An important part of any proposition is to ensure that the different channels are properly supported. In too many cases queries are not dealt with promptly and are sometimes ignored completely.
The choice and implementation of the technology needs to be carefully matched to particular applications and to the distribution of the call load.
Capacity planning is important to ensure that peaks can be handled without over-resourcing, which means having part-time agents on standby, such as homeworkers with call centre experience. The system will have to be set up in their homes and two voice circuits will typically be needed: one to receive routed incoming calls and the other to make outgoing calls to seek advice while a customer remains on the line. A data circuit to access relevant information about a customer or an ongoing problem log will also be needed.
Homeworkers are often given standard two-channel ISDN lines, where one channel is used for incoming routed calls and the other for data access. The agent will also have a standard dial-up PSTN line which could be a domestic line but will act as an additional line for any outgoing calls.
The biggest management issues are recruitment, training and building a suitable environment. BT discovered the consequence of ignoring this when it was forced to pay £90,000 to an agent who worked in one of the oldest call centre applications, directory enquiries. The agent had suffered ear damage from loud, random bursts of noise through a headset, a problem to which some headsets seem susceptible.
Such cases, along with an increasing awareness of the huge disparity in call centre working conditions, with the worst rightly being dubbed the "new sweatshops", is focusing minds on the working environment issue.
The choice of supplier is complex, with players coming from several different directions. Carriers such as BT and Cable & Wireless have the advantage in being able to provide services closely tied to the public network. This enables the calls to be automatically routed upon a criteria specified by the customer, such as time of day or season.
Other suppliers have roots in the management and distribution of calls within private enterprise voice networks, such as Aspect. Such companies often have strong support for multiple channels, including web, fax, e-mail, Wap and SMS, in addition to the phone.
One weakness, however, could be the lack of support for the various levels of integration needed for some of the CTI functions. Such weaknesses are usually addressed through partner-ships with a supplier with the necessary integration skills.
Other suppliers are the traditional switch or system providers such as Nortel. They are well placed to handle the routing and communication issues needed for supporting homeworkers.
There are also suppliers who deal with CTI software for integrating voice switches with computer applications for CTI functions. IBM with its Callpath suite is one of the major players at the top end of this market, but packages based on Microsoft's telephony services in Windows NT and Windows 2000 have made great inroads.
For general articles and information
The Call Centre Management Association, with information on standards and best practice www.ccma.org.uk
A search for "call centre solutions" will elicit a number of case studies, articles and Nortel product details www.nortel.com