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Call centres - with their endless queues, incomprehensible menus and automatic voice recognition systems - have often been regarded as the stuff of nightmares. However, last week's Call Centre Expo demonstrated that the experts understand the problems and are starting to make the process more responsive and intelligent.
Callmedia managing director Rufus Grig said, "Call centres have had a bad name, but providers now realise that it costs less to serve a customer well, so people are working much more on customer retention."
Callmedia, itself a standalone part of Azzurri, used the show to launch Callmedia 4.4, which includes intelligent features designed to make customer's lives easier. One example is customer-aware call routing, which takes the customer's status - new, returning, leaving and so on - into account and routes him or her to the correct agent.
But there is still some work to be done to explain the changes. Simon Gresswell, operations director at contact centre specialist ProtoCall One, said intelligent call centres still faced hurdles in their perception, "Customers can be reluctant to step into a world where you lose control."
The clear opportunity for resellers, whether from a data or telephony background, will be to offer counselling and training around the new breed of call centre to speed adoption.
In recent months, many telephony specialists have talked up the home-working applications of call centre technology, allowing staff to take calls remotely without working to the punishing schedules associated with warehouse-style call centres. However, Gresswell at ProtoCall One thought this technology had not yet matured operationally.
"The technology is there to support home-working call centres, but the issues are operational, such as how to manage it from a distance. There are questions as to whether that can be solved easily," he said.
Avaya EMEA director of solutions marketing and management and keynote speaker at the conference, Jirina Yates, said that a generational factor was starting to play a part in call centre management.
"People born between 1982 and 1994 are becoming customers and they are different. They are tech-savvy and time-poor, and they demand problem resolution at point of first contact," Yates explained.
Yates said Avaya was working closely with firms focused on that generation - such as The Student Loans Company - to devise strategies for dealing with young consumers in call centres that can then be rolled out to the wider business world for future use.
Gresswell believed speech analysis and voice recognition technology, the adoption of which has been slow in the UK, would become more important, moving beyond its traditional applications.
"It is increasingly interesting in security analytics and voice-print recognition," he said, adding that the technology could be useful for telephone banking security.
Contact centre consultancy Sabio is an early entrant into this area and recently integrated voice verification software from Nuance into its voice self-service solutions.
According to Sabio, the technology will use biometric voice-print techniques to bring down time spent identifying customers over the phone. Solutions architect Stuart Dorman said, "Our solution addresses two key challenges that prevented mass adoption of voice verification - difficulties in enrolling customers for voice-enabled services and broader customer acceptance.
"We believe our new integration could dramatically improve usability while enhancing security and reducing fraud."