Web-based call centres are giving customers access to a diverse range of services that are increasingly personalised. Mark Vernon talks to the companies reaping the benefit
The Internet is making its presence felt in the call centre space as much as any other. Indeed, it has given birth to a new creature, the Web-based call centre.
The feature of Web technologies that is being exploited here is the delivery of information about individual customers that is personalised to a far greater degree than has been practically possible before. Via a browser, call centres are suddenly able to communicate regardless of the hurdles of disparate databases, multiple data types, or geographical separation. The nut that suppliers and early users are now trying to crack is the exploitation of this capability, imaginatively and skillfully to deliver a level of customer service that beats the competitor.
The most visible manifestation of Web-based deployment to date is the "call back button" on a Web page.
Imagine you are the customer. Having keyed in a user name and password, the supplier's Web site recognises you, and customises. Your preferences based on past behaviour are in place, and all the cross-selling and upselling opportunities from the CRM database are in action. After a browse you are ready to purchase, but you have a few questions that the searchable knowledge base has not covered to your satisfaction. You need to talk to someone. On the Web page is a "call me button". This links you straight to the call centre and a human being.
The contact centre software has checked who last talked to you in the call centre and sends you a message asking would you like to talk to the same person again. If that operator is busy you are offered another option. The new operator not only knows who you are, your purchasing history, and your credit scoring, but they also have an audit trail posted on their screen showing exactly what you have just spent the last half hour on their Web site doing.
However, the influence of the Web-based call centre is not only being felt by the end-user. Outsourced services are coming online that exploit the technology in different ways. Sitel is one company that offers outsourced customer service and sales solutions to help companies get on top of their customer relationships. State -of-the-art call centre technology is vital, and the firm has invested in Avaya Call Centre Solutions across Europe.
"The Avaya system has a strong standardised back plane," explains Danny Mylle, IT director of Sitel. "This makes it possible to build components and features into it that maybe were not yet developed five years ago, but are available now." In other words, clients are able to take advantage of new technology fast, such as Voice-over-IP (VoIP).
Another interesting development made possible by recent advances is the concept of price-per-switch per time unit. Mylle sees this method of purchasing customer contact centre capacity as a new way of doing business. "With this model, you buy the voice services, e-mail services and fax services per port. One day you need 500 ports but the next day 700. You would just pay for what you use," he says.
Web-based call centres are only beginning to appear on the market. "Web-enabled call centres have great potential but real activity is thin on the ground," says David Bradshaw, a consultant with research firm Ovum.
However, according to Frost & Sullivan's recent prognosis, the number of Web-enabled call centres is set to leap from its current level of 115 to 22,688 in 2006, with the increasing significance attributed to customer care and service, as well as the complexity of larger call centres' requirements, driving growth.
According to Frost & Sullivan, the implementation of the software helps call centres reduce the costs of customer service, the execution of sales campaigns, fielding enquiries and conducting other expensive and time-consuming call centre-based interactions. "Call back and text chat, presently the two most common methods of communication between consumer and call centre agents, will gradually be displaced by call through and eventually by video over IP as the technology matures and a greater number of consumers own multimedia PCs," says Ian Rowlands, Research Analyst at Frost & Sullivan. He believes that the most important technology that will affect the European market for Web-based call centres will be the adoption of VoIP, followed by the anticipated explosion of video over IP onto the scene.
The research indicates that the financial services sector currently dominates sales, followed by the telecommunications sector. However, by the end of 2006, both sectors are expected to slip behind the retail market, forging ahead to claim the largest share of the overall market. The main catalyst for growth behind the retail market's giant leap is the growth in consumer-to-business spending on the Internet.
But Bradshaw points out that there is more to a Web-based call centre strategy than merely implementing new technology. He argues that a strategy will dictate which customers and/or transactions are given the highest level of personalisation, which receive lower levels, and how the service levels offered can be differentiated on the different channels. "Send low importance into low-cost channels," he says. "Give high importance more personalisation."
As they get use to new levels of service, customers are likely to make demands too. They will want 24-hour service, lower prices for goods, faster service, more control, anonymity and privacy, no loss of face if credit authorisation is denied and lower charges, among many others, Bradshaw says. Web-based call centres that fail to deliver on these business process issues could cause unwary companies to stumble on the customer service they had hoped to enhance.
Understanding the customer
Barclays' direct financial services division, b2, has taken more than 1.5 million calls at its multimedia customer service centre in Stratford, East London, since it was founded in 1998. Many originate from the "call me" button on its Web site, www.b2.com, which allows customers to talk with an agent about the options available to them.
"The b2 brand is all about understanding the customer and providing simple straightforward ways to invest, so it was crucial that the call centre empowered our operators to demonstrate their financial knowledge, enthusiasm for our product range and, of course, our customers," says Neil Sandy, head of b2's customer service centre.
A Web-based call centre was clearly the right solution, but the task of building it was compounded by tight deadlines and the need for a supplier who could also manage the project and integrate legacy data and systems. The solution was built by Siemens Communications' ProCenter team and is now used by 300 management and administration staff as well as up to 100 call centre operators.
"A recent b2 customer satisfaction survey found that 45% of customers were positively influenced by the customer service centre when it came to finding out about b2's ISAs and making a decision that is the right one for them," says Sandy. He believes the investment in a Web-based call centre was right.
Strong channel presence
3Com's strong channel presence enables customers to gain access to its solutions through the supplier of their choice. But, in order to support this route to market, the company has invested heavily in a strategic support infrastructure, in the shape of a Web-based call centre. The challenge was to access disparate databases from existing call centres around the world. Furthermore, crucial information pertaining to problem resolution was not being shared, resulting in the same problems being reported and solved time after time.
Primus was the solution provider chosen, with its ability to capture, share and manage customer knowledge on a worldwide basis and provide the workflow required for distribution to multiple call centres. "Before 3Com Knowledgebase went live in Europe, our non-technical call centre agents simply logged the calls and dispatched them to our technical support group. It could take considerable time to respond with a solution, resulting in 400-500 cases outstanding at any one time," says Primus manager Manoj Seth.
"Today, the newly created helpdesk team that deals with all network interface card problems in the call centre are able to solve 70% of calls, simply by using the solution-centred Knowledgebase, which now contains over 7,000 solutions. Not only does this significantly improve customer response efficiency, but our European technical support groups are now able to focus on more complex problems rather than responding to repetitive problems," Seth adds.
Multimedia contact point
MM Group is a coupon-handling and direct-mail-fulfilment business. From a small operation in an office above a shoe shop in 1950, the company has grown to a full-service communications company with more than 800 employees.
An essential part of the growth has been the utilisation of IT, including, most recently, the Aspect Customer Relationship Portal, which enables the company to handle telephone, e-mail, Internet and fax communications through a single point of contact.
"We were handling 1.5 million e-mail messages a year and thousands of faxes every day in addition to telephone calls," says Stephanie Rouse, MM Group's operations director. "What we wanted was a solution that could bring all this together and turn our communications centre into a multimedia contact point where one workstation could handle customer contacts from many different channels."
Apart from achieving this goal, the solution has brought additional business benefits. "Our clients pay us for every minute we are on the telephone on their behalf," says Rouse. "If you lose calls, you lose income." The portal, however, has increased call-handling capacity by 20%, with an equivalent increase in revenues.
"Our clients are happy with what we are doing," says Rouse. "Our scores are going up month by month for everything we do and it is all directly related to the point at which we brought in the Aspect technologies."
Next day deliveries
Formed in 1998, the Northamptonshire-based Wine Corporation offers next day deliveries and personalised wine brokering services. But in order to offer the service customers expected, as well as deal with bursts in business activity, the firm realised it needed more flexible tools to help it relate to its customers. A Web-based call centre built on Rockwell technology from contact centre specialist Annodata has provided the answer.
The new contact centre will have 100 agents in place by the end of 2000, handling over 6,000 calls a day. Skills-based routing capabilities enable agent supervisors to route calls with greater efficiency, minimise call waiting and ensure the most effective use of available staff at all times. Other tools are also included to measure and proactively plan customer service levels.
"We can now handle any type of response from any number of campaigns simultaneously, routing to multi-skilled groups of agents or routing calls selectively," says Stuart Fox, Wine Corporation's contact centre manager. "We can also employ home workers to provide cost-effective, short-term cover for peak periods such as Christmas with no reduction in customer service levels or impact on company image."