Old call centers evolve into new CRM animal

By Dana Bacciocco, Associate Editor

The customer may be the driver for utilities improving efficiencies in areas like billing, services, and reliability, but investments in call centers can yield more significant customer satisfaction.

In the drive to increase customer satisfaction and reduce costs for company and customer, utilities are finding that the call center is evolving by means of technology and expanding in scope to include areas like mobile workforce management and field services. Large call center vendors are building out functionalities to overlapping operations. Gartner Group studies have predicted that field services are a top growth area within customer relationship management, according to Guy Waterman, vice president of marketing and business development at PointServe Inc., which serves utilities including Pennsylvania Power and Light and Southern Union Gas. “Deregulation and the threat of deregulation in many markets where there’s still only one provider, has brought intense focus on the customer satisfaction component,” said Waterman.

In the past five years, paradigms of customer interaction with utilities have changed, said Waterman. The variety and volume of calls are increasing, but the number of CSRs has not proportionately increased due to the work-smarter-not-harder mantra. Solution providers as well as utilities are being challenged by the rate of change in technology, economy and customer sophistication.

“The call center business is still undervalued by top management-they understand the concept, and even the role of technology, but not the interactive skills required,” according to Elizabeth Ahearn, president and CEO of The Radclyffe Group.

Ahearn believes the call center can play a critical role in the organization, but it takes skill. Call centers notoriously have high turnover and dissatisfied employees. Good CSRs should take control, demonstrate ownership, and raise customer confidence. “Looking beyond technology, salary and process, it’s world-class service that customers desire-and they can get this only when the inner workings of a company are transparent,” said Ahearn.

Don’t scuttle the old system

“Utilities are investing wherever they think they can get an incremental and measurable change in customer satisfaction, loyalty, or reduction in operating expense,” said Waterman. While operational efficiency is often translated to mean staff reduction, instead, investments are moving employees away from older systems. However, utilities still want their money’s worth from their existing CIS and call centers. “While the ’90s saw multimillion-dollar investments, we’re likely to see a focus on augmenting, not replacing existing systems, because it was so painful in the past,” said Waterman.

Some of the pain came from the “ERP approach” where everything revolved around one database system. According to Waterman, “CRM systems are doing the same thing at this point, but I don’t think many IT managers in utility organizations are buying off on that. I do believe they’re saying ‘extend my current solution, allow me to have the benefits of Web-based access, the benefits of my close customer interaction.'”

With call volume and variety on the rise, utilities must decide how to arm their call centers and what tactics to employ-like questioning and fact finding, written answers, call backs, e-mail, or direction to a Web site. The Internet is a positive mechanism for customer communication, with capabilities to query and respond to customers about basics like billing, payment options, and to schedule services. Internet communications provide an audit trail and add to the knowledge base of a utility. “This process is very different from what we’re seeing now with the advent of people pushing their call centers offshore,” said Waterman. With customer self-service, i.e. the Internet, companies can offload call volume and customers perceive a high level of service.

But utilities should take another look at the roles of technology and people-companies have become lazy with technology, offloading to IVRs (interactive voice response) and VRUs (voice response units). It’s not systems, but rather service, that builds brand image and loyalty, or look at a call as an opportunity. The customer call experience should reinforce the image that utilities advertise, according to Ahearn.

The ubiquitous touchtone

For a good value proposition, Waterman suggested customer self-service and interactive voice technologies-systems that typically pay for themselves quickly. The problem with Internet-based communications, however, is that not everyone has access. Most everyone has telephone access. So two automated information methods may compete as well as complement one another in the next few years. Voice response systems will not disappear anytime soon. The touchtone is ubiquitous. However, as mobile handsets gain more features, voice and data may converge over time.

While the Internet is taking the call center by storm, it takes special skills for good written communications, beyond automatic e-mail form letter replies. Web-based communications should not just lead to a toll-free number, but to solutions.

With every call, CSRs should be able to leverage customer contact, build brand loyalty and company image. Improved interactive skills have proven to raise companies’ scores on customer quality surveys, said Ahearn.

“A Purdue Benchmarking study showed that 80 percent of CSR training is spent on system training-how to navigate through a call system, processes and product knowledge-and only 10 percent on interactive skills,” said Ahearn.

CSR skills, not simply software and knowledge bases, add value for customer and company. There’s a talent to managing call centers and motivating people. And while companies may not think of CSRs on the forefront, customers do. “Companies are opening their eyes-when you talk about itellipseit makes sense to them,” Ahearn said.

Guy Waterman can be reached at gwaterman @pointserve.com. For more information about the Radclyffe Group, call 973-276-0522 or visit www.radclyffegroup.com.

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