Say “hello” to e-call centers, where both voice and data speak

Call centers have quickly become energy companies’ “Window to the World”—the very eyes and ears of the end-user customer. Today, call centers do so much more than just answer the phone. They field inquiries, orders and complaints by telephone, fax, e-mail, the Internet, video and U.S. mail. But with so much information streaming in via a variety of formats (voice, mail, video, etc.), it’s clear that traditional call centers cannot meet the digital explosion of communication channels. But the advent of new e-call centers (or e-contact centers), as multimedia data networks, allow for voice and data to interface in a single Internet Protocol (IP) network environment.

“Call centers can no longer just handle voice interactions. They need to move to an e-contact center with e-mail, Web, video and fax capabilities,” said Julie Hopkins, manager of corporate communications for Cincinnati-based Cintech. “Anyone who is using a call center should be looking at e-contact centers. It’s the evolution of call centers. Everything gets converted to digital.”

Web-based call centers

By using an IP-network for transport and connectivity, Hopkins said several benefits are harvested by a company, including establishing “virtual connectivity,” which breaks down distance barriers and overcomes workforce issues; affording the real-time management of employees working from home offices; streamlining the transfer of customers to different departments, so there’s no call-back contact or international toll fees imposed. (See figure)

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Some of the hottest Web-enabled call center products include: Rockwell’s CT-Media-Based Transcend Contact Center, Cintech’s NetVIA (routes calls, e-mail messages and Web call back requests to remote and in-house agents), UniPress Software’s FootPrints 4.0 (online help desk software lets agents report requests for technical assistance), Cosmocom’s CosmoCall IP (blended-media call centers), Envision Telephony’s Soundbyte Survey Direct (creates and distributes online surveys), Genesys’ Internet Suite, Servicesoft eCenter, Clarify’s eFrontOffice (integrates call center and Web site transactions), Vantive’s Enterprise Version 8 (offers online self-service options), Silknet Software’s eCommerce and Williams Communications Solutions’ Dialect Multimedia Queuing (works with phone switch to let agents respond to customer phone calls, e-mails and faxes).

As for the cost of obtaining a Web-enabled, multimedia contact center, Cintech’s NetVIA system (using IBM server and implementation services) runs about $130,000 per seat/agent for 30 seats and one supervisor seat.

Shaken, not stirred: call-blending mixes CRM with up- and cross-selling

E-business is not only nudging, but pushing, very proactive customer contact to the forefront of retail market customer care. The demand for call-blending applications is increasing, because companies are realizing that a lull in call volume means idle time for inbound agents—a great opportunity for proactive customer contact, such as follow-up service calls, cross-selling, up-selling, collection calls and customer feedback contact.

So now many companies are allowing high-tech systems to route outbound calls to idle inbound agents, and switch the agents back to inbound call contact when traffic increases. Again, the future holds that call-blending will hit the e-space at a computer near you soon—via e-mail inquiries and real-time Web site interaction (screen pop-ups and “click to agent” options on Web sites).

As for real-time tools offered now to up- and cross-sell, Minneapolis-based Net Perceptions’ ( Sales Coach software supplies CSRs with real-time personalized recommendations through a screen pop that displays both text and pictures of suggested products. “It’s the classic case of a picture being worth a thousand words,” said Steven Snyder, Net Perceptions president and CEO. “By including product images with our delivery mechanism, we’ve increased the ability of CSRs to cross-sell and up-sell by as much as 50 percent.” Already, Home Shopping, Britain’s largest catalog retailer, has used Net Perceptions and increased its up-sells by 50 percent and the average value of each up-sell item by 60 percent. Other Net Perceptions customers include, Bertelsmann, Billboard TalentNet, CDnow, E!Online, Micron, SkyMall, Tower Records and Ticketmaster Online.

But how do you move and reengineer your voice-only transaction call center to harness the opportunities of a state-of the-art e-contact center?

Reengineering the future

According to the Canadian Call Centre Advisory Group (, there are 10 key opportunities for reengineering call centers for the year 2000.

They include:

  • E-mail: A reliable transaction channel in addition to inbound and outbound voice calls.
  • The Internet: Tightly link the contact information with contact management systems in the call center.
  • Workflow and Work Objects: Integrate voice and electronic transactions into a single workflow with integrated queues that allow work blending and load balancing of multiple media types.
  • Virtual Centers: Create virtual centers that allow employees to choose work locations and that provide the organization with follow-the-sun capability for international customer service.
  • Computer Telephone Integration: Provide personalized routing and work-object handling and to produce fully integrated reporting on both electronic and voice transactions.
  • Voice Response Systems: Tightly integrate to allow seamless transfers back and forth between Voice Response Unit and agent-assisted service.
  • Speech Recognition: Use automated speech recognition to reduce transaction times and enable greater functionality of voice response systems including enhanced data access, faster transaction speed and security.
  • Management Tools: Develop new resource management tools for integrated voice and electronic environments in which resources may be geographically dispersed.
  • Employee Desktop: Capability to access internal and external (Internet) data rapidly, to see what the customer sees, and to execute transactions with a fully integrated desktop such that all employees are fully empowered to deliver excellent customer service every time.
  • Contact Management: Develop contact management systems that can integrate e-mail, fax, phone and Internet transaction information into a comprehensive history of customer contact.

    People today who work in call centers do much more than simply answer the phone. They process loans, resolve technical problems, administer employee benefits, orchestrate trades and triage customer crises. Yet all too often the number of transactions completed in a day, a week or a month measures a call center’s or a customer service representative’s success. And while productivity will seemingly always remain paramount, end-users still hope to deal with courteous and knowledgeable people who understand their needs and who can offer helpful ideas, recommendations and solutions. In the end, the customer is the business in retail energy. And it’s high time to address customer satisfaction and put the high-touch back in the high-tech of e-call centers.

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