High-Tech Communication Transforms Call Centers

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Technology shapes almost everything about our lives -- how we work, how we eat and how we entertain ourselves. But probably the biggest impact technology has had in our lives is on how we communicate.


No one feels this impact greater than the customer service representative.


Today's call center representatives need more than phone skills and a friendly demeanor to serve the customer properly. Consider the following changes that technology has brought to the call center world:


Consumers expect 24/7 accessibility. With access to the Internet growing both in businesses and at home, it is not enough for customers to leave a message or an e-mail and wait until regular business hours to get answers to their questions. E-commerce allows customers to buy at all hours, so they expect to be able to talk with a person at all hours. If this sounds overly demanding, consider that if you walked into a bricks-and-mortar store that was open for business, you would expect to be able to do two things: buy goods and ask questions of the sales staff. Customers want the same rules to apply to e-commerce sites. If it is open, customers want live, personal customer service.


New technologies are changing how call centers work. Three new technologies are having the greatest impact on call centers. They include:


• E-mail management. With 569 million e-mail boxes worldwide, call centers are employing automated e-mail responses. There are weaknesses with this approach. Problems include automated replies that do not address the customer's problem, long waits before responses and incorrect answers to requests.


• The virtual call center. By having call center reps work from home, morale and personal productivity is increased and scheduling becomes more flexible. Supervisors also can work from home and remotely supervise their employees as well as provide feedback to CSRs, review reports and attend meetings by telephone.


Overhead costs are reduced when employees telecommute. Supervisors not only understand the pros and cons of a home office, but they may share desks when they are scheduled to be in the office. It is important that employees who telecommute feel as though they are part of the group.


• Speech recognition. As Gartner Inc., Stamford, CT, put it, "speech recognition technology finally works." Customers no longer need to speak to an agent to perform basic tasks or ask common questions. They simply answer the computer's prompts in a natural voice, and their needs are met. Costs are dramatically reduced, and customers still obtain services quickly and efficiently.


These technologies have made it possible for call centers to give quicker and superior customer service while cutting costs.


Web-enabled call center growth. Customer service that is handled through the Internet, whether by e-mail, chat or voice over Internet protocol -- or VOIP -- is rapidly growing in popularity. By 2003, the number of Web-enabled call centers is expected to more than triple, while the total number of call centers should increase only slightly. While Web-enabled call centers make up about 13 percent of call centers, that figure is expected to reach 40 percent in the next three years.


What does this mean? While technology has made today's customers far more knowledgeable (because of the Internet), they are also much more demanding, expecting more complex services to be completed in a short time.


For call centers, this new technology and raised expectations mean that a different kind of CSR is needed. Call centers will be transformed into contact centers because customers will continue to communicate via telephone and mail. Fax service, e-mail, chat and VOIP are new forms of communication in which customers expect instantaneous answers. Since customers can now obtain much more information about a company online, CSRs need a detailed knowledge of all marketing materials. Online materials can be changed several times each day. CSRs must be constantly updated regarding any changes so they have the same information as the customer. Instead of being a specialized agent answering questions on a particular offer or product, CSRs need to be experts in the products and services offered.


CSRs coming into a call center need a much higher skill set than those entering the field just five years ago. In a recent survey by Initiatives Three Inc., Portland, ME, nearly 70 percent of call centers surveyed said their phone reps handle Internet activities and inquiries as well as incoming telephone calls.


Web-enabled call centers have changed the qualities to look for in a CSR. According to Initiatives Three, the five most important skills a traditional CSR would need are verbal skills, phone etiquette, the ability to listen, professionalism and phone experience. Compare this with the requirements of Web representatives, who need computer experience, written communication skills, helpfulness, professionalism and multitasking. Only professionalism appears on both lists.


However, the Web representative must have an ability to analyze customer needs by listening to words that may be spoken or written. Many customers use a form of shorthand in e-mails and the CSR sometimes must fill in the blanks or probe for additional information.


It is not only the CSRs who need to brush up on their Internet skills. Management staff should have the same skills as the CSRs they supervise so they can provide feedback on their performance.


Along with being technologically up-to-date, supervisors should stress to their staff the importance of patience. While many more customers will contact CSRs through more technologically advanced means, this does not mean they are as adept as the CSRs at handling the technology. Representatives need to understand that their customers' technological knowledge may be at a slower pace than their own. A CSR might tell a customer to go to a symbol on the screen that the customer does not recognize easily.


Then there is the issue of quality assurance. While e-mail and chat can quickly satisfy customer needs, the quality (as well as legal) checking of at least a sample of outgoing material tends to become expensive. However, it is vital to the operation of a call center to monitor all center activities and provide feedback to the CSRs and reports to management.


Just as technology has presented the call center industry with its share of challenges, it has also provided some solutions. Computer-based training allows trainees to learn at their own pace, and live simulations are possible. Testing, including test calls, is integrated into the training program and provides instant feedback to the trainee. Even with today's technology, it is recommended that a training professional oversee the training process so he can measure a trainee's performance and determine when the trainee is ready to interact with customers.


Some will see technology's contributions to call centers as a path to quicker, more efficient, less expensive customer service. To others, technology's demands will outweigh its benefits, presenting a laundry list of new problems, all requiring a hefty investment to fix. Both sides should agree on one point, however: New technology, like it or not, will become a necessity in the day-to-day operations of what we will call a contact center in the future.


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