How to Decrease Call Center Costs

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Decreasing inbound call center costs is a continuing objective. And automated voice-processing systems can help but, more commonly and in the guise of cost-reduction, overall costs are either increased, shifted or go unrecognized. Fundamental to decreasing call center costs is improving the productivity of resources employed by the center to maintain an established value level of caller satisfaction. There are two components to this concept: productivity, which is the total cost to service a caller, and an established value level of customer service satisfaction.


It must not be assumed that reducing call center costs decreases corporate costs. Often, it is quite the contrary. Consider a company that plans to save costs by installing an automated receptionist directing callers through a series of touch-tone selections. If even a relatively small portion of the callers hang up and call other numbers, never receive service or write letters (including nasty letters to the corporate president), the overall cost of servicing callers can increase.


Call center costs must be netted out against the loss in value of the center as perceived by the callers. It is often forgotten that the recognized reason for the success of the "800" service is the toll-free number. Even though a toll-free number might only save the caller a few cents, it is recognized that it offers a high incentive value to call. As difficulties encountered by the caller in reaching your company increase, the caller's perceived value in reaching your company decreases. While advertising spends big dollars to induce people to call in response to promotions, the savings realized by a call center using automated equipment can increase the overall cost per lead or response. Sales can suffer because of diminished response. The company has a net loss justified by saving a few dollars in its call center.


Effectively decreasing costs for a call center requires considering not only the reduction of call center costs, but the effect of the change on all corporate costs and the value of the service as perceived by the caller.


Look for real efficiencies. Seek improvements that decrease call center costs in real terms, but don't adversely impact costs for other departments, or adversely impact the caller's perceived value. Look for techniques that enable an agent to handle more calls, reduce turnover, reduce the agent skill level or the training time. If cost savings are justified through increasing the value of the call to a target set of callers, net that gain against the loss in value experienced by callers outside the targeted set. Here are a few ideas:


• Outsource certain routine functions or overflow call handling to a call center provider that has a lower per-call cost than your internal call center. Using an outsourced center for catalog or sample requests is a classic situation where the proper outsource agency can excel.


• Automate more routine functions, such as product information, ordering and market research, where the caller acceptance, as measured by yield, is at least equal to a live center. An intuitive voice-processing system is ideal for this application because the results equal or exceed those obtained with agents. Using more conventional automated-voice systems for airline flight times or crew scheduling is another proven cost-saving application.


• Decrease the information requested by agents so available agents can handle more calls -- a direct savings. Automatically obtain information from the caller while on hold. Rather than only taking the name and phone number for a call back, obtain detailed information so someone with the proper expertise can return the call. A few seconds saved on each call can save a large call center millions of dollars each year.


Additional services. Account balances and stock quotations are successful additional services, each introduced as cost-savings measures. However, once callers recognized they were automated, they called more often. As a result, the call volumes for the same function multiplied. Rather than being cost saving, a new cost center was created. The proper justification was not cost savings, but new-caller services. The real objective was to reduce costs. Due to caller acceptance, these cost generating additional services can never be terminated, because the additional calls would then be taken by live agents, compounding the problem.


Niceties. Often a call center will greet callers using an automated service and justify the menu selection as routine cost savings. A help-desk for a leading software provider offers all callers the choice of hearing the 10 most frequently encountered problems and their solutions. This announcement is an obstruction every caller must hear. It is a nicety without a tangible benefit. It increases costs for telephone line charges, equipment and adds to overall caller frustration.


Getting rid of callers. Often call centers divert callers to automated devices as a means of reducing the number of callers that need to be handled by an agent. The selection tree that greets a caller takes some time and caller effort to answer the questions to the best of their ability - and then returns to the beginning, disconnects the caller or the caller is told to dial another number. That other number also may have a selection tree that tells the caller to call at another time when the call center is open. The caller gives up and may never call again. The long-term damage to the customer base has not been factored into the cost-saving justification. When the callers are ignored by the call center, be assured the callers have received a strong, and perhaps irreversible impression.


Imposing on callers. Media professionals recognize that a TV or radio listener can change the station at will. Elaborate measures are created to induce audiences not to defect. The call center shares the same problem. If callers become aggravated, they hang up. And if callers don't call back, the center has no way to measure the aggravation experienced by the caller.


At a recent business meeting, I asked the audience if, when greeted by an automated selection tree, they keyed in a selection or waited in silence for an operator. Everyone said they waited for the operator. People know and, if they don't, they learn fast. If you require menu selections, keep them short, clear and universal. If you can't do that, don't impose imprecise selections or lengthy explanations or menus to which every caller must listen. Don't impose on your callers' patience to pay for call center cost savings - if you want to maintain your service value level.


Summary. A call center exists as a centralized service to serve the caller. If that is your objective, avoid cost reductions that shift the burden to the caller. Avoid silently shifting costs to other departments. Use automated systems that provide caller-service value that is competitive with that provided by your agents. Voice mail may be acceptable for internal use where there is a captive audience, but your firm's customers should never be considered captive. When a prospect calls and asks to speak to a salesperson, the caller may not appreciate being told that a salesperson will call back at the salesperson's convenience, without any regards for the caller's availability.


Avoid the arrogance of asserting what will be good for the caller. Let the caller tell you what is good for the caller. Measure it. Test. Test. Test.
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