Cataloger Changes Voice of Its Call Centers

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Customer service representatives are getting harder to find, according to low-priced home decor and gift cataloger Miles Kimball, so as a remedy the company decided to introduce voice response technology into its call centers.

"What we're trying to do is offload some of the phone calls onto this voice response system," said Karl Kroeplin, vice president of information services at Miles Kimball Inc., Oshkosh, WI.

The merchant expects to launch the technology as part of a three-phase project with speech recognition technology provider Voci Corp., San Jose, CA. The first phase, which should be available this summer, will allow consumers to request catalogs via speech recognition; the second phase will offer shipment tracing; and the last phase will let customers order products from Miles Kimball catalogs.

"For relatively straightforward orders, it's certainly going to make the process smooth," said Bruce Pollack, vice president of communications and business relations at Voci. "One of the advantages for catalog companies ... [is it allows] call center agents more time to deal with the problem calls."

In the first phase, an automated voice will ask the caller for his or her telephone number, correlate it with a mailing address and then ask the consumer for confirmation. The company will then send a catalog to that address.

The company intends to launch the second phase in the fall and the final phase around the winter holidays.

Miles Kimball is the first cataloger that Voci has signed to use the technology, but Voci expects to announce 10 other catalog partnerships later this summer. The potential partners include business-to-business and business-to-consumer catalogers that sell products ranging from apparel to machine parts, Pollack said.

Miles Kimball operates call centers in Oshkosh, WI, and Las Vegas. The Oshkosh facility can accommodate 130 reps; the Las Vegas center has seats for 120. Kroeplin said he doesn't expect to cut any jobs because of the implementation of the automated voice system.

Last year, the company tested an IVR -- a touch-tone interactive voice response system -- for catalog requests.

"There weren't too many people that opted to get out and get to an operator," Kroeplin said.

Miles Kimball mails more than 70 million catalogs to customers and prospects each year. Catalog drops range from 2.5 million during its off-season to 15 million in the fall. Prospecting is mostly done in the fall mailings.

The company expects to generate more than $120 million in sales this year. It

produces upscale picture frame and home decor catalogs Exposures and Exposures Home and Just Between Us, an upscale version of the Miles Kimball catalog. The company also produces a personalized Christmas card catalog on which the company was founded.

In February, Miles Kimball began mailing its sixth catalog, a home and garden book called Arbor Cove. The catalog was mailed to 500,000 prospects and customers.

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