New Opportunities Fuel Competition for Telcos

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In the wake of groundbreaking deregulation, telecommunications has emerged as one of the most fiercely competitive industries in the United States. Telecommunications providers are turning to sophisticated technologies to help them educate consumers about critical value-driven considerations, such as service and convenience in an environment in which price is often the customer's primary selection criterion. Advanced call center technology is on the front line of this battle.


According to the 1998 American Customer Satisfaction Index conducted by Arthur Andersen's Global Communications & Entertainment Group, the telecommunications industry's consumer loyalty rating improved for the first time in four years. The study attributes the improvement in part to investments in sophisticated call center technology and special customer services.


Call center vendors are introducing powerful new capabilities that allow telecommunications providers to develop innovative telesales and customer service strategies that win new customers, maintain existing client bases and open the door for cross-selling opportunities. Not every call management system is created equal, however, nor is each appropriate for every telecommunications call center.


When purchasing or upgrading a call center system, the user must assess the system's compatibility with the center's business objectives and technological infrastructure and evaluate its ability to improve call quality, increase agent productivity, and enhance the quality of customer care. Specific considerations for call centers in the telecommunications industry include:


<B>Is the call management system compatible with other technologies?<B> To launch a sophisticated telesales or comprehensive customer service operation, the call center system must interface with numerous office systems, including legacy systems, databases, Interactive Voice Response systems, even e-mail and the Internet. A primary consideration in selecting a call management system should be its compatibility with other vital office systems. The recent development of calling plans customized to the individual consumer demonstrates the critical need for system compatibility. To create these popular plans during the course of a call, the agent must be able to access and/or process data relating to the customer's calling patterns. This data typically is held in databases that reside outside the call management system.


<B>Does the system support inbound and outbound call center functions from a single workstation?<B> Today's telecommunications call center fulfills a variety of roles. During the evening, most agents may be marketing telephone services and products. By day, the same facility may function as a customer service center. Some centers utilize universal or blended agents, who switch between sales and customer service modes based on call volume. You must, therefore, assess the need for and ability of the system to accommodate both inbound and outbound capabilities from a single workstation. Today the industry has an increasing number of options in all price ranges. For instance, some CTI middleware products allow call centers to add predictive dialing capabilities to their inbound systems without adding another handset to the desktop. In addition, many outbound systems now provide inbound and blending capabilities.


<B>Can the system respond quickly to changes in the call center environment?<B> In today's telecommunications call center, the ability to stop a non-productive telemarketing campaign and almost instantly revise the existing campaign or begin a new one can be critical. Flexible, user-friendly scripting is essential when quick script revisions are necessary. Some new call management systems streamline script development and implementation through advanced capabilities that allow the user to perform inbound and outbound scripting on the same system. To facilitate the set up of new campaigns, some systems now feature extensive campaign wizards, along with advanced record management capabilities that allow supervisors to tailor call lists based on user-established contact results criteria.


<B>Does the system offer industry-specific features and capabilities along with an extensive set of universal features?<B> Telecommunications call center managers should evaluate systems with an eye toward features that are tailored to or a have a unique application to their industry. Trunk select and trunk blocking features are two examples. These features allow call center supervisors to select preferred trunks or, in the case of trunk blocking, to block the use of competitors' lines.


External call transfer is another feature vital to many telecommunications call centers. This capability is essential to the growing number of providers that utilize third-party verification to validate a customer's service selection. External call transfer is also important to organizations that place customer courtesy calls on behalf of the telecommunications industry. These service centers often find it necessary to transfer a consumer to a client's inhouse call center for technical support, problem resolution, or billing issues.


Other features that support the business objectives of nearly all telemarketing call center operations include: answering machine detection; call zone controls; flexible, real-time system reporting capabilities; streamlined campaign management; and do-not-call list capabilities. Capabilities vital to inbound customer service operations include: multiple database access and features that capture and utilize ANI (automatic number identification) and DNIS (dialed number identification service) data.


<B>Does the system offer advanced features that address consumer concerns about telemarketing initiatives? <B> The telemarketing industry has come under increased public scrutiny in recent years. One issue in particular -- nuisance calls -- is fueling a demand for greater regulation of telemarketing activities. Defined by the contact center industry as calls, answered by a consumer, for which no agent is available, nuisance calls result in hang ups or delayed responses when consumers answer the phone. The most advanced call management systems feature sophisticated pacing algorithms that can limit the number of such calls to arbitrarily small levels with negligible productivity losses.


A final, often-overlooked factor to be considered in system selection is the vendor's ability to provide comprehensive customer support and professional services. Call center technology is increasingly complex, and the telecommunications market is one of its most sophisticated users. Installations frequently require software customization and/or integration services, along with a coordinated training program. Reliable and responsive customer and technical support are also imperative in mission-critical telecommunications call centers. When selecting a call center vendor, carefully evaluate these capabilities.


Advanced call center technology offers telecommunications providers unprecedented opportunities for improved effectiveness of their marketing and customer service operations. To fully harness this potential, however, call center management must make informed choices. Do your homework, and choose wisely.


<I>Edward J. Sarkisian is senior vice president of Worldwide Sales & Marketing, EIS International Inc., Herndon, VA. <I>
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