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Pulling a call center 'Houdini'

Companies are breaking down the traditional silos of sales, service and marketing to mine their call center data across the enterprise.

In this era of "do not call," contact centers are being asked to pull a "Houdini"—to extend a company's marketing and sales reach while wearing financially restraining handcuffs. They're being asked to satisfy customer demands and complaints, capitalize on cross-sell and up-sell opportunities, generate revenue, and to do it all while enduring internal cost-cutting measures.

But the new and improved contact center has something up its sleeve. Armed with upgraded and aligned databases, automation that's complemented by better trained service agents, and a shift in corporate mindset, contact centers are embedding marketing intelligence into every sales and service process. Such process changes can improve customer service by more than 80%, reduce churn by 5 % and increase customer lifetime value by 15%, according to IT provider EDS.

"Companies need to break out of the mold and look at the contact center as more than an expense," says Greg Gianforte, chief executive of Bozeman, Mont.–based RightNow Technologies, a CRM provider. "Their first inclination is finding ways to drive costs down, but people have to realize that, in most companies, more customer touches occur in the customer service organization than in any other department."

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Yes, familiarity begets knowledge, and knowledge is power for any company. Contact centers are treasure troves of customer demographic information and buying histories. Couple that with the breaking down of the traditional silos of sales, service and marketing, and more and more companies are better mining their customer data on an enterprise-wide level and building value into each customer relationship. In addition to data, think customized scripts for agents, who have been versed in selling and marketing techniques. Think autonomy, as well as automation.

"Contact center metrics are traditionally focused on cost operations—reducing call times, shortening call queues and minimizing costs," agrees Jon Miller, senior director of marketing and analytic applications for E.piphany, a CRM solutions software firm based in San Mateo, Calif. "These metrics are deeply embedded into the DNA of contact center organizations. The challenge for today's contact centers is to manage a change of mindset for managers and employees alike."

This kind of change management is a process rather than an event, and over time, companies must scrutinize call center procedures and incentives to be sure they are in support of overall enterprise goals.

"Incompatible metrics, such as selling activities versus call times, need to be reconciled," says Miller. "Agents need to be trained around new skills—selling, not just servicing—and incentives need to be aligned. Events, contests and giveaways can all play a role in the change management."

Also, Miller points to possible policy incongruities, saying companies should be sure to balance conflicting incentives, such as rewarding agents for short call times and selling, and to create clear guidelines for how to balance revenue generation and productivity.

"Reward agents for the end goal—selling—not the offer-acceptance rate," he says. "Don't give them a sales quota, since agents who hit their quota may stop selling. Also, agents must feel they are part of the process and should be included in the design of the incentives."

Copyright © 2004 Carlson Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. Peppers & Rogers Group is a Carlson Marketing Group Company.

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