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Aspect CEO: Turn your contact center into a profit center

Today's customer contact center bears little resemblance to call centers of years ago thanks to advanced analytics and voice over IP, among other technological improvements. In fact, if they're run properly, contact centers can actually help boost revenue. Integration and a focus on operational efficiency are the keys, says Aspect Communications CEO Beatriz Infante. In a conversation with SearchCRM, Infante offered the Aspect perspective on the past, present and future of customer contact centers.

What is the greatest challenge facing your customers who are making this transition?
We have some customers who are still telephony only; [they] have silos with e-mails and faxes and Web chats. And their biggest challenge is being able to keep up with customer demand, being able to integrate all those communications channels and doing it in cost-effective fashion, particularly in the current economic environment.

The next phase of customers are the ones who are already multi-channel, and now they want to move to IP. That's a new infrastructure, and companies are very reluctant to rip out stuff and put something new in, again, particularly in difficult economic environments. So through the Aspect Contact Server, we allow them to start deploying new IP capabilities by the fives or the tens [of people] rather than saying, "Hey, you've got to rip out this old telephony stuff you've had here for the last fifteen years, and you're servicing 10,000 calls a day, why don't you replace that with some totally new, untried technology?" We allow them to have a staged migration to the new technologies while maintaining investment protection in their existing capital equipment and software purchases. And, what's on the horizon?
The next phase that we're helping [customers] with is now taking that telephony infrastructure and moving it totally into an IP network, with voice over IP. What is your typical deployment time?
During the Christmas season when [Internet service provider] excite@home went belly up one of our customers, Cox Communications, was faced with the prospect of a bunch of customers calling them in January, trying to figure out how to get local service, how to get their services rolled over. So they came to us. And within about 30 days they went live and our software handled more load than even they had anticipated. They had felt they would get about 250,000 intelligently routed transactions in the first month. Well, they got that in their first day of operation. Within the first week, they had reached a peak load of 600,000.

[That deployment time] is not untypical. We've spent quite a bit of time making sure that our server-based environment is very easy to install, and because the tools that are used to build the business processes are all based off a very simple to use drag and drop interface that a business user can use, you don't need to get a programmer, you don't need to bring in a systems integrator. So, that is not untypical. I would say six months is probably the longest, on the outside, that our customers spend deploying a solution. How is the current state of the economy affecting your customers?
In early 2001, most of them were very busy trying to figure out what was happening with their own businesses and were not in a mood to talk to anybody about anything. In the last six-plus months we've seen a certain stabilization where people may not like the level that they're at. So now, you start to have discussions about the future, and it's not so much about "How do I make my top line grow faster?" It's really "How do I make myself more operationally efficient?" Does employee buy-in figure into success in the call center?
No actually. In the call center typically decisions are handed down. Here's what you're going to use; here are the things on your desktop; here's the kind of phone. Primarily we sell at the CXO level because when you're talking about both top-line and bottom-line impact, that's not an operational sales process. Our sales cycles tend to be fairly long because our average deal size is between half a million and a million dollars. So we're not inexpensive to deploy, and typically that has to be done at the highest levels of the company because in some cases we save companies money by reducing the size of their call center staff. What sort of metrics are they using?
Our customer's focus on customer satisfaction is definitely an important metric. They measure average time to answer, or average time to respond to a customer request. So if it's a phone, how long did the customer spend waiting listening to music versus actually talking to someone? With an e-mail, how many days, minutes or hours did it take to respond? Web site inquiries are typically more on the order of seconds-to-minutes type of response. So we measure those kinds of operational metrics.

We also measure reduction in terms of operating run rate. Rather than having to have all your people physically in one location, you could have, say, 50 people in Montana somewhere [and] you could have 100 people in India. We help integrate that so. . . it's sometimes enabling companies to have jobs at locations that are more remote and, therefore, more cost effective because you know rents are lower, salaries are lower, etc.

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CLICK to: learn more about Aspect Communications and its products How long does it usually take for your customers to achieve ROI?
Somewhere between six months to a year and a half is pretty much the range. Aspect has been in the call center/contact center business for 16 years. What changes have you seen in that time?
Over the years we've really helped companies begin to look at their call centers as contact centers and, even more importantly than that, to look at their contact centers as profit centers.

The call center evolved to take over for operators of switchboards. . .That was a revolution that really happened back in the 70s and 80s. During the 90s what we saw happening was the infusion of totally new technologies into the call center -- fax, e-mail, Web chat and, in some companies, interactive video. And that created a whole need for an infrastructure that was totally software-based to tie in these IP-based capabilities such as fax and e-mail with the more telephony-based environment...

The advent of these new technologies really created an urgent need to create a communications software platform that integrated your telephony environment and your data environment and did so with a streamlined set of business rules and data analytics to allow companies to tailor their communications specifically to their own customers. So we've seen a total sea change in the call center industry over the last 16 years.

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