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Contact center staff: Agents of change?

Reps can no longer focus solely on customer service. Companies trying to maximize incoming customer calls need their agents to learn a new set of skills

With "do not call" and pending "do not spam" legislation threatening to severely limit marketing efforts, the advice from many industry analysts has been to take advantage of inbound customer calls by promoting up-sell and cross-sell opportunities.

The question? How can you turn an $8-an-hour customer service agent into a salesperson?

There is no easy answer, according to Vicki Herrell, executive director of the Society of Workforce Planning Professionals, a Nashville, Tenn.-based education and networking group for work force planners. Herrell thinks that salespeople are born, not made, but she said companies can mine for talent that may be untapped.

"The biggest issue is evaluating people after you've hired them to see what kind of people you hired," Herrell said. "You cannot make a salesperson out of someone who has no inclination that way. What you need to do is go back to your supervisors, and through their evaluations of call monitoring, see which people are inclined toward sales."

The best approach, according to Herrell, is to start fresh. Hire new agents with a propensity for sales, while taking advantage of those agents who have already shown some sales skills. No mater what, prepare to train.

"People don't react well to change," Herrell said, "especially change that's forced upon them."

Steve Bonadio, senior program director with the Meta Group in Stamford, Conn., believes that, with enough training and technology, the shift from customer service agent to salesperson is possible. The big problem is transforming the way call centers have traditionally been run.

"Technologies are going to enable agents not skilled in sales and marketing, but it is not going to get them all the way there," Bonadio said. "One of the bigger issues is going to be how do call centers architect or re-architect to support sales?"

CDS Fulfillment, a Des Moines, Iowa-based magazine subscription service, implemented agent-facing software from San Mateo, Ca.-based E.piphany Inc. in January 2002 and reports nearly $2 million in up-sell revenue as a result.

While it has no hard numbers on its previous up-sell success rates, getting better promotions to agents and making sure pitches are made has generated a 7.5% acceptance rate this month, according to Marc Francisco, product manager for customer service systems.

Agents are given just one offer to present and are expected to make it on about 40% of calls. As the staff becomes more familiar and the marketing department generates more offers, Francisco expects to begin providing agents a choice of customer pitches.

The transition has been much easier with new agents who were less resistant to training than existing staff, Francisco said.

Changing attitudes and metrics

For years, call centers have focused on reducing the amount of time spent on each call, thereby reducing costs and personnel. Adding a cross-sell opportunity to the end of a call prolongs the interaction and goes against that fundamental goal.

Some remedies are already in place to help make the transition, Bonadio noted. Scripted promotions, traditionally used for outbound calls, can be shifted to inbound centers. Additionally, some recent predictive analytical technology can help agents by identifying products a specific customer might find interesting. For example, a customer of an online clothing catalogue might be offered a scarf or a sweater that goes with boots they just purchased, Herrell said.

One way to take advantage of this is through routing, using the system to identify customers' buying potential before getting them on the line with an agent.

The method organizations use to up- and cross-sell will need to be closely monitored, as well. For example, a customer calling in steaming mad about a billing error is not likely going to want to hear a sales pitch, Bonadio noted.

Nor will someone who calls in with a question or a service request want to be transferred to another agent just because they're better at selling, Herrell said.

In fact, Herrell said that companies will need to improve their promotional methods. A scripted offer tacked on to the end of a call "basically amounts to saying, 'Do you want fries with that?'" Herrell said.

According to Bonadio, the answer lies with a hybrid approach -- call center agents who can both answer questions as well as sell products.

The transition will not be inexpensive or easy. While some of the increased salary demands of agents asked to do more can be offset by offering them commissions, training will be needed, and new technology will not come cheap.

"Phasing it in is the only realistic approach," Bonadio said. "Start with a sub-segment of the center that has demonstrated they can [handle sales]. Then, enable them with technology, either scripting or dynamic."

Call centers are beginning to change, but it's been a slow process. Herrell said she has seen some new investment in call centers with the expected uptick in the economy, but that investment has generally gone into technology that will cut costs.

Additionally, Bonadio said he has seen companies begin to take baby steps, offering very simple cross-sell opportunities to specific customers with specific profiles.


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