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Opening the contact center coffers

Contact centers may finally be getting the budgetary respect they deserve. Experts share tips for spending next year's money wisely.

When shopping for your contact center this holiday season, include people and technology, but put an investment in process at the top of your list, several industry insiders say.

For years, contact center spending has been kept to a minimum because of the pressure to "do more with less," according to Donna Fluss, founder and principal of DMG Consulting LLC in West Orange, N.J.

Contact centers, which for so many years have been considered a necessary evil, are now becoming more important to organizations, as companies realize that contact centers often know best what customers want.

"It took us 30 years to get where we're going today," Fluss said. "[Contact centers have] always been the Rodney Dangerfield of this world. Now we're in a new era. We are finally getting contact centers to be corporate citizens."

Taking the contact center to that new era requires investing in the right places, namely business process management.

Fluss said that well-run call centers evaluate process every 18 to 24 months. She added that businesses shouldn't "just put a technology into the call center; you put in a process to enable that technology."

Companies need to bring their contact center into alignment with corporate goals, Fluss said. Performance management is emerging, as are e-learning and real time analytics, which complement those processes through technology. Key performance indicators help companies take a holistic view of their organization, while moving past outdated ideas of simply reducing call times and increasing the number of inquiries fielded each hour.

"It's a wonderful way of motivating people," Fluss said. "You give them goals and objectives."

It's a sentiment echoed by Atlanta's Rich Wise, director of CRM at Adjoined Consulting, a consultancy based in Miami. One of Wise's clients, BellSouth Corp., recently began a big customer outreach implementation, and technology was just a small part of the project costs, he said. IT strategy and business processes took the biggest chunk of the money.

"The process area is where the most significant investment is being made," Wise said. "Simply automating your core processes only makes you do bad things faster."

Getting bang for your buck

Some technologies are clearly a smarter contact center investment, according to Bill Johnston, president of Alinean LLC, an Orlando, Fla., software provider specializing in tools that measure ROI. Johnston said cost reduction has forced many to look offshore, but other investments may actually pay bigger dividends.

"The balance between focusing on the right strategic initiatives and using the right technology dwarfs the labor disadvantage," Johnston said. "You may talk about saving X amount of dollars an hour offshore, but the power of technology to be more efficient will be 10 or 20 times X. Focusing on higher-value CRM activities might be 100 times X."

Smart systems that use scripting to promote cross-sell and up-sell opportunities, as well as knowledge management solutions that share best practices to improve efficiencies, are a few examples that Johnston cited.

"If you can convert a customer complaint into a sale, you're changing a cost center into a profit center," Johnston said. "That's turning lemons into lemonade."

Training and labor costs will always eat up budgets because of contact centers' traditionally high employee-turnover rates. Creating more opportunities for staff by carving out career paths, giving agents new responsibilities or rewarding them with commissions are processes that can help counteract those expenses, Johnston said.

According to Fluss, contact centers should also consider voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to translate voice calls coming from the public phone network into packets that can move across a company's data network. Johnston advocates moving toward multi-channel self-service systems and taking advantage of e-mail, chat and interactive voice response (IVR) systems. He said he has also seen organizations take small steps, "going for singles rather than swinging for the fences" like they did in the past.

Finally, these initiatives need the support of upper management.

"IT doesn't get CEO mind share," Johnston said. "The consequence of that in an organization is you end up having separate people responsible for the operational, or cost side, of the call center and others responsible for yielding increasing revenue. Until those two converge or are encouraged to collaborate, we'll continue to see a cost-driven approach."


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