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A sneak peek at the contact center of the future

Sure, the contact center will still be the primary place for customer relations. But its responsibilities will widen and so will its revenue-generating potential.

Connecting...From a satellite home office in Portland, Maine, a customer service rep (CSR) for a major furniture chain is IMing the cell phone of Mrs. Consumer, who is on holiday in Paris, regarding a recent online furniture purchase she had shipped to her daughter's home there. Seconds after receiving this communication, a screen pop indicates to the CSR that Mrs. Consumer, a longstanding most valued customer (MVC), had purchased a solid oak occasional table two weekends ago. Earlier that morning she browsed the company Web site's self-service functions dealing specifically with return policies and regional store locations and hours in France. "We absolutely love the piece," Mrs. Consumer wrote to the site's virtual agent, "but there seems to be a scratch that I hadn't noticed before on one of the legs."

The CSR apologizes for the mishap and explains his company's liberal return and exchange policies. He reviews Mrs. Consumer's buying history and sends a $100 electronic gift certificate to her home computer in New York City. Further, after assuring her that representatives from the company's store on Rue de Commerce would pay her a service call later that afternoon to investigate her claim, he notices that this customer has been open to cross-sell opportunities in the past. He transmits a digital photograph of a complementing sofa table and curio cabinet that, he points out, the manager of the local store would be happy to showcase personally should she like to pay a visit.

Contact centers will continue to fill their role as the primary channel for customer relations, including support, sales and marketing activities. They will continue to offer timely and accurate information. But the future contact center also will be the central source of data for management decision-making that involves the customer, serving as the entry or go-to point to and from other company touchpoints, such as point of distribution or repair. Advances in Web-based channels certainly will expand its effectiveness, making the next model far more productive and cost-effective by letting technology unburden routine tasks. At the core of the future contact center will be clusters of highly trained and empowered service reps, who have at their disposal a vast, multimedia and integrated network of customer data. Those newly empowered reps may actually turn the contact center of the present into a revenue generating engine for the future.

Reaching this plateau will be the result of improvements to the current contact center paradigm in four key areas: enhanced CSR training; a growing emphasis on proactive sales and marketing; augmented agent empowerment; and integration of advancing digital technologies to form a solitary view of the customer that is not only accessible to agents, but also is consistent and company-wide. Recently, SOCAP (Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business) International commissioned the development of the Contact Center Maturity Model. Its Respondent Executive Summary features the results of a survey that shows half of the participating companies will be expanding their contact center service and operations in the future. Nearly half also say that they must add contact center value within the same budget. Nearly a third say they will need to provide current levels of operations with a reduced budget.

"It's the paradox of the contact center," says Lawrence Byrd, convergence strategist for Avaya. "There's so much talk about 'save costs, save costs, save costs,' but the way to save costs is to be more efficient with customers."

Service depends on agent skills

Premium service will depend on premium agent skills, making the CSR of the future look more like a multimedia savvy concierge or product manager rather than a guy who once just answered phones. The challenge will be to find sales agents who can both manage customer service inquiries and sell proactively, and then train them on matters of customer psychology, information generation or product functionality.

"The entire company is going to become where every individual is viewed as a customer service agent, with knowledge databases and contact centers starting to converge," predicts Kyle Priest, VP of marketing for EADS Telecom North America. "The contact center of future, as companies look to access real customer service benefits, will understand interaction at all customer levels."

Where will these interactions take place? Because contact centers have been labor intensive and often require hundreds and sometimes thousands of agents waiting for customer communications, most analysts lean toward decentralization in some shape or form in the future. IP telephony allows both location independence for agents, as well as the support of multiple channels over one network. This virtually extends contact center capabilities to anywhere in the enterprise or even the world, seamlessly routing calls to everyone from knowledge workers to seasonal employees. It is difficult to get economies of scale or to create a highly motivated work environment without putting agents in the same building, but digital advancements will allow the extension of agents to either home or personal offices.

"Initial training could take place in person in a relatively nearby location," says Becky Carroll, senior consultant for Peppers and Rogers Group. "Most likely online, or e-learning, would be most appropriate. Agents can work through modules, from product information to how to best go through the scripts. Agents can be measured through testing on the materials. The e-learning software could also be resident with the application to act like a coach as the agents go through their calls."

The daily pressures of up-selling and cross-selling products and services will add challenges to proactive training techniques, particularly managing compliance with state and national "do not call" registries. For instance, if a customer calls with a specific request that needs to be satisfied, but this customer is tagged for an outbound campaign for a product sale, the CSR must not only complete the customer purpose, but actually pitch, and then from the presented proposal, generate business. Currently, First Internet Bank of Indiana utilizes support solutions from RightNow Technologies that not only reduced its e-mail volume by 25% in 90 days, but allows its service reps to view customers' chat and e-mail histories from a common interface, enabling the bank to provide highly personalized service via its online communications channels. "That's what top-line service is," says Greg Gianforte, RightNow's CEO. "It's leveraging interactions already occurring to drive deeper client relationships."

CSRs will be able to segment consumers into various subsets-by value, by demographic or by company needs. The result will be a tiered level of customer service-a good, better, best value model-that gets the right customers to the right agents. In other words, when customers make contact with a company, through enabling technology, customer data pops on screen and prompts that CSR on the time and level of service to spend.

According to Gary Hokkanen, chief operations officer for Carlson Marketing Group, such a model will not only be adopted by businesses, but be expected by consumers. "Consumers in the future will be able to dictate the level of service, and there will be a willingness in some manner to pay more for it," he says. "The future is for a maintenance or administration fee, like credit cards with an issuing bank. Agents can provide an enhanced level of service, providing significantly more customer knowledge that's portable. People may do business with people, but people do more business with smart people, so we need to be smarter about the customer."

Smarter, yes; scripted, not entirely. There can be some basic scripted elements, including customized offers and interaction guides, as well as needs- or usage-based "golden" questions to help the CSR determine to which segment an inbound customer may belong.

However, contact centers would be ill advised to rely solely on paper directives rather than the instincts of their people, according to Ryan Hollenbeck, VP of corporate communications for Witness Systems. "Contact centers are going to have to hire people with exceptional interaction skills," he says. "They are going to have to know how to flow with what the customer is saying and how to ask the thought-provoking questions that will help to identify sales opportunities. Many agents are uncomfortable with sales, and will therefore need training to successfully handle their new dual role." Subsequently, agent empowerment will become a function of the customer service parameters that a company has established. In order for CSRs to provide tiered service, they must be trained on the concept of negotiation, authorized to define whether the customer wants to bargain or just complain rather than whether she is most valuable or vulnerable.

However, because of the volume of interactions at the contact center, it may not be prudent to offer broad-based empowerment, but a selected strategy based on company needs. "The very moment you decide how to handle an interaction is a moment of immense value," says Byrd. "Will every agent be able to spend? The well-trained ones will, so get your MVCs to those who have a greater range." But not all your MVCs will speak to an agent. In fact, most will not. Experts predict the number of individuals seeking online customer service will more than double in the next several years, approaching 70 million. Forward-thinking organizations are beginning to apply consistent levels of customer service regardless of how the customer wants to communicate with them-be it phone, fax, e-mail, chat, text messaging. "It's real-time communication sensitive to the device on which it takes place," says Joseph Heinen, VP of strategic marketing for Genesys. "If you're sitting on a high-speed Internet connection with a laptop, the type of escalation and assisted service is different from the guy sitting at Starbucks on his wireless PDA."

A need for communication integration

More and more, consumers will utilize different methods of communication, based on general preference, time, location or even mood, to initiate contact, and companies must be ready to embrace this "many channels, one customer" trend. Globally speaking, not only will contact centers be expected to integrate across time zones in the future, but there will also be an increased importance of multi-language capability and a better understanding of cultural differentiators, including customs and lifestyles.

"The U.S. is clearly a user base more active and advanced on all productivity applications and technologies," says Priest. "But even though the U.S. folks like self-help, they're the first to hit the button for a live voice. E-mail, on the other hand, is widely accepted across Europe."

Therefore, it will be imperative that communications no longer operate in "stovepipes," leaving the phone channel to be managed by a call center platform, or the Web channel by a content management system. Future contact centers will have integration of these technologies, as well as customer data. Interaction histories have habitually resided in separate "siloed" departments, such as electronic customer service channels, contact centers and marketing divisions, and forward-thinking companies are already beginning to consolidate all of these customer service and marketing communication histories into a centralized, agent-centric application to produce timely and accurate responses to inquiries via any touch point.

Andre Harris, the director of reservations training and quality assurance for Continental Airlines, has been using Witness' eQuality Balance product to help the company capture the affected calls and justify the prioritizing and programming for the functionality with the Continental computer systems. "People think of the Witness product as being just call monitoring," says Harris, who was awarded the third annual Innovator of the Year award at the Witness Systems Driving Innovation conference in October. "But there is opportunity to help us drive business decisions. There's a wealth of information collected.

Even with the integration of data and technology, coupled with a strongly trained and empowered agent force, the old question still remains for the new contact center model-will it generate revenue? According to a September 2003 executive white paper by the Aberdeen Group titled, "ROI in the Customer Contact Center," a strength of the ROI argument in the contact center is that "relatively small improvements in efficiency and effectiveness can result in substantial, measurable increases in profitability."

Indeed, hefty investments are needed to make a contact center run efficiently, including the layering and integration of complex technology, such as different hardware, network and software. That's why outsourcing has become de facto for companies that do not have a core competency in contact service solutions, or for those that need to reduce overhead and gain the economies of using third-party providers.

But as markets mature, quality of service will become one of the few areas left for differentiation, and companies that haphazardly minimize expenses may wind up sacrificing service standards in the future. Instead, they should look to measure their contact center's profit contribution by its "high potential impact" on the customer rather than as a "low-cost" operating obligation.

"Most of the traditional metrics-average handle time, average talk time, idle time-have nothing to do with revenue generation," says Hollenbeck. "According to a study by SOCAP, the average CSR contributes $1.3 million in customer lifetime value to the organization. Contact centers have always had the opportunity to be revenue generating. We just haven't been looking for it."

"Customer satisfaction is the fundamental measure for the contact center," adds Carroll. "Once customer expectations are being met, then one can have a conversation about the revenue-generating ability."

To read more articles like this one, visit Peppers and Rogers Group's Web site at

Copyright © 2003 Carlson Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. Peppers & Rogers Group is a Carlson Marketing Group Company.

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