Call centre experts talk the talk

Voice recognition, application integration, outsourcing, and increased spending were each pegged as the next big thing during Call Centre Canada 2003‘s executive power panel in Toronto on Wednesday.

The panel, which consisted of

representatives from Avaya Canada, AT&T Canada, Bell Nexxia, PeopleSoft Inc., Nortel Networks and Sprint Canada, discussed how they are improving processes, the promise of self-service, the importance of consistency and who’s doing it right.

Both Taylor Mieske, a vice-president of professional services at Avaya Canada, and Daniel Kenyon, a vice-president of communications industry strategy at PeopleSoft, said that today’s call centres are not taking full advantage of the technology that’s out there. Mieske blamed this on limited R&D funds in North America, but said that call centres could better leverage existing technology.

Bob Jones, the vice-president of marketing for voice products and services at AT&T Canada, said that he sees the biggest challenge is hiring, training and retaining call centre employees.

“”There’s a flood of business coming into Canada for call centres. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are the three best sites in North America for call centres, and this is a huge opportunity for us, but getting the right people is not a simple transaction,”” he said.

Jeffrey Williams, vice-president of marketing for enterprise communications solutions at Sprint Canada noted that the amount of training necessary hinges on the kind of business the organization is in. A call centre employee selling magazine subscriptions likely needs less focused training than a specialized employee selling financial securities.

From his perspective, Williams said that the biggest challenge is identical to the next big thing in terms of call centres: money.

“”Budgets have been slashed and money isn’t invested like it used to be. It’s a real challenge to improve satisfaction for our customers and our own productivity without money. We’ve all been starved for money to spend, and getting it back into play will drive some very interesting solutions,”” Williams said.

Thomas Hewitt, the national director for contact centre solutions at Bell Nexxia, agreed. He said that with more contact channels such as e-mail and chat capabilities, call centre organizations are challenged with handling more contacts and improving customer service with decreased budgets.

Jones gave examples of two companies that use multiple contact channels, and described how one works while the other does not. American Airlines, he said, has a well-defined business strategy that is clearly linked with its contact centre. If you cancel a flight with American, they contact you and attempt to book you a new flight, he said.

“”A good company with some disconnects in its process is Dell,”” Jones said.

He described phoning a Dell call centre for a price on a computer, and then finding a different price quoted online for the identical configuration. While Jones understands the reasoning for posting a lower price point for a computer on the Web to forestall calls to the contact centre, he said that the confusion resulted in three or four strands of communication, which in his opinion is too many.

Williams, who counts Dell as a client, defended the company by telling his own story.

“”I shopped for my Dell computer over a 10-day period and got a different price on the same specs every time. What I got was consistency — I knew I was never going to get the same price twice,”” he laughed. “”I know what I’m going to get from Dell.””

Marty Dixon, an executive in the area of self service at Nortel Networks, said that consistency is a huge challenge for call centres, particularly when interfaces for different media types are built by different people from different departments within an organization.

“”We’ve got to become better at anticipating the needs of our customers through every media type,”” he said, noting that Nortel is focusing on engaging customers in a proactive rather than a reactive way with multiple devices.

Dixon said that he sees the integration of voice recognition technology into self service as taking a step closer to consistency from the telephone perspective.

According to Hewitt, Bell’s successful introduction of Emily, its virtual representative, is an example of why voice recognition technology is going to be the next big thing in call centres.

“”Customers can’t tell the difference between Emily and a real representative — we’ve had calls to Bell commenting on her good customer service,”” Hewitt said.

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