Call centres hung up on CRM challenges

TORONTO — The rise of voice over Internet Protocol and broadband technology will drive the call centre industry towards a more distributed working environment, according to experts at the Call Centre and CRM Solutions Canada

conference Wednesday.

In the next three years, a panel of vendors and customers predicted, call centres will be making better use of interactive voice response (IVR), agents will be working from home and Web-based training tools will improve the relationship between managers and call centre agents. They also said customers would increasingly use self-service applications and “”guided selling”” experiences over a company’s Web site. The workstations used by individual call centre agents, meanwhile, will be much less complex than they are today.

“”They will be so easy to use that I would be able to take calls,”” laughed Patte Seaton, Bell Canada’s vice-president of customer care, who oversees the phone company’s 21 call centre locations across Ontario. “”I think, too, with some of the issues people have with telemarketing, that will also move over to the Web.””

Kevin Hegebarth, director of strategic planning at call centre software provider Witness Systems, said technology is starting to allow the formation of virtual call centres where agents are working remotely. “”Gone will be the days where we have 1,000 people working in the same building,”” he said. “”With the Web, decentralization will be almost inevitable. Centralization has its advantages — you can manage all the people in the same place — but I think the industry as a whole is moving away from that.””

In the meantime, however, the panel said call centres across the country are struggling to offer consistent levels of service and provide the kind of customer relationship management (CRM) that earns loyalty and repeat business. Paul McDevitt, senior vice-president at Avaya Canada, said companies need to remember that their customers have a much greater power of choice in the way they interact with them — Web sites, telephone or in person. “”The call centre, though, is really the front door,”” he said. “”In some cases it’s the only door.””

That’s because when a customer is unable to complete a transaction on a company’s Web site, the call centre is usually the first place they turn. Though call centres began as a way of off-loading some sales and complaint follow-up responsibilities, McDevitt said enterprises need to start looking at them as data-gathering tools that can help evaluate the company’s performance.

Hegebarth agreed. “”You can get competitive information from your call centre, and you can get information on your own products from the call centre,”” he said. “”We need to take that information and see it proliferate throughout the enterprise, so that the VP of marketing or the VP of sales know what they’re saying.””

The best call centres aren’t seen as areas that cost the organization but potential sources of profit and revenue, added Linda Whelan, Oracle Canada’s vice-president of communications industry. “”When we’re working with them, we’re working at the CEO-level where they have a vision and it really is top-down,”” she said.

Technology obviously has a role to play in improving large call centres, but the panelists saw even greater potential for smaller ones. Seaton said Bell, for example, has some centres in remote areas employing as few as 35 agents. “”That wouldn’t happen without virtual call centre queues and Web-based training,”” she said. “”The employees at the small centres are typically happy, too, because they don’t have to spend hours getting into work.””

Traditionally vendors offered scaled-down products with reduced functionality for smaller centres, said Hegebarth, but that’s changing. Indeed some technologies, like IP switching, are better suited for small environments. “”It doesn’t scale for large environments,”” he said. “”Once it does the larger ones will use it, but it’s not ready for prime time.””

The economic downturn has led many companies to put a hold on spending for new call centre technologies, but the panel said there were signs of encouragement that the sector is continuing to grow. “”You can’t go in and make a broad sweeping change,”” said Whelan. “”You have to scope it down so that IT makes a difference in 90 days to six months.””

McDevitt said companies in the United States usually grow the market because they are less risk-adverse and are willing to test new technology solutions. He compared the hesitation in Canada to his father-in-law, who put off buying a PC because he was worried a better one would hit the market in six months. “”Eventually we just went out and bought one, because it was driving my mother-in-law crazy that she couldn’t get e-mail,”” he said. “”If you take that attitude, you may wait forever.””

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