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Choosing effective call center technology is a matter of following a highly defined process and identifying the risks associated with each product being considered, according to a prominent speaker at last week's Annual Call Center Conference (ACCE) in San Diego.
Many firms rush through the important organizational stages of call center technology selection projects and haphazardly leap into analyzing products based only on the functionality that's needed -- or worse, they start the selection process with a specific vendor already in mind, Brian Hinton warned a roomful of ACCE attendees.
"How are you going to sort through all of the options?" said Hinton, a senior consultant with Strategic Contact, who boasts 10 years of call center consulting experience. "The way to find the right [software] is to apply a structured process to analyze your options."
Start by defining call center and organizational goals
Hinton offered a series of tips for approaching the vendor selection process with an open mind.
Before beginning the software selection process, the consultant recommends, companies should take some time to outline the goals of the business, the key requirements for new call center software, and how the new product will fit into the overall technology environment. Once these details are in place, Hinton said, customers will be in a better position to make a solid decision.
Use an RFI to help sort through the top five to 10 options
Not to be confused with a request for proposal (RFP), a request for information (RFI) should be used at the beginning of the selection process. Once a list of potential vendors is decided upon, send each one the RFI -- a set of up to 10 questions -- to gather important information about pricing and product features.
Once the vendors respond to the RFI, look at their answers and think about what differentiates them from one another, Hinton said. Then weigh those differentiators against the needs, goals and culture of the organization. In today's market, he said, companies shouldn't choose a vendor based only on the specific functionality it offers, because most products do it all.
Other factors to consider during the initial stages of a call center technology selection project include whether to go with a hosted or on-premise provider, a niche offering, or a software suite to handle call center processes.
Involve a cross-functional team in the decision-making process
Including on the selection team someone from IT and from the telephony group, in addition to call center representatives, will help ensure that the needs of all departments are considered during the call center technology selection process, Hinton said.
It's also important that the business and IT side work together throughout the decision-making process, he added. If the IT department initiates the process, then they should recruit business users to get involved in the evaluation stages, and vice versa.
"What doesn't work is when there isn't a synergy between the two," Hinton said. "It really breaks down. [Consultants need to] try to facilitate that communication."
When it comes to functionality, identify the must have vs. the nice to have
Today, there's no shortage of emerging call center technology, but it's still important to focus on core functionality when choosing a software suite, Hinton said.
Focusing on the "nice to have" features may serve to distract the selection team from what's really important – the business needs. Scheduling, skills-based routing and interactive voice response (IVR) are three features that should definitely be included, Hinton said, whereas real-time analytics and click-to-callback fall into the "nice to have" category.
Also, consider the product's ease-of-use.
"More and more, [usability] is becoming a key differentiator," Hinton said. "We see vendors who are not getting that."
Remember, he added, not to underestimate the viability of the vendor, its history and whether it will be a good partner as your company grows. Invest in a company that's putting a lot of money into research and development, he advised.
Provide RFP guidelines for vendors
To avoid getting back an RFP or a request for quotation (RFQ) filled with nothing more than hundreds of pages of marketing material, it's important to clearly define a model for all vendors to follow when submitting their pitch. For example, to avoid having to sift through details about each product feature, create a list of features and ask vendors to check off which are applicable to their product. Also, Hinton said, provide a model for vendors to use for submitting pricing information. This makes it easier to determine at a glance which product is the best value.
"It's not just about the features," Hinton said. "Use the vendors and your research. What you're [looking for] is something as a team you can read and learn from -- not the marketing information you already knew."
Use the information gathered from the RFP or RFQ to create a table to detail pros, cons, issues and questions about each product, Hinton recommended. Have each person on the cross-functional team create his own table.
"You've got to take that mountain of information and take the 'so what' [from it]," he said. This will help you to consider the ROI and design a business case for upper management.
Don't make cost the No. 1 consideration
"Cost is always a criterion," Hinton said. "But don't let it control this process. It's negotiable."
During the evaluation stage, Hinton recommended scoring products twice based on how well they meet a number of criteria. In the first evaluation, use a weighted model to evaluate products based on functionality, business needs, vendor viability or other considerations that matter to your organization. Then Hinton recommended evaluating the products for a second time, using the same criteria but also factoring in cost.
With call center technology, there's no perfect fit
In the end, there is no perfect product, Hinton reminded attendees, and the key is to identify the risks associated with each product.
"Risk analysis is important all the way through. Where do they come from? [Your list of] cons," he said.
Following a structured, formalized process to select call center technology will lead to a product choice that meets the requirements for all departments and the goals of your organization.
"If you want to be successful," Hinton said, "make sure you have a strategy, the leadership to support the process, and the time to do it right."