Extending the call center through unified communications demands a comprehensive strategy

Unified communications bring a wealth of advantages to the call center but also tremendous challenges in managing agents and the organization as a whole.

Unified communications, and the vendors that sell the technology, are making big promises about transforming the

call center -- into a place where calls are resolved the first time, where customers are satisfied, and where costs go down and profits go up.

Yet truly deploying unified communications in the call center, in a way that extends customer service into the broader enterprise, requires a transformation not just for the call center but for the business as a whole.

"There are fundamental changes that need to be made before unified communications becomes widespread and successful," said Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research Inc. in Cave City, Ariz. "There needs to be a change in attitude as to who's a customer service rep."

The argument for unified communications in the call center generally focuses on the ability of call center agents to use VoIP, presence and calendaring tools to find subject-matter experts within the organization and route calls to them directly, thereby solving a customer's problem immediately and satisfactorily. Have a customer on the phone with a question that's above the call center agent's technical expertise? With unified communications, the agent can see whether someone in engineering is available to take the call and connect him. Call volume overwhelming a bank's call center? Send some calls to available tellers at local branches.

Measuring performance outside the call center

But what incentive do you provide subject-matter experts to participate in a role that may be outside their original job description? How do you measure them and who oversees their work?

"It's ad hoc," said Michael Maoz, vice president and distinguished analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "Your manager is not my manager, your measurements are not mine. Until these things are worked out, it's difficult to introduce unified communications into the call center. Where you do see this happening is in high-tech environments where there [are] complex questions, more project-based issues."

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Part of the challenge is cultural differences between departments. Forced to rein in costs and justify expenditures for years, call centers have become adept at measuring employee performance. Average handle time, first call resolution and call recording, and feedback mechanisms that allow customers to rate the interaction they just had, are clear metrics that provide a measure of how the customer service operation is performing. Other employees unfamiliar with call center metrics and technology may struggle to adapt. And the current unified communications vendors aren't likely to offer much help in that regard, according to Keith Dawson, senior analyst with San Antonio-based Frost & Sullivan.

"Most of those things don't originate in telephony or unified communications technology, they originate in agent workforce-based tools," Dawson said. "It's not a communication technology, it's a human resources set. In talking to call centers about unified communications, they need to know how that's going to improve their workforce, reduce call time, things like that. I don't think those issues have been addressed."

Yet the historical measurements used with workforce optimization products will not be enough either, Maoz suggests. Rather, organizations need to look to other metrics.

"Sales objectives, renewal rates, the net promoter score -- you can more easily track the impact of unified communications on improvements to specific customer metrics," he said. "When renewal rates went up or the average deal size went up, then you're selling at a lower cost. These are specific metrics, which you can tie back to once you integrate marketing into the sales team."

Where to buy from?

Integrating unified communications with the call center presents a dilemma when it comes to the technology -- do you look to your call center software provider or your infrastructure vendor?

For now, it is the infrastructure companies making the pitch for call centers and unified communications, but many foresee the applications vendors joining the game.

"I think we're going to see some reinvention of what call centers do -- by application vendors like the ERP, resource planning companies," said Bern Elliott, vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner. "I think they're going to license and acquire to get the proper functionality. I would imagine you would see something like an SAP SME package powered by Avaya or powered by Genesys."

Maoz agrees that the major business application vendors and communications vendors will wind up partnering to bring the capabilities closer together. In the meantime, managed service providers are forging ahead.

"They're leading-edge. They're seeing that with the combination of unified communications and applications -- one and one equal three," Maoz said. "They're not waiting until there's one provider. They're saying, 'We see a compelling business case. It's not as elegant a solution as we'd like, but we're going ahead because we see specific business benefits.' "

The fact that the vendor landscape is still sorting itself out is no reason to delay investing, according to experts in the field. Companies are finding a competitive advantage now by using unified communications in conjunction with their call centers.

Companies with high-value customers with multiple touch-points into an organization -- such as wealth management providers -- are already leveraging the ability to complete service calls and collaborate. So are highly technical companies where unified communications can leverage the engineering department to essentially serve as the tier 2 or tier 3 support staff. The service center in business-to-business operations where sales and marketing, or marketing and engineering, already work together may have already enabled unified communications, Maoz said.

"Even there, where there's a high affinity for collaborative work, there are questions," he said. "It comes out of whose budget? They're relying on a tool they have and making it fit, rather than having IT coming in and saying 'We will take out of our budget and design the process.' "

Start in the call center and expand to the business or vice versa?

For someone who sees the value of unified communications in the call center, convincing the rest of the organization requires making the case from a customer's perspective, Maoz said. Use feedback mechanisms and forum discussions to demonstrate how an inability to meet customer expectations on the first call affects the bottom line.

"Certain service organizations are already tied to sales and marketing," Maoz said. "In businesses where they're not, the chances of this happening are very low."

Gartner's Elliott suggests two approaches: leverage the technology from the call center vendors to apply it broadly to the organization, or begin with a small group of agents who can identify problems and fixes. If you start big, however, be careful and be proactive, he warns. For example, the solution to an issue a call center agent can't handle and needs to escalate to a subject-matter expert should ultimately be entered into the call center knowledge base so agents can handle it on their own in the future.

"If you don't do it right, then what happens is you go to the same person all the time, and they don't want to help, and they're not properly compensated," Elliott said. "You may need to record these calls. If [a subject-matter expert] tells a client to jump off a cliff, no one notices. If they provide financial advice, that may leave them liable."

The good news? These issues will get easier to deal with as new people enter the workplace.

"The next generation of workers, what they call the millennials, they're coming in and they're already team-oriented," Stockford said. "They do play well with others, and they want to be part of a broader team. Things like wikis have become the first choice of information sources. That would fit very well within a unified communications type of environment."

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