Budget for contact center infrastructure can be hard to come by even in the best of times. A global recession has made it even more difficult, but contact center managers need to be prepared with project plans should the opportunity arise, according to a speaker at the Gartner CRM Summit.
"Opportunity favors the prepared mind," said Drew Kraus, analyst with the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm.
That means mapping out the contact center infrastructure and looking for opportunities both big and small. If, for example, another business unit has to pull back on a capital expenditure, the contact center should be prepared to strike.
"You want to have a big one lined up if you get that whale-hunting type of opportunity, but you also want to have some of these smaller projects as dribs and drabs of budgets open up," Kraus said.
While most companies are looking for cost efficiencies from their contact center amidst the recession, he said, they should also consider projects that improve customer service.
"IT people are often looking at investments in capital projects because they're hoping that leads to reductions in infrastructure costs," Kraus said. "But, in the course of building a business case, even a good ROI isn't strong enough anymore. Build a business case that's not just in your particular area, but how it impacts the overall contact center."
There are a number of pathways to building a cost-effective contact center infrastructure, and Kraus detailed some of the options at a session on the topic.
Consolidation and centralization
Consolidation is the most popular approach for contact centers looking to reduce infrastructure costs, Kraus said. With servers housed in one remote location, organizations can reduce redundancy, improve the focus on customer care and create one integration into the CRM system -- yet still allow for local control. However, some contact center managers get nervous when servers aren’t physically close by. In fact, that’s the biggest concern Kraus hears.
"[People say], ‘If I can't watch those lights, they're going to control my applications.' Allow a portal to give people the ability to manage their own agents [at their own]," he said. "The biggest deal with this, though, is the political implications, getting these groups to come together and to work with the rogue [organizations] -- those who believe their operations are truly different. Engage those business units early; help them recognize what benefits will get them involved."
Contact center virtualization
Operating a virtual contact center can offer added disaster recovery, support call volume spikes and maintain consistency of customer treatment, but the greatest benefit may be staff reductions. Organizations have managed to reduce staff from 7% to as much as 15% with a virtual call center, Kraus said.
"They can optimize staffing across multiple sites and allow different sites to support one another," he said. "You don't have to overstaff each center. It does take some business process change. It does take training in scripting tools. These operational changes are where I tend to see the biggest push back from clients when they're trying to sell this project to the rest of the organization."
But a contact center virtualization project demands executive sponsorship, Kraus warned. Many projects tend to start off in individual units that hope to show the inherent benefits and convince the rest of the organization to follow along. Yet people who haven't been involved in the process will tend to fight that, Kraus said. “There's only so far you're going to be able to get some people to follow along."
IT tends to have concerns about reliability and security with the work-at-home model.
"The key message with this is when I'm talking to clients about these implementations, more often than not, it's an IT discussion," Kraus said.
Yet it's the business processes and management that tend to create the most problems. According to Gartner surveys, 25% of companies in North America have some work-at-home agents, yet of those that do, fewer than 5% of their agents are working from home. It's a pretty clear indication of one thing.
"It didn't get past the trial stage," Kraus explained. "Not because of technology issues, because of management issues. More often than not it's about knowing how to manage somebody who's shoulder you can't look over. Not getting them into team meetings providing that camaraderie. Overcoming those hurdles is the real challenge to work from home."
If an organization can get past those management issues, however, it can lead to big savings and significant reduction in agent turnover. Some companies have had agents willing to take 15% less in salary for the ability to work from home, Kraus said.
"Rather than trying to tackle all of this at once, you may want to reach out and offer work from home in specific areas," he said. "Maybe specialty-skilled agents, such as financial services or insurance people who are bonded in individual states and provinces."
Outsourced contact center infrastructure
Hosted, SaaS, or cloud-based contact center infrastructures -- choose your nomenclature or method -- offer the promise that all the infrastructure is hosted elsewhere and simply delivers calls to agents.
They provide a perfect opportunity in situations where a small amount of budget has opened up and the contact center needs to move quickly. SaaS-based contact center operations can be up and running in four weeks, without demanding an outlay of capital expenditures, Kraus said.
"But are they really ready for enterprise?" he asked. "You'd be surprised."
The big challenge for SaaS-based contact center infrastructure is one of internal perception over the lack of controls and security. That can be countered, Kraus said, by bringing security and business process owners into the decision making early.
"My big advice here is: Don't learn at the expense of customer service," he said. "If you haven't done SaaS-based applications, SaaS-based real-time communications, then start with a small pilot project. Learn what effective SLAs really are for this type of application."
Web and phone self-service
Naturally, some of the greatest savings in staffing and operating costs come from offloading customer service from agents to the customers themselves, either through the Web or phone channels.
"Oftentimes in organizations, they’re separate capabilities, and separate business units may own them," Kraus said. "Trying to move these to a consistent set of operations, a consistent experience for users, is critical."
Smaller projects focused on optimizing interactive voice response (IVR) systems often provide quick ROI, he said. Organizations may want to optimize a portion of their processes through self-service and then push customers to live agents once they reach a certain threshold.
Self-service projects need to be carefully focused on engaging all stakeholders.
"That is an area where you're going to want to have business units and constituents and partners brought in early, but you also want some executive stick to say, 'We want these to play well together, and we’re going to make them play well together.'"
Contact center professionals need to be prepared and target the upper echelons of the organization if they want to cut costs and improve their infrastructure.
"Revisit your infrastructure roadmap," Kraus said. "You may be able to go to the existing setup and wring some savings out of that. Then, when budget comes up, you’ve got a shovel-ready project you can lower costs and simultaneously improve customer service."