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Building a multichannel contact center

Sue Hildreth

Providing customer support over multiple communication channels -- known as multichannel contact centers -- is standard operating procedure these days for contact center managers. Customers

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are increasingly less inclined to pick up the phone and talk to an agent and more inclined to email, post to a user forum or go on Twitter to get help with a problem.

By 2013, at least 35% of customer service centers will integrate community or social capabilities as a part of the contact center solution, according to Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for CRM Customer Service Contact Centers 2010.

Others customers prefer to do their own research and expect companies to have a good search engine and plenty of product information on their sites. Increasingly, customers also assume they can receive this support over their smartphones while shopping or walking the dog.

“There is much more emphasis on mobile devices, and we are seeing more vendors doing iPhone apps or Blackberry apps,” said John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research for the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA).

While the interactive voice response (IVR) remains a core feature of almost all contact centers, its use is gradually declining as other types of customer service become available, according to Lyn Kramer, president of Kramer & Associates, a call center consulting firm.

"We see the IVR declining, just a little, over the past few years, and more pervasive use of email and Web chat integrated with email and co-browsing where an agent helps a person with detailed things on a form or webpage," Kramer said.

Taming multichannel contact center chaos

For most companies, buying a new contact center system, or upgrading the old one every time a new communications channel or capability is identified, is overly burdensome. Often the next best thing for these companies is to purchase a new technology separately, usually from a Software as a Service (SaaS) provider. Although that works as short-term solution, it can lead to fragmentation of functionality and data and can make it impossible to route queries among channels.

A better solution for the long term is to invest in a modular application suite or platform that allows new modules to be added as needed and as the budget allows. Large CRM and contact center vendors have contact center applications onto which companies can add modules such as those for social media, self-service, virtual agents and monitoring.

Optimizing contact center ROI

The following are some of the key features call center software should have to optimize contact center ROI and efficiency:

Routing and workflow. Effectively routing and handling customer phone calls, chats and email is the primary driver of contact center productivity. Picking a good routing and reporting platform enables contact centers to manage calls, emails, Web chat, Twitter feeds and Facebook from the same interface.

“Even if it doesn’t do dynamic contact to agent routing, it will at least let them say, look out of Web chat and start taking phone calls,” said Lori Bocklund, president of Strategic Contact Inc.

Workflow and business rules enable contact centers to handle more complex relationships and transactions automatically based on a set of predetermined rules.

Skills-based routing:  Manually routing inbound calls takes time and often leads to dropped calls. Skills-based routing reduces the strain on the customer’s patience and increases staff efficiency. Typically found with multichannel routing, skills-based routing automatically routes calls to the appropriate agent or group of agents based on their expertise and input from the caller.

Pop-up screens: These screens display a customer’s name and account information and are perhaps the best contact center feature you can have, Bocklund said. They allow the agents to view customers’ information right before they get on the call with them.  “That pop screen isn’t new but it’s really the best use of customer information,” she said.

Search and knowledge management: Customers can find answers to technical questions in documentation and frequently asked questions (FAQs) on the corporate website as well as in posts to user forums, a consultant's blog or articles on external websites. An agent should have access to the same information as the customer. A good search capability ensures the agents can quickly pinpoint the right information.

“There is more emphasis on new intelligent search technologies to allow employees and customers to access information in different locations, in real time, and allow them to access in any format, filter results, work within search, iterative search, to work with the data instead of old Google approach,” Ragsdale said.

Automatic callbacks: Companies can program callbacks to retrieve customers who hang up before reaching a service representative. For example, this feature allows customers to leave their phone numbers when they encounter long wait times. When an agent is available, the system calls the customer back. This is particularly useful in contact centers that take sales inquiries.

Automated alerts: Customers who have thresholds set for service levels or pricing can receive automatic alerts via phone or email if the threshold is reached. If a customer interested in purchasing a cruise if the price falls below $2,000, then the system can alert the customer when that price is reached. Alternatively, if a company releases a new software patch or upgrade, an alert is a good way to let customers know about it. Alerts are also used for flight delays or when a bank account balance falls too low.

Virtual agents: These software services help customers find the right answer on company websites. Using natural language capabilities and guided by internal rules, the virtual agents provide more specific and accurate help faster than a customer simply browsing FAQs or posting to a user forum. In addition, virtual agents potentially take some of the load off of the call center if they are easy to use and accurate.

Operational and real-time analytics: To keep tabs on how successful the contact center is, managers must track key metrics such as:

  • Call volume
  • Length of calls
  • How long customers are on hold
  • How long email turnaround is
  • How many customers post questions or answers to the support forum

Real-time analytics is aimed at helping the service representative decide the best course of action by, for example, looking at the customer's buying history or the company's refund policy. Operational analytics is helpful in looking at things such as call scripts or customer behavior patterns on a website.

The downside of Web 2.0

New features are unappealing if they wind up costing more without also increasing customer satisfaction or upsales. Bocklund noted that while Web chat is a popular feature, it's not always beneficial to the bottom line.

“Why waste the money on someone like me who’s used to doing self-service all the time? Unless they can show it actually drives sales, it will increase the cost from pennies per customer to dollars,” she said, adding that there are some industries, such as insurance, where Web chat might be a valuable addition.

Another self-service capability that Bocklund would skip is FAQs made available over the IVR. While some organizations have done that, it’s not usually popular because few people have the patience to listen to a great deal of information read to them over the phone.

Also, although several vendors offer multichannel platforms that include social media, most companies are avoiding this route.

“I’d say less than 20% of companies have gone this route,” Ragsdale said. “Channels are added one at a time, usually as a side project, and done as cheaply as possible. Everyone added Twitter as a lark, and less than 10% of member companies using Twitter have it integrated to their CRM or customer history,” he said.

Contact center needs differ

Not all companies need the same features. Those with high volume and low sales per customer may want more self-service, while those with high-end products or service may want to invest in more high-touch services. Generally, the companies that are eager to invest in new technologies are those with the greatest volume of call center traffic, Ragsdale said. If a new feature works well for them, they can save a great deal of money in the call center.

"If you're AT&T, with an enormous call volume, it pays to try new things," he said.

Conversely, B2B firms and high-value, high-touch companies with fewer customers tend to be the least interested in new technologies and services.

"In B2B world, they're a bit more risk averse because they're dealing with long-term customer relationships and not willing to try a brand-new unproven technology,” Ragsdale said. "A new technology may work really well, or it may leave them with egg on their face.”


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