For most companies, maintaining a call center is a necessary evil - er, expense. It provides a way to handle customer requests and complaints - maybe even an additional channel to take customer orders. But, for the most part, the call center is seen as a budget drainer, not a revenue generator. That's because it is often used primarily as a defense mechanism designed to get a troublesome customer off the phone as quickly as possible. Using the call center to promote and extend the company's products or services - rather than merely defend them - is, at best, an afterthought. And, that thought typically enters the minds of only the organization's most dedicated and resourceful agents.
At $2 billion Spherion Corp. (Ft. Lauderdale, FL), a workplace recruitment, technology, and outsourcing provider, the goals for customer interaction go beyond merely satisfying the immediate need or request. Spherion offers outsourced contact center services for corporate clients in various industries. A key part of its mission is making sure the tools and training are in place to turn customer service calls into sales opportunities. In the contact centers it designs, manages, and, in many cases, houses for its clients, Spherion drives CRM (customer relationship management)-generated and BI (business intelligence)-crunched customer information to agents' desktops. The customer profiles that appear on screen enable agents to tie the customer contact at hand to current marketing initiatives. Says Bill Parker, president, customer solutions at Spherion, "Companies need to stop looking at the contact center as a cost operation and see it, instead, as a major leveraging point for retaining customers and driving additional sales."
But, to get to that point in the evolution of their call centers, companies must ensure the quality of two key customer interaction components: the data and the people. The data must be thorough, i.e. it must represent the breadth and scope of an agent's activities and of a customer's contact history. And, the training of call center agents must be thorough, capable of providing agents with data that supports continuous performance improvement. That's why Spherion builds solutions that not only capture voice and data from all customer-facing channels but also integrate that information into comprehensive quality monitoring, e-learning, and workforce management systems.
Capture Calls, Sharpen Goals
Because it didn't start building its call center systems until the mid-1990s, Spherion sidestepped the traditional practice of tape recording calls. It did not want agents and supervisors burdened by the laborious process of linearly plowing through tapes. Instead, Spherion looked for technologies that could digitally capture and archive voice conversations, as well as agents' desktop activities. So, it wove into its system the eQuality contact center software suite from Witness Systems. Spherion uses the suite's tools for capturing synchronized voice and data, for delivering online learning sessions, and for monitoring overall call center quality based on predetermined goals.
Another key component integrated into the overall solution is workforce management software from IEX. The IEX staffing and scheduling tools enable Spherion to route calls based on agent competency, to schedule agents for additional training, and to monitor agents' adherence to schedule.
Helping to pull the Witness Systems and IEX tools together is call center middleware from Performix Technologies. Fully integrated with the call switching and routing infrastructure, the Performix tools push analytical data about current performance to agents' and supervisors' screens. That data is driven by a Cognos-based BI (business intelligence) platform and data repository that enables browser-based reporting of data extracted from the contact center's various data sources (e.g. voice, desktop, Web, e-mail). "Every call we take has a projected AHT [average handle time], which includes talk time plus after-call activities," says Parker. "As agents work, we can push near real-time data to their screens, showing how their performance compares to goals for the center, workgroup, or individual."
Let Customers Train Your Agents
The integrated system gives Spherion's call center supervisors the ability to dynamically schedule customized training sessions to optimize agent performance. "Having synchronized voice and data from previous calls gives us phenomenal teaching tools," says Parker. Agents can review all data from previous contact sessions, including the recorded voice conversation, as well as any data entry, browser clicking, e-mail messaging, and database querying that occurred.
A call center agent may, for instance, be struggling with call control, i.e. the ability to keep the caller focused on the issue that prompted the call. The integrated scheduler can alert the call center switch not to route any calls to a particular agent while the online learning component delivers a computer-based tutorial to that agent. After the agent has completed the lesson, the system informs the scheduler and the switch that the agent is ready to be put back into workflow to receive calls. It also alerts quality assurance supervisors, who can then monitor whether or not the training has affected the agent's performance.
According to Mike Whitmer, Spherion's director of technology, the ability to measure moment-by-moment agent performance helps a center base call routing not just on agents' general skill sets but also on their current competence. "For whatever reason - fatigue, personal issues, etc. - a typically high-performing agent may begin demonstrating lower sales volumes or lower customer satisfaction rates," Whitmer says. "So, when a high-value customer calls in, the system can match the customer not just to a particular skill set but to agent competency at that time. It may even briefly delay routing a high-value customer's call if a high-performing agent is about to become available."
Give Voice To CRM
The practice of matching customers to the most appropriate agents reflects Spherion's commitment to seeing any customer call as a potential sales call. That's why Spherion has also built into its call center systems CRM software from Onyx Software. CRM-generated profiles of current and prospective customers can be tied to marketing campaigns, as well as to call center activities. The call center, in fact, becomes a significant contributor to campaign management. "A lot of companies distribute marketing messages and promotions without letting their call centers know what has been sent out. So, agents receive calls for offers they know nothing about," Whitmer explains. "In our system, offers or campaigns are attached to the customer contact records."
When a customer calls in, a screen pop shows what promotions have been sent to that customer. By maintaining consistent marketing messages across all customer contact channels (e.g. Web chat, e-mail, direct mail, telemarketing), the call center is able to minimize moments of confusion - a key to making customers receptive to agents' efforts to upsell and cross-sell on the phone.
Perhaps most important for a company's marketing initiatives, the call center can capture all customer contact, including voice recordings. The resulting history of interaction helps the company see how its products and services are perceived in the market. Rather than merely gleaning generalized information from surveys and market analyses, organizations can learn about customers' wants and needs straight from the horse's mouth. "Companies often launch new products or upgrades without realizing that customers have been calling in to disagree about what features are most important to them," says Parker. "To learn and understand what your customers and potential customers actually care about, you need something more immediate than a spreadsheet."