IT steps up as contact centres spread out

As the call centre industry becomes more sophisticated, more complex software is being required to manage centres

Contact centres are becoming increasingly distributed as companies move away from vast phone rooms in favour of smaller remote offices and home-based agents.

To streamline the management of multiple locations, companies are investing in IT products and services that link distributed contact centre sites, aggregate customer data from disparate sources and make real-time performance metrics available to staff and management. Nearly half of all US-based centres plan to outfit remote workers, mobile workers and select business experts with the means to help field customer inquiries, says Richard Snow, a vice president and research director at Ventana Research. Snow spoke at the recent International Contact Centre Management (ICCM) conference in Chicago, where participants shared stories about what they’re doing to make operations run more smoothly without sacrificing customer service.

While the staffers handling calls are located in more far-flung places, IT resources are being centralised. The mortgage group at Dutch banking giant ABN Amro, for example, is expanding its deployment of CallCentreAnywhere, a hosted telephony platform Oracle gained in its recent acquisition of Telephony@Work.

With CallCentreAnywhere, ABN Amro will be able to use a single queue to prioritise and route calls (based on agent skills and availability) across the mortgage group’s five US contact centres. In the past, the group maintained separate call queues for each site, and calls couldn’t be swapped from one queue to another to alleviate backups, says Chad Barker, an assistant vice president in the bank’s enterprise architecture group.

ABN Amro plans to consolidate its telephony gear rather than maintain premises-based systems at every site. The goal is to reduce product and licensing costs, as well as the personnel costs associated with having a telco expert at each site, Barker says.

Disaster-recovery plans are also improved, he says. If one contact centre becomes unavailable because of a natural disaster, for example, other sites will be able to pick up all the calls. “This gives us the opportunity to virtualise the disparate call centres,” he says.

A common theme among speakers at ICCM was the need to increase the quality of information available to call centre agents and managers.

Most companies know how long a caller waits before a customer service agent picks up the phone, but few have the systems in place to identify and prioritise callers based on how valuable they are to the company, Snow says. In addition, most companies don’t make it easy for agents to get to the data they need.

In 37% of call centres, agents are required to use more than one desktop to access the systems they need to resolve an inquiry, and 43% have a single desktop but have to log on separately to multiple systems. Just 19% have an intelligent desktop, one that lets them navigate quickly between applications without having to re-enter any data, according to Ventana’s recent survey of 853 IT and call centre operations staff.

“I’ve been in a centre where I’ve seen agents on chairs, rolling between five different desktops. There were grooves in the floor from wheeling up and down,” Snow says.

Healthcare provider McKesson Health Solutions has deployed a tool to share data more easily with distributed call centre staff. The tool, IEX’s TotalView workforce management software, is in use at a division of McKesson that runs a call centre that provides nurse triage and disease management services.

The TotalView software gives agents and supervisors access to schedules and performance statistics via a web browser. Agents working from home can see where staff are needed, based on anticipated call volumes, and adjust their schedules to fit staffing gaps, says Linda Casey, a senior manager of operations at McKesson in San Francisco. It’s important to give agents the data and tools to manage their own schedules. “Agents can’t be flexible if they don’t know when they are most needed,” she says.

Continental Airlines is also feeding performance data to staff and managers with a new scorecard application it developed inhouse to measure agents in key sales, customer service and productivity areas.

“It provides agents with a single view of their performance,” says Jim Thistle, a senior director of international reservations and revenue programmes at Continental Airlines in Houston.

“Agents can adjust their habits during the course of a month if they see that they’re falling behind in bookings per hour, for example.”

The airline has also rolled out software from BenchmarkPortal that lets it survey call centre customers on the service they received from agents. So far, 18% of callers who are sent surveys via email complete them, says Anthony Bagio, a manager of operations at Continental. “Customers were just surprised that we even did it.”

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