Your Best Customer is on Line 1

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2004-12-01 Print this article Print

Is your call center ringing up sales, or is it making customers want to wring your neck? The difference could lie in the software that manages incoming calls.

Is your call center ringing up sales—or is it making customers want to wring your neck? The difference could lie in the software that routes and manages incoming phone calls.

Three years ago, the Pebble Beach Co.'s customer service department was hitting well below par. Callers trying to book or modify reservations at its three hotels and four golf courses in Northern California were put on hold for an average of 1 minute 30 seconds. The proportion of callers who were disconnected without speaking to an agent shot up to 12%, from about 5%. View the PDF -- Turn off pop-up blockers!

"If someone's first impression of the resort is a hassle, that just starts out their stay with us in a negative manner," says Dominic Van Nes, vice president of information services at the 1,600-employee resort operator. "Especially when you charge as much as we charge for a round of golf." At the storied Pebble Beach Golf Links near Monterey, Calif., 18 holes costs $395, before cart and caddy fees.

In its 22-person call center, Pebble Beach was using an older version of Avaya's Call Management System that lacked the ability to route calls based on an agent's expertise. That meant incoming calls, which average 550 per day, weren't being handled efficiently: Highly trained agents sometimes sat around twiddling their thumbs, while less experienced reps struggled to help customers complete complicated bookings.

In late 2001, Van Nes and his team decided to upgrade to a newer version of the Avaya software. A key feature of the application is Business Advocate, which directs callers to a specific type of agent based on various factors. For example, Pebble Beach could separate customers who only wanted to book a round of golf (a relatively simple process) from those who also wanted to book both hotel rooms and spa appointments. To further speed things up, Van Nes' team reduced touch-tone menu options on incoming calls to four basic choices.

As a result, according to Van Nes, average hold times dropped a full minute, to 30 seconds; the call-abandonment rate went back down to 5%; and, unexpectedly, bookings went up by 5% because nearly every call was matched with an agent well suited to handle that particular inquiry. "We went from complaints about the system to complaints about not being able to get on the golf course," he says.

Software for managing inbound phone calls is designed so not a single second of a customer or agent's time is wasted. One standard time-saving feature of such call-center applications is the "screen pop": When a call is kicked over to a customer representative, information about the caller pops up on the agent's screen.

The most sophisticated programs on the market provide myriad ways to automatically determine which agent should pick up a customer call, such as matching a Spanish-speaking customer

with an agent en español. The software can also transfer calls among centers so that if a Florida facility is operating at capacity, the overflow can be bumped to Colorado or, as is sometimes the case, to India or elsewhere overseas.

Some applications even calculate the "business value" of a given caller—based on purchasing history—to move the most profitable patrons to the front of the queue. (Low-value customers? They can listen to Bon Jovi on hold.)

But many companies are just trying to get a better handle on their calls. In 2002, Cleveland insurance company Medical Mutual of Ohio was answering just 21% of its calls within 30 seconds, far short of its goal of picking up at least 80% in that window of time.

Medical Mutual began a $4 million upgrade to its call-center infrastructure that August. The project was geared around Avaya's phone switch and call-routing software and an IBM DirectTalk interactive voice-response unit, which prompts callers to enter a nine-digit member number so their information is automatically called up for an agent when they're transferred.

With the system fully rolled out, now more than 90% of the company's 13,300 daily incoming calls are answered in less than 30 seconds, says Sherry Guzman, director of customer service. "We've had some dramatic improvements in customer service," she says. That improved efficiency let Medical Mutual eliminate 35 positions through attrition, or about 15% of its total call-center staff.

Call-center software can eliminate guesswork, helping managers calculate staffing needs based on historical call volumes. Before upgrading to the latest version of Aspect Communications' call-routing software, American Express Canada didn't have a precise way to predict spikes in volume. "We'd have the command center call and say, 'We're having a crisis!'" says Frank Muzzi, operations manager for consumer cards. The updated software lets his team forecast demand by agent skill, so that, for example, the company will have enough French-speakers taking calls the following month.

Some software packages also analyze agent productivity, measuring everything from the length of each call to how long an agent stepped away for a bathroom break.

Cable television company Comcast uses Aspect's eWorkforce Management software in its Irving, Texas, call center to keep tabs on 300 agents. In fact, the program is set up to register an alarm if one of them signs off from the network during a scheduled shift. "We don't view it as a way to play Big Brother," says Chris Roche, customer care operations manager at Comcast. "For us, it's like having an angel on your shoulder."

Time, after all, is money. Comcast discovered when it ran its first baseline with the Aspect software that its agents were sticking to their schedules only 67% of the time. Now the figure is at 85%, within Comcast's acceptable limits. "The biggest benefit," Roche says, "is that it's enabled us to really establish some quantifiable data on those points."


Category: Call-center software

What It Is: Software that automatically routes phone calls to service agents based on various criteria (such as type of customer) and provides tools for tracking, analyzing and optimizing the process.

Key Players: Aspect Communications, Avaya, Cisco Systems, Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, Nortel Networks, Siemens

Market Size: $3.6 billion worldwide for contact-center software, 2003 (Datamonitor)

What's Happening: Vendors are aggregating more contact-center features (such as the ability to handle e-mail inquiries) and technologies (e.g., speech recognition) into a single suite, and offering better links to third-party customer relationship management systems.

Expertise Online: The Association of Call Center Managers (www.callcentermanagers.org) provides online discussion forums for members, access to research and a monthly newsletter.

Companies in italicized orange type are featured in dossiers this month.

Source: BenchmarkPortal


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