Call Centers Integrating with Online Media: Special Report

By Jul 29, 2011

Gone are the days when a call center merely existed to take orders and maybe upsell a caller on additional products or services. Today’s call center is integrated with online customer service and social media channels to develop and nurture customer relationships.

“The call center is moving from being about telephone transactions to being about engagement and interaction,” says Tim Searcy, CEO at Accent and former CEO of the American Teleservices Association. “So you’re seeing a big shift from just taking calls and doing the commodity work that used to be done to more of what the promise of what customer relationship management is.”

Many call centers are offering help with online ordering and are implementing devices like web chat. Also, a small but growing number are using such social media channels as Facebook and Twitter, Searcy says.

“For the most part, social media has not yet been elevated to the status of ‘priority’ in business organizations,” says Kathryn Jackson, an associate with call center consultancy Response Learning Corp. “They have been deployed on the basis of providing a low-cost alternative to agent-assisted services, but very few believe that the use of social media for customer care and support is merely a fad.”

Overall, Searcy notes the rate of all this change has been evolutionary, driven in part by the bad image telemarketing has developed over the years. “But if you look at the pace of engagement it’s [been getting more intense] over the last two years.”

The Changing Call Center

“The main difference is that most call centers focused on being product-driven,” doing things like upgrading credit cards and other products, says Mark Smith, senior vice president, Pitney Bowes Business Insight. “What organizations are trying to do now is to become more customer centric than product centric so they can offer something that is actually relevant.”

Nearly 10 years ago the Federal Trade Commission came out with its National Do-Not-Call list http://directmag.com/legal/regulatory/marketing_ftc_unveils_donotcall/index.html which, among other things, forbade commercial telemarketers from contacting people who did not wish to be contacted, after several years of political pressure.

Although the DNC does not apply to inbound call centers, they must still contend with public perceptions about telemarketing.

“More and more organizations are seeing they’ve got fewer opportunities to reach out to customers because of the do-not-call lists so calls are more important,” says Smith, noting that capturing the critical moment has become more important than ever.

Increased Training

As a result, call centers must train their reps to better respond to what callers are most likely to talk about and be interested in, Smith notes.

“Training has gotten a lot more intense and complicated because we are doing two things that are different, says Searcy. One is answering phone and that’s pretty straightforward.

“But now that you’re engaged in five or six different channels and a wide variety of products and a lot of different types of calls, all that can add up to six weeks of training,” he says.

CSR training for the newer channels does vary according to individual company needs.

“Training for online support is often a small component of the overall training period and includes educating engagement specialists on how to use communication tools such as chat, email and short message service (SMS) while effectively representing the client’s brand,” says Searcy.

In the past, training typically took 10 to 12 hours, he says. But for some marketers, it now takes several weeks.

For example, Char-Broil, an online marketer and manufacturer of outdoor grilling equipment, has upgraded its training from a simple focus on individual products to promoting the entire brand, says Michelle Zeller, vice president of marketing.

Char-Broil’s inbound customer service representatives (CSRs) go through an extensive two-week training period each year where they review supply materials, presenters, product, and other collateral materials to ensure a robust hands-on training. During the course of the CSR’s tenure, regular training and individual coaching is provided on a weekly basis via calibration sessions.

At the same time, it’s important not to overload CSRs with too much information, warns Smith.

“One of the great challenges is not barraging the CSR with too much information because we all know there are masses of data available,” he says. “The key is to process all that data through some kind of analytics engine that understands all that data and can pull out all the key panels and just give the CSR very simple guidance about what’s the right thing to talk to this customer about.”

The Customers’ Point of View

To accomplish all these goals, companies with call centers should change their orientations, argues Jackson.

“The biggest thing going on for a couple of years is how we structure the transaction around the customer as opposed to the business’s point of view,” she says, noting her goal is to try to get companies to “re-engineer” their customer interactions and see them from the customer’s point of view.

“That’s an incredible process to go through, but it has a lot of research behind it which says your customer loyalty goes way up and customer returns go down,” she says. “It’s a pretty amazing thing to do.”

Why don’t most people do it?

“It’s a lot of work,” she says.

Another industry issue is outsourcing.

Searcy estimates that the about 14.2% of U.S. companies outsource their telemarketing overseas but not for every purpose.

“What you’re seeing is a split where some companies are outsourcing all the business and some are outsourcing just the transaction component and trying more of the engagement in-house,” he says.

“Everyone moved offshore because it was cheaper,” adds Jackson. “Then there was the backlash of the nationalism, and [the fact that] it’s hard for an international person to be understood or learn the processes or hard for company to manage the center abroad.”

She agrees that a lot of companies have moved the more complex transactions back to the U.S. and are keeping the easier transactions offshore.

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