Chapter 1: Introduction to Call Centers

Chapter 1: Introduction to Call Centers

During the past decade in particular, the influence of technology on the relationships between organizations in both the public and private sectors has increased dramatically. Today, companies depend heavily on technology of various types to conduct their businesses and to deal with their customers, whether through a business-to-business (B2B) or a company-customer relationship. The call center industry especially is changing the face of business throughout the world and is having a significant impact on economies and the way companies do business.

1.1 Overview

Call centers require the integration of several different technologies to maximize the use of information and to streamline the activities of call center operators. Advances in technology and the adaptation and integration of synergistic technologies have resulted in the development of numerous feature that have enhanced the growth of call centers throughout the world.

The computer and the telephone are two of the major and most familiar tools of technology that have converged to make call centers more efficient and productive. When used properly along with software technology that assists operators to assimilate and analyze customer data to respond knowledgeably to customer inquiries, the benefits to both the customer and the organization are substantial, as this book will demonstrate.

The impact of CTI

Over the past few years, there has been much discussion of the pros and cons of a new set of technologies involving the integration of the computer and the telephone, referred to as CTI (for computer telephony integration, frequently shortened to computer telephony). Computer telephony was developed specifically to integrate these two technologies to enable more effective and productive communication between companies and their customers. CTI is best viewed as a loose but complicated amalgamation of interlocking technologies-not one piece of hardware or software, but a method of combining the two streams of information-voice and data-through open, standards-based systems.

As the combined technologies matured, CTI found many applications in the business world; however, one of its most significant contributions is to call center operation. When well implemented, it can dramatically improve the way a company interacts with its customers, the fundamental purpose for implementing a call center. Computer telephony overcomes the traditional limitations of either of the component technologies and brings them together in a way that improves them both, by bringing more information to both parties in a communication environment.

Software tools

Software is a driving force behind call center development. Although call centers have traditionally been telecom entities, the growth and maturation of CTI have led to computing-based centers and applications. Software is one of the best and most widely used tools for translating business parameters into technological terms. Call center software can fulfill a number of functions, including the following key applications:

  • Retrieving customer information

  • Managing queues

  • Providing sales scripts and product information

  • Acting as an interconnection to back-office applications

In the past, call center managers have had to juggle business objectives with flexibility, because frequent changes in marketing campaigns affect call center operation. A call center can't stand still-it is important to build the change dynamic into the system at the beginning. Today, software vendors are combining functional capabilities in single products, some of which are ready-made products and others which are sets of tools for greater customization. This evolution in product design virtually eliminates the need for organizations to develop their own systems from scratch. The range of choice in specialized software means that writing an entire call center system in a standard software environment is no longer required.

A well-planned call center implementation involving the integration of computer and telephone technologies and human resources will provide several specific benefits to organizations, including

  • Increasing timely access to information

  • Enabling the sharing of current and new information

  • More effectively communicating and presenting that information to customers

  • Allowing more timely response to information requests from customers

Chapter 2 provides a detailed description of the technologies required to operate an effective, responsive call center, as well as guidelines to assist in the evaluation and implementation of these technologies. There is also a brief review of the evolution of the computing environment, describing the basic functions of a computer and leading up to the prevalent "model" of computing-client/server architecture-as well as background on the evolution of CTI from the two founding technologies. An overview of telephony and the basics of public networks and business telephone systems illustrates how computer and communication technologies are integrated to maximize the benefits of both. Detailed descriptions of the various elements of call management are also provided.

Inside the call center

The advanced call center operation of the 21st century consists of many elements and is not simply a collection of phones, computers, and operators. The first call centers were often large rooms with a PBX (private branch exchange) phone switch and desks of service representatives taking calls over the phone. Customers in many cases endured long response times and had to repeat information such as account numbers or descriptions of their problems. In these earlier call centers, little, if any, customer information was available to customer service representatives (CSRs). This kind of service regularly resulted in frustrated customers and customer representatives. There may be vestiges of these days in some call center operations that have not kept up with changing technology, staff training processes, and corporate culture changes in managing customer relationships, but these antiquated facilities will not last long.

In today's Internet-paced world, with e-commerce flourishing and many more opportunities for customer contact with companies, customers will not tolerate a long, tedious response process, and it is no longer sufficient for customer representatives to depend solely on reference books when troubleshooting or assisting customers. They need to have customer information available immediately and presented on their computer screens, as well as the capability to modify this information during a communication session with a customer. CSRs become the focus of customer interaction with a company in a well-planned, well-managed call center operation.

Call center/contact center

Call centers provide a single contact for customers who may try to reach a company via multiple channels: e-mail, Web chat, fax, phone, or VoIP (voice over Internet protocol). Call centers, often called contact centers to reflect the multiple points of access, provide staff with consistent information throughout an integrated system. (In this book, the term call center is used interchangeably with contact center). These centers capture data from across the enterprise and consolidate customer-related information into a central database. This integration improves the customer's interaction and satisfaction and enhances the efficiency of the business operation.

Businesses have several issues to consider in their daily relationships with customers:

  • Keeping customers satisfied before and after sales

  • Managing customer data scattered all over the enterprise

  • Planning and budgeting resources to invest in customer retention

Call centers are an essential part of any business that deals frequently with customer queries. Integrated call centers decrease customer waiting time, improve customer access, and improve call routing. The end result is that companies benefit from satisfied customers who come back for more business. In spite of the high costs of a call center, most organizations, large or small, that value customer service and strong customer relationships need to have one.

A call center's services can be essential for the smooth running of a business. Once a call center is in place, it integrates technology from customer databases, order-entry systems, fulfillment, and knowledge databases, enabling call center CSRs to respond with current information when communicating with customers. Technology provides many features to assist in the communication process, including providing quick access to customer information for the CSR and call management (transfer, voice response, messaging, etc.)