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By Michael Goodwin
Successful companies understand that the customer always comes first; solid customer service attracts and retains customers. That's why a well-designed call center, running the latest software over a VoIP network, is a key part of these companies' winning business strategies.
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Setting up a cutting-edge VoIP call center is not a trivial investment, but nonetheless more and more companies are taking the plunge. BusinessWeek estimates that $5 billion was spent on call-center and related technology in 2003. If you agree that enhancing customer satisfaction, reducing costs and facilitating change will make your company more competitive, here are some strategies to keep in mind.
1. Make your call center an income generator. While the most obvious benefits of a call center revolve around incoming calls (tech support, sales inquiries and so on), in reality, much of its income potential comes from outgoing calls. So make sure that your call center software includes multichannel ACD (Automatic Call Distribution), IVR (Interactive Voice Response), CTI (Computer Telephony Integration), a flexible predictive dialer, multimedia recording and appropriate administrative tools to enable outgoing sales campaigns. And remember: Increased customer satisfaction from a responsive call center makes it easier for your agents to up-sell and cross-sell to customers.
2. Move offshore — or at least out of the office. Anyone who's called a tech-support number recently knows that outsourcing call-center agents is the flavor of the decade. And it's no secret why. Savings of 20 to 30 percent are common. While lower agent salaries are appealing, the complexity of managing multiple sites around the world can be daunting and may have an adverse affect on customer satisfaction, with too many busy signals and horrible wait times. Make sure your call-center software is designed to manage far-flung agents as easily as possible. Remember that the call center doesn't have to be overseas — any location with lower costs of operation could work.
3. Minimize employee turnover. Well-designed call-center software can keep your agents from going crazy. Look for technology with skills-based routing that can automatically distribute calls across the entire pool of agents and place needed resources at every agent's elbow. The result will be a far more manageable workload for every agent — and happier agents make for happier customers.
4. Virtualize your call center. If you've already outsourced multiple contact centers, networking them to create a virtual contact center makes terrific sense. By combining routing technology with premises-based rules, your organization can route calls to individual agents in any location within the virtual contact center. This allows for a significant reduction in transfer rates between centers — and virtualized call centers increase customer satisfaction by using flexible, "intelligent" skills-based routing to ensure that a caller reaches an appropriately skilled agent as quickly as possible.
Transforming multiple stand-alone centers — national, international or simply across your company campus — into a virtual call center will provide maximum efficiency, consistency and control.
5. Provide multichannel support. No matter how your customers contact you — telephone, email, Internet or IM (instant messaging) — make sure your software provides seamless access across all those channels and supports every contact channel in a unified way. Providing your call-center agents with instant access to each customer's contact history across all channels is equally essential.
6. Host with the most. Doing it yourself doesn't always make sense. A hosted/outsourced call center operated by a managed services provider can be a highly flexible pay-as-you-go solution. With a managed service, companies requiring a call center (but unwilling to invest a million dollars or more in startup costs) can outsource the technology infrastructure while retaining all the control and security they need. Hosted call centers allow you to deploy just the pieces you need, without a huge capital expense.
7. Go VoIP. An all-IP solution creates significant savings on both inbound and outbound toll charges and also simplifies virtualization. Even if you're already up and running with an analog in-house contact center, most vendors are prepared to help you orchestrate a painless switchover to VoIP technology, with minimal disruption.
8. Make your voice mail heaven, not hell. It's counterintuitive, but sometimes busy customers would rather interact with a well-designed self-service voice-mail system than have to wait for a live agent. Self-service is often sold to businesses as a way of reducing costs — and it does — but it doesn't have to be "voice mail hell." If your software makes it easy for users to reach the automated features they need most, and callers are allowed to elect self-service rather than being stuck with it, users will get the best of both worlds. Remember: Giving the caller the option to speak with a human being whenever they wish is essential to customer satisfaction.
9. Work the Web. Increasingly, the Internet is becoming the most cost-effective method to provide customer support. Successful companies understand that while virtual agents have an important place, providing Web-based support (live chat, messaging, email, FAQs and search capability) empowers customers to get fast answers to their questions via the channel of their choice.
10. Put managers in the know. When you provide your managers with operational visibility and full control over agent activity across your virtualized call center via easy-to-use, Web-based administrative and reporting tools, everyone benefits. Key call-center metrics include: the ability to measure, monitor and manage the performance of all agents; first-call closure rate; customer satisfaction; and building a 360-degree view of each customer and their interaction history, for use in future up-selling or cross-selling campaigns.
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