I'm back! After a year-long stint serving as managing editor for Multichannel Merchant magazine, a Penton Media publication, I'm happy to announce my triumphant return to TMC and the re-launching of the "Making Contact" blog, which is dedicated to all aspects of the call center industry, including technology and training. While I was at Multichannel Merchant, I had the chance to continue covering the call center industry -- at least from a "merchant perspective." The main thing I took away from that experience is that a merhcant's call center is not the same as a bank's call center is not the same as an insurance company's call center is not the same as a utility's call center. Although you can argue that they have more similarities than differences (obviously customer service is paramount, reagrdless of industry or vertical), the differences can be pretty substantial, particularly in terms of the technology they use and the training of the agents. For example, I was really surprised how many merchants could care less what kind of network technology is used in the call center -- TDM is fine for most of them (they love the reliability and signal quality), thank you very much, and they're not all that into automation either. In fact, I sort of came away with the feeling that automation is NOT what most merhcants want -- what they really want are well-trained agents that hang around for a few years, build their skills and learn the brand inside and out -- perhaps even become part of the (gulp) "company culture" -- and not things like IVR systems that push customers away from live agents, or call recording/quality monitoring/workforce management/performance management systems that make agents feel like they're working under the shadow of "Big Brother." "When it comes to selling consumer products, you better have live, knowledgeable people working the phones," seems to be the mantra of direct sellers, retailers and e-tailers everywhere. Whereas banks, utilities and insurance companies seem to be obsessed with finding the right mix of "silver bullet" applications that will enable their customers to "self-serve" and leave their agents alone -- while at the same time remaining satisfied and loyal. Another thing that sort of surprised me is the pervasive the use of order entry systems, also known as order management systems, in merchant call centers. Most of the merchants I interviewed had these systems -- in fact, they are often the main application the agents use for processing orders -- and yet I had never even touched on the topic of order management systems when I was previously covering call center at TMC. A lot of the merchants I interviewed said training agents on these (legacy and sometimes mouse-less) OMSs was typically one of the more time-consuming tasks in the overall training process.
CRM Buyer's Maria Verlengia has an article today about how call centers can't hold onto their agents because they are such miserable places to work, plus the pay is so low, plus they offer few opportunities for advancement. In fact, the article refers to call centers as "white collar sweat shops," which in my opinion is true in many ways. As some of you may already know from my past posts, I was a part-time outbound agent, doing mostly market research, during the mid to late 1980s. But it was a totally different time - as the CRM Buyer report points out, today's call centers employ advanced technologies such as call recording/quality monitoring, performance management and workforce management - automated systems which can make agents feel like they are working under the shadow of "Big Brother." Every aspect of the agent's performance today can be measured - the manager can even find out, with surprising accuracy, how many minutes per shift you spend on the john. For that reason I'm not sure I'd make it in today's call center world (and no, it's not due to incontinence ...) The real irony (and a theme which keeps recycling over and over) is how organizations emphasize the importance of the job - after all, a call center agent is on the frontline of your customer service - the person who directly interacts with your customers -- and yet companies generally only pay their agents minimum wage, or something slightly north of that. My analogy is it's like putting an air traffic controller in a tower, telling him he's in charge of protecting the lives of thousands (if not tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions) of people and then offering him $10 an hour.
TMC's Brendan Read has an article today about how four more call centers in Ontario, Canada are either shutting down or are laying off staff. Although this is a bummer for that region -- which has been a hotbed for call centers for many years now -- it's not all that surprising, as companies have been cutting back their contact center operations in Canada for more than a year now, and the Canadian government hasn't been able to do much about it. The trend really began in late 2007, when the U.S. dollar began to weaken, and the exchange rate began to shift in favor of keeping centers here in the U.S., or alternatively sending them overseas. Since then, the world economy has basically tanked -- and consumers and businesses alike simply aren't purchasing in the volumes they did in the past. What's more, the Internet and automated self-serve systems are increasingly meeting consumers' transactional and informational needs, thus there is diminished demand/need for live agent interactions.
Today is an exciting day for contact center software vendor Interactive Intelligence, as it has announced that it is developing a new Business Process Automation (BPA) product dubbed Interaction Process Automation (IPA). The upcoming offering -- a module that plugs into Interactive Intelligence's existing platform -- facilitates what might is best described as communications-based process automation (CBPA). Basically it enables companies to use the unified communications capabilities of the platform as a framework for carrying out routine, daily business processes. More specifically, the call routing and presence capabilities of the UC platform are used to carry out business processes. This includes support for documents in all formats, in addition to the multimedia contacts (phone, email, IM, conferencing, etc.) the platform supports currently. So, much the same way a contact center agent can route a call or other contact to any designated end-point throughout an organization, based on pre-defined rules, any worker (or automated system) in any department can use IPA to route documents to any other pre-defined end point on the network. And the same re-routing and failover mechanisms apply: If a worker is unavailable to handle a task, at any given time, and for any given reason, the system will automatically route that work onto the next available employee who is qualified to handle it. As such, the software gives managers the ability to create and implement customized, "communications-based" workflows based on specific business rules, as well as on employee skills sets.