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Lines of Fire

An automated call center can improve customer service and analyze how calls translate into sales. Here's how to turn the telephone into your most important strategic tool and competitive edge.
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State of the Art

With an automated call center, your customers will always have an answer and you'll never miss another sale

Cara Biden, an electronics sales rep in Tacoma, Wash., enjoys a good cigar as much as the next person. She's particularly partial to the Hemingway Short Story, a medium-bodied cigar from Dominican Republic manufacturer Arturo Fuente. Biden thinks the Short Story packs a lot of body and taste for a cigar of its stature--at roughly 4 inches, it's on the shorter side of the spectrum for cigars, whose lengths can reach 18 inches--and she appreciates its efficient smoke. "It's a 30- or 40-minute cigar, versus a one- to two-hour one," she notes with pleasure.

The only trouble with the Short Story, as far as Biden is concerned, is that thousands of cigar smokers share her sentiments. It's a notoriously difficult-to-find cigar, and stores that do manage to keep Short Stories in inventory jack up their prices--Biden has seen some go for as much as $16 apiece. That's why, earlier this year, when she saw them advertised in Famous Smoke Shop's catalog for $4.25 each, she wasted no time in calling the retailer's toll-free number.

Biden was immediately greeted by a recording asking her to choose among four options ("press 1 for catalog requests, 2 for sales," and so on)--automation she ordinarily finds off-putting. "I'm normally not in favor of those, but at least at Famous Smoke Shop, you get a body in a reasonably short time," she says. Her coveted Short Stories were out of stock, but the sales rep on the other end of the line couldn't have been nicer, and politely suggested several alternatives Biden might like to try.

Since then Biden has called the New York City-based Famous at least half a dozen times, and each time the story is the same--no Short Stories. Yet she remains an enthusiastic customer, largely because of the one-on-one attention Famous pays its customers. Every time she phones, a system known as an ACD (for automatic call distributor) immediately kicks in to answer the call and route it to the appropriate contact among the company's 32 employees. That might be a sales rep ready to take an order, a customer-service specialist processing returns, a voice-mail box that handles catalog mailing-list requests, or the owner, Arthur Zaretsky, himself, who no longer spends his day chained to the phone--the way he used to before the system's installation, in October 1996. Instead, he can focus on new business developments, like the Web site, complete with on-line humidor (an electronic inventory of cigars for sale), that Famous put up last fall. "Before we had the system, it was crazy and impossible to handle calls in a meaningful way," says Zaretsky, rolling his eyes and visibly shuddering. "No one knew how many calls were coming in or being lost."

Things couldn't be more different now. In addition to its routing capabilities, Zaretsky's "call center," as such systems are increasingly being referred to, has sophisticated analytic features that track in real time such statistics as how many calls are coming into the office at any given time; customers' average time on hold; and reps' time spent idle, unavailable, and handling a call. "I have more information than I know what to do with," concedes Zaretsky. "But the point of all this mumbo jumbo," he says, pointing to a computer monitor displaying his call-center statistics, "is that our customers are taken care of in an efficient manner, that our operators are calm, and that we serve the market better so customers choose us."

It appears to be working: revenues have increased 20% each year in the nearly two years since the company installed the system, and overhead is down, since the analytic tools of the ACD, by revealing peak and slow calling times, have enabled Zaretsky to determine optimum staffing levels. In the past year alone, the increased efficiencies have doubled the reps' average sales-to-calls-answered ratio. "I worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for many, many years," says Zaretsky, walking through the company's physical call center. The cubicle-filled room holds 10 trained sales reps, who, wearing headsets, sit before keyboards and screens filled with minutiae about 130 cigar brands as they take orders and chat with customers about the merits of a Macanudo or an Olor Vintage. "This thing has changed my life."

ACD. Dnis. Erlang C. Screen pops. Jumping the queue. Like any burgeoning phenomenon, call-center technology has spawned its own vernacular. But while the acronyms and argot are relatively straightforward (see "Definition Directory," below), the definition of an actual call center appears to be a moving target. "No one really agrees on what a call center is," notes Brad Cleveland, president of the Incoming Calls Management Institute (ICMI), a consulting firm in Annapolis, Md. "With potential multiple sites, they're not really centers, and they take more than just calls."

Call centers are "really more like contact centers," states Carter Lusher, vice-president of the Gartner Group, an information-technology and research firm, "accommodating customers accessing companies via phone, fax, the Web, E-mail, even interactive video kiosk." The idea is to make customers' interactions with companies seamless and uniform, no matter which method of communication they choose. For example, while the integration of Famous's Web site and call center is still in its infancy, when a customer calls the 800 number listed on the site, the call is routed by the ACD to a separate queue with agents (or their voice-mail boxes, if it's after hours) who are not just cigar savvy but Web savvy as well. Orders made on-line are automatically logged and are processed by Famous's mail-order software, Mathen Group's MailBasics, in the same way that phone orders are processed. (For the record, more sophisticated Internet-integrated call centers enable a customer to do everything from contacting an agent with the click of a mouse to downloading Web documents by voice--but this technology is still several years away from being widely implemented. For a look at what lies ahead, see "Ringing in the Net," below.)

For the time being, a call center is an umbrella term embracing a variety of environments regardless of transaction: reservation centers, help desks, information lines, customer-service centers, even 911 numbers. And that's just inbound call centers, such as those you'd encounter when calling American Airlines or Dell's help line. There are also outbound call centers--those operations disparagingly referred to as "phone farms," whose armies of operators invariably call during dinnertime peddling yet another unwanted newspaper subscription or credit-card-protection service.

To be fair, not every outbound call center harbors a telemarketing scheme. And what's becoming increasingly true is that, thanks to falling prices of equipment and the expanded capabilities of today's systems, call centers are no longer the sole province of large enterprises or even those that bring in a lot of revenues by phone, such as banks and insurance companies. Indeed, today businesses are as likely to use a call center to decrease costs or mine information as they are to use one to increase revenues. "One of the big trends we see is that a lot of industries that didn't have call centers in the past are now putting them in," notes Lusher. The list of current call-center users includes cable-TV stations, florists, travel agencies, a fire-fighting-equipment retailer, a rodeo-reservation company, and even a cricket farm. Cleveland estimates that nationwide there are 60,000 to 100,000 call centers, which employ around 3 million call-center representatives, and that the number of centers is growing at approximately 30% annually. According to the Gartner Group, companies spent an estimated $1.4 billion on call-center technology last year, and that amount will balloon to $8.9 billion by 2002.

Because their technology can be leveraged to accomplish a variety of tasks, call centers are a "major strategic factor for any type of business," says Cleveland. "The power that call centers have in capturing marketplace feedback, identifying customer expectations, and enabling companies to build products and services around those needs is astounding." Adds Lusher, "Each contact with a prospective customer is a piece of the puzzle. The more pieces you have, the bigger the picture."

The executives and employees of Jacobs' Golf Group, in Scottsdale, Ariz., have been benefiting from just such a big picture since the company installed a call center, in January 1997. The inbound call center, which, like Famous's, is an ACD, facilitates reservation taking and analyzes phone traffic for 27-year-old Jacobs' Golf, which specializes in golf instruction, golf vacation packages, golf clubs, and golf-course management. Every week, president Gordon Petrie gets a summary report of call-center statistics that shows him the number of calls received, the number of reservations made, callers' average time on hold, and the average daily hang-up rate, among other things. He pays particular attention to the first two statistics because, he says, given that customers typically book several months ahead of time, "they're almost like leading indicators, and they help us know what our business will look like four or five months out." Petrie credits the call center with giving him a much better idea of volume and trends and says that for the first time in its history, Jacobs' Golf can track its conversion factor (number of calls taken to number of reservations booked). "I wish we'd installed this thing sooner," he says.

Pat Smoot, human-resources director at Jacobs' Golf, harbors the same wish. Smoot, who's been with the company since its early days, when it operated out of the garage of founder and tour player Shelby Futch, remembers all too well what life was like before her employer installed the call center and automated its reservation system. "Phones would ring constantly on everybody's desks," she says, "and after taking down a customer's information, we'd have to run over to the general booking ledger and rewrite it in there so we all knew how many students were going to which schools and when." As the business grew, with school locations swelling from an initial 4 to more than 55 worldwide today, the stack of ledger sheets mounted higher and higher. "They were cumbersome and heavy to lift," Smoot recalls, adding, "we definitely got more exercise then."

These days the reservation center at Jacobs' Golf hums with quiet efficiency--even though the company booked a record 20,000 students into lessons last year. Much like the sales reps at Famous Smoke Shop, the five customer-service reps sit in a row of cubicles, chatting into their headsets as their fingers fly over their keyboards and navigate the point-and-click user interface of the company's proprietary customer-reservation system (from Stoneman Software), which runs on an ALR server. The reservation system's database, which is separate from but operates in tandem with the call center, not only has taken the place of the unwieldy ledger but also allows the reps to live up to their customer-service titles: in addition to 250,000 customer profiles and information on 1,589 golf-school classes, the database contains the answers to customers' most frequently asked questions, whether they're about the average daily temperature of San Diego in January or the handicaps of students enrolled in a particular class.

While managers and employees alike would agree that the ACD has made life more pleasant at Jacobs' Golf, adapting to the system was no picnic. For starters, within minutes of installation on the company's server, the Windows-based software, called Prelude (from Cintech, 800-833-3900), revealed an alarming problem: the number of hang-ups was sky-high. "We never knew before how long we kept people on hold or how many calls we were losing, and when we saw that, we got scared," recalls former executive vice-president John Fechter.

Jacobs' Golf's early experience with its call center recalled the flip side of the adage "What you don't know can't hurt you": it felt like an expensive way to receive bad news. The company had spent $11,225 on the Prelude package, which had the capacity for 15 agents to handle up to 30 incoming calls at any given time, as well as an additional $32,000 on 30 new telephones and a complete rewiring of its phone system, by the time the reason for the lost calls was revealed: upon answering a call, Prelude would automatically bump callers into a voice-mail menu, regardless of whether a live operator was free. That, apparently, was unacceptable to customers, who would hang up after waiting too long in a queue. "And we knew when they hung up they were calling the next golf school on their list," notes Petrie. With the average price of a Jacobs' golf package running at $1,000, the opportunity cost of the lost calls was considerable.

The company decided on the spot that it needed to upgrade to a more robust system with more features, specifically the ability for callers to be directed immediately to a live operator when one was available. It decided to continue with another Cintech product, the Windows-based Cinphony, which in addition to the live-operator feature has the capacity for 30 agents to handle up to 80 incoming lines. (After some haggling, Cintech's local distributor agreed to accept the price of the upgraded software--$16,800--as payment in full.) Both Fechter and Marlene Pierce, reservations manager for Jacobs' Golf, arranged to have monitors in their offices to observe the call center's activity--so they could keep an eye on such statistics as average time on hold (the company's goal is a minute and a half), average daily hang-up rate (the goal is no more than 10%), and how many agents were on the phone at a given time.

But the opportunities provided by the call center didn't end there: the software's ability to track call-center activity in such detail inspired Jacobs' Golf to fine-tune its staffing levels. The process, by necessity, was one of trial and error. In an effort to reduce the time customers spent on hold, the number of reps was initially raised from five to eight. Then, when the monitoring software indicated to Pierce how frequently reps were "unavailable"--versus on a call or ready to receive one--because they were engaged in follow-up duties (such as mailing confirmations), it became clear that it made more sense to break out the follow-up responsibilities into a separate job. So the company added two new administrative positions and reduced the number of agents by two, from eight to six. Now, with weekly volume ranging from 2,200 to 2,500 calls, the call center is handling between two and three times the number of calls it did a year ago--with two fewer reps. Pierce estimates that bookings are up 15% from a year ago, thanks to increased efficiencies afforded by the call center.

The ACD's reporting capabilities have also led Jacobs' Golf to alter the hours of operation of the center. Though peak calling time consistently remains Monday mornings, with call volume declining gradually throughout the week, the company added Saturday hours and began gearing up for Sundays after the system revealed as many as 180 calls coming in on a weekend day. And after Cinphony revealed the surprising number of customers who called Jacobs' Golf between midnight and 6 a.m., the company made plans for a fax-on-demand service that will operate around the clock.

In fact, the installation of the call center sparked an overall effort by the company to refine how it operates its business. Though Jacobs' Golf has never had a bad year since its inception, in 1971, Petrie concedes, "We've been growing in spite of ourselves." The company, which has more than $20 million in revenues, can't afford to be complacent in a market in which the number of customers remains stagnant (according to the National Golf Foundation, the number of golfers in the United States has hovered between 24 million and 25 million since 1991) and new competitors lurk behind every bunker.

So Fechter, inspired by the call center's ability to help tighten up staffing and scheduling, dove into an analysis of the company's phone bills and database records, hoping to maximize its marketing efforts. Since the Cintech package that Jacobs' Golf chose lacks caller ID but can report which number the caller dialed (dialed-number identification service, or DNIS), Fechter decided to assign a separate 800 number to every direct-mail campaign or advertisement the company ran. Jacobs' Golf now has more than 50 toll-free numbers, up from 3 a year ago, and can, by using the reservations database and drilling down into the company's call records, analyze the number of bookings by state, among other things. "If the ad budget to Georgia goes up and catalog requests go up but bookings go down, the company now creates the red flags to detect this," notes Fechter, an M.B.A. who clearly relishes the idea of regression analysis.

Fechter's efforts have already paid off. For example, the company discovered that golfers from Arizona were the second-largest group of bookers (behind Californians) in its schools, so for the first time in its history it took out ads in some of the local golf publications there. The result? The number of students from Arizona doubled from the previous year--to 1,600 last year. Developments like that, on top of the obvious benefits of picking up more incoming calls through better staffing and scheduling, make Jacobs' Golf consider its call center more than worth the expense and effort. "In terms of our ability to serve the customer, it paid for itself instantly," says Fechter. Adds Petrie, "It feels so much more comfortable knowing how you're really performing."

Unlike Gordon Petrie, Don Carlberg didn't need a big-picture view; rather, he needed something that would help him bring his entrepreneurial vision into focus. Casting about for a business model for a new high-tech health-care company, he asked himself this question: "What single piece of technology can be used by virtually anyone, is instantaneous, and is two-way?" He takes pleasure in pointing out that the answer is not the Internet but the telephone, and that's why his company, three-year-old Patient Infosystems, in Rochester, N.Y., revolves around call-center technology--combining such cutting-edge applications as interactive voice response (IVR), computer telephony integration (CTI), preview dialing, on-demand publishing, and artificial intelligence. Notes call-center manager Betty Ann Brunton, "We have a lot of technology for a small company, with a lot of capability. And we are anxious to use it."

Simply put, Patient Infosystems, which has 75 employees, uses the telephone to help patients take better care of themselves. The idea for it sprang from a growing body of scientific research that documents how people are often more comfortable talking about sensitive medical issues to an automated telephone system than they are to a live person. Studies have shown that individuals will divulge more intimate personal details to a computer-generated voice asking questions (IVR) than they will to a real human being on the other end of the line.

Patient Infosystems exploits that preference to tackle a thorny issue bedeviling the health-care community. Despite the fact that doctors and health-care providers have more expertise than ever and that more people are better informed about health, health risks, and unhealthful behavior, between 30% and 60% of patients nonetheless don't comply with their prescribed treatment. That has at least two negative consequences that Patient Infosystems aims to address: patients don't get well, and health-care costs go up.

Patient Infosystems uses its elaborate call center to conduct regularly scheduled interviews with various patient populations--asthmatics, diabetics, those suffering from heart disease, for example--to gather information about how those people are managing their diseases and their treatment plans. The phone system, which is hooked up to the company's patient database (hence the CTI), automatically uses the patient feedback gathered in the "conversation" to generate customized, personal reports (on-demand publishing) that employees of Patient Infosystems then mail or in some instances fax to the patients and their doctors. The patients' health-care providers foot the bill for the service, whose cost varies according to the frequency of calls and the nature of the disease but in general runs from $12 to $16 a session.

Like Famous Smoke Shop and Jacobs' Golf Group, Patient Infosystems has some inbound lines (a nurses' hot line and some survey-response lines, for example) that are managed with an ACD (a Meridien One, from Nortel, 800-4NORTEL, nortel.com, $500 to $700 per seat, or agent). But the bulk of its call-center operation is outbound based and relies on a software program called Campaign Manager (from Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, 888-GENESYS, www.genesyslab.com, $3,000 to $4,000 a user for 50 users). The Unix-based software (it's also available in Windows NT) works in conjunction with Patient Infosystems' proprietary patient database (which was built in-house and runs on an Oracle server). It begins its job by scanning through the database records and determining who needs to be called on a given day, in a given window of time, based on parameters established during initial patient-enrollment interviews or on information provided by the sponsoring health-care provider.

To avoid alienating patients with its technology, Patient Infosystems always starts its sessions with a live operator before transferring patients into the voice system. Campaign Manager facilitates outbound calling by checking to see which of the company's 20 patient-service representatives is currently available and then, only after ascertaining that a person is ready to make a call, initiates dialing.

Once in the voice system, patients typically respond to a series of questions (such as "In the past month, how many nights did asthma symptoms awaken you?") by saying a number between, for instance, one and nine or, in some instances, answering yes or no. The system is fairly skilled at understanding a variety of accents and intonations (and words like "none"), thanks to voice-recognition and artificial-intelligence components in the software. Based on the patient's response, Campaign Manager will then select another question to ask or a comment to make (for instance, "Ask your doctor for instructions on what you should do when you have an [asthma] episode"). Patients have the option at any time to exit the system and return to a live operator (they do so by saying "stop"), but so far, since the company began running its sessions, last summer, between 75% and 80% of patients have opted to remain in the automated system. If and when patients do switch back to a live rep, IVR technology enables the operator to pick right up where the patient left off in the automated system--regardless of whether the operator is the one who initiated the call.

That's possible because Patient Infosystems' reps are prompted by their computers and read from scripts that appear on their screens (screen pops, a CTI feature). The scripted dialogue, which is generated with proprietary software called LOPs (for live operator positions) that the company developed, is hooked into Campaign Manager with a "proprietary interface," which pops it up on the screen of an operator the instant he or she receives the call, according to CIO Kent Tapper. LOPs also enable operators to scroll forward and backward through the screens--which is particularly helpful when multiple operators are involved in the same call or if a patient wishes to back up and repeat a question. At the conclusion of the session, more company-developed proprietary software, called DOX (a loose acronym for demand publishing system), in combination with Microsoft Word, translates and automatically prints out the results of the conversation in a customized report, which is then sent to the patient and the physician.

The reps' dialogue is all scripted, but since it varies according to the patient's response to each question, "there are thousands of paths in there," notes Brunton. In the previously mentioned asthma example, for instance, an operator would make a different suggestion or comment to the patient who was awoken nine times during the past month than to one who was awoken one time. One of the reps' biggest challenges is adhering to the script when patients prefer to veer. Included in the reps' two-week training session are role-playing exercises that prepare them for when a lonely, perhaps elderly patient wants to chat or when a patient asks a pointed medical question such as, "What is this red spot on my arm?" "We want to be friendly but not a buddy system," notes Brunton. "We still need to manage the call." The department appears to be succeeding: in a typical five-hour shift, 10 reps can reach as many as 1,200 patients--averaging an efficient two and a half minutes a call. (Including the automated portion of these calls, a typical patient session lasts from 8 to 15 minutes.)

From the beginning, Patient Infosystems made a substantial investment in technology--slightly over $1 million in hardware and software in the call center alone--and it has yet to turn a profit. Revenues for its first complete year of business, 1996, were $845,000; they rose to just over $2 million in 1997, and analysts project that the publicly traded company will hit sales of $8 million this year. Director of marketing Richard Holowka also anticipates that Patient Infosystems will "turn the corner" and make a profit in 1998. To judge by its call-center expansion plans--the company is building a second room to handle an increase in its number of reps, to 34 by this month--a substantial portion of any profit will be plowed back into the call center. But that's all right with Holowka, for without its call center, Patient Infosystems wouldn't be in business. "We owe our existence to the technological cresting of a variety of applications--not the least of which are strides being made in call-center technology," he says.

The 59-year-old Famous Smoke Shop doesn't owe its existence to its call center, but it could be argued that owner Zaretsky owes his to it. Prior to the installation of Famous's ACD, Zaretsky, who has a four-cigar-a-day habit, would typically spend seven or eight hours answering the phones during the business day and then, at 6 p.m., begin his job of trying to run and manage the company. He knew it wasn't a healthy existence, despite his claims that he doesn't "so much smoke as chew the cigars."

Today the Bronx native still has the deep throaty voice of a smoker, but it contrasts noticeably with his slim, fit, 50-year-old physique. The juxtaposition is hard to miss, particularly because of the CEO's uncharacteristic choice of business attire: spandex tights and fanny pack. A vegetarian, Zaretsky routinely makes the 80-block round-trip to his office in the Garment District on Rollerblades and does five or six loops of Central Park three or four times a week. Factor in a couple of midday trips to the gym each week, and the Superman getup begins to make sense.

Famous's ACD is what makes those athletic jaunts possible. Zaretsky can justify time away from the office, because, whether he's there or not, his phone system tracks everything he needs to know: how many calls are coming in (typically 600 to 1,300 a day); exactly how many of them translate into sales (typically 40% to 60%, a rate captured by using the ACD in combination with the MailBasics mail-order software); the average time a customer is on hold (the goal is no more than 15 seconds); and even when the peak calling times are (usually between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.).

Of course, Famous Smoke Shop didn't install a call center to turn its CEO into a jock--it did it to improve its customer service. Had the Short Story-smoking Cara Biden called Famous two years ago, she might never have called back. Since Famous didn't have any kind of sophisticated phone system to handle its 32 incoming lines, Biden's calls would have been answered in who-knows-how-many rings by an undoubtedly harried and not very cigar-smart person. "Phones would ring on everybody's desk, calls were constantly lost, and employees were ready to attack one another," recalls Zaretsky. "I don't know how we survived. It was abominable customer service."

The fact that the cigar industry began turning red-hot in 1993 (consumption has increased 68% since then, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department) magnified the severity of Famous's customer-service problems. So in early 1996, after a particularly stressful Christmas season, Zaretsky desperately started reading every telecommunications journal he could get his hands on. He still remembers the name of the author whose article in Operations and Fulfillment magazine hit him like an epiphany. "Curtis Barry. And he said, 'If you have this problem and that problem, then what you need is an ACD,' " recalls Zaretsky. "I didn't know what an ACD was; I just knew that I needed one."

The ACD he chose after nearly a year of research was Distributed Call Center (from Teloquent Communications, 800-468-6434, $1,750 per agent) because, he says, its applications were the most "open, expandable, and flexible" within his price range. "This is not a product in a box but a software system that can be modified," he says of his Teloquent system, which is Unix-based and resides on a Compaq Prolinea 575. Once the ACD was installed, "all of a sudden new possibilities began to emerge," Zaretsky recalls. For example, originally the system offered a customer three choices in its voice-driven menu--catalog requests, order placement, or returns--but after a while it became apparent that the company needed a fourth option, for callers interested in cigar resale. "Storekeepers are interested not in consuming the product but in how much profit they can make on it," explains Zaretsky.

Thanks to the easy-to-use software, adding another option to the voice menu is simply a matter of dragging a few icons on a PC screen and making a new recording in the voice-mail system. In fact, making changes to the system is so easy that call-center manager Humberto Gonzalez--a self-confessed techno-neophyte--tinkers with it all the time. Zaretsky has been so encouraged by the traffic generated by wholesale callers that he has set up a separate 800 number for them, and he's building a Web site just for distributors as well. "I can have as many businesses as I want with this thing," he muses.

Other customer-service improvements followed once the system revealed specific caller habits. For example, after it showed Gonzalez that callers using rotary phones were likely to hang up sooner than those using Touch-Tone ones, he reconfigured the system to give priority to the rotary dialers, permitting them to "jump the queue," in call-center argot. He also enabled callers to select a particular rep ("press one for Joe, two for Susan") after noticing that repeat customers would frequently request reps by name. Customers' befriending of reps was a luxury the company could never have afforded in its pre-ACD days. Paradoxically, switching from wholly live operators to an automated system has made Famous's relationships with its customers more, as opposed to less, intimate. It's a trend the ICMI's Brad Cleveland has observed as well. When used effectively, he says, call centers can be "great loyalizing tools."

Consider the experience of Famous customer Mike Genova. At the suggestion of a sales rep, he registered his 20 favorite cigars in a special folder on Famous's Web site. Famous, in turn, routinely sends him E-mail notifying him when his choices are in stock, suggesting alternatives when they're not, and alerting him to weekly specials. To judge by comments Genova posted in a cigar smoker's newsgroup (alt.smokers.cigars), he's a big fan of this E-mail, which seems to keep him coming back for more. Genova writes:

Famous is killing me! Today I got an Email listing the Fuentes in my favorites folder that they just received today. The sigs [sic] were in and gone in half an hour, but they still had Cuban Coronas in maduro. Got a box of those. Three hours later, I get another Email, this time they got LGC's [La Gloria Cubanas] in. I had to order again, a box of Churchill Maduros. It's too damn easy!

No stranger to this "loyalizing" effect, Famous has a full-time employee dedicated to the task of keeping the Mike Genovas of the world happy. Long before it was fashionable to do so in call-center circles, Famous treated each E-mail message it received as a legitimate customer contact. "E-mail queen" Amy Collazo gets 50 to 150 E-mail messages daily and makes a habit of responding to them in 24 hours and often on the same day.

Life with a call center hasn't always treated Famous so well. For example, Zaretsky had to wait more than a year for his local phone company to figure out how to reprogram his ISDN line to allow call monitoring--a feature of the Teloquent system that enables Gonzalez to listen in on new reps' conversations with customers during their initial training. (This contrasts dramatically with the old method of training reps--"throwing anybody who walked in the door immediately on the phones," notes Zaretsky.) The experience, he says, was "a horror story."

Regardless, Zaretsky thinks the approximately $45,000 he's invested in his call center over the past three and a half years has been well worth it. "Revenues have gone up tremendously, our employees are much more comfortable, we're handling calls more efficiently, and our customers have a better perception of us," he says.

Other than a fine cigar, what more could anyone ask for?

Alessandra Bianchi is a contributing writer at Inc.


DEFINITION DIRECTORY

AUTOMATIC CALL DISTRIBUTOR (ACD): A specialized telephone system that automatically answers, queues, and routes incoming calls to agents; plays announcements; and provides analytic reports about callers' activities

CALL CENTER: An umbrella term that refers to reservation centers, help desks, information lines, or customer-service centers, regardless of how they are organized or what types of transactions they handle. Can incorporate multiple methods of customer-company communication--phone, fax, the Web, E-mail, and even interactive video kiosk

COMPUTER TELEPHONY INTEGRATION (CTI): The software, hardware, and programming that enable computers and telephones to work together seamlessly

DIALED-NUMBER IDENTIFICATION SERVICE (DNIS): A feature that shows what number a caller has dialed

ERLANG C: A queuing formula that calculates predicted waiting times based on the number of reps and callers and how long it takes to serve each person

INTERACTIVE VOICE RESPONSE (IVR): A computerized phone system that responds to caller-entered digits or speech in much the same way a computer responds to keystrokes or the click of a mouse. When linked with databases, enables caller to check current information (such as account balances) or complete transactions (such as transfers)

JUMPING THE QUEUE: An ACD feature that allows a caller on hold to be plucked from the queue and immediately be redirected

SCREEN POP: Computerized customer history or product information that pops up on an agent's screen at the time of the call


RINGING IN THE NET

The future of call centers is rife with Internet applications. The following applications, says Edwin Margulies, author of nine computer-telephony books, are among the most promising:

  • A prospect visiting a Web site sees something that tickles her fancy. If the site uses a product like CyberCall 3.0, from ATIO Corp. (612-837-4000, www.atio.com), she can click on a "callback" button, and a form will pop up asking for her name and telephone number. After she types in that information, the Web server sends it to the company's telephone system, which places the message in a queue for the next available agent, who pulls it up on his screen and phones the customer. A twist on that concept is a "callback tag" that travels with the prospect's name and number. In that scenario, the agent also receives a screen pop of the Web page the customer is viewing, so he can be ready with information about whatever appears there. In a more sophisticated application, a product like the SomeOne service, from NETcall Telecom Inc. (303-486-0855, www.netcallplc.com), allows the agent to embed a tag on the site that the customer can use to establish voice communication. The customer clicks on the tag, sending a message through the Internet to the public phone system, telling it to set up a call between agent and customer. Within a few minutes, phones on both sides ring.
  • A call-center agent receives messages in multiple media--faxes, phone calls, E-mail, Internet telephony calls. Products like the Enterprise Interaction Center (EIC), from Interactive Intelligence (317-872-3000, www.inter-intelli.com), allow her to view a listing of all those messages on a single screen. If she clicks on the phone icon, her phone rings and she can speak to the caller; if she clicks on the fax, she can view the fax on-screen.
  • An agent needs the help of a supervisor in responding to a customer's call. Using MeetingPlace, from Latitude Communications (408-988-7200, www.latitude.com), he pulls up a form on the company's intranet and, by clicking on the names of the people he wants to rope into the conversation, automatically sends them messages to dial into the conference call.
  • A customer without a PC wants a document that lives on the company's Web server. The Web-on-Call Voice Browser, from NetPhonic Communications (650-962-1111, www.netphonic.com), allows that customer to call in on a phone and use an interactive voice-response system to pull the document off the Web site and fax it to him.

RESOURCES

The Incoming Calls Management Institute (ICMI), in Annapolis, Md. (800-672-6177, icmi@incoming.com), has a knowledgeable staff and a variety of resources to offer. They include a Web site (www.incoming.com), which has useful links to vendors; a monthly newsletter, Service Level Newsletter ($333 a year), filled with call-center specifics; and a comprehensive book, Call Center Management on Fast Forward, by Brad Cleveland and Julia Mayben (1997, $34.95).

Though they can be light on editorial and heavy on vendor advertising, there are several magazines devoted to call centers. Two worth checking out: TeleProfessional (800-338-8307, www.telepro.com, $39 a year) and Call Center Magazine (888-824-9793, www.callcentermagazine.com, $14 a year).

The industry's largest trade show, the World Conference and Exposition on Incoming Call Center Management, will take place September 1 through 3 in Denver. For details call 800-265-5665 or visit www.callvoice.com/iccm98.

Last updated: Jun 15, 1998




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