Savvy shoppers have a lethal trick to get the best deal out of a company. It’s euphemistically called “dialing for dollars.” In short, it means calling repeatedly for the best deal knowing the price will vary depending on which operator places the order.

A recent example of this that made headlines was a dustup between Dell Computer and a popular blog called “The Consumerist” that published inside tips from a former Dell employee of how to best manipulate Dell operators to get the best prices. Dell threatened legal action if the blog didn’t take it down and then backed down in the wake of all the bad public relations that ensued.

So, how does this happen? It’s a failure to manage unified messages (like the prices) when dealing with customers. It’s also a good reason for a growing business to go ahead and invest in a centralized call center that can better control the customer-facing end of the enterprise.

Call centers coordinate customer contacts

“Call centers clearly still have holes when it comes to things like 'dialing for dollars,' but, it’s the best way to minimize those holes,” says Chip Gliedman, an analyst from Forrester Research.

Perhaps better known as “call centers” Gliedman prefers the more all-encompassing term “contact center.” And with good reason. “There’s been an explosion in recent years of ways people interact with a company that goes far beyond phone calls," he says. "Now, of course, it’s also through the website, e-mail and instant messaging just to name a few.”

Keeping your communications with customers consistent is just one reason to invest in a contact center. Here are other benefits to taking the plunge:

  • Aggregating market intelligence. Tracking feedback and purchasing patterns is a great way to better understand your customer base.
  • Putting customer interaction management under one department. One of the greatest sources of confusion in customer interaction is the disconnect between phone operators (typically managed by sales) and the website (typically managed by marketing).  Sales and marketing have two distinct goals. Sales wants to close deals. Marketing wants to gather intelligence. A contact center should answer to one department, likely sales, for the sake of consistency.
  • Greater flexibility and speed in dealing with customers. A contact center is one-stop shopping to get the word out on special promotions or ramping up for the busy seasons.
  • Setting and implementing policy. What kind of commitment should a company make to its customers regarding the time it takes to respond to an e-mail, process an order, handle a return, or deliver a product? Whatever the policy is, all customer-facing representatives need to be on the same page. Centralization is the best way to achieve that.

Setting up a contact center

In recent years, launching a contact center has become much easier for the small to mid-size business. Software as a service (SaaS) is the biggest reason why. A company no longer has to make a big upfront investment in infrastructure. SaaS enables a business to just rent all the technology by the year or even by the month, as needed. Even the phone switch is now available as software on a subscription basis.

Not only is there greater flexibility in committing to the technology, the software has become more innovative and easier to use, as well. “Traditionally operators have to go back and forth between at least two screens of information; one coming from the website and the other from the [customer relationship management] (CRM) system," says Jason Bloomberg, a senior analyst from Zapthink, an IT advisory firm based in Baltimore, Md. Bloomberg says that some companies are starting to build mashups -- hybrid software that combines two or more applications -- of the website and CRM systems into one interface. "These mashups are very easy to build,” he says.

The big question: In-house or out-of-house

Although contact centers have become easier to implement and use in recent years, it’s still a big commitment. A business owner has to consider whether it makes better sense to keep it under the corporate roof or farm it out to the pros. Either way has its pros and cons.

Keeping it in-house. Most growing businesses usually go this route, at least in the beginning.

  • Pros: The business retains better control of the information. It’s run by company employees who are more invested in the values and mission of the business.
  • Cons: It costs more. It’s less efficient to set up a contact center from scratch than to hand it off to a professional contact center that already has the infrastructure to hit the ground running.

Outsourcing. “When a company grows to the point of 10, 15, 20 employees handling their contact center, that’s when it’s time to think of outsourcing the whole thing,” says Gliedman.

  • Pros: It’s cheaper, especially when dealing with larger volumes of calls and requests. It’s turnkey with no staffing or equipment. It’s easier to scale up and down during promotions and seasonal variations.
  • Cons: There’s more lag time implementing changes or responding to customer feedback and complaints. Because now, there’s a middle man. The outsourcing company is often motivated more by keeping costs down then keeping customers happy.

For the business owner still manning the phones with a couple of employees and a part-time webmaster, a contact center may seem like a distant problem. But that's not always the case. “When the number and types of contact are at the point that it’s more than one full-time employee can handle, then guess what? It’s time for a contact center. Otherwise, you’ll have customers falling through the cracks,” says Gliedman.