Call center systems are going multi-channel and, in the process, adopting the contact center moniker. Is the phone call to a customer or debtor about to become obsolete?
By Kit Ladwig
Web-enabled is the hot topic for call center systems these days. And as multi-channel contact moves to the forefront, call centers are morphing into contact centers.
Still, according to a report produced last October by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., entitled "Kick-Starting Contact Centers," while 70% of call center executives surveyed say multi-channel customer contact is critical, so far only 25% have Web-enabled centers. The shift may be gradual but Forrester predicts that companies will migrate to Web-enabled contact centers over the next five years. The phone will remain the primary means of contact for some time to come, Forrester reports, but survey respondents expect a shift to e-mail and Web-based contact.
Vendors are already gearing up. To achieve a comprehensive product offering that draws on specialized capabilities, some firms are striking up alliances with companies that already have the expertise. London Bridge Group and CenterForce, for instance, announced plans in September to jointly promote London Bridge's Vectus and e-Vectus customer relationship management and credit management software with CenterForce's contact center productivity software.
Other providers have acquired or been acquired, and in the process, changed their names. As a result, it's often difficult to tell the players without a scorecard. For example, Melita International merged with eshare Technologies, incorporating eshare's Web-based customer care solutions and adopting the name eshare communications Inc. EIS International Inc., renamed Portal Connect last June, now operates under the SER Solutions Inc. label. Parent company SER Systems AG opted to combine Portal Connect's telephony-based systems and software with some of SER's other operations, including its workflow solutions and knowledge management software to create the new division - a step said to position SER Solutions to provide more advanced contact center functions, such as multi-channel customer interaction.
Meanwhile, eshare communications already offers a multi-channel solution. In March, the firm introduced NetAgent Suite 5.0, a grouping of customer interaction management applications that provides contact center users with a unified interface to coordinate e-mail, voice, Voice over Internet Protocol, multi-lingual chat, live Web interactions, and wireless contact center monitoring.
"All our products have interfaces to [customer relationship management] so agents can see a unified customer history," says Steve Herlocher, vice president, product management. At this point, he says, eshare is working with a handful of collections customers, large credit card issuers and independent outsourcers.
"Most are focusing on enabling Web self-service for making arrangements to pay for folks that are 30-, 60-, and 90-days delinquent," says Karl A. Walder, director of the company's e-business strategies. "After that, it's dialing for dollars."
Within the collections arena, Walder adds, the biggest driver is return on investment. "The overall cost of processing payments is lower even than outsourcing to India and other [low- cost] English-speaking areas."
Another indication of the vibrancy of the credit and collections call center scene: New vendors are entering the market. American Computer & Telephone Inc. is one. With more than 1,000 installations already in place, Amcat is now focusing on collections, a new vertical market for a company that traditionally sold to in-house call centers. On June 1, says Denise V. Simon, director of marketing and business development, the company plans to release its computer telephony media product that will facilitate multi-channel contact - meeting all the customer touch points from an electronic standpoint, including e-mail and broadcast e-mail, unified messaging, voice mail, and interactive voice response, as well as Web collaboration, which allows users to communicate and pull information off the Web. In addition, the new product will include such features as real-time reporting, script branching, digitized recording, and dynamic routing of calls to other centers, already incorporated into Amcat's Xcelerator system.
Other familiar names are joining the migration to the Web. Ontario Systems Corp., a leading collections software vendor based in Muncie, Ind., is planning to add Web-based functionality to its suite of collections-related product offerings in July. "The primary thing it will do is allow our clients to provide information to their clients and to debtors using another communications tool," says Michael J. Hersey, emerging technology analyst for Ontario. The client will decide how much data is displayed on the Web. The debtor can then request information or an explanation, make payment arrangements, or update their own information. Initially, communication will be via e-mail, but at some point, Hersey says, the plan is to let users initiate a phone call over the Internet.
Ontario's new module will be integrated into the company's collections system. "Many companies have generic tools," Hersey says, "but we have the application - third-party collections software - and we're adding these new means of contact. Others may connect their programs to ours, but it's a loose integration. We stress tight integration - that's the only way we do it. It's all one call, not multiple screens, for the best efficiency and service."
The level of integration depends on the client, he adds. Information communicated over the Web can be fed into the collections system in real time or in a batch process. The first step, Hersey says, will probably be using the batch process, which lets the customer review information before it's brought into the system.
Not all the attention to enhancing call center productivity is focused on the Web, however. The market has grasped the concept of computer telephony integration, says Rodney A. MacKenzie, director of sales for Predict Ability Plus Inc., Franklin, Mass. While stand-alone predictive dialers are geared to pooled accounts, he says, with CTI collectors can work pooled or individual queues. That way, productivity is improved for all accounts, not just pooled ones. And no special workstation is required.
CTI, which provides voice and data through the headset and personal computer preserves features of the telephone system, such as least-cost routing, call transfer, as well as silent monitoring, MacKenzie says. Plus, an "Agent Anywhere" feature allows collectors to access the predictive dialer and auto dialer capabilities from their own desk.
And at least one vendor thinks there's a back-office application that call centers have been overlooking. Ike Morton, president of MasterFiles Inc., a Dallas database service bureau, says his company's Reach411.com product can greatly enhance predictive dialer results. Most companies try to clean up and update a database before it goes to a dialer. But what do they do with bad numbers, typically wrong area codes or disconnects, that the dialer encounters?
Instead of discarding or manually rechecking them, Morton says, with its real-time link to the regional Bell companies, Reach411.com can update the bad records on the fly - or they can be reprocessed in batch mode overnight. The result: a reduction in the number of files that are "no contact."
The regional Bell directories, which Morton estimates cover about 90% of the market, are updated every 24 hours while white page listings on the Internet are not, he says.
The cost for the Reach411.com service ranges from 20 cents for processing one record a month - much less than the charge for directory assistance - to a "single-digit" amount for high-volume traffic. To access the Web-based service, customers need no special software, just a Web browser; or they may access it in a number of other ways, including an FTP connection.
Cost is also an issue when it comes to more comprehensive call center solutions. Still, a number of vendors stress the affordability of their offerings. Amcat's Simon says the "skinny" version of her firm's call center solution, just the predictive dialer, runs about $1,200 per station; the full-blown version, Web-enabled version will run around $6,000 or less per station, depending on economies of scale.
As for CTI, Predict Ability Plus' MacKenzie says that his firm is focusing on making systems developed for large, first-tier corporations, that typically sold for $150,000 for a group of 20 to 30 agents, available for middle tier firms - starting at about $40,000 for five or six seats. And with the Agent Anywhere feature, he says, for an additional $250, additional agents can access the system.