Exit the call center, enter the service organization

Exit the call center, enter the service organization

Gregory Borton

Most important innovations in business creep up on us while we’re not looking. The call center is no exception. As recently as 1992, it was not unusual for me to visit with senior executives at a company and, when I’d compliment them on their call center, they’d say, “We have a call center?”

Back then. a typical call center would have 200 people taking anywhere from four to eight calls per hour all day long. In the last year or two, however, the opportunity to provide such a stunning revelation to upper management has passed, primarily because most companies now assign significant strategic importance to their call centers. Still, many professionals in call centers don’t realize that we are all working in an industry that has been evolving since the late 1960s.

The year I like to focus on is 1969, because that is when Rockwell invented the automatic call distributor (ACD). This new technology was in response to an innovation in marketing and packaging – the airlines had learned how to sell and service tickets over the telephone and were meeting with so much success they couldn’t keep up with the flow of incoming calls during peak busy hours.

Thus, the ACD introduced queues to the call center. Soon after that, AT&T introduced the first “1-800” numbers, also while working with these leading-edge innovators at the airlines. In the mid-1970s, AT&T had an entire field organization trained to visit with companies and give them the “Phone-Power” course. This was designed to teach companies that they could make sales and support customers over the phone.

This type of “bottom-up” innovation was occurring across many departments in various companies, often without the knowledge of upper management. Generally, companies would hire a few folks to take incoming phone calls for the first year, and would meet with enough success that more service representatives would be hired for the next year. After a few years, there would be 30 or 40 people fielding customer questions. The modern call center was born.

The Growth Of Customer Transaction Databases

With the success of these new phone-based service centers, a new problem arose. With each incoming call, the service representative would have to ask for the caller’s identity, search through the filing cabinet to find the customer’s file, and then return to the phone to help the caller. The folders would then be stacked on the desk ready to be re-filed.

This approach failed miserably once call volumes rose, and the leading-edge companies realized they had to create customer transaction databases to make the data available more quickly. Even more important, they had to ensure that data wasn’t lost and was easy to tabulate. Major resources went into the creation of proprietary customer databases, almost always on large IBM mainframes using Cobol, CICS and 3270 terminals for access by the employees.

Generally, these data resources focused on holding information on accounts, products and transactions. In addition, each data resource was geared to support only the product being offered by the group sponsoring the call center. Other divisions would have completely separate and unrelated information systems resources. As a result, customers would have multiple account numbers within the same company.

In the late 1980s, the leading edge of the marketplace realized the importance of their call centers, and companies such as Teknekron and Aspect educated them about the benefits of ACDs. This sophisticated segment of the market began buying ACDs to support their inbound call activities.

Early CTI Solutions The first of the new generation of computer-telephony integration (CTI) products were released in 1990 in the United States. These products made available the CTI application programming interface (API) on computers and provided access to private branch exchange (PBX) features. The key benefit made available was ‘”screen pop.” At this time, almost all service reps were served by a single application, focused primarily on transactions. on a terminal (either an ASCI terminal driven by a minicomputer or a 3270 driven by a mainframe).

The initial CTI implementations used CTI APIs. For example, CallPath or DEC’s CIT (later bought by Dialogic) were linked directly to the single application that supported the call center representatives, thus supporting simple automatic number identification (ANI)-based caller ID, call routing and screen pop. The business benefits (primarily from screen pop) were typically a three percent to eight percent increase in productivity.

Changes In The Role Of Service Representatives

In 1991, the leading-edge players realized that telephone calls coming into their service centers had become the most common method used by customers to contact them. This raised a variety of questions: Is this an opportunity? Can we change the role of the service center from “support” to “strategic,” where it becomes the dominant focus for managing our customer relationships and life cycles? Can we differentiate ourselves from our competitors so our service centers become a reason for people to choose us over our competitors?

The answers to these questions were yes, yes and yes. As a result, the role of service representatives and technology is rapidly evolving today. Some of the major issues corporations are tackling today include:

* How can your service representatives support a broad range of customer issues that may cross many different products and divisions of a company? (At first. this issue was addressed by providing PCs to service representatives so they could access multiple legacy systems via a windowing environment. However, the complexity of learning multiple systems was too high, so users started to `hide-away’ the windows to the different systems by building a new user interface.)

* What tools and information do you need to provide service representatives to enable them to focus on the customer relationship?

* How do you identify which customer service rep has the appropriate skills to help the inbound caller? How do you, in real-time, qualify this caller to identify the right skills and then route the caller to that skill set?

* How can you control costs? (This is being addressed by transferring mundane questions and activities to electronic technologies such as voice response units. There is a great deal of interest in exploring how the Web can also support this function. By automating these types of calls, service representatives can focus their energies on higher-value customer relationship building.)

The Emerging CTI Solutions

The product environment required to support this new generation of call center is very different than the simple CTI APIs that were used in the first generation of CTI deployments. CTI APIs simply allow information systems departments to link to the ACD. All other software requirements have to be custom made. This is an impossible task, since it involves creating a multisite, virtual network solution that provides telephony, directory, data transfer, customer profile, call history, data repository, alarm and management environment for a high-performance, high-availability, real-time distributed system.

Today’s emerging CTI product sets (of which there are very few) solve this problem for end users by providing all of the required services as part of their packaged product set, ready to install and deploy over wide area networks. These product sets enable users to acquire and install a sophisticated system focused on meeting their call center business requirements.

The Road Ahead: The Customer Information Center

Over the next few years, the concept of the service center will continue to undergo a radical transformation. Today’s leadingedge thinkers are focused on the following themes:

* How do we understand each and every customer so we can optimize the long-term customer life cycle, reduce churn, and understand the customer’s relationship to our company at the instant the telephone contact occurs? Furthermore, when that contact occurs, how do we identify the optimal skill set to meet both the customer’s needs as well as the company’s goals with the customer?

* How do we understand the range of skills and its availability to support a customer contact? This will extend beyond the service center into what are now considered “non-service center” jobs, with customers being routed to personnel in many departments of the company, independent of location. For example. if a caller has an outstanding issue that can only be addressed by a specific vice president, the caller will be automatically routed to that vice president.

* How do we understand the role of the Web in conjunction with the traditional forms of contact, such as mailings, telephone calls and visits to branch outlets? Is the “Call Me” button on a Web page a help or actually a hindrance to providing customer service?

* How do we collect and make use of the data on each and every customer contact so it can become a proactive tool for improving call flows, supporting customer segmentation and managing customer life cycles? How can this information be made available to marketing, management and other currently nonservice center personnel, to enable them to perform the roles well?

* Can we reduce the need to create “mega-centers,” which are now still the dominant strategy for creating the next-generation customer-service resource? This requires a much better understanding of service representatives and their skill sets, information resources and management requirements, as well as the emerging generation of CTI solutions that support single virtual networks spanning from the mega-center to the typical whitecollar worker, the branch office and into the home.

As can be seen from this list, the implications of CTI have extended dramatically beyond the simple “screen pop.” We are now at the brink of changing many aspects of our traditional view of the customer. We are also on the verge of redefining the range of corporate functions that are associated with the customer. Indeed, the day is not far off when every member of a corporation, from mail room personnel to the CEO, will be considered a “customer service representative.”


Gregory Borton co-founded Nabnasset Corporation, Acton, Massachusetts, in 1990 to develop products that enable effective customer interaction by integrating computers, telephones, voice and data. Borton led the development of Nabnasset’s flagship product, Voice Enhanced Services Platform (VESP(R)). Nabnasset is an industry leader in providing computer-telephony solutions and call center reengineering.

Copyright Technology Marketing Corporation Apr 1997

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