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Call Centers: The Next Generation

Call centers are transforming into communications centers where all customer contacts are managed.

This Month's Experts


Vice President, Customer Loyalty ServicesUnumProvident Corp. (Chattanooga and Portland, ME, $9.3 billion in assets).


Vice President of Operations Nationwide Financial (Columbus, a unit of Nationwide, $117 billion in assets).


Director of Contact Centers SAFECO (Seattle, more than $30 billion in assets).


Senior Director of Product Marketing Jacada (Atlanta).


Q: What are the challenges in cost-justifying investments in call center technology? Is it becoming easier or more difficult to make a business case for investing in call center technology?

A: Chuck Baker, UnumProvident: Cost/benefit analysis clearly shows the productivity and efficiency gains achieved by call center technology investments. The real challenge for our business leaders, then, is to prioritize technology enhancements among the multiple needs of a company of our size and scale. We are, in a sense, competing with other departments for financial and IT resources, and it's our job to justify the business case for placing call center technology high on the priority list.

A: Rhodes Baker, Nationwide Financial: I wouldn't say it's any easier or more difficult to cost justify investment in call center technology, but there are certainly challenges. For some companies in the current economic environment, the first challenge is identifying available budget dollars to invest anywhere. These companies are downsizing and delaying investments. Where investment capacity exists, new call center technologies can be justified on the basis of cost savings or service enhancements, but often for both reasons. For example, voice recognition systems can handle many customer applications quickly, effectively and cheaply. Customers are happier when their questions and transactions are handled quickly and easily, and these highly scalable technologies are cheaper and more consistent than scores of individual call center representatives.

A: Suzanne Rapier, SAFECO: As we institute more technology, the cost to "sell and measure" savings in a dynamic call center environment is more difficult. At times, multiple initiatives are competing against—or complementing—a change in technology, so it is hard to show true savings. As a result, most implementations do not fully realize the savings, and management can become skeptical. In addition, most call center managers do not think like CFOs. We need to link our investments to enhanced revenues and higher quality. If a call center is running efficiently, the savings in people (our greatest budgetary expense) does not solely justify the technology. Better measures to consider include customer satisfaction/retention, sell/cross-sell/ identity leads/generate revenue, a gain in warehousing/analyzing data or a gain of innovation.

A: Rob Morris, Jacada: History has demonstrated phenomenal success with many call center technologies. For example, legacy extension is a proven, cost-effective strategy that provides the opportunity to realize immediate return-on-investment (ROI). Therefore, whether the goal is to reduce costs, increase revenue, or simply improve customer service, the ability to calculate ROI has never been stronger. Moreover, in today's highly competitive marketplace, any technology implementation that allows an organization to interact with its customer in a more efficient manner is an easy sell.

Q: What new and emerging technologies are transforming call center capabilities, and what is their potential for insurance companies?

A: Baker, UnumProvident: The key to effective service lies in the ability to provide customers with multiple access points into our company. Building on more traditional voice and interactive voice (IVR) communication methods, our company is now investing in Internet-based technologies to provide additional self-service and full-service options to our customers. These investments, along with our workforce management software, help us better integrate our call center operations and maximize efficiencies across multiple locations.

A: Baker, Nationwide Financial: Call centers are migrating more broadly into communications centers where all customer contacts are managed, including phone, fax, e-mail, automated response systems and voice recognition systems. The technology around voice recognition has improved and continues to be developed to the point where all types of service organizations are introducing new applications almost daily. Immediate customer access and ease of use, as well as cost reductions, are driving this trend. An area of tremendous opportunity is customer relationship management. Call centers are being transformed from product support to a relationship management focus. There are numerous companies with new software packages that manage information. This occurs at the desktop level with integration of imaging and customer information systems to enable a service professional to more effectively sell and serve customers. The actual flow of information includes collecting, sorting, categorizing, routing, responding, filing and retrieving.

A: Rapier: New and emerging technologies are not transforming call center capabilities. The "second generation" of contact center technology is. Instead of a hodge-podge of applications to achieve best-in-class technology, vendors are emerging with integrated solutions. As well, we are seeing advanced linking of data that can better align and customize business practices.

A: Morris: Legacy extension technologies are allowing call centers to realize enormous increases in employee productivity and huge reductions in training costs, as well. At the same time, call centers are integrating this legacy functionality with specialized CRM applications that help customer service representatives better understand customer needs. Improving user productivity and enabling a more customer-specific approach is having an immediate impact on the bottom line within call centers today.

Q: Are call centers beginning to be used for outbound telemarketing and selling, or are they still used primarily for incoming business and service?

A: Baker, UnumProvident: We utilize telemarketing on a limited basis, feeling it is more appropriate in our uniquely specialized business for our call centers to take incoming calls from brokers and customers. Our innovative service approach includes a Sales Support Center dedicated to managing requests for proposals from our brokers. The Center handled more than 600,000 such requests last year. Call center representatives go beyond taking the initial call and generating a sales proposal, using outbound calling to follow up on proposal activities.

A: Baker, Nationwide Financial: For financial services products it's primarily inbound. The prevailing consumer attitude is one of impatience, even disdain, when interrupted at home by telemarketers with a sales pitch—consumers want those interactions on their terms, how, when and where they choose. Outbound telemarketing is more valued in business-to-business where contacts are made with agents, producers and other partners. The purpose of these calls is to provide information and assistance to enable the distribution partner to serve more customers, more effectively.

A: Rapier: In SAFECO's property & casualty companies, contact centers are used primarily for inbound business and service. We are exploring how to improve our processes by using outbound calls to fully resolve customer/agent needs.

Q: How might privacy regulations impact call center operations?

A: Baker, UnumProvident: The privacy issue revolves around sharing information with third parties. UnumProvident is putting a process in place that defines when and how to secure appropriate authorizations. We recognize that this necessary and important step will take extra time and will require that the company invests in appropriate training and staffing to make sure the processing does not adversely affect UnumProvident's responsiveness to customers.

A: Baker, Nationwide Financial: Federal and state privacy regulations, and even more importantly consumers' concerns for information security, are resulting in new procedures, processes, and training for Nationwide Financial call center staff. New scripts are being developed. Service representatives are asking more questions to clearly identify the caller and verify proper authorization for access to information. Conversations are being recorded, reviewed and fed back through coaching and training. Because of this growing focus on privacy, peoples' personal information is being better protected. Consumer concerns for privacy will become even more important over time and companies that demonstrate a commitment to information security through their customer contacts will enjoy a competitive advantage.

A: Rapier: It is too early to speculate. Key areas under review are: the handling of customer information, call monitoring, caller authentication, and the sharing of personal information.

Peggy Bresnick Kendler has been a writer for 30 years. She has worked as an editor, publicist and school district technology coordinator. During the past decade, Bresnick Kendler has worked for UBM TechWeb on special financialservices technology-centered ... View Full Bio

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