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Call centers for the new millennium

When Egg, the Prudential's direct banking arm, announced last year that it would only be taking applications for its high interest savings accounts via the Internet, it marked a turning point for eCommerce in the UK. The accounts' preferential interest rates for online customers are a direct result of the cheaper running costs of providing on-line financial services - estimated to be ten times lower than accounts managed by high street branches. At the time, Egg believed that around 30 per cent of its customers had Internet access and expected its innovative approach to attract two million new customers within the next 5 years.

While e-Commerce companies can significantly reduce the overheads associated with traditional business practice, they still need to provide a quality service - a similar challenge to the one which faced the early call centre pioneers. With the convergence of voice and data traffic into single communications networks, comes the chance of combining the experience of voice-enabled call centres with the opportunities offered by the Internet - creating the ultimate multimedia contact centre. The ability of the latest communications platforms to cope with a multiplicity of networks including IP, ATM or circuit-switched makes this a reality today.

The 'direct' approach to winning customers is already common place and will continue to grow. Currently 36 per cent of all UK television advertising carries a freephone or low-call rate number to link potential customers to call a centre. While 22 per cent of all consumer products in British supermarkets carry a 'care-line' number - with 26 per cent of the UK population claiming to use the service. As contact centres become integral to more business processes and take on a 'strategic' value for companies these figures will continue to rise. Technology, particularly the convergence of voice and data is transforming the cost base of the multimedia contact centre and positioning it at the heart of the e-Commerce revolution. Furthermore, as Egg is now demonstrating, the Internet is a preferred means of communications for a large and growing number of consumers. These opportunities for reducing cost and growing market share are already providing the impetus for web-enable call centres.

For many businesses, multimedia contact centres will be more efficient than their 'voice-only' equivalents. Customers will use a company's Internet Web site to privately "'browse" product information before making their purchase, freeing-up agents to deal with sales rather than longer enquiry calls. However, contact centres will still need a combination of voice and Internet communications to be really successful while most people have a single telephone line at home.

A single telephone line currently prevents a conversation between the customer and the contact centre until the Internet session is finished. However, the emergence of high-quality VoIP technology will increasingly allow customers to use the Internet and speak to a call centre agent over a single telephone line, simultaneously.

In the business environment, access to the Internet is already high enough to make contact centres a viable proposition. Nationally, access to the Internet is around 15 per cent and the success of contact centres in serving the mainstream consumer market relies on getting more people online. The future looks promising - the development of free Internet access providers, pioneered by Dixon's Freeserve, has encouraged a surge in new users. However, perhaps the most exciting opportunity for growth is access via the TV set. With online shopping set to become as easy as watching television, contact centres will take a primary role in providing customer service and encouraging customer loyalty. As this reaches critical mass it will inevitably transform the way that all business is conducted - not only impacting the larger corporations but also opening opportunities for the small-to-medium-size business (SMB) sector too.

The SMB sector has already taken to the call centre for voice-based transactions. According to a recent study* by the market analysts, Datamonitor, 86 per cent of formal call centres have less than 100 agent positions. Furthermore, some 900,000 people in the UK work in 'informal' call centres.

SMB call centres are widely used in nearly every vertical market. A Datamonitor's report shows that while the technology and telecoms sector leads, there is a significant take-up in the retail, consumer products, entertainment, utilities, transport, tourism and remote shopping sectors too. Despite this diversity, the report says that SMB call centres have a lot in common - with 40 per cent citing increasing customer loyalty and improving service levels as their most pressing concerns.

The sector's demand for call centres reflects the changing nature of business competition. Customers are now less interested in how big a supplier is - they respond to the level of service it provides. This combined with the proliferation of e-Commerce on the Internet demonstrates that SMBs today have a real opportunity to compete against companies of any size, anywhere in the world. However, they need to offer customers the service levels traditionally associated with the large investments made in IT and communications systems by big companies. SMBs and call centre suppliers are increasingly looking at new cost models that address the historic concern about the cost of ownership. SMBs need to avoid the human resource overhead of dedicated managers and agents. Instead, they are looking for call centre solutions that can be run by small teams, headed-up by an individual who works as both a team leader and an agent. In this environment, the call centre needs to be configured to support management by exception - alerting the team leader when there is a problem or decision to make, rather than provide a constant stream of management data. As vendors deliver these solutions the SMB sector will open up to more of the benefits of telebusiness and adapt the functionality of the call centre to meet their own requirements. Among multi-national corporations and in the SMB sector, the development of the call centre has been supported by a tremendous shift consumer attitude and people's growing ease with modern communications. Ultimately it is consumer behaviour that will define the contact centre of the next century and, based on the mass acceptance that the technology currently receives, this will inevitably mean the integration of the latest communications techniques - particularly the Internet. The continuing ascent of the call centre will also ensure that its benefits penetrate the SMB market as well and offer the potential for an even more profound shift in its role. The widespread deployment of the technology into every stratum of businesses will position it as a force that will become as ubiquitous in the twenty-first century as the cash register became in the preceding one hundred years.

*Datamonitor's report - 'Small Call Centres and Helpdesks in Europe 1999'


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