Making contact

The contact centre business has grown significantly in the Middle East in the last few years and this is partly due to advances in IP telephony. But is there is a danger that companies can be dazzled by technology and adopt unrealistic expectations? NME investigates.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  July 21, 2005

|~|Hamid,-Sajj_m.jpg|~|“A lot of people in the market don’t know what CRM is exactly — is it a technology or a way of working? We see CRM as a way of doing business rather than simply software. We manage relationships and use the tools that are best for the client’s budget.” - Sajjad Hamid, sales and business development manager at UAE-based contact centre Cupola Tele Services (CTS).|~|Internet Protocol (IP) is taking over the contact centre world, reflecting the increasingly tight integration of the telephony and computing worlds. Research firm, the Yankee Group, says that the proportion of call centre agents using IP telephony will rise from 10% today to 80% by 2009. This is phenomenal growth and clearly indicates that the contact centre will have to get to grips with IP. But is the move to a newer, whizzier technology a good move for contact centres? Some, like Paul Buchanan, the managing director of call centre consultants BPM, believe that IP isn’t necessarily superior. He believes that IP-based contact centres often do not have the wide range of features supported by time division multiplexing (TDM) systems and that customers are sometimes shocked and disappointed when they find this out. Buchanan sees technology being bought for technology’s sake in some cases, with this happening due to the increasing incursion of data networking people and vendors into the call centre world. “It’s the data networking sales guy that’s now selling the call centre, rather than an experienced call centre professional,” says Buchanan. “Call centres are also increasingly purchased as a ‘tick the box’ add-on to the network infrastructure project, with the majority of decision making input from IT,” he explains. As a relatively immature technology IP-based systems do lack some of the features of the well established TDM contact centre systems. Another mooted benefit of the IP contact centre, which has so far under-whelmed the business is the ability to use multi-skilled agents to blend voice and non-voice activities. Sceptics say that while this is possible, for example having agents deal with e-mails at quiet times of the day, in practice non-voice calls tend to be dealt with by separate, specialist groups. Furthermore, there is no doubt that the volume of non-voice queries into contact centres is still a trickle. As with all regions, multimedia traffic has been slow off the mark in the Middle East. In response to this, many companies that open a contact centre business start with voice calls first and move to additional functionality later. However, this does negate a key benefit of IP-based systems. “The growth of multimedia contact centres across the globe has been slower than many expected, and this has been as true in the Middle East as anywhere else,” says Murali Nswamy, business development manager for applications at Alcatel. “We estimate that multimedia contact centres currently account for 5% of call centres in the Middle East and the figure will reach 10% or more by 2008,” he adds. It is not just IP technology that has been dazzling contact centre managers. Contact centres in the region are increasingly exposed to more advanced specialised software packages claiming to make their lives easier and to help them increase revenue. “An increasing number of fast-paced organisations in the GCC have implemented tools to optimise a variety of CRM-enabled customer contact operations, such as customer service, telemarketing, debt collection, telebanking, telesales and help-desk,” says Riadh Boukhris, vice-president at Altitude Software Middle East, Africa and South Asia. There is no doubt this offers a great opportunity for vendors and can help contact centres to streamline operations but again, there is the potential for companies to buy over-engineered solutions. “A lot of people in the market don’t know what CRM is exactly — is it a technology or a way of working?” asks Sajjad Hamid, sales and business development manager at UAE-based contact centre Cupola Tele Services (CTS). “We see CRM as a way of doing business rather than simply software. We manage relationships and use the tools that are best for the client’s budget. We have developed an in-house CRM based on Microsoft Access which works well in most cases,” he explains. This is a fine illustration of clear thinking by a contact centre that hasn’t got too carried away by the latest and greatest technology. Finding a suitable fit for the customer is key. Also, before managers consider CRM applications, they should sort out the customer data that will drive the CRM application. They also need to decide if the CRM application will be used to either speed up transaction times by providing the agent with access to all the information they need to handle the call in one place, and to empower the agent to cross and up sell. In the latter situation, the manager might have to accept longer call handling time. “There is a well known case of a gulf telephone company that implemented a leading CRM application to improve customer service and ended up increasing call handle time by 100%,” says Buchanan. “The fact the agent can see e-mails from last month and can tell you what model GSM phone everyone in your family has, is not very important when you, as a customer, have just waited 45 minutes in a call queue to see what your current bill is,” he explains. While mis-guided use of CRM software can have a detrimental knock-on effect on the business, there is no doubt that it can save money in many cases. The main way it can do this is by making supporting information available to agents to help them to solve problems quickly. Without this kind of support, agents might have no other choice but to bounce customers between different agents in an attempt to find an answer. “Most contact centres incur an enormous expense because, in many cases, they cannot close a call down the first time,” says Cath Knight, Mitel EMEA call centre manager. “This results in follow up phone calls and agents chasing information from other departments which has time and cost implications,” she adds. Many of the issues of inappropriate use of technology boil down to contact centre managers being dazzled by sharp talking salespeople. This can tempt managers into giving technology a more elevated role than it deserves and expecting it to solve all kinds of business problems, almost by magic. The key to avoiding this is having a strong emphasis on people and processes, so that each technology proposal is thought of in these terms and assessed in a more realistic way. “My understanding is that technology is not as important as other factors such as people and process. I would rank staff as the most important consideration as when we are in a people and relationships focused business. Next comes processes, then technology,” says Hamid. Mitel’s Knight sees some contact centres having a good balance in this respect, and others lacking this balance. However, she is quick to point out that contact centres have not finished evolving, with under-developed technology being deployed in many cases. For example, many companies still separate multimedia and CRM from the contact centre environment. Even the most determined luddite in the TDM camp, must concede that IP is well on its way to dominating the contact centre environment. For all its shortcomings, and for all the attachment to legacy technology and its benefits, IP clearly is going to win out in the contact centre. It is not hard to see why, it delivers new functionality and opens up new possibilities for the business. But perhaps the most important point in favour of moving to IP is cost savings. While no one is suggesting that it necessarily make sense to rip out a perfectly good TDM system for an IP version — when replacing an exhausted TDM or kitting out a greenfield site IP is the best option. Indeed IP technology is providing a way for new players to get into the contact centre business with less cost than before and helps them to compete with established players. This is not a simple matter of having one infrastructure instead of two, although this helps, as IP installations are also driving implementation time scales down, which in turn reduces costs. “The reduction in hardware costs is just one example of cost reduction. Applications in general are cheaper to deploy in an IP environment – this means that for smaller organisations, options are now open that weren’t available to them in a traditional TDM environment,” says Knight. Others are making bolder claims still for the IP environment. Some vendors are enhancing phone features to the extent that they say agents do not need a PC at the desktop to be effective. The limited screen size and processing power of a phone means that desktop PC manufacturers can sleep easy in their beds. However, the fact that phones can take on some PC tasks, could provide a workable option for some call centre environments, where there is less emphasis on the agent calling up large amounts of supporting data. “The phone can take the place of the PC by providing web browser functionality. The latest phones have XML support and can handle information and voice interaction simultaneously. It is simpler and cheaper to deploy than PCs,” says Ghazi Atallah, general manager at Cisco Middle East. A further cost cutting measure is to take the migration to IP a step at a time. This is the route that the vast majority of call centres, and indeed enterprises, are taking with regard to IP telephony. A hybrid environment is one where the TDM backplane still plays a key role. This could be a legacy TDM switch that had been IP enabled, or a telephony system where the intelligence, for example the telephony application software, has been removed to separate industry standard servers on the network and the legacy TDM backplane cabinet is being used as a gateway. “For many companies, scrapping established systems would not be wise or economically feasible in the current ‘do more with less’ business climate,” says Nidal Abou-Ltaif, managing director of Avaya in the Middle East and North Africa. “There is valuable technology in existing systems and many customers can now leverage them in new ways,” he adds. As well as cost benefits, the hybrid solution provides a number of other advantages including giving the contact centre time to adjust processes and staff to the new system. “With a hybrid environment, the systems will back each other up should one fail, no forklift upgrade is required, there is minimum interruption of service and the learning curve is easier for staff,” says Serjios El-Hage, managing director for EMW South West Asia. EMW is a systems integrator specialising in converged networks. The anywhere, anytime ethos is also central to the success of IP. It used to be that call centre agents were confined to their premises, but now with the call centre system residing on IP, agents can work in other parts of the enterprise or even from home. IP also makes it possible to set up a regional or worldwide call centre and have calls delivered from around the world, via the low cost IP networks. Buchanan says there is at least one world-leading example of this type of call centre in the Gulf and there will be many more. Call Centre agents need no longer be in one room, they can be anywhere on the network. This enables the contact centre to utilise remote workers and temporary locations and allows contact centres to set up operations much faster and evolve how they locate their workers less painfully. “Technology such as Citrix MetaFrame allows us to access data remotely, securely and in real time. This means that users can work from home. This can cut down on infrastructure costs, which is key if your HQ is based in a high rent area,” says Hamid. IP also, in theory, will help contact centres in the Middle East to compete more effectively for business outside the UAE. At the moment, the call costs to serve out-of-country customers usually outweighs fees so it isn’t economical. With widespread use of IP networks and a deregulated market, regional contact centres will be better placed to compete with rivals in India, China and elsewhere. Although we criticised IP systems for sometimes lacking the features that TDM systems have, it is important to mention that IP call centre providers are also adding new, and sometimes, revolutionary features. These have been talked up for many years, without necessarily delivering, although the consensus is that they are now bearing fruit. “IP call centre vendors and independent software companies are building simple, but effective, easy to deploy XML applications that are accessible from the agent’s IP phone,” says Buchanan. These include company telephone directory access, real time statistics and the ability to broadcast messages, such as a sale, birthday greeting or weather forecast. “My favorite is a simple additional line option on the services menu for an agent to nominate a best call,” says Buchanan. “Each week the supervisor reviews the recordings of the best calls and awards a prize. This is a simple, low cost way to encourage better behavior from the agents,” he enthuses. IP is a double-edged sword for contact centres and while there is a lot to be gained from making the migration to the technology, companies are advised to proceed with care. Protecting the existing TDM investment by migrating to a hybrid system is often a wise move and can buy the company time to acclimatise to the new technology. Taking this approach, and keeping business priorities firmly in focus will allow the contact centre to make use of the technology most appropriate to its ambitions.||**||

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