It's Good to Talk

The 21st century call centre is a hotbed of advanced technology, systems and processes. Implementing the right solution can generate business benefits and cost savings for forward-thinking Middle East enterprises.

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By  Sherief Younis Published  March 1, 2007

|~|Sukamal-Boxi-200.jpg|~|Boxi: Call centres have a responsibility to ensure a high level of customer service is delivered.|~|The 21st century call centre is a hotbed of advanced technology, systems and processes. Implementing the right solution can generate business benefits and cost savings for forward-thinking Middle East enterprises.

The thought of ringing a call centre is enough to elicit a resigned shake of the head and the grudging realisation that the depths of your wallet and limit of your patience are about to be sorely tested.

The prospect of calling an extortionate premium phone line and navigating a labyrinth of agents, only to arrive at an automated voice repeatedly assuring you how important you and your enquiry are, is typically best avoided. However, the call centre is in transition.

Companies have quickly re-evaluated the meaning and importance of their stance on customer service thanks to the wealth of IT call centre technology at their disposal. And companies are eager to implement the technology if they have not already done so.

The humble call centre has gradually been transformed from the initial company defence (or repellent) to an efficient customer portal for the business.

While it still represents the first general point of contact for disgruntled customers, companies are now moving towards a new, improved bastion of professionalism that is capable of catering for every query and providing the service customers demand.

IP telephony, computer telephony integration (CTI), predictive dialling and interactive voice response (IVR) are technologies companies should consider if they want to provide the next level of customer service, and it seems many have been quick to adapt.

With the advent of the outsourcing boom, companies have also realised that delivering an efficient service to customers at the front-end can have healthy business repercussions. In an age where customer and brand loyalty is whimsical but a superlative level of service is expected, there is a new emphasis on call centres and the customer experience.

Outsourcing services to hubs like India and Egypt might save on cost of operation and reduce overheads, but security issues and compromised service quality can be as abhorrent as the potential of increasing profit is tempting.

For companies looking to enhance their customer service levels directly, outsourcing offers little, especially if there isn’t a substantial workforce to replace.

While some businesses look to consolidate upon their existing customer services, an increasing number of enterprises - large and small – in the Middle East are actively utilising the technology available and extending services for their customers and protecting their business interests in the process.

“We’re finding the region is becoming more and more interested in rolling out sophisticated, intelligent solutions to utilise the resources available to companies and to provide customers with an improved productivity and a better service. Overall the communications are becoming more intelligent,” Neville Perry, converged applications manager at Avaya, explains.

Employing six agents and servicing around 350 inbound and outbound calls a day, small centres like the LG Call Centre in Dubai have a fractional customer base in comparison to larger centres but according to Sukamal Boxi, the centre's manager, there is still incentive to actively incorporate new technologies in an effort to provide a comprehensive service for customers.

“We are always looking forward to new technologies to improve our services and provide customers with a smoother and more productive call centre operation.

"Our system is based on Nortel hardware and Symposium software. We also have Axxium software, Pan Cyber’s CTI solution and GFI’s fax solution and global system for communications (GSM)-short message service (SMS) Solution,” says Sukamal Boxi, IT Manager at LG Electronics Middle East.

||**|||~|Rob-Baker-200.gif|~|Baker: Contact centres need to provide as much direct customer access as possible to be successful.|~|“We believe quality of service is increased as customers have access to a call centre which is working directly under the parent company. Reports are regularly submitted to the company directors and the managing director for analysis.

"Because the LG call centre is a non-profit service, we are only responsible for ensuring that customer demands are met and an efficient quality of service is sustained and delivered,” he adds.

Operating on a number of systems including Cisco’s enterprise internet protocol contact centre (IPCC), Sabre’s reservation solution and Witness call recording, Ruth Birkin, Gulf Air’s award winning contact centre manager, is eager to outline the role IT is playing within the airline’s contact centre framework.

“We have a Cisco enterprise IPCC - for handling our calls, we use Sabre as our reservation system, so that’s what the agents use day in day out - and we use Witness for call recording and quality control which is also operating twenty four seven,” she explains

“We service calls internationally from a lot of countries in the GCC as well as the UK, Ireland and South Africa. We also have offices in France, Singapore, Australia and Germany so it’s basically wherever the airline flies to. We’re open 24 hours a day here, we never close.

"When our other offices close, we have an out of hours system that routes the calls to the centre here [in Oman] and it identifies where the call is coming from and what language the customer wants the call to be conducted in, whether it’s Arabic or English,” she adds

As companies show an increasing propensity to buy into the ‘one call does it all’ doctrine, regardless of the customer-orientated sentiment; it’s an ethos that’s fast becoming obsolete as a result of the technology deployed in centres.

There is a wealth of services available to customers from a single phone call but the role of the internet has a significant role to play in the development of call centres with IP telephony, online interactivity and e-mail, ready alternatives to cater for every customer preference.

“It’s not just about calls anymore. We receive a substantial volume of contacts through new direct, legacy voice systems, email, and other means that justifies our continued expansion and investment.

"This is the future of all successful contact centres: provide as much choice as possible for those needing access to technical teams,” explains Rob Baker, support delivery manager for EMEA at HP ProCurve Networking.

Responsible for a 50-agent call centre, servicing customers from the Middle East and North Africa, Baker believes providing as many channels for customer interaction as possible is the key to a successful contact centre.

“We have the legacy HP access solution where customers with networking servers and desktops prefer to go through that because of the multiple technologies available.

"As a differentiator in EMEA for us, the direct access solution provides a toll-free number and an agent can start trouble-shooting for you immediately in multiple languages. In EMEA we can handle 13 languages,” he says.

“How does the customer, user, partner, vendor, whomever want to contact you? What is the most convenient way for them to do so and you should then be meeting those needs. It’s good for their business and it’s good for our business.

"If you provide as much choice as possible for customers to interact with you, you’re going to have a successful contact centre operation,” he adds.

The prominence of IT and interactive technology has rendered the traditional call centre technologically obsolete. Contact centres capable of incorporating a number of access channels present the customer with a variety of new ways to interact directly with the company and this selection will only enhance the service.

Extended features like 24-hour access and specially designated teams to deal directly with specific enquiries complement the emergence of technologies like CTI, predictive dialing and voice recognition in reducing average call time.

“We are finding right now that customers are very proactive in the way they are trying to employ technology. There is currently a large contingency using these products and all of the technology has been deployed at many sites in the region.

"As more and more customers look to optimise and look to how they can make their contact centre more efficient, there has been a very proactive response from our customers in the region. Most requests are coming direct from customers as opposed to us marketing the technology to them,” says Perry.

||**|||~|Ruth-Birkin---Gulf-Air-200.gif|~|Birkin: Training and retaining contact centre staff is as essential as the technology itself.|~|Both the Gulf Air WPCC and the ProCurve centre have adopted designated troubleshooting teams in an effort to streamline the customer calling process as part of extending services further.

“We have developments like our premium team, which has been established to specifically handle calls from our first and business class passengers. We also have plans to migrate our services to other countries internationally and in the region. We’re focusing on generating more calls from Qatar and Egypt and improving our out of hours service for Malaysia, the Philippines and the US. It’s about extending our services further,” Birkin says.

A recent project headed by Invita, a Bahrain-based business process outsourcing provider, saw Intertec Systems and Cosmocom partner with Invita to establish a contact centre in Bahrain. Housing 60 agents and taking around 4,000 inbound calls a day, the company implemented an IP-based platform as well as dialling technology to deal with the substantial flow of calls.

“We have predictive and progressive dialling technology. The technology we are using is not called computer telephony integration (CTI); it’s called computer-to-computer integration (CCI). This is a newer technology because we are running a fully IP-based platform, so there is no traditional time-division multiplexing (TDM) integration with the computers because the whole infrastructure is running on the IP technology,” explains Hisham Al-Rayes, general manager at Invita.

“CCI has improved operations because having the infrastructure run on IP technology allows the clients to monitor their services and applications remotely through the internet and have the call centre extended at various locations across the region,” he adds.

For larger operations housing a number of agents, monitoring the constant flow of data is essential to ensure queries are effectively met and that the information is at hand if a follow up enquiry needs to be made.

“[We manage our data in] real-time. We can do forecasting, we can do trend analysis and it’s all continuously updated. If someone’s working on a case, we know the product; the current situation, the customer and we can search through our database to glean the information we need to,” explains Baker.

“We try to have the most technical people possible at all levels of the contact centre (ProCurve Competency Centre). There is no question that having the organisational discipline to keep technical and non-technical skills at the highest level has positive cost and quality impacts. This also provides for the fastest possible solution time for customers.

“As a proof point we enjoy a first-time fix rate of around 90% for our Middle East and North Africa customers, meaning the first time they contact us on an issue we provide a solution. Direct access to an engineer who immediately starts to work the customer’s issue is a differentiator for us,” Baker adds.

Although it is a case of organising and indexing information to improve the service for future reference, the technology can also extend to agent monitoring and logging the nature of the enquiry, which is then used to form troubleshooting teams dependent on the context of the call.

“We’re looking at more ways of evaluating voice recordings, introducing screen recordings so they can monitor what agents are doing and how efficiently they are doing it. There’s also a score carding process where a scorecard system measures performance of agents,” says Perry.

The added interactivity of an online environment will enable centres to incorporate features like interactive voice response (IVR) and predictive dialing, which will improve the process further. Customers will have their queries addressed quickly and directly with a reduction in queuing and time spent on hold. Companies will also be able rely on the system to guide the customer to the relevant agent. According to providers, these are the technologies that companies should consider to improve service even further.

||**|||~|Neville-Perry-200.gif|~|Perry: Customers in the region are very pro active in adopting and implementing new technology.|~|“Tools that many contact centres employ are interactive voice response (IVR) making them more efficient. For example, many of the banks and service providers in the region are looking at deploying automated speech solutions to reduce the time of the traditional IVR flow and enable people to use voice," Perry continues.

"Instead of listening to a voice and pressing a button, you can say what you are looking for directly instead of going through three or four different functions. This will help agents deal with enquiries and help customers avoid queuing systems,” he explains.

“For example, a lot of banks are growing and we are seeing a lot of interest in predictive diallers where businesses want to reach their customer base quickly and efficiently. They are trying to segment whom to call and where to call them, so predictive dialling enables them to efficiently reach a large customer base and push specific products to them,” he adds.

Salim A J, product manager at Emerging Technologies, an interactive service provider, echoes the sentiment that interactive solutions represent the future for call centres.

He believes that voice recognition technology provides a more efficient, comprehensive service in comparison with an agent, which converts into a return on investment as a result of factors like wages and recruitment.

“Voice recognition solutions can work like a virtual customer service representative (CSR) and it is estimated that the speech automated agent cost less than 20% of the cost of CSR when compared.

"It is well known that speech solutions will reduce costs. Once a speech solution is deployed it is ready to answer every call, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year without worrying about recruitment, turnover, salary increase and costly infrastructure investments,” he explains.

Regardless of the technology deployed, providers and managers underline staff turnover as a critical issue for a call centres. Training and retaining staff - as well as ensuring they’re happy - remains a contentious issue for call centre managers globally, but it seems Middle East agents are significantly more content than their American and Indian counterparts.

“Staff turnover is dependent on how the technology is managed. It’s very much down to the contact centre manager; how they’re deploying the technology, how they’re managing the agents. There are lots and lots of tools to make a contact centre a better place to work,” Perry explains.

“Agents actively look for centres that are flexible to their needs. Implementing technologies like predictive dialling and decreasing staff turnover create a proven return on investment,” he adds.

While managers admit they have experienced some staff turnover they are confident it is not an increasing problem as long as a positive working environment is maintained.

“Obviously we do experience some staff turnover. We have created a career path and planning for our staff so that they can grow as the contact centre grows.

"We recruit internally for new placements and the training department invests a lot of resources to continually develop the skills of the team members,” explains Tanya Barton, contact centre manager at MedServe.

Unlike most contact centres, agents at Gulf Air’s WPCC have the opportunity to progress within the airline as part of its internal promotions policy. Investing high levels of training and development in the call centre staff and offering incentives rewarding consistent performance has paid dividends.

“The centre has been established for over three and a half years. We have 150 seats and 193 people based here. There’s 167 agents with 98% of them Omani. We see the centre as good way of training staff for a career with the airline.

"Last year we saw 16 staff internally promoted and two of those made it onto the pilot training programme. It’s not the same for all call centres but there’s a good opportunity to progress here and we encourage that.”

With call centre technology reducing call times and direct enquiries down increasingly specific channels, it enables companies to focus on softer business issues like retaining and improving their workforce and investing in staff progression.

For companies looking to service a global customer base, aspects like ensuring there’s a capable bilingual workforce in place can be addressed secure in the knowledge that a reliable, consistent system is already in place and able to mitigate for future expansion and development.

“We know the technology is there if we want to expand our business focus in the future but there are no plans at the moment,” Birkin concludes.

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