Contact centers — whether hosted, premises-based or hybrid — are hot tamales these days despite an economic slowdown. At the heart of this sustained demand lies the need for companies to shore up their bread and butter customers. Accordingly, the customer experience is moving front and center for businesses, opening the door for agents and VARs to sell on a specific, in-demand business need.
“The market is actually changing and shifting,” said Ed McGarr, vice president of channel and business development at UCN Inc., which offers the hosted “inContact” service through channel partners. “Although the U.S. economy is suffering, the need for customer contact, support and services hasn’t gone away, but is actually magnified.”
One of the biggest reasons for that is because improving the customer experience in the call center is something companies are willing to pay for — even when times are financially rough. Why? “One word: competition,” said analyst Bruce Temkin of Forrester Research, in its report, The State of Customer Experience In 2008. “Firms increasingly view customer experience as critical to their overall strategy. Two-thirds of respondents say their firms want to differentiate their customer experience from competitors, while only a handful were willing to lag behind.”
In fact, more than half of the participants said their financial outlook was in decline (10 percent said “major decline”), but 42 percent of them said this made the customer experience even more important. “Customer experience spending is partially immune from cuts,” said Temkin. “How will firms shift spending if their financial outlook declines? Mostly by cutting back on items other than customer experience.”
Accordingly, contact center offerings are focusing more and more on how they can help companies improve that all-important metric. “A paradigm shift is occurring where businesses are now starting to understand that a customer’s experience with their contact center — whether negative or positive — has a direct impact on their revenues and profitability,” said Asif Rehman, director of solutions marketing at call center vendor Mitel. “The contact center is transitioning from a cost center to profit center.”
Channel partners would do well to know how different systems address the customer experience. For instance, Mitel, which sells an on-premises, server-based contact center via VARs and distributors, has built several functionalities into the product to address that transition, such as enabling multichannel communications — e-mail, Web chat, SMS or traditional voice — with a consistent level of service regardless of choice. Also the system allows the connection of customers to the right experts across a virtual, distributed organization, and it supports presence for the contact center, the enterprise and the extended business community that includes partners and supplier. All this is in an effort to break down the organizational walls that prevent quality customer service, he said.
These functionality dovetail with the changing landscape of the enterprise, and give channel partners a main business need to address while pitching.
“Businesses are facing a perfect storm of factors to weigh in the strategy of their call centers today,” said Ali Giacomin, product director for contact center solutions at Qwest Communications International Inc., which sells a hosted contact center via its agent channel. “Both customer contact changes and a shift in [call center] agent business models are changing the game for contact centers. Customers are expecting and demanding more ability to self-service on the Web, but still want the ability to quickly and easily speak to a live agent. More and more, customers look to e-mail and Web chat for agent interaction. On the flip side, mobility is driving more need to support advanced self service and SMS messaging capabilities to support customers. Meanwhile, the energy prices are driving up costs for both agents (commuting costs) and businesses (rising utility costs), which is influencing the acceptance and wider adoption of work-at-home or remote agents.”
Qwest, for its part, enables multichannel contact management and remote/branch office agent capabilities as part of its network-hosted solution; both it and UCN own, house and maintain the equipment, offering the contact center as a service for a recurring fee. Partners, in turn, earn a recurring commission. The hosted nature of the service means Qwest’s Hosted Contact Center provides common tools and reporting for all call center agents, regardless of location, for that importantly consistent experience and management capability, Giacomin said.
There are other options as well to effect the multichannel, multigeographic enterprise. “One of the most common ways of really improving the customer experience is integration with the CRM and sales automations systems that companies have employed,” said UCN’s McGarr. “The SaaS model has matured over the years to gain the confidence of companies who in the past were skeptical to deploy them. Now, to integrate here is simply a natural extension, and the two go together like peanut butter and jelly! inContact offers extremely flexible intelligent skills-based routing. Couple this with integration into these other systems, and you have a powerful platform for delivering efficiency in time to solution, and thus a high level of customer satisfaction.”
Speaking of management and efficiency, this is another point agents can hit on, because many companies with existing call centers find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in giving good customer experience due to inconsistent management capabilities. This is a selling point for channel partners too. Recent research on end users from Siemens Enterprise Communications highlighted the drain on agent productivity caused by increasingly complex administration tasks in the call center. On average, agents spend 71 percent of their time entering data, making notes, seeking advice and reading from information screens, along with five separate applications to deal with a call. That leads to problems resolving the customer’s issue quickly, efficiently or even correctly.
Bringing in an all-new system is one option, but for customers unwilling to do that, channel partners can turn to applications, such as Rostrvm Solutions’ “CallGuide” application, which is designed to integrate with multiple desktop applications to provide agents with all the information they need in a single screen.
If agents can get the pitch and the customer experience business needs down, contact centers can prove to be a valuable addition to the portfolio, and not just because better customer service approaches are in demand, Qwest’s Giacomin emphasized. “This is a great portfolio for agents,” he said. “Many don’t sell IVRs or ACDs so this lets them get into that aspect of a customer’s spend. It pulls through lots of other services, like toll-free, long-distance, local services such as PRIs and dedicated trunks, Internet access, etc. It’s a very ‘sticky’ service, meaning low customer churn. Plus it lets them get into a value-selling cycle versus price-only, because contact center efficiency and capabilities have such high impact to the customer.”