As carriers continue to differentiate on customer service while feeling pressured to reduce opex, driving efficiency wherever possible in the call centers has become a critical issue - as has driving new revenue through this unique channel. New technologies are tackling the triple goals of efficiency, customer retention and new sales with approaches that put customers at the center and service representatives in the limelight.

Today’s call center has many roles and performs many functions, including order entry, trouble ticketing, help desk, marketing, sales, product specialization and more.

Microsoft CCF integrates multiple third-party applications in one view.

“We see the market converging, and that’s impacting CRM, billing and OSS,” says Yancy Oshita, senior director of global communications and media industry at Oracle Corp. “In the call center, there’s a focus on how to more efficiently handle all the traditional functions, order entry and pricing, along with new requirements arising from the multiservice market. Video calling, ringtones and the like mean that multiple order entry and management requirements, along with service fulfillment and handset fulfillment with wireless, are now part of the call center footprint.”

Amid the complexity, the agent must be able to deliver the appropriate answers within an appropriate time period - or risk customer dissatisfaction. “Now, more than ever, there is a need for churn reduction,” says Brian Huff, marketing manager for the Synchrony product at Cincom Systems Inc. Synchrony handles interaction management, and multichannel routing to the appropriate agent. “Competitive threats from mobile operators, VoIP providers, cablecos - the landscape is starting to get crowded. Carriers are finally waking up to the fact that they have to compete on something other than price.”

Microsoft Corp. launched the Microsoft Customer Care Framework (CCF) in May, an integrated software solution for call center operations. CCF integrates existing CRM, OSS and BSS systems into a unified platform that consolidates disparate applications and automates contact center workflow. Telution Inc. has pre-integrated its COMX Order Management software with Microsofts CCF, to target providers that need order handling and customer interaction management associated with complex services bundles, including VoIP and IP TV. By leveraging the joint solution, says Telution, service providers are able to remove the rework, manual ordering and customer care processes that can disrupt service delivery and customer satisfaction. “The key to differentiating service in a competitive telecommunications and cable marketplace, now, comes down to how well a company serves a customer,” says Kent Steffen, Telution’s CEO. All service providers must be able to more fluidly manage interactions with customers.”

That includes accommodating customer preferences. “There are new services being offered, along with a big uptake in self-service,” says Mark de la Vega, president of CRM at Amdocs, which offers the Clarify CRM platform. “People want to interact with the carrier when and where they choose. In that environment, the call center becomes vital to keeping customers happy.”

In the midst of complex service and product offerings and customer retention concerns, there is increasing pressure for the call center to become a profit center through upsell and cross-sell tactics.

“There is no new frontier,” says Matt McConnell, co-founder and chairman of Knowlagent, which trains call center agents to cross-sell and upsell. Knowlagent integrates with the call distribution system to automatically push targeted sales training information to customer service representatives (CSRs) during call downtimes. The system identifies the successful tactics of the top 20 percent of agents, then models those back to the general populace. “You have to sell to existing customers and gain more market share because there are more products chasing fewer consumer dollars,” McConnell adds.

Monetizing customer service means integrating more analytics into the call center. Amdocs has added analytics from SAS along with automatic cross-sell and upsell scripting to help with CSR marketing functions. “Streamlining the CSR’s job, eliminating the pure amount of data they have to process, is required,” says Scott Kolman, director of product marketing at Amdocs. “With more services, devices, convergence, hardware, software, third party content and more channels to get these things than ever before, this has elevated the agent to a different plane. They are trusted advisors making recommendations based on usage patterns and preferences, rather than pushing the flavor of the month. They take on a central role.”

The sheer amount of account information available to a CSR can muck up the works. So, to make that central role easier to take on, some offerings selectively slim down the amount of information the agent has to work with. Cincom’s Synchrony platform offers a single portal view that pulls information from various systems, presenting only that which is relevant to the customer in question. The desktop thus changes with each customer call, providing account information, Web sites and applications related to the service in question, and back-office information.

“This is an excellent productivity tool,” says Huff. “There’s only one system, and only the pertinent information. Agents otherwise have too much at their fingertips, and searching through it is time consuming.”

The automatic information pushing allows agents to concentrate on a pitch, rather than toggling back and forth between systems. “Every service call should be seen as a sales call,” says Huff. “Carriers don’t have a fixed store where people can browse, so the CSR should be able to take the relevant information and make informed recommendations.”

Oracle has embedded “Roving Analytics” into its contact center solution, which identifies which callers are more likely to take new services based on their history and profile. Screen pops come up for the CSR with recommended offers and accompanying scripts, driven by a workflow engine. “There is a huge requirement on the consumer side,” says Oshita. “A CSR has seconds to solve whatever issue there is and then make a suggestion as to other services. Billing, pricing, digital content and more complex services make that task more difficult.”

Geography segmentation is giving way to micro-segmentation not just by household, but by individuals within that household and their role. “One-to-one marketing, where the carrier markets services over the course of a customer’s lifecycle, is becoming reality,” says Oshita. “Service providers want to get there to maintain a competitive advantage. They also want more revenue from existing sources.”

However, the competition in voice, video and data is driving infrastructure outlays and effectively starving the sales channels, including the call center. “Verizon, for instance, is betting the farm on FTTP,” says McConnell. “They have 22,000 agents answering calls, but not effectively selling the triple play. They could significantly increase revenue just by skilling up the agents.”

The drive to reduce operational expenditures persists, however. Essentially, carriers want to do more with less. One way to do that is by making transactions faster, and to that end, OSG Billing Services has just released OSG View Plus, which gives CSRs encrypted access to customer bills hosted by OSG. OSG archives the invoices and provides extensive search capabilities, and enables CSRs to fax, e-mail or mail a copy of any invoice to the customer. “The average customer inquiry at a call center lasting three minutes costs $4.50,” says Marlene Den Bleyker, media relations coordinator at the vendor. “This gives CSRs instant access to exactly what the customer sees, avoiding confusion and boosting efficiency.”

Another push for opex reduction is the consolidation of systems. Oracle offers Customer Data Hub and Product Hub, which integrates a single set of customer data and provides a product catalog to multiple systems, for a move to a centralized information model.

Oracle’s E-Business Suite family allows service providers to streamline and automate the order management process.

While classic CRM typically integrates various approaches to customer service - Web, IVR, mail, phone, partner networks or other - and links them with marketing and analytics functions, the back-office information usually is downstream from that system. “There is a gap between the customer service and orderentry pieces of the puzzle,” says Curt Champion, senior director of product marketing at Convergys Corp., whose Customer Service Management (CSM) function within its Infinys platform gives a universal view of the customer, including products, services, billing information and interaction notes, in one front end. Champion says that Infinys has resulted in a 31 percent increase in efficiency over using CRM alone, during trials of four common call center functions. CRM isn’t close enough to the billing to have the tight optimization needed to enhance the customer experience,” he adds.

CSM can provide order entry through a number of channels, linking that with an order management solution and a central product catalog to provide the tools to calculate bundle discounts and promotions. It also encompasses billing management and trouble ticketing. Meanwhile, it can integrate with an existing CRM system on the desktop, so carriers can provide better back-end access through a system the CSRs already know. “CSM takes some of the decisioning away from the CSR,” says Champion, “and has a revenue assurance effect in that all information conforms - or should conform - across systems.”

Microsoft Corp’s CCF solution presents a portal view with tabs the CSR can click on to go to back-end systems. Based on Microsoft .NET technology, Web services enable multiple data sources and applications to be accessed simultaneously.

“This has an ROI of less than nine months,” says Vish Thirumurthy, group product manager with Microsoft’s Communications Sector. “The bulk of customer contact is in the call center, and this reduces call handling times by 15 to 20 percent by enabling a seamless experience for the customer across channels, with more data up front.”

The whole goal is to evolve the call center from cost center to profit center, says Thirumurthy. “But one of the fundamental challenges is, if calls take too long to process, or the agent doesn’t have the right information, the customer becomes frustrated and is not then a good candidate for an upsell. The whole industry is working to take those challenges away.”

Convergys Corp.
Microsoft Corp.
NICE Systems
Oracle Corp.
OSG Billing Services
Telution Inc.
Yankee Group Research Inc.

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