For more than 25 years of their existence, call centers in the U.S. have become so habitual and ingrained that they could withstand all the attempts to be renamed, even if the new name was more precise, such as customer interaction center, multimedia access center, and customer care center. In general, a call center is an organization that receives and processes large volumes of telephone calls. However, many modern organizations performing these do not fit in this description. Nowadays, a call center can work not only with a phone call, but with e-mail, web pages, and video images. Moreover, it is often not a single company, but a network that can combine call centers in different parts of the country, and involve agents working with established home computer telephony systems.
The importance of studying the topic is emphasized by the following facts:
- Call center services are used by more than 80% of the American companies;
- About 70% of all interactions between consumers and business in the country are carried out by call centers;
- Call centers employ about 3% of the U.S. working population, with more than 2.5 million Americans working as their agents.
Thus, it is clear that the call centers have become an integral part the modern post-industrial society. Nevertheless, the majority of ordinary Americans hardly know about them. People pick up the phone to buy clothes, food, books, and household goods, to book tickets, to learn how to fix a computer, to get medical advice or apply for a loan. In short, people call a specific organization in a particular case, and they do not care about the physical location of those whom they call. However, all the mentioned activities would be impossible without the use of the modern information technologies. Therefore, the following research is dedicated to the definition of the contribution made by the IT to the work of the call centers. In addition, it also defines the potential ways of their development in the future, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of the implementation of certain IT.
IT in the Work with Call Queue
The ability to organize and work with call queue is one of the principal advantages of call center. Prior to the development of IT, the simplest method of performing such a task was the use of multi-channel numbers. However, this solution had several major disadvantages. In particular, in case all the channels of such number are busy, some calls will be lost. Moreover, it is impossible to define their exact number, which may result in the loss of a significant amount of customers. However, the advent of information technologies to the call centers has allowed avoiding such a situation, providing a number of opportunities for the work with call queue.
The first of such technologies is an interactive voice response system (IVR). It is installed in most of the modern call centers, allowing the callers s to receive answers to the most common and simple questions even without the intervention of an agent. After connecting to the call center, the caller is transferred to the voice menu, where he/she can use either dial-tone or voice commands to choose the information he/she would like to listen to. Thus, by selecting the appropriate code, the user can listen to the required information immediately instead of waiting for the connection with the operator for about two minutes to receive a standard answer to the common question.
In case the customers agree to use such a system, their time of interacting with live agents is reduced up to 80%, depending on the information they would like to receive. In turn, such reduction results in significant cost-saving for the user of a call center since speaking to the agent is much more expensive than the communication with IVR. However, according to many surveys, IVR is the source of the major part of the customers’ negative feedback, being followed by a long waiting time and the inability to talk to a live person. In addition, besides listening to the pre-recorded information, IVR can provide users with an opportunity to leave a voice message. In this message, the user is asked to mention his/her name, phone number, and call-back time. This feature allows not losing the call and providing a specified level of service.
Another important IT for the work with call queue is a system of automatic call distribution (ACD). Despite being developed in 1973 as the electromechanical system, the modern ACD system uses various information technologies, namely the electronic databases and caller identification either via ID or phone number. Nowadays, it is an integral part of any of more than 70,000 American call centers. The primary task of this system is to distribute the incoming calls, transferring them to agents possessing the most appropriate level of qualification for the work with a particular caller. In addition, it also provides a uniform load distribution between agents.
It should be noted that the commercial call center can receive calls on hundreds of different projects, campaigns, and services. At the same time, its agents must understand the request of the customer rather than mechanically read the information on the screen as is often the case in the telephone directory service. In order to perform this task, agents are divided into groups, with each of them being responsible for a limited number of projects and trained to work with them. The information about the agents that are prepared to work on a specific project is added to the electronic database of the ACD system. As a result, the system automatically distributes specific incoming calls only among the agents of a specific group, rather than all the operators of a call center.
Thus, the use of the IT-backed ACD system results in the distribution of calls to different numbers between the agents that have received training on various topics. For example, one number can be reserved for receiving calls on advertising (sales), and another for the technical support of existing customers (customer service). The group receiving calls on advertising can consist of the agents possessing ability to persuade, overcome objections, and sell products or services. On the other hand, the group engaged in customer service may include the agents that are proficient in the specific details of products and services, and able to explain them via phone, give advice on its repair, and are familiar with the terms of the warranty. Each of these two tasks requires people of different temperaments and training in different areas, so the consumers of call center services benefit from such a division of labor.
IT in the Processing of the Incoming Calls
The modern realities require the agent of a call center not only to process the call but also handle it as efficiently as possible. Prior to the introduction of IT to call centers, the past, he/she was perceived as a low-paid office worker answering the phone calls. However, the agent of the new generation can turn a call coming from a confused, frustrated or angry customer into a rich stream of impressions, information and ideas, as well as additional sales. However, in order to achieve this goal, he/she must possess specific tools that allow responding to customer requests efficiently. For the modern call centers, these tools are solutions implemented on the basis of information technologies, such as computer telephony integration.
Computer telephony integration (CTI) is the union of telephone and computer subsystems, which allows providing a new-level service to the customers of a call center. The basic prerequisite for the CTI is the fact that modern telephone exchanges, as well as computers, use digital signals for data transmission. In case the computer and the telephone subsystems can share data between each other, a sharp jump in productivity is to be expected.
In call centers, the most common use of the CTI is pop screens. In particular, when an incoming call arrives at the telephone exchange call center, it automatically detects the number of the caller (this feature is called dialed number identification service) and transmits it to T-server (telephony server), which connects the telephone and computer subsystems of a call center. The telephone subsystem also provides the T-server with information on any of the agents that may process the call. In turn, T-server runs a script of call processing on the computer of an agent and provides access to the relevant database. Thus, the agent simultaneously hears the phone ring and sees a window opening on the computer screen, which describes how to greet the caller, and carry on a conversation. The agent picks up the phone and answers the call, listens to a question, points it out on the screen, and the script displays all the information about the product or service the caller is interested in. Thus, by using the IT, the agents can lead the conversation by working with different databases.
By implementing this information technology, call centers can remain invisible to the customer that is in full confidence that he/she calls directly to the firm, the advertisement of which he/she holds in hands, hears on the radio or sees on TV. It is clear that in this case, the person expects from a telephone conversation much more than from the call to the usual referral service. And more importantly, the agent has everything to meet those expectations.
The Modern IT Trends in Call Centers
It is clear that IT has made a significant contribution to the development of call centers, providing them with the new means of serving the customer and expanding their field of activity. However, the process of IT development goes on, and, therefore, the call centers are likely to follow the current IT trends. Thus, it is possible to define the following potential directions of the development of this industry:
- Movement to the cloud: the use of clouds for storing data lowers the restrictions on its volume and improves its accessibility;
- Self-service – as was mentioned before, the people are tired of IVR-systems. Thus, call centers may use big data and predictive analytics to organize the call. This measure will help to establish a more advanced self-service model that focuses on the customer;
- The growth of mobility and mobile applications: customer service through personal devices extends the capabilities of a call center. The number of business applications will increase, bringing mobile communications to cross-link layer;
- Customer service in social networks: the companies will be engaged in this direction by closely contacting many customers via their preferred channel;
- The increase in volumes of big data: adding the information such as mobile phone numbers and preferred channels of messaging to existing data will stimulate and optimize customer service.
Thus, it is possible to say that the majority of call centers are likely to resort to the use of the innovative IP technologies in the future. Such an approach may bring the following benefits to the companies. First of all, a key advantage of the IP-based call center is its independence. Thus, regardless of the physical location of the operator, it can perform its work (receive and process the call) in a corporate network. In case the services of a call center are located in different places (different offices), it is possible to provide an intelligent call routing regardless of the location of resources. By using geographically distributed call centers, the company may organize remote jobs freely. Such flexibility allows the involvement of additional personnel, providing the customers with uninterrupted access to the call center at any time.
Another benefit is the implementation and operation of the joint network. Such a combination may reduce the costs of the call center by almost 50%. Support for Voice over IP (VoIP) allows combining data transmission and voice networks into a single infrastructure. The establishment and operation of the joint network is not only cheaper, but also allows implementing a set of the uniform rules of work, which ensures the quality of customer service. In addition, the combined network that supports VoIP, allows the introduction of the new applications from various developers and the possibility of establishing the new IP-based services.
The next benefit is the creation of multimedia channels. Thus, an IP-based call center important can support the combination of communication channels. In the conditions of constant competition, standard telephone network cannot satisfy the growing needs of such companies. The work with the customer demands the use of text conversations, e-mail, and video chats, as well as the ability to work together in a web. All of these features are implemented on open standards so they may be easily integrated into the open architecture of an IP-based call center, and can be managed as an integral part of a unified system of working with customers. Market participants gradually come to realize that in order to remain competitive, they need to manage the work with all customers with the help of the call center and gradually move to an individual work with each customer.
The final major advantage of an IP-based call center is its ability to support the introduction of the new applications. The work of such center is carried out in the unified IP-nets, so the application does not depend on the operating system, and their compatibility with the other IP-based applications is guaranteed.
At the same time, IP-focused approach has certain disadvantages. First of all, the creation of an IP-based call center requires the presence of an advanced corporate data network. Otherwise, the company will have to make additional investments in its expansion or modernization. For example, one may require partial or total replacement of routers with multi-switching devices. The other methods are unlikely to reconfigure the network resources of the company to ensure optimum voice and data traffic via IP-channels.
A quality management of voice services by using the outdated equipment of data network is not possible. In some cases, the company may have to acquire an IP-based call center equipped with the additional network devices from leading manufacturers. As result, the final cost of IP-based solutions may be comparable to the price of a traditional call center. Therefore, for the modernization of data network equipment, it is possible to recommend using lesser-known brands with a favorable price-performance ratio.
The final problem inherent in IP-based call center is the need for creating and maintaining reserve copies of network resources and applications. For example, the server with such applications is used by the entire enterprise rather than its call center alone. In case of the emergency situations (e.g. crashes of the entire server or software responsible for switching voice connections), the company may lose contact with the outside world for a long time. In case the call center employs a conventional telephone exchange (such devices are reliable and do not require reservations), then even the crash of the call center’s server will pose no problems to providing the enterprise with telecommunications.
The advent of information technologies has changed the very way of life of the entire society, and the call centers were no exception. The transformation they have undergone in the recent years can only be described as revolutionary. The introduction of such technologies as interactive voice response system, automatic call distribution, computer telephony integration, and the transition of voice over IP have redefined their place in the business world completely. Nowadays, a call center is an integral part of any business that has an active contact with people: banking, telecom service providing, insuring and crediting. In the face of competition, the one that has the best customer feedback is the winner. The use of the IT by call centers allows the client consult a provider of goods or services at any time and any place, creating a definite advantage for the company. Therefore, it is possible to say that the new technologies have not only improved the quality of services provided by call centers, but also expanded their field of activity significantly.