By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
It seems that seldom a week goes by when I don’t receive a call from someone wanting to interview me. Over time, I realized that the tenor of these interview requests falls into three categories. The first group is those who are trying to better comprehend call centers. The second category of questions revolves around outsourcing. The third group of questions revolves around the future. “What are the major call center trends that you see developing over the next 12 months?” Or, “How will technology impact the call center?” Other questions are less informed, such as “Will the Internet affect the call center industry?” Or “Do you think computers will ever be used in call centers?” Sometimes the questions are nonsensical, along the lines of, “With the documented increase in demand for left-handed widgets in the Pacific Rim, how will the ongoing viability of the home-based agent in rural America be assured?” I ignore questions like that and give a benign reply, such as “We can be assured that technology will play an increasingly important role in tomorrow’s call center infrastructure.” That seems to make them happy.
In truth, I am reticent in making future prognostications. So, it is with great trepidation that I stick my neck out about the future.
Home-based agents will be key. There is a shortage of qualified people to fill agent positions, especially in triage centers, which rely on nurses – who are in even greater demand. Therefore, the option of home-based agents will expand the labor market for hard-pressed call centers. Some people are homebound by circumstances, others by choice, but many are otherwise employable. So if they can’t or won’t come to your office, merely extend your office to their home. With today’s technology, this is not only possible, but also quite feasible. Yes, there are training, supervision, and management issues, but these can all be successfully dealt with. There are also advantages, such as lower infrastructure costs, increased agent loyalty, greater job satisfaction, and lower employment related expenses (no commute and no dress code). Call centers with home-based agents in their workforce have the opportunity for higher quality (not settling for a lesser qualified candidate on-site), better staffing levels, and lower absenteeism.
Call center outsourcing will be more common. Notwithstanding the opportunities afforded by home-based agents, call centers will increasingly look at the costs, the problems, and liabilities of running a call center and decide that outsourcing their operation is the way to go. This will allow them to focus on core-competencies and better manage resources. Certainly, this will not be an option for everyone, but more call centers will give this careful consideration.
Offshore outsourcing will continue, grow, and succeed. True, there may be unaddressed quality issues and political ramifications today, but those will diminish. My good friend, Mike Leibowitz, succinctly summarized the situation, “Remember when ‘Made in China’ meant the products were of low quality? For that matter, ‘Made in Japan’ had the same stigma a generation ago. But they learned and improved and now Japan and China produce the some of the highest quality items. So, don’t discount the Indians and Pakistanis just because they are having some issues with call center performance today. They are smart, they are motivated, and they will get better – much better.”
The Internet will become even more important. Lack of Internet acumen will relegate call centers to second-class existence – or worse. First, there are the basics.
- Call centers must have an Internet presence. This could be your own website (especially for outsourcers) or a section on the parent organization’s main website.
- All staff members need to have their own business email address. Having one email address that everyone uses is, well, appalling and second rate.
- Your email addresses must convey professionalism. Is 2blond4fun@CheapEmail.com an email address that your call center can be proud to use?
- Make sure that you actually test and check your published email addresses. In sending messages to the “contact us” email addresses on websites, I have found that about 15 percent are rejected and that about 65 percent are never answered.
- Beyond these essentials, you need to be thinking about user services on your website, “talk-to-me” and chat options, high-speed Internet access, and hosted services. These will be future differentiators.
Voice logging will become necessary. With the legal liability that can surround any call, especially those that are medically related, recording all calls is becoming of increasing importance. Training and quality assurance advantages aside, call logging provides an absolute record that eliminates those annoying, “he said” – “she said” disputes.
If your agent is vindicated by a call recording, which is generally the case, then a lawsuit can be averted. In those rarer instances where the agent did error, then action can be taken quickly to reach an amicable resolution. Voice logging is less of an option and more of a call center essential.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR) will become expected. When properly implemented and offered as an option, IVR is a timesaving, cost-saving, caller-appreciated service. (But whatever you do, don’t force IVR on callers and always let them “zero out.”) Some common applications are to give commonly requested information such as location, hours, and directions; allow for self-routing of calls; or retrieve test results.
Speech recognition will go mainstream. Twenty-five years ago, the conventional wisdom was that speech recognition would be viable in “about two years.” That prediction seemed to resurface annually! Finally, we are seeing practical and workable speech recognition running in the call center. While the early adopters are implementing it now, expect it to go mainstream quickly.
VoIP cannot be ignored. Sending voice calls over the Internet (VoIP) is an opportunity that every call center must consider. It allows home-based and remote agents to be cost-effective and viable and has the promise of lowered telco costs. Your next “switch” (maybe even your current one) will likely be IP-based. Be sure to choose your VoIP vendor with care; many will not survive.
Telco costs will go down. It was once postulated that the rate for long distance would converge at one cent per minute; rates will continue to move in that direction. However, with the aforementioned VoIP, the incremental cost of a long distance call could become zero!
Consolidation and mergers will continue. Consolidations and mergers will continue unabated. This will occur with phone companies, with equipment and software vendors, and among outsourcing call centers. They will need to grow by capturing greater market share, entering new markets, or finding a niche (preferably multiple ones) in which to focus, excel, and lead. The status quo is not an option.
Government will be an increasing force. Expect new laws and policies to affect call centers, especially relating to privacy issues and outbound calling. The degree to which the FCC does or does not regulate telephone, the Internet, and related services will have far-reaching ramifications in terms of service availability, feature richness, pricing, and taxation. It is hard to predict what will happen, only that something will happen – and that we probably won’t like it!
Adopt a mobile strategy. Do you know that half of all long distance calls are placed from mobile phones? Increasing numbers of consumers are jettisoning their landline phone in favor of a mobile phone, which affords them greater flexibility, “free” long distance, more features, and often lower rates. Our society is going mobile, and the call center needs to strategize around that trend.
Some predictions will be wrong. This includes not only the preceding comments, but those from everyone else, as well!
[From the February/March 2005 issue of AnswerStat magazine]