Call Center Articles

What I Learned at Call Center Week

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In mid-June, I enjoyed attending Call Center Week, the premier call center conference, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. I talked with attendees and heard about the latest innovations from vendors. In addition to the other coverage of Call Center Week in this issue, here are some of the things I learned.

The trends I observed are not new developments, but instead they reinforce what we’ve seen in recent years – and their momentum is increasing. Lest anyone remain unconvinced, these aren’t fads that will disappear; they represent an emerging reality for the call center industry.

Continued Shifting to the Cloud: The call center industry used to be full of vendors that provided premise-based equipment, some of whom also offered a hosted solution on the side. Things have changed. I talked with several vendors who are entirely cloud-based, with no premise-based options. Most other vendors touted their hosted services first, with premise-based equipment as a footnote. Their focus is on the cloud. Only one vendor talked about their premise-based product first and then mentioned their hosted option; no vendor I talked with had only a premised-based solution.

This tells me two things. First, the shift to accessing services online through the Internet has passed the tipping point, proving it’s the new way to do business. Second, vendors have fine-tuned their cloud-based business model to the point where it not only sustains their company but is also their preferred way to do business. In talking of the old days with one vendor, he shuddered at the thought of selling premise-based equipment, glad for that era to be over.

Serious about Social Media: We’ve been talking about social media in the call center for years. While there were some early adopters, overall there was more talk than action. Similar to cloud-based solutions, social media in the call center is maturing, turning phone-centric operations into true contact centers. Many past solutions were more of an interface, often cumbersome and clunky, but several new offerings are truly integrated, so that all contacts receive uniform and holistic treatment without any special consideration or extra steps needed.

In addition to bringing social media into the contact center, other companies offer social media support and analysis services. Not all posts and tweets are equal, so determining which ones are priorities is essential to working smarter, not harder.

More Integration: Although interfacing two disparate services or platforms is a good first step in merging newer and older technologies within the contact center, an interface is not without its limitations. A true integration removes these restrictions, allowing multiple systems to work together as one unit without the need for agents to make special accommodations or even be aware of what’s happening behind the scenes.

These integrations fall into two categories. One category integrates social media, chat, and IVR information into the historic call center platform. The other brings new services or additional data into the call center infrastructure from third party systems. Some of these integrations are quite creative.

Don’t Forget Mobile: With more and more people walking around with smartphones, it’s increasingly critical that call centers are able to interact with these devices by any means their users wish. Obviously, phone calls are covered, but texting may be the more critical consideration. There are also apps to interact with, passing information back and forth. What about tapping into a user’s GPS, offering assisted browsing, or pushing coupons and special offers? Lastly, with the increased complexity of smartphones comes the need to support users’ hardware, apps, and online experience.

New Products and Releases: Every trade show is replete with product and service announcements. Call Center Week was no different, and several of these items are in the News section of this issue. All the vendors were understandably proud of their new solutions: offering improvements to existing services, providing new modules or add-ons, or representing completely new products.

Call Center Week was an exciting show, and with about one hundred vendors present, there was no shortage of ideas, information, and innovation. Plan to attend next year’s event, June 16–20, 2014, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2013]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Call Center Articles

Reflections, Thoughts, and Observations from the Convention

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

For many years, it’s been my pleasure to attend the annual ATA Convention & Expo. This year’s inaugural springtime event was no exception.  Each year, I look forward to seeing and interacting with others in the contact center industry. Although I connect with many throughout the year via email and phone, nothing surpasses the value of talking with someone face-to-face. Plus, each year I make new acquaintances and talk to people who I would have never otherwise met.  As a result, I am richer for the experience and more connected to the industry.

The great value that I place on the ATA convention results from a trio of participants: the exhibitors, the attendees, and the ATA staff and volunteers. Notably, it is a positive environment in which helpful and supportive attitudes abound. I also salute ATA for, quite simply, knowing how to put on a great event. More impressive is that they did it this time with a six-month turnaround from the 2010 convention. The high attendance (during a time when other conference participation is languishing) is a testament to the value members place on the ATA and to the board’s wisdom in moving the annual event from the fall to the spring. (Correspondingly, their annual Washington Summit will move to the fall.)

The key realization that I gathered from this year’s convention is that the level of complexity within the contact center industry is rapidly rising. As such, it is becoming critical for outsourcing contact centers to specialize, either in their niche or by their expertise. I sense that the days of being all things to all clients are coming to a close. That is not to imply that outsourcing call centers can’t have multiple areas of specialization; market and competency diversification is always a wise strategy. However, fading fast are the days when simply knowing how to train and schedule staff to politely answer the phone will be sufficient to capture and retain clients. This transition is in part due to the heightened expectations of clients and partially from the increased complexity in most verticals, primarily attributable to burgeoning government regulations.

This year’s event marked the departure of ATA’s long-time CEO Tim Searcy, who has returned to his roots in the operations side of the industry. Normally, the exit of a leader of Tim’s stature would be challenging, but ATA has a solid staff and a strong board to keep things moving forward. Plus, interim president Bob Kobek is experienced and well-versed with all things ATA. Tim added a fitting exclamation point to his ATA tenure during his keynote address, as he looked towards the future with expectation.

Also looking to the future is the ATA-SRO (self-regulatory organization), which continues to gain traction as more call centers become certified and with some RFPs now stipulating said certification. ATA-SRO certification is positioned to become the expectation for top-tier contact centers.

Also, as covered last month, ATA unveiled its new Customer Experience Professional (CEP) designation. Starting at the convention, ATA members began earning the credits needed to receive this new and promising designation.

[From Connection Magazine May 2011]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Call Center Articles

Musings from the 2009 ATA Convention

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Having just returned from the 2009 ATA Convention and Expo in New Orleans, I am still processing all the valuable information that was presented and the insightful ideas that were shared. Between the several keynote addresses and multiple breakout sessions, there were over thirty presentations of which to avail oneself. In addition to this were the ongoing networking opportunities with vendors and attendees.

Given the economic conditions of our day, the convention was much the anomaly, with attendance slightly surpassing last year’s mark and with the number of breakout presentations 50 percent higher. For several of the keynote addresses it was standing room only, with late arrivals relegated to the perimeter of the hall. Overall, those I talked to made positive comments on the quality of the presentations and the enthusiasm of attendees. Although the vendor space was understandably down slightly, those I questioned were pleased with making good contacts and logging quality leads. Some prospects are in a buying mode now, with many preparing to move forward in 2010.

Reactions from call center executives about their year resulted in a range of responses. Some who had seen a decline in call volumes and revenues used the year as an opportunity to position themselves for growth as the economy emerges from the recession. Others reported level results, and a few experienced growth in 2009. Of course, those in dire situations were not likely attending, but given that attendance was nearly the same as last year, there are assumedly not too many centers in that position.

Of the many things that were shared, here are some of the items that have risen to the forefront of my thinking:

Social Media: There were three heavily attended sessions on social media. Given its rapid adoption and massive usage, social media is clearly not a fad, but rather a social evolution – with profound business applications. Social media offers new — and significant – channels for marketing, customer service, and call center work.

Although specific social media offerings may wax and wane over time, the overall trajectory of social media is growth, sustainability, and opportunity. The key applications mentioned that are worthy of consideration include Facebook, Linked-In, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Second Life, YouTube, and iTunes, along with blogging and podcasting. Keynote speaker Lon Safko, author of the best-selling book, Social Media Bible, advised that everyone set aside thirty minutes a week to “explore social media.”

Calls to Contacts: Although I have long viewed the call center as more than an entity that processes phone calls, I have been reluctant to rechristen it as a contact center. However, it is clearer to me than ever that tomorrow’s call center will be a contact center in both word and in deed.

Those who persist in being “just” a call center will risk obsolescence and becoming inconsequential. Notwithstanding that, a few call centers could carefully and strategically position themselves in a call expert niche, eschewing all other contact options and opportunities. However, there will likely be limited room and opportunity for those who fail to migrate from processing calls to handling contacts – or diversify into other related or synergistic areas.

Although critical mass has not yet been reached, now is the time – for those who have yet to do so – to begin embracing non-telephony contacts for their centers. While it might seem overwhelming to know what ancillary contact channel to embrace first, the key point is to pick one and move towards it. Failing to act is not an option. Fortunately, many of the vendors at the convention offer software, tools, and insights to help centers successfully move from calls to contacts.

Self-Regulation: In 2006, ATA founded the ATA-SRO, developing call center standards to address consumer needs while reducing the impetus for legislation. These standards address both inbound and outbound teleservice work. Last year, call center certification began, with the first auditors being trained and call centers moving towards compliance. Already several centers have been certified by the ATA-SRO, with many more in process.

What is equally compelling is that there are already major organizations adding ATA-SRO in their RFPs, requiring that call center outsourcers be ATA-SRO-certified, or at least moving towards certification; noncertified call centers will not be considered for these major outsourcing contracts. Tim Searcy shared that in this regard the tipping point is about to occur. He also mentioned that the ATA has been receiving inquiries from organizations in other countries that desire to copy or model the ATA-SRO. That is a great affirmation to the inherent quality and understood value of the ATA-SRO. U.S. Senator David Vitter gave similar accolades in his keynote address at the convention.

Customer Expectations Continue to Rise: Many of the sessions related to customer service, albeit from varying angles – such as first-call resolution, metrics, staffing, retention, coaching, and case studies. The bottom line is that customers expect more than they did last year, and next year they will expect more than they do today. What was once leading edge is now standard operating procedure (SOP), and what was SOP is now outmoded. As such, contact centers that don’t stay abreast of the latest customer service developments and customer-centric practices – based on continually increasing customer expectations – run the real risk of soon being relegated to a second tier player.

Staying abreast of the latest contact center trends and customer service movements is key to maintaining relevance as a call center practitioner. Ongoing education, such as was provided by the many speakers at the Convention, is a great first step to remaining on the crest of the customer service wave – and out of the trough of irrelevance.

While there were many other relevant and compelling discussions, ideas, and developments at the 2009 ATA Convention, these have been my primary reflections: The effect and influence of social media for both businesses and call centers cannot be ignored; we need to jettison a call preoccupation and embrace a contact mentality; ATA-SRO certification is the route for tomorrow’s leading contact centers; and we must continually strive to meet and exceed ever-increasing quality service expectations.

If that won’t keep you busy, I don’t know what will.

[From Connection Magazine November 2009]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Call Center Articles

2008 ATSI Annual Convention and Expo

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The Annual ATSI Convention and Expo was held June 18-21 at the Union Station in St. Louis. The theme was “Step Up to the Plate.” In terms of attendance, content, and the auction, the convention was a great success. For convention attendees who may have snuck out to catch a baseball game, the St. Louis Cardinals were swept by their rivals Kansas City.

Given the rains and the flooding Mississippi River, it turns out that an alternate theme could have been “The River Is Rising.” The river reportedly crested Friday morning at about thirty-seven feet. Fortunately, the flooding did not affect the Convention and Expo, where the only thing rising was interest and excitement for the industry.

For this year’s convention, there were a record 185 full registrations. ATSI membership stands at 385, an increase from last year. Two new board members were announced: Brian Gilmore and Wil Porter, whose terms began on July 1st.

Wednesday, the initial day of the convention, was a time when many of the users groups met (Centurisoft, OEO, NAEO, PIN, SNUG, TUG, and TUNe). The business meeting was also held, chaired by outgoing president Allan Fromm. This was followed by a first timers’ reception followed by the opening reception for all attendees.

On Thursday, Tim Searcy opened with his insightful presentation entitled: “Futurecast for the Teleservices Industry.” Tim shared that as an industry, we are at a fork in the road. The available options go in diverging directions, and the path we choose will pave the way towards either success or failure. Some of his candid and interesting comments included:

  • Of all communication channels available, 64 percent of interaction is via the phone.
  • The benefit of focusing on high-quality service versus low-cost service is a much better retention of clients. An added bonus is improved agent retention, as they become more satisfied with their jobs since they are then able to do what they were hired to do.
  • Despite a huge decrease in outbound calling and much communication shifting to the Internet, call center telephone traffic has not decreased, but it remains flat.
  • Offshoring will begin to settle. This is due to customer backlash and a weakening U.S. dollar.
  • Tim cited examples of other countries offshoring to the U.S. to save money or achieve quality.
  • Since clients will complain regardless of what rates they are charged, call centers might as well charge a premium price (and provide quality service). That strategy is being used by some of the largest and most successful teleservices call centers.

His concluding summary was:

  • Outsourcing is growing.
  • Live agents are key.
  • There will be more emphasis placed on using the phone.
  • Consumers will determine the future.
  • Ignore regulations at your peril.

The grand opening of the 2008 ATSI Expo followed with lunch in the exhibit hall. After lunch, the exhibit hall continued to be open and more general session presentations were held. The evening’s special activity was the ATSI Educations Foundation Event at the City Museum; 100 people attended.

On Friday, Doug Tatum, author of No Man’s Land: What to Do When Your Company Is Too Big to Be Small and Too Small to Be Big, gave the day’s initial address. In a presentation that resonated well with attendees, Doug shared ideas from his book, No Man’s Land as they applied to the telemessaging and call center industry. Doug affirmed the important role of small business, especially that of the small business entrepreneur, in creating most of the new jobs in the U.S. economy.

Although 90 percent of new small businesses fail within the first few years, those that do succeed are a boon to the economy and grow until they reach a condition he termed as “no man’s land.” Specifically, they become too big to still be considered small, but they are still too small to be deemed big. When businesses reach no man’s land, there are important techniques that can be used to effectively navigate and emerge successfully on the other side. Doug detailed these various scenarios and the methodologies for responding to them.

After a day packed with several general sessions, concurrent breakouts, and seven hours of the Expo, the day ended with the ATSI Education Foundation Auction. The total amount raised (through the auction, raffle, and foundation event) was $21,830. The Foundation funds ATSI educational programs. In the past, it has provided the seed money for the computer-based interactive CD-ROM programs: Professional Telephone Techniques, TeleServices Training, and Caring In Action.

The 2008 ATSI Convention and Expo culminated with the annual awards presentation; see our separate coverage for a list of the call centers honored.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2008]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.