The Future of the Call Center

By By Alan Tucker

“The future will be better tomorrow,” Vice President Dan Quayle announced during a college commencement speech. Quayle’s well-publicized gaff holds much truth for the call center industry. In fact, the industry need not wait until tomorrow, as the future is here today. The surge of change in the industry that started with the move toward Web-enabling call centers intensifies with each advancement in computer technology.

As the quest to develop faster, smaller, more powerful, and more efficient machines drives the computer hardware industry, the call center industry stands to benefit. Thin client machines – networked minimalist computers that communicate with a central server for their processing power to access applications and data storage – are finding a firmer foothold in call centers. Thin client computers are not new, but they are riding a groundswell as more and more businesses are taking advantage of their lesser cost without sacrificing capability or performance.

Just as the pace of business increases for the call centers, so it does for their clients. This, in turn, has sparked clients to expect more and better service from their call center suppliers. The demands for more, better, and faster are quickly making scripted messaging and customizable dispatching the norm rather than the exception. And the near-instantaneous communication capabilities inherent in the Internet are being maximized by equipment vendors and adopted by call centers worldwide.

Jim Marchbank has owned and operated Available Communications in the St. Louis, MO, market since 1981. His 35-seat operation offers a variety of call center services, mostly handling inbound calls for response marketing, order entry, dealer locates, messaging, voicemail, and paging.

Marchbank has made a commitment to scripted messaging. He’s seen its benefits firsthand and expects its acceptance to grow. “Within a few years scripted messaging will be the norm rather than the exception. It’s going to be mandatory that you have intelligent scripting and intelligent messaging and intelligent dispatching,” Marchbank said.

The historical telephone message – basic information like who to, who from, and reason for calling – has given way to complex communications whose content is decided by the caller rather than the agent. Communication content can include summaries of previous calls, are adaptable based on time of day and day of the week, and can be delivered in whichever manner the client requires.

“In many cases, our customers are surprised that we have that capability, and they are pleased,” Marchbank said. “We’re in a timed and dated industry. Our customers should be demanding that kind of service, and the smarter ones are.”

Cell phones have become ubiquitous, and customers now have many methods of being contacted and for messages to be delivered. “It’s all wired and it’s all coming together,” Marchbank said. “Everything’s coming down to the Dick Tracy wristwatch that we grew up with being a reality.”

Marchbank said his call center has been making use of VoIP technology for better than two years. “I’m a firm believer (in VoIP),” Marchbank said. “It’s a new technology, and we want to be on the cutting edge, but not on the bleeding edge. Like any new technology, until you start using it, it’s difficult to understand its advantages.”

Marchbank listed several advantages VoIP holds for call centers. “It’s a cost saver in terms of long distance dialing and is cheaper then T1 spans on an outbound standpoint,” Marchbank said. “That alone would enable a lot of call centers to add VoIP. It allows you to at least break even while having the opportunity to figure out how to use it.”

Marchbank also sees business expansion considerably eased by adopting VoIP technology. “(Implementing VoIP) enables you to have local numbers in markets you’re not currently serving.” Marchbank said. “It allows you to connect offices in other areas at a less expensive rate. It helps when you have remote agents in various areas because they can dial in (to the main office) without a long distance component.

“If you’re going to expand by buying other teleservice companies, it’s possible that you can take in all those numbers easily and cost-effectively,” Marchbank said. “You can simply port all the numbers you have for every office to every location in your organization. That’s a tremendous cost savings.”

Clayton Robinson is the proprietor of A-1 Answering Service in Las Vegas and is the third-generation owner of the 44-year-old telemessaging call center with 17 seats. A-1 doesn’t have a one-specialty client base, but does everything from mom-and-pop messaging to receptionist service for corporate offices. “The essence of taking a message has not changed,” Robinson said. “The caller wants to leave a message and the customer knows what they want to be told.”

Scripted messaging and intelligent dispatching provide call centers with the flexibility needed to be everything to everybody. “It depends on the client and on the caller,” Robinson said. “There needs to be the ability to take the message with specific information and then go on into the scripting and diverse methods of dispatching.”

Robinson said A-1 is ready to make the move to thin client architecture. “In the next hardware upgrade I most likely will be going to that architecture,” Robinson said. “It gives me the ability to have everything in one location, have it accessible, and see how it’s being used.”

But it is VoIP that truly excites Robinson. Besides operating A-1, he also is a sales agent for CommPartners, a VoIP service provider offering toll-free and local number services with clients in 47 of the 50 states through hubs in New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and Las Vegas. “Typically VoIP has been used as a point-to-point solution in merging call centers together,” Robinson said. “Now it has grown to where, instead of point-to-point, we’re doing world-to-point business.”

Robinson uses SIP trunking to accomplish local DID coverage. He characterizes his VoIP implementation as allowing A-1 “to have a local footprint in an area without actually being in that area.” SIP trunking, also known as business-to-business trunking, removes the local PSTN gateway from the equation. It broadens a call center’s coverage area while reducing the cost of the coverage.

“Doing business in Las Vegas, I’m answering calls from all across the country,” Robinson said. “I have the ability to access 10,000 rate centers (local calling areas) across the nation to get telephone numbers from and local calls to all those areas.”

Robinson has been working with CommPartners since 2003, alpha- and beta-testing hardware and software. Since then, he has taken A-1 to 100 percent VoIP, with all DID numbers coming in over VoIP as the primary call path, backed up by T1 spans should a VoIP switch ever go down. “VoIP technology makes call switching and routing during local service outages for backup service and disaster recovery an all-in-one proposition,” Robinson said.

“Another advantage is having the ability to grow my business without actually leaving the area, taking on clients in other cities but still providing the services from Las Vegas,” Robinson said. “It is an ability to grow my business without an expansion to secondary offices and locations.”

Another advantage, Robinson explained, is the ability to move a call center at the drop of a hat. “Instead of the phone company having to physically move all your lines, all you have to do is have an Internet connection set up in the new location,” Robinson said. “Then all you have to do is change your Internet address within the system.”

Robinson also said he’s experienced a significant cost savings with his transition to VoIP technology. “A traditional ISDN PRI trunk runs anywhere from $800 to $1,200 a month, depending on your phone company and the service you offer. Of course, DID charges are separate,” Robinson said. “With VoIP, eight trunks of traffic costs about $180 month, plus $300 to $400 a month for the Internet connection.  You’re looking at a savings of some $200 a month for the same level of service and the abilities you’re providing right now.”

The future of the call center industry 25 years ago was the transition to paperless messaging. Today’s wired world is becoming increasingly wireless. Today’s brick-and-mortar call center would do well to seriously consider transitioning to the virtual reality of tomorrow.

Alan Tucker is the software documentation editor at Amtelco. Visit Amtelco at www.amtelco.com.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2007]