By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Last month’s column, entitled “Answering the Call,” discussed the decreased call volume that most inbound call centers experienced in past years; many are still in the throes of this downturn. At this same time, a groundswell against outbound calling and its associated practices occurred, ultimately led to the enactment of the national “Do Not Call” (DNC) law in the United States.
This has caused some outbound calls centers to abandon outbound calling altogether and migrate to handling inbound calls. Other outbound centers changed their focus to the largely unregulated business calling arena, instead of languishing in the more restrictive and volatile area of consumer calling.
Fortunately, outsourcing call centers have the luxury and flexibility of redefining themselves merely by refocusing their sales and marketing efforts; the in-house call center is not so fortunate. Expanding into other call center opportunities is a wise step during times of uncertainty and monumental change. In fact, diversification is always a viable and advisable business strategy, providing a hedge against volatility and the unknown.
The opposite of diversification is specialization. In business and marketing terms, this is pursuing niche markets. For the call center, this means developing services specifically geared towards a particular industry and establishing an expertise, understanding, and proficiency that is unobtainable by a more broadly focused call center. Increased efficiencies will result, affording the option to charge less, improve profitability, or do both. An example of a niche market is the medical industry. Even with this focus, there are many call center opportunities within, such as medical answering service, telephone nurse triage, physician referral, appointment setting and verification, pharmaceutical sales and support, patient follow-up, and coordinating clinical trials. Other niches might include property management or transportation. There are also regional opportunities, such as serving the logging, shipping, or oil and natural gas industries. These each have their own subniches. What a call center elects to pursue should hinge on the potential size of that market, the call center’s current connection and affinity with the niche, and their interest in serving that market. (Never pursue a promising niche if expertise or interest is lacking.)
Pursuing a niche, however, is akin the to proverbial adage about “putting all your eggs in one basket.” So the key is to develop multiple niches. This is another version of diversification; you are literally diversifying your specialization. Lest you think this is a matter of semantics, it is not. As you establish yourself in one market niche, pursue a second and then a third.
The examples given above are just that; they are not recommendations. So how do you determine what niches to pursue? If you are broad-based call center, look at the types of accounts you currently handle. Do you see any trends, groupings, or categories? Poll your staff. Ask them which types of accounts they like and why. Also consider items such as the degree of profitability, intensity of customer service and support, and payment and collection history. These factors often vary by industry or subgroup and should be identifiable. Ideally, you want to pursue a niche that you are already good at and have proven yourself, your staff enjoys and serves well, can be charged profitable fees, does not overtax your support team, and pays on time. It is unlikely to identify a market segment that meets all these criteria perfectly, but do seek to match as many items as possible.
The next consideration is how many niches to pursue. I advise three at the minimum. That way if one niche market falls apart, you have the other two to prop up your call center and maintain some degree of ongoing viability. Of course this assumes that each niche represents an equal portion of business. A general guide is that it is unwise to derive more than half of your business from anyone industry or market.
Having discussed diversification and specialization within the traditional call center environment, let’s take a step back to seek a broader understanding. A call center, by definition, is a “centralized place from which calls are made and received.” Arguably, today’s call center is neither! They are not centralized, nor do they deal with just calls. The label “contact center” was advanced as a more accurate and broadening term to reflect the current reality of many call centers and future direction of the industry. Even so, this does not address the reality that call centers are increasingly not centralized, but dispersed, with multiple locations and home-based representatives. However, decentralization is another discussion for another time.
Although it is not my intention to relabel the call center industry, it is my goal to redefine it for the sake of gaining a better understanding of the vast potential that exists. Instead of thinking of being a call center, let’s adopt the mindset that we are “communication processors.” So stop thinking calls and start thinking communication processing.
Yes, we will still make and receive calls (after all, that is “processing information”), but we can do so much more. Consider the Internet. It seems that the Internet is affecting all areas of business, life, and human existence. How does this relate to the call center, or more correctly, the information processor?
Quite simply, everything that you can do with a call today, you need to be doing with email tomorrow. Screen email, prioritize email, redirect email, answer email, and send email. Every organization that is online has at least one, probably more, general purpose email addresses, such as sales@…, service@…, and info@… How quickly are these messages responded to (assuming they are handled at all)? Your call center needs to handle these email addresses for each of your clients. You need to start today.
Here’s what I mean. Your agents will periodically check these email addresses for your clients (or email can be directed to your staff as it arrives). Your agents will delete all spam. Of the “real” messages, some will get forwarded to various departments or individuals following a protocol established by your client. Once the email has been forwarded, rely to the sender, thanking them for the message and noting whom it was assigned to.
Some inquirers will be requesting information. Your agents can provide that information. This might be in the form of an email response (be it typing a written reply, selecting prewritten text, attaching a document, or sending a link), faxing a form, mailing a brochure, or even calling that person.
Instead of (or in addition to) making outbound calls to your clients’ customers and prospects, you can also engage them via email, sharing information, requesting feedback, and marketing and selling products. Although it is true that these types of proactive email services can be automated, that is also their weakness. They are automated. How much more effective might communications be with a personalized approach to an appropriately targeted list?
The opportunities don’t stop with email. What about text chat? This is a rapidly growing means of communication, especially with the younger crowd. Your call center should become the centralized communication processor for all of your clients’ general text chat options: respond to questions, process information, forward requests, and so on. Staff at many organizations already have too much expected of them. It simply isn’t an option to pile on one more thing. Plus, there is no need to; you can handle this for them.
A third category is website “talk to me” and “call back” buttons. This is an ideal call centers service. Essentially, it is a 24×7 quick response to visitors’ questions who are viewing your clients’ websites. These email, text chat, and “call me” options fall under the general category of being a Web-enabled call center. (While we’re are at it, let’s not forget fax and snail mail; these are obvious opportunities for tomorrow’s information processor.)
How do you proceed? Visit each of your client’s websites. Send an email to their generic email address. Note how long it takes them to respond. Do they have an option for text chat and “call me?” While you are there, note if the site is up-to-date. This implies an ancillary service you can offer. By now you have several ideas of how you can better serve your clients.
The future of call centers may reside with the Internet. The opportunities are limited only by imagination and creativity.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.
[From Connection Magazine – Jul/Aug 2006]