By Donna West
A new millennium! Decades are milestones to be celebrated. Centuries are given special importance. A millennium can hardly be imagined.
The next millennium as a whole is unfathomable. This millennium began when the calendar went from 999 to 1000 (or for those among us who are purists, from 1000 to 1001). One-half of the world didn’t know the other existed; 500 years passed before that discovery was made. It took another quarter of a millennium before we had explored the boundaries of our own country!
The industrial revolution began the more rapid succession of achievements that brought us to where we are today. As technology thrusts us faster and faster into the future, we are all asking where it will lead. What is on the horizon just beyond our vision and our grasp? We have asked a diverse cross section of our industry visionaries to look into the future and tell us what they see.
This was a serious group, and everyone determined they were in this business for the long haul and were optimistic about the future. They pointed out that the year leading up to Y2K has “cleaned up” many equipment problems. Many folks have upgraded both software and hardware and have solid new programs in place. This has opened the way for further expansion and greater cohesiveness within our ranks. Let’s look at some of the areas that were discussed.
At a time when so many TAS owners are selling out, giving up or burning out, why are people interested in joining our rat race? What do they see that WE are missing? Rob Nolan, who joined this industry two years ago, gave this insight. “When we were looking for a new business opportunity, we looked for one with recurring revenue and a diversified customer base that could be acquired at certain multipliers.” The fragmentation of this industry helps to make it attractive to outsiders. They see a group of companies with good technology offering needed services, that is disorganized and lacks standards and direction.
Our visionaries all agreed there would continue to be a consolidation of our industry. They didn’t necessarily agree on why this phenomenon is occurring. It may be that it is occurring for all the reasons they gave. Older owners are approaching retirement and have no family members or key people interested in taking over; they are tired of “going it alone.” Some have failed to keep up with technology, make the small upgrades that have been offered over the years or to save for equipment expansion. Suddenly the cost of the technology needed to remain competitive is just too staggering to afford.
The technology can be daunting to many. What used to be a simple business that owners could run with little technical expertise is suddenly very technology oriented. “The pressure on owners and upper management to keep abreast of technology is extreme,” indicates Art Fallon. “The need to keep up is growing, but there is less time to read and discuss new options. Owners are unable to cope.” Just keeping up is wearing many people down. Other reasons for leaving this industry are that we are not making enough money and the labor situation is bad and going to get worse. Let’s explore those areas in greater detail.
Money. “We have met the enemy, and he is US!” So said Pogo, the comic strip character who is one of the true visionaries of our time. We are the ones who keep the value of our services so low. We are the ones who are paralyzed when it comes to raising our rates. A past president of ATSI once said to Donna West, “I admire you for being able to raise your rates in this climate; we are afraid to do it!” Her reply, “If you don’t think your quality is good enough to be worthy of a healthy rate increase, do a series of small ones that help raise quality so you can afford to institute a good rate increase. One way or another we have to bring up the average cost of our services so we can invest in technology and labor!”
“If we are smart,” says Jim March bank, “we will begin charging not for what we do but for what we know.”
All visionaries agreed that we are going to see our pay scales increase by several dollars an hour over the next few years. Higher wages will help us to attract and keep good people AND continue to invest in our equipment. “We are going to have MORE competition; there are companies in India and Australia that are trying to break into our market. They speak excellent English and work for far, far less money than our citizens,” added Allan Fromm, “so we need to be offering the best in service”
“Labor is certainly one of our more pressing problems,” agreed Larry Goldenberg, “We have had some success using temps, but I don’t think that is the real answer. We need to increase our wages, institute profit sharing and give better vacations and benefits.” What might some of those benefits be? Offer day care that doesn’t close at 6:00 on the dot and is open on weekends. “If that isn’t a possibility in your location, perhaps it would be feasible to institute a child care allowance,” suggested Cindy Baur. Other suggestions included offering the use of a vacation cabin or condo or even having an RV that is available to staff members. Medical, dental, vision and life insurance programs and Cafeteria Plan &125 were high on the list of necessities; education allowances and signing and longevity bonuses were also recommended.
“As the Call Center industry has pushed labor prices over the top of usually anticipated rates, we have to review how we can increase payment to our staff. We will be forced to adjust pricing our service for value so we can continue to make a profit,” reasons Dee Hawkins. “Labor rates and a shortage of qualified personnel will continue to impact our business.” She went on, “To further complicate labor problems we also need to address teaching and coaching this staff to develop good work ethics.” Several of our visionaries see college courses designed to give students associate degrees in teleservice communications as a part of the future. There are already several such programs in the country.
Donna West sees “tele work” as one answer to our dwindling labor pool. “I am hopeful that our vendors will find ways to make it less clumsy and less costly for us to have our staff work from home,” she says. “I can easily envision a whole cottage industry, dozens of off premise seats available for unexpected rushes as well as every day scheduling. If it works for JC Penney (the company allows many call center employees to answer from their own homes), it should be able to work for us!”
“Tele work is absolutely where we’re going,” agreed Mary Jones. “We are installing a DSL line in our supervisors’ home now,” she added,” and within a year we hope to have many staff members working from home.” Darlene Campbell expects to have two permanent home positions within the next quarter and more in the near future. “It is so cost effective,” she pointed out, “and the employees really want it!”
“The software could reside on the Web,” agreed Jim Marchbank. “Then it would be a simple matter to control the access. If you no longer wanted that operator to take calls, you just block their access.”
“Further, with software residing on the Web,” added Allan Fromm, “it will be relatively easy for us to share customers since we can take messages, orders, etc. in forms on a common website and store them in a data base that will be easily accessible by our clients and ourselves.”
These folks also predict lower telephony costs. Fromm pointed out these costs are already falling, and that will not only help remote operator possibilities, but it will help lower our operating costs in general. “I suspect that in the future we will be paying a fixed rate for a phone connection regardless of the way you intend to use that connection,” he said. “You will be able to do anything you want, use it for data or voice, and it will not be time or distance sensitive. “Dan Horn agrees. “We’ll soon see ISDN and T-1s for home use,” he predicts, “and T-1 rates will continue to go down.”
“There will be some interesting issues coming in the years ahead, “Dan continued. “Combine wireless technology and local number portability, and things will get confusing. With no area code identity (Remember we can now take numbers anywhere.) it will be difficult for phone companies to keep everything straight.”
Dirk Moeller sees telephony advances as a way to add value to our services. “In the last few years we have seen ANI drop phone numbers directly into our message tickets,” he said. “Now our LEC is providing not only the number, but the caller’s name or business base. We’re being given more information before the operator even answers the call; that results in a higher quality message.” He continued, “The challenge is going to be for our vendors to keep up with the technical explosion. That will be important because everyone of these features will add value to our end product and offer us ways to work with less labor costs.”
One of the most exciting visions was that put forth by Mary Jones who said, “We will become the full service providers in telecommunications. I predict we will soon be offering long distance, local dial tone, operator services, paging, voice mail and even Internet services all on one invoice!” Indeed, there is at least one service we know of already doing just that.
The general consensus was that for the foreseeable future equipment upgrades will be based on the PC and Web technology we have today. Thanks to Intel and Microsoft upgrades, it will be a matter of changing chips and cards not changing out whole systems. There was a general agreement that our vendors keep driving one another to higher and higher levels. Many visionaries also think our industry is ripe for “outsiders” to begin developing software for our use or for the use of as yet uninterested competitors who will be drawn to the opportunities they perceive.
“I envision a day when we don’t really have a ‘vendor’,” says Rob Nolan, “We will be using non-proprietary software that will allow us to work over a wide-area-network.”
Dee Hawkins stated, “I would not be surprised to see a consolidation of vendors such as we see with services. The Internet will create a new revenue stream and the possibility of eliminating vendors as new providers begin to meet our needs.”
“The Internet will become an integral part of our business in ways we cannot yet imagine,” added Allan Fromm. “Already we can ‘pop’ customer sites onto our operators’ screens whether they are on the Web or in-house. We will be able to click on an icon, and that will open a chat window on screens in real time.”
“Working through the Internet solves a lot of problems we have historically had servicing certain kinds of accounts,” added Jim Marchbank. “Using the Internet, we can work directly in a customer’s appointment book, an application we have been turning down in the past.”
Larry Goldenberg sees us providing “help desk” solutions for our customers with the easy to answer questions being fielded by our operators and the more difficult problems being sent to our customer’s tech staff. Allan Fromm agrees, “The Web is allowing us to become a customer service department for one of our current customers. Our service is integrated with their site, and we have access to full information on all the models of widgets they sell, “he continued. “We can even explode certain areas to give our staff a close-up of parts; we actually help a customer assemble their widget. The Web is allowing us to use less skilled people to perform more complex tasks,”
Peter Orvis agrees; “we are really in the Customer Care business, not in the Take a Message Business. Additional training in our customers’ business will help our employees do more to help our customer’s callers.” In addition, Mary Jones indicates that we will all be doing more “handing off” callers to voice mail and directly to offices. “True remote receptionist service is here,” she says, “and we are doing it.”
Knowledge Management, our visionaries believe, will become the mantra of the beginning of the new millennium. Michele Ringwood has been in the knowledge management business for some time now. “Our customers see us as an information resource,” she stated. “We use there ports that are standard in the call center arena and make them available to our TAS customers. The number of calls per hour, per day of the week might be valuable to clients, or they may need to know where callers heard about their company. We can even run searches on caller data, and of course we charge handsomely for all of this information. Customers pay willingly because this knowledge helps them to make good business decisions.”
Darlene Campbell acknowledges that we are going to be providing “teleservices” in the call center environment. Being able to impart information in comma delimited files that will easily import into databases will not only increase our worth to our customers and bind them to us, it will also give us another revenue stream. It may take another PC to be able to do it, but most of the services that have kept their equipment up to date can do this now. Check with your vendor.
So, how do we get to the future from here? Peter Orvis suggests that we develop an advisory committee whose function is to explore future needs. We need two levels of information; we need to meet with our customers to better understand what they want to accomplish and how we can help, and we need to meet with our vendors to impart this information to help our customers meet their goals. Or, how about a series of vendor/owner/customer forums? Information tends to become diluted in translation, Dirk Moeller agrees. “We need to have a big brainstorming session at every meeting,” he advised.
Art Fallon suggests that we make better use of what we already have to make more money and better prepare ourselves for the opportunities the future holds. “Most of us use voice mail as simply a means for message delivery.” He cautions, “We forget that there is a whole industry out there that uses only voice mail to make a good living. Perhaps we should be working harder to offer those services; they are labor free.”
“Most businesses in our industry,” added Art, “are doing an absolutely abysmal job of marketing. If there is any one action we should be taking, we should be trying to figure out how to rectify this problem! We are good at providing the complicated problem solutions.”
“Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders won’t upset us.” How many of us are still trying to fit our round customer needs into the square parameters of our services? By stating, “We don’t do it that way,” will kill our businesses. We have the ability to be flexible! We need to become determined to accommodate our customers’ needs. Equipment is so versatile now that we can set up nearly any application our customers envision. “The Internet has caused our industry to begin seeing the newest growth boom,” said Dee Hawkins, “We continue to be amazed at the many ancillary services we provide to the same client, and that client is a larger client than we were used to handling in the past. I see the future as bright, promising and very profitable.”
So, if the future is so bright and we have all this tremendous capability and new applications promise so much more new income, why can’t we put it all together? Rob Nolan thinks it is because we don’t have the right “systems” in place. We lack consistency, and that throws up roadblocks to our success. The systems he is referring to are the basics: training systems, reporting systems, customer service systems, even sales systems. Every day we need a “snapshot” of where our business stands. How many customers do we have, complaints, adds, drops, inquiries, sales calls, callbacks? What did our stats look like, over-rings, abandons, waits, holds, calls answered? How did the company do as a whole? How do the operator stats compare? “When we are armed with good information and good systems, we will finally have that cohesiveness we need to become wildly successful, “he predicts.
Over and over again our visionaries uttered the words “niche”, “specialist” and “generalist.”
“We are at a point where we have many choices,” explained Gary Pudles. “Very few of us will be successful generalists,” he predicts. “We will all find our niche and specialize.”
“We need to understand what we do and our value to our customers, “said Michele Ringwood. “We need to network with other industries, educate ourselves, and we simply can’t afford not to have a sound business strategy. We must identify ourselves and know where we are going.”
“I see owners getting all wrapped up in technology issues,” said Rob Nolan. “We aren’t here because of a piece of equipment. Our customers want our people. Owners try to manage people; that’s difficult to do if we don’t have the systems in place. I am not preaching; I don’t think our company has a handle on consistency either, but we will have a better chance of having consistency and good quality when we have all the systems in place.”
In the final analysis our visionaries can’t “see” very far into this new millennium, but they do agree that the speed of the growth of our industry depends on us. We must support one another and share our knowledge even as we become closer competitors as our world shrinks. We must actively work with our vendors to react to our customers’ needs and take advantage of other technology. We need tore establish a “watchdog” for our interests against much larger competition (see Threats in side box on page 14).
Our sincere thanks go not only to the visionaries that helped shape this article, but also to all the visionaries that help shape this industry. There was neither time nor space to include all of you, but you know who you are, and we all know how much you have done to develop and promote our future. Business is at the Speed of Thought. Bill Gates says, “Power comes not from knowledge kept, but from knowledge shared.” With people like these, ours should become a very powerful industry indeed.
Donna West is President of Focus Telecommunications, Inc., www.focustele.com
Thank you to Art Fallon, Fallon Communications, Inc.; Cindy Baur, Bay Area Medical Exchange; Darlene Campbell, Metro Message Services, Inc.; Allan Fromm, The An-ser; Larry Goldenberg, Direct Line TeleResponse; Dee Hawkins, A Better Answer; Dan Horn, McLeod USA; Mary Jones, Answer-1 Communications; Jim Marchbank, Available Communications, Inc.; Dirk Moeller, Business Connections, Inc.; Rob Nolan, Abas Answering Service, LLC; Peter Orvis, Central Communications, Inc.; Gary Pudles, AnswerNet, Inc.; Michele Ringwood, Pronto Connections, Inc.; and helping to tie it all together, Donna West, Focus Telecommunications, Inc.
[From Connection Magazine – January 2000]