By Jennigay Coetzer – Business Day, 5 May 2011

Companies need to gear up their call centres to communicate with customers over multiple interaction channels, including voice, fax, SMS, instant messaging, web chat and social media. But these channels run on different systems, which means managing different suppliers with different service level agreements.

“All these systems attract annual software licence and maintenance fees,” says Deon Scheepers, head of technology and strategy at Atio. In addition, the existing call centre equipment often needs replacing to accommodate multichannel interaction.

“Today everything revolves around the internet and companies need IP (Internet Protocol) technology to connect to that environment,” says Scheepers. Many also want to implement Voice over IP (Voice over Internet Protocol) in their call centres to reduce call costs and be able to route calls to branches and to remote agents that have specific skills.

Companies will need to look at all these factors and then decide whether to upgrade their call centre infrastructure or outsource it to a hosted service provider, says Scheepers. “Moving to a hosted solution can reduce costs by 30% to 40%.”

Call centre hosting offers the flexibility of extending capacity when interaction volumes increase or when running campaigns. It also provides instant access to new functionality such additional interaction channels or the latest voice recording or interactive voice response systems, because hosted service providers are already geared up for it, says Scheepers.

Dave Paulding, regional sales director for UK, Middle East and Africa at Interactive Intelligence says companies do not want to continue paying annual licence and support fees for call centre software and infrastructure and want someone else to do it. “It is happening throughout Africa and the rest of the world.”

He says companies have to operate call centres to maintain customer service, but they resent spending money on this business function. “Hosting is attractive because it provides capacity on demand.”

Having recognised this trend software suppliers like Interactive Intelligence are moving into the hosting business, says Paulding. “We started providing hosted call centre services in the UK and Germany 12 months ago and 30% of our revenues now come from this area of the business.”

He says the company expects 100% of its business to eventually come from hosted services globally, including SA. Scott Corry, business unit manager for Jabra at Kathea says it is predicted that 40% of knowledge workers will not have a conventional telephone on their desks by 2014.

Instead, they will have an IP-based soft phone application running on their PC, laptop, or mobile phone and make and receive calls from anywhere, he says.  This includes call centre agents, many of which are already operating on this basis globally.
He says a combination of technology tools will allow calls, emails and other types of interactions to be routed to the most suitable agent to handle the customer’s query or enquiry. Rules can be set up to control the availability of the agents and to prioritise calls, for example from specific callers.

This enables agents to be on call at any time, regardless of whether or not the call centre is operating 24 hours a day, says Corry. He says the call centre manager can still track and record the mobile agents’ activities and carry out full workforce management.

“Agents would clock in and out by logging into the call centre system with their password.” Corry says the call centre hosting model, whereby the service provider owns the technology and charges on a per use basis, is attracting a lot of interest. He says smaller call centre outsource operators can save costs by using a hosted call centre service and hiring mobile agents as their call volumes grow and downsizing as they diminish.

“It is a big investment to build and staff up a call centre.” Similarly, companies of all sizes with an existing call centre operation could start gradually reducing the number of agents on their premises and taking on mobile agents.

Hannes van der Merwe, Mitel product manager at Itec Distribution says a lot of companies are moving away from having large centralised call centres that take up expensive office space and are splitting them up into smaller decentralised operations. These smaller call centres are cheaper to run because they can be located in outlying areas and staff costs and other overheads are lower.

The technology, customer information and interactions are managed from a central point and the decentralised agents are just equipped with a workstation and an IP phone. “The company can still create the perception that it has a centralised call centre, because the customer experience should be the same.”

He says, with the latest technology in place, customers can phone a single number and be routed to an agent who takes accountability for resolving their queries without being passed from one person to another.

The agent can set up a conference call with a specialist, establish his availability, and speak to him while the customer is still on the phone, or the three parties could interact using web chat or instant messaging, from different locations.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist with 25 years experience, and she writes regularly for Business Day. She also runs media training and writing skills workshops, and is the author of A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing and distributing effective press releases, an electronic version of which can be downloaded free from her website: www.jennigay.co.za.

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