Shopping for the Small Biz Contact Center

The movement to Internet protocol (IP)-based phone systems and contact centers is in full swing. This is great news for smaller businesses, since standards-based IP networks offer far more flexibility and capabilities for much lower costs than their TDM (time-division multiplexing) predecessors.

As a bonus, the protocol that runs the Internet handles voice and data equally while consolidating both on the same infrastructure. That means fewer management headaches and greater integration capabilities between the call center and software applications.

However, beyond IP, what should a small business look for in a contact center? The key is to think about the future. While many different contact center products can offer a start in meeting your needs, only a handful can also continue the job as your business grows.

Graceful scaling is crucial, since switching over to a new contact center system can cause harmful and costly disruptions to a fledgling business. Here are some of the capabilities a small company with big plans should look for in its contact center system.

Expandable Option

As a business grows, customer service costs can rise dramatically. As a result, interactive voice response (IVR) and Web-based customer self-service options, including e-mail, chat, instant messaging or collaborative Web browsing, become increasingly important. Offering multiple contact channels with rich self-service options can not only raise customer satisfaction but also effectively restrain customer service costs by directing traffic away from customer service agents — by far the most expensive customer service option.

While voice traffic still accounts for nearly 90 percent of customer interactions, e-mail is the fastest-growing means of customer contact. So if you plan to grow, make sure your contact center provides robust support for multiple channel options.

Agent Management

The ability to monitor agents and obtain comprehensive performance data becomes increasingly important as a company grows. It’s one thing for a manager at a start-up company to observe and assess the performance of a handful of agents. It’s quite another to do the same with hundreds of employees.

This is where fine-grain, flexible interaction monitoring and reporting capabilities are a must. Good collection and assessment tools will allow managers to analyze call handle times, customer service levels and problem resolution success for individual agents and groups of agents. Such software can quickly highlight problems areas or struggling agents. These capabilities help companies keep a careful watch on their customers, even when they can’t observe interactions directly.

Virtual Agents

These days many smaller companies operate as “virtual” businesses, with no formal headquarters and with employees connected primarily by communications over phone, e-mail and the Internet. With virtual businesses come virtual customer service agents.

By recruiting and using customer service agents located anywhere in the country, a small business can not only find better agents but also lower costs. However, smoothly and securely integrating virtual or remote agents into the corporate network is no slam dunk.

Small businesses should ask what support a contact center offers for this crucial capability. When shopping for contact center packages, be sure to parse the management capabilities for virtual agents. Are they the same as those for on-site agents? Can managers view agent performance information from anywhere at any time? Such features are crucial if virtual agents are to be as effective as on-site agents.

Also, a company cannot expect a virtual agent to troubleshoot problems or be able to install more than rudimentary software. Does the contact center offer a toolbox for remote device and software management? Without such features, virtual agents could become a drain on company operations and hurt customer service.

Addressing Security, Branding

How is data protected? Is security integrated into the product or must it be purchased from a third-party source? Security isn’t about silver-bullet protection from a point-product but about coordinated, layered defense.

Contact centers need to protect data in transit with such technologies as secure socket layer (SSL) and virtual private networks (VPNs), while offering computer-based defenses against worms, viruses and other malware that can bring an entire business to its knees. Without comprehensive security, a contact center could provide a gateway to serious problems.

Contact center systems should not just be about “handling calls.” A good market and sales plan will also include robust support for outbound marketing campaigns.

E-mail these days is particularly effective at keeping a business in front of its customers and providing opportunities for new sales. A contact center that can offer full support for campaign management provides a certain benefit to any business. Also, follow-up calls to customers about problems or questions are equally vital to customer satisfaction. A contact center needs to be able to track and manage such interactions.

Customer Identification

Much of customer service is about anticipating the needs of the customer, and these days no company should be without a contact center that can identify incoming callers and route those calls to the appropriate agents quickly. High-value customers or ones fitting into certain categories can be routed to agents with specialized knowledge. Sophisticated call-routing options are a must, even in the most basic contact center.

Though traditional custom computer-telephony integration (CTI) is prohibitively expensive for many smaller businesses, any contact center still needs to offer cost-effective ways to tie into CRM applications. Fortunately, CRM applications can be integrated without high cost in at least two ways: via emulation macros and through browser-based CRM.

Emulation macros capture the keystrokes required to “manually” move contact center data into a CRM application. Since this requires virtually no programming expertise, costs are very low. The other option, browser-based CRM, is gaining popularity and relies on HTML coding to integrate contact centers with online CRM, such as those offered by Salesforce.com. Contact centers need to support these necessary options for cost-conscious businesses.

Automation Options

“Star Trek” technologies such as speech recognition and text-to-speech are not just expensive gee-whiz capabilities for big companies. These technologies are becoming increasingly affordable, and depending on the business, they can provide significant productivity boosts, especially as a company grows and requires greater efficiencies in the call center.

Maybe you don’t require these today, but you could well need them in the future. Building your contact center to accommodate these technologies at a later date is a move you won’t regret, and may well make you a hero as your business grows.


Laurent Philonenko is vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Customer Contact Business Unit.


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