Call Center

Musings from the 2009 ATA Convention

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Having just returned from the 2009 ATA Convention and Expo in New Orleans, I am still processing all the valuable information that was presented and the insightful ideas that were shared. Between the several keynote addresses and multiple breakout sessions, there were over thirty presentations of which to avail oneself. In addition to this were the ongoing networking opportunities with vendors and attendees.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Given the economic conditions of our day, the convention was much the anomaly, with attendance slightly surpassing last year’s mark and with the number of breakout presentations 50 percent higher. For several of the keynote addresses it was standing room only, with late arrivals relegated to the perimeter of the hall. Overall, those I talked to made positive comments on the quality of the presentations and the enthusiasm of attendees. Although the vendor space was understandably down slightly, those I questioned were pleased with making good contacts and logging quality leads. Some prospects are in a buying mode now, with many preparing to move forward in 2010.

Reactions from call center executives about their year resulted in a range of responses. Some who had seen a decline in call volumes and revenues used the year as an opportunity to position themselves for growth as the economy emerges from the recession. Others reported level results, and a few experienced growth in 2009. Of course, those in dire situations were not likely attending, but given that attendance was nearly the same as last year, there are assumedly not too many centers in that position.

Of the many things that were shared, here are some of the items that have risen to the forefront of my thinking:

Social Media: There were three heavily attended sessions on social media. Given its rapid adoption and massive usage, social media is clearly not a fad, but rather a social evolution – with profound business applications. Social media offers new — and significant – channels for marketing, customer service, and call center work.

Although specific social media offerings may wax and wane over time, the overall trajectory of social media is growth, sustainability, and opportunity. The key applications mentioned that are worthy of consideration include Facebook, Linked-In, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Second Life, YouTube, and iTunes, along with blogging and podcasting. Keynote speaker Lon Safko, author of the best-selling book, Social Media Bible, advised that everyone set aside thirty minutes a week to “explore social media.”

Calls to Contacts: Although I have long viewed the call center as more than an entity that processes phone calls, I have been reluctant to rechristen it as a contact center. However, it is clearer to me than ever that tomorrow’s call center will be a contact center in both word and in deed.

Those who persist in being “just” a call center will risk obsolescence and becoming inconsequential. Notwithstanding that, a few call centers could carefully and strategically position themselves in a call expert niche, eschewing all other contact options and opportunities. However, there will likely be limited room and opportunity for those who fail to migrate from processing calls to handling contacts – or diversify into other related or synergistic areas.

Although critical mass has not yet been reached, now is the time – for those who have yet to do so – to begin embracing non-telephony contacts for their centers. While it might seem overwhelming to know what ancillary contact channel to embrace first, the key point is to pick one and move towards it. Failing to act is not an option. Fortunately, many of the vendors at the convention offer software, tools, and insights to help centers successfully move from calls to contacts.

Self-Regulation: In 2006, ATA founded the ATA-SRO, developing call center standards to address consumer needs while reducing the impetus for legislation. These standards address both inbound and outbound teleservice work. Last year, call center certification began, with the first auditors being trained and call centers moving towards compliance. Already several centers have been certified by the ATA-SRO, with many more in process.

What is equally compelling is that there are already major organizations adding ATA-SRO in their RFPs, requiring that call center outsourcers be ATA-SRO-certified, or at least moving towards certification; noncertified call centers will not be considered for these major outsourcing contracts. Tim Searcy shared that in this regard the tipping point is about to occur. He also mentioned that the ATA has been receiving inquiries from organizations in other countries that desire to copy or model the ATA-SRO. That is a great affirmation to the inherent quality and understood value of the ATA-SRO. U.S. Senator David Vitter gave similar accolades in his keynote address at the convention.

Customer Expectations Continue to Rise: Many of the sessions related to customer service, albeit from varying angles – such as first-call resolution, metrics, staffing, retention, coaching, and case studies. The bottom line is that customers expect more than they did last year, and next year they will expect more than they do today. What was once leading edge is now standard operating procedure (SOP), and what was SOP is now outmoded. As such, contact centers that don’t stay abreast of the latest customer service developments and customer-centric practices – based on continually increasing customer expectations – run the real risk of soon being relegated to a second tier player.

Staying abreast of the latest contact center trends and customer service movements is key to maintaining relevance as a call center practitioner. Ongoing education, such as was provided by the many speakers at the Convention, is a great first step to remaining on the crest of the customer service wave – and out of the trough of irrelevance.

While there were many other relevant and compelling discussions, ideas, and developments at the 2009 ATA Convention, these have been my primary reflections: The effect and influence of social media for both businesses and call centers cannot be ignored; we need to jettison a call preoccupation and embrace a contact mentality; ATA-SRO certification is the route for tomorrow’s leading contact centers; and we must continually strive to meet and exceed ever-increasing quality service expectations.

If that won’t keep you busy, I don’t know what will.

Read more in Peter’s Sticky Series books: Sticky Leadership and Management, Sticky Sales and Marketing, and Sticky Customer Service featuring his compelling story-driven insights and tips.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry. Read his latest book, Healthcare Call Center Essentials.

By Peter Lyle DeHaan

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, publishes books about business, customer service, the call center industry, and business and writing.