Call Center

Using The Internet To Enhance Your Call Center

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

By leaps and bounds, the ubiquitous Internet is becoming more pervasive and accepted, even expected, in our daily lives and the world around us. While some call centers strive to be innovators on the leading edge of this societal evolution, most are content to follow the lead and experience of others.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Both approaches are acceptable and realistic strategic decisions. The only unacceptable course of action is to ignore the Internet, shunning its benefits and potential, refusing to let it be part of one’s business in general and call center specifically.

Indeed, call centers electing to disregard the Internet today run the very real risk of not being around to lament their decision tomorrow.

The ways in which the Internet can enhance one’s business are numerous. Pursuing all possible opportunities may be best left to the larger and more technologically astute operations.

However, every call center should consider how the Internet can be optimally used to save time, generate revenue, increase communication, obtain and retain clients, and bolster the bottom line.

Here are several things to consider; use the Internet:

To Serve Clients: Using the Internet to serve clients has many advantages. First, it offers more options, greater flexibility, and increased responsiveness; it is a service enhancer. Second, innovative Internet options serve as a retention mechanism. After all, a client that grows to depend upon a specific high-tech Internet service will be reluctant to switch providers if the alternative does not match up, feature for feature. Third, Internet-based features can be revenue generators or profit enhancers. Often a particular service, when properly implemented, marketed, and priced, can meet all three of these important objectives.

In this regard, Gary Tedrick of Answer Midwest in Alton, Illinois, is moving many of his clients to email for communicating and distributing information. He sees email messaging as taking the place of alpha paging. “We can send an email or text message to a physician’s cell phone and send a copy to the office manager. That way the physician gets the message instantly and his office has a record of the contact,” Tedrick stated. “Nearly everyone carries a cell phone now with email or text messaging.”

Amtelco, Amcom, and other vendors offer a wide range of Web applications to better service clients. Amtelco recently announced several enhancements to their Infinity Web application. Essentially, these products provide a gateway to allow clients to access Infinity information and features via the Internet, including the directory, on-call scheduler, registry, and roster. This allows easy client access to information within Infinity and effectively extends features to clients.

Similarly, Amcom’s Smart Web applications enable employees and other authorized users to do directory searches, paging, and on-call scheduling from their corporate Intranet or the Internet. That means convenience and up-to-date information for clients. Smart Web makes information from the call center database available to users throughout the organization on their PC, wireless, or handheld devices (via any standard browser). Web-based services that are part of Amcom’s Smart Web include directory services, status updates, physician registry/staff roster, scheduling, and paging.

Although these leading edge services require state-of-the-art systems, investing in the latest platform is not necessarily a requirement. “There is a widespread misconception that [Amtelco] EVE systems are old school,” stated Brian Gilmore General Manager from Fallon Communications, “but an EVE system with Windows workstations is hardly uncompetitive if you know how to use it.” Fallon Communications uses late model PCs with Windows, Internet Explorer, and other Internet applications to access client databases and Web forms. “Our capabilities include the usual things that many other call centers are doing such as text, voice, and fax message deliveries via email, receiving and transmitting client data via email and FTP, and pulling reports and data from third-party databases for markup and resale to clients.” They also do Web lookup of caller data and insert it into the call record. They even had a request for a video-chat order entry application. Although they did identify some third party applications to provide the service, the account never came to fruition.

Fallon Communications generally charges “a bandwidth allowance fee for clients that need Internet access” beyond email usage. “Internet bandwidth allocation fees may sound like pocket change,” stated Gilmore, “but every additional dollar of revenue helps build a business and keep agent [service rates] competitive.”

So far, all of these discussions about using the Internet to service clients relate to the provision of service. But this is an incomplete picture; follow-up support is also important. The Internet, specifically email, can help there as well. Cheryl Campbell, Vice President of Operations at Michigan Message Center has seen a big shift from the telephone to email as a channel of handling customer service questions and concerns. She estimates that about “50% of communications with clients is now being done with email.” Chief benefits of using email include avoiding phone tag and being able to respond to email as one’s workload allows without interrupting other activities.

Some call centers also add client resources, documents, and support (such as “frequently asked questions”) to their websites to further facilitate customer service efforts. Although the goal should not be to force the client into a self-service mode, offering self-help as an option is both pragmatic and accommodating.

To Use Hosted Services: Using hosted software is like renting software and accessing it via the Internet. This software resides in a central server at the provider’s location. To use hosted software, a call center typically only needs to have Internet access and browser software at each agent station.

With hosted services, stated Shane Green of Creative Entropy, “There are no updates to worry about, no data backups to slow down your network, and no expensive hardware required to operate it. It is all handled by the provider. When the application is enhanced, there is no effort required by the call center to begin using the improved functions.” Just like renting an apartment versus buying a house, hosted software has a low initial cost, no long-term commitment, and is highly flexible as needs and usage level changes.

In some cases the software (and required hardware, if any) can also be purchased from the vendor. In other cases, the hosted version is the only option. Also, it is important to note that while most hosted software will function in any Internet-ready call center, some packages are specific to a vendor’s platform that must be installed in the call center.

There are several reasons to use hosted software, including try-it-before-you-buy, bootstrapping a new service or business, to conserve capital, or for occasional use. Angela Hightower of Answering Metro Atlanta has added appointment scheduling to her client services. Answering Metro Atlanta, uses Almond Hill’s appointment setting program with her Telescan system. Hightower believes Web browsers are the future of her business.  “More clients want us to take orders and make appointments off websites. It may be slow, but business will be going in that direction and we have to be ready,” said Hightower.

David Peck, owner of Professional Answering Service in Springfield, Missouri agrees. “It is certain, as time goes by there will be more applications for the Web. The possibilities are endless. It’s just a matter of having the right hardware and software.” Professional Answering also uses Web-based appointment scheduling and order taking applications. They take orders for clients and process them through the client’s website. This makes order processing easier and faster.

Here is a list of some of the hosted software that is available to outsource call centers:

  • Appointment scheduling software allows agents to schedule appointments and other events for clients. Both clients and call center agents, and in some cases customers or patients, can all access the same schedule on the Internet. Hosted appointment scheduling software is available from Almond Hill Enterprises, Alston-Tascom, Creative Entropy, and TimeTrade Systems.
  • On-call scheduling software similarly provides a means to manage assignments and contact on-call personnel. Almond Hill Enterprises and Amtelco have hosted software to handle clients’ on-call schedules.
  • IVR (Interactive Voice Response) is also available as a hosted package and is available from Alston Tascom and Amtelco.
  • Order-taking software is available from Amtelco and Telescan.
  • Other hosted services include unified communications from CenturiSoft Unified Communication (marketed by Phone and Wireless) and agent scripting software, Web conferencing, and Infinity Web applications all from Amtelco.

For Agents: In last month’s Connections, we covered in depth the topic of remote agent stations and the many ways in which a remote station can connect to the call center. The Internet figures prominently for the data connection of many remote agent stations, with call centers using DSL, cable modems, and even dialup Internet access.

For the agent audio, however, many rely on dialup access, both local and long distance. Nevertheless there is increasing interest in using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) to extend the audio connection to remotely located agent stations. Joe Miller, president of Checkpoint Communications Company in Greenville, North Carolina, has been successfully using VoIP for more than a year for his remote agent stations. With two disparately located call centers, each has a fractional T1 circuit connected to the Internet. This connection handles the data for the agent stations, as well as the agent audio and incoming DID traffic and agent dialouts. Miller tested the service for close to a year before rolling it out. “Voice over IP doesn’t require much bandwidth,” Miller observed, “but it does need to always be there.” Miller is sold on his VoIP service and says that the audio quality is as good as or better than normal phone conversion. Miller concluded that VoIP may be the wave of the future.

When agents work remotely – and even internally – timely and effective communication with them can be a challenge while they are on-line. David Peck, owner of Professional Answering Service in Springfield, Missouri solved this problem with the Spectrum Messenger from Telescan to improve inter-office communications. The program provides for platform-independent, secure, encrypted communications across local-area network and the Internet. Unlike email programs or simple “chat” programs, it allows control of both the client side and server side. This enables users to securely send real-time messages to each other based on their level of access.

Cheryl Campbell, Vice President of Michigan Message Center, has about a third of her staff working remotely. She uses email to keep in contact with these remote agents, particularly to distribute their schedules to them. “This has greatly reduced the calls to our supervisors by staff checking their schedules,” she stated. When agents are on-line working, Campbell and her front-line supervisors use the text chat feature that is part of their Amtelco Infinity system for quick communications.

As a Sales Tool: The Internet can also be used as a powerful sales tool and resource. The primary and most common application is a website. At its most basic level, a website is an on-line brochure. Unlike a yellow page advertisement that can only be changed annually, a website can be updated as often as needed to reflect changes and new services. And unlike a print media advertisement, which is static, a website can be dynamic or even interactive. Some call centers add useful resources and interesting content to their sites to attract users and encourage repeat visits. Other uses of websites as a marketing tool are to include press releases, list awards and recognitions, offer forms for literature or quote requests, and present printable versions of literature. Some websites include pricing information and even sign-up forms. Others have the goal to merely capture contact information or to encourage the visitor to phone or email them. Call centers with more advanced service offerings and websites, offer chat and callback options, demonstrating the expansiveness of their service, while providing two more ways for prospects and clients to contact them.

Internet marketing is not restricted, however, to websites. Email broadcasts can be used as a prospecting means and many centers that formerly relied on fax solicitations are switching strategies and migrating to email. When doing email solicitations, care must be exercised as not to alienate or mislead prospects. Just as with direct mail, the quality of the list is critical. A bad list results in a low response and a high percentage of undeliverable messages. A legitimate opt-in list is a good source, as are targeted lists. With so many people doing email marketing wrong, it is wise to take your lead from reputable direct mailers in developing a sales pitch and the manner in which it is conveyed.

Not surprisingly, call centers were not anxious to share their Internet marketing secrets or strategies for this article. With many centers competing for the same business, marketing advantages and distinctivenesses are carefully guarded secrets.

For Vendor Support: The area of vendor support is presented for two reasons. The first is to alert call centers to possible ways in which they can obtain service and support from their equipment providers. The second is illustrative, to suggest ways in which call centers can apply these ideas to better serve their own client base.

Jody Laluzerne, field-engineering supervisor at Amtelco, indicated a heavy dependence on the Internet to serve customers. He speculated that much of what Amtelco does “is pretty common in the support industry.”

For starters, Amtelco has a password-protected website for their service contract customers. It contains information about troubleshooting, cable pinouts, board descriptions and configuration information, software downloads, and even links to download Amtelco manuals. The site also has a quick reference of recent updates. “Since it is available 24/7/365, it’s been a great resource for our customers,” stated Laluzerne.  Also, if users of the site need on-line help, they can use Amtelco’s text chat or callback features to contact a technician. “We also use the Internet to download software via email and FTP sites, so customers can get updates and features in minutes now, not days,” he added.

In the past, direct customer support was provided exclusively via the telephone. At one time, some vendors experimented with using the fax machine to receive routine operational questions and support requests, as well as deliver basic technical documentation and resources. Although it had its practical uses, it never caught on the way that email has. “Email is a convenient mechanism for receiving and answering client questions regarding equipment operation and features,” stated Bob Vornberg, Telescan’s director of product development. “We also use email to send software updates to our customers and receive performance reports.”  Amtelco’s Laluzerne echoes this sentiment and the tremendous value that email adds to customer support. He estimates that about 20% of their support work is now done via email.

Amtelco, CadCom, and other vendors offer training seminars on the Web. Frequently called webinars, these sessions allow customers to be trained on new features and important developments from the comforts of their home or office, eliminating travel costs and greatly reducing time away from their normal work.  With webinars, the visual portion of the session is accessible via the Internet, while the audio portion is generally provided by a conference bridge, although VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is available in some implementations. Also, webinars are not restricted to fixed presentations from PowerPoint or websites. They can be interactive with the presenter’s desktop displayed for participants and step-by-step procedures demonstrated.

As an alternative to the typical dialup remote diagnostics, Amtelco can connect directly to their customers’ servers and networks using secured Internet connections. “Using this,” stated Laluzerne, “we can help them with programming, configuration, and troubleshooting much more quickly and with instant access.”

In similar fashion, Telescan uses the Internet as a connection mechanism to remotely control Telescan equipment at customer sites.  “With this system, Telescan technicians can update customers’ software, monitor system activity, upload performance statistics, and run diagnostics. Web access almost eliminates the problems of servicing remote locations,” added Telescan’s Vornberg.

“I think the most valuable advantages the Internet provides though, is the time it saves and the efficiency it provides when a technician can access the customer’s desktop and find solutions together,” concluded Laluzerne.

The Downside: Merely passing data over the Internet is not without the risk of being intercepted – either intentionally or accidentally. “I have always been very careful about the security of playing the raw voice file data over a LAN or the Internet,” stated Michael Stoll, owner of Record Play/Tec, manufacturer of voice logging equipment. “Most of our simple computer loggers don’t have a NIC card in them, solely because of security concerns. I also discourage PC anywhere or dial in service on loggers” for that reason. With this in mind, Stoll is currently working on a solution which will offer convenient access with the requisite security for his company’s voice recording products.

Additionally, the recent havoc caused by the Sobig-F and the Blaster worms should serve to increase everyone’s awareness of the risks associated with being connected to the Internet. While this is not justification to permanently disconnect from the Internet, it should be an adequate warning and reminder to not take a Pollyanna approach towards Internet security and to use computer common sense.

Computer security is complex issue, deserving great attention. At the risk of oversimplification, there are four simple lessons to be learned or guidelines to follow.

  • Have current anti-virus protection on each computer that accesses the Internet or is on a network with other computers that access the Internet.
  • Faithfully check and apply all critical updates for Microsoft Windows and Office products. Those programs are most often targeted because of their popularity and near universal presence.
  • Install and properly configure a firewall on every computer that accesses the Internet.
  • Practice safe computing. Don’t open unexpected attachments and practice a healthy skepticism with unsolicited warnings and well-intentioned advice. In other words, use common sense.

There is much more to these basic recommendations then the brief coverage given herein, as well as other issues to consider and address. But first make sure that these four basic items are covered and then build on that. Malevolent computer viruses and worms aren’t the only Internet concern.

The Future: The Internet will become more and more a part of our lives, both personal and professional. Failure to accept and embrace this forgone conclusion will leave one at a severe disadvantage. Certainly there are cautions to be observed and the concerns of risk will likely increase, but the Internet will continue to provide new and innovative opportunities to better serve clients, save money, market services, support staff, and generate revenue.

Do not miss these Internet opportunities.

Case Study: Web directory, paging, and on-call at Orlando Regional Healthcare

When Orlando Regional Healthcare replaced its aging CTI system with an enterprise-level PC attendant console system, it got a new feature that stirred interest throughout the organization: a Web interface for users outside the call center.  

The application was an instant hit, enabling employees to perform their own paging, directory lookups, and on-call scheduling from their individual Web browsers.

“Everybody loves Smart Web,” says Mike Spencer, Telecommunications Manager for Orlando Regional Healthcare. “We now have directory lookup and text paging on every desktop in the organization. As we roll out new PCs to nurses’ stations, we’re loading a Smart Web shortcut as an icon at startup. It couldn’t be easier to access and use.”

The Web services feature has helped enable the Orlando Regional Healthcare call center to process an increasing number of calls without hiring additional agents: More than 60 percent of their one million pages per year have been offloaded from agents and are now sent directly by physicians and medical staff via IVR and Web paging.

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.