By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
It seems that seldom a week goes by when I don’t receive a call from someone wanting to interview me. Sometimes it is a local newspaper, other times a specialty magazine. I was quite unnerved at my first interview request. I envisioned it being a hard-hitting, muckraking interrogation, intent on getting me to say something I didn’t mean. That was the best-case scenario. Worst-case, I feared a tabloid style grilling, twisting the truth, obliterating the context of my comments, or generating all out fabrications. As such, it is not surprising that I viewed each question with suspicion, searching to ascertain its hidden agenda, carefully constructing my response, and guardedly protecting my words. It took me a while, but I eventually came to realize that the vast majority of reporters merely want to get enough useful information to complete their piece. So now, I just answer their questions, as openly and honestly as possible — and then get back to the work in front of me.
Over time, I realized that the tenor of these interview requests fall into three categories. The first group is those who were trying to better comprehend the call center industry. I’ve tried, with only partial success, to educate the uninitiated in the distinction between inbound and outbound. I’ve tried to help them understand the call center industry is not necessarily synonymous with telemarketing (specifically, being interrupted during dinner), and the differences between in-house call centers and their outsourcing cousins. All too often, they want to skip this rudimentary instruction and go right to the main lesson – one that they are not yet prepared to adequately grasp.
The second category of questions revolves around outsourcing. Again, their level of understanding is simplistic. They assume that all call center outsourcing takes place offshore. They are surprised to learn that there are many viable outsource call centers onshore. They are incredulous when I tell them, in fact, that the majority of call center outsourcing occurs to call centers that are located, not at some third-world locale, but rather within the confines of their country’s borders. Then they go on to rant about accents and uncomprehending agents – as if accents equaled offshore. Yes, there may be a correlation, but there are plenty of local agents with accents and, indeed, offshore agents without accents. This, they cannot comprehend. Surely, they reason, if an agent has an accent, they must be offshore, won’t be able to effectively communicate, and must have a substandard intelligence. Such stereotypical attitudes will not easily be overcome.
The third group of questions revolves around the future. “What are the major call center trends that you see developing over the next 12 months?” Or, “How will technology impact the call center?” Other questions are less informed, such as “Will the Internet affect the call center industry?” Or “Do you think computers will ever be used in call centers?”
Sometimes the questions are nonsensical, along the lines of, “With the documented increase in demand for left-handed widgets in the Pacific Rim, how will the ongoing viability of the home-based agent in rural America be assured?” Okay, maybe I am being dense or perhaps they have an agenda, so I ignore the question and give a benign and generic reply, such as “We can be assured that technology will play an increasingly important role in tomorrow’s call center infrastructure.” That seems to make them happy. Plus, it is a valid, yet innocuous quote that they can slip anywhere into their article without me having any real concerns of being misrepresented.
In truth, I am reticent in making future prognostications. The reality is that sometimes my words come back to haunt me. In 1990, I wrote an article, proclaiming that advanced call forwarding features and stutter dial tone would be the “dynamic duo” of the decade for the telemessaging industry. As it turned out, advanced call-forwarding features did afford more connection opportunities and stutter dial tone could have been a powerfully effective message-waiting indicator, yet I failed to realize that telcos had no real interest or incentive to let call centers access their switches to turn on and off the stutter dial tone. At best, I batted 500.
Five years later, I gave a speech about home-based agents. My words about HR issues, training, and management are as relevant today as they were nine years ago. Yet I missed the mark on timing, as I envisioned this opportunity fully developing within a year or two. It wasn’t until the Internet became ubiquitous, that technology allowed home-based agents to become viable, practical, and cost-effective.
At another meeting around that time, I gave an informative primer on the Internet and impassionately urged attendees to begin learning and experiencing the Internet; indeed, their call centers’ future viability was at stake. My words were accurate and my advice was astute, but it almost didn’t happen. Some 12 years prior, in the early 1980s, I first heard about the Internet. I learned that it had limited accessibility (you needed to be at a major university or work for a defense contractor) and therefore I deemed it an anomaly with no practical business application. My understanding of the Internet remained frozen in a 1982 perspective until circumstances forced me to reexamine it. My how things had changed – and I almost missed it.
So, it is with great trepidation that I stick my neck out; I predict…
Offshore outsourcing will continue, grow, and succeed. True, there may be unaddressed quality issues and political ramifications today, but those will diminish. My good friend, Mike Leibowitz, succinctly summarized the situation, “Remember when ‘Made in China’ meant the products were of low quality? For that matter, ‘Made in Japan’ had the same stigma a generation ago. But they learned and improved and now Japan and China produce the highest quality items. So, don’t discount the Indians and Pakistanis just because they are having some issues with call center performance today. They are smart, they are motivated, and they will get better – much better.”
The Internet will become even more important. Lack of Internet acumen will relegate call centers to second-class existence – or worse. First, there are the basics.
- Call centers must have a website. At minimum, it should be professional, be an effective marketing piece, and contain complete contact information. Too many small outsourcing call centers have put this off.
- Key staff (preferably all staff) need to have their own business email address. Having one email address that everyone uses is, well, appalling and second rate.
- Your email addresses must convey professionalism. Is blond4you@CheapEmail.com an email address that your call center can be proud to use?
- Make sure that you actually test and check your email. In sending messages to the “contact us” email addresses on websites, I have found that about 15 percent are rejected and that about 65 percent are never answered.
- Beyond these essentials, you need to be thinking about client services on your website, “talk-to-me” and chat options, remote agents, high-speed Internet access, VoIP, and hosted services. These are our future differentiators.
VoIP cannot be ignored. Sending voice calls over the Internet (VoIP) is an opportunity that every call center must consider. It allows home-based and remote agents to be cost-effective and viable and has the promise to lower telco costs. Your next switch (maybe even your current one) will likely be based on this premise. Be sure to choose your VoIP vendor with care; many will not survive.
Telco costs will go down. It was once postulated that the rate for long distance would converge at one cent per minute; rates will continue to move in that direction. However, with the aforementioned VoIP, the incremental cost of a long distance call could become zero!
Consolidation and mergers will continue. Consolidations and mergers will continue unabated. This will occur with phone companies, with equipment and software vendors, and among call centers. Regardless of which camp you are in, you must grow (either more market share or new markets) or find a niche (preferably multiple ones) in which you focus, excel, and lead. The status quo is not an option.
Government will be an increasing force. Expect new laws and policies to affect call centers, especially relating to privacy issues and outbound calling. The degree to which the FCC does or does not regulate telephone and related services will have far-reaching ramifications in terms of service availability, feature richness, pricing, and taxation. It is hard to predict what will happen, only that something will happen!
Adopt a mobile strategy. Did you know that half of all long distance calls are placed from mobile phones? Increasing numbers of consumers are jettisoning their landline phone in favor of a mobile phone, which affords them greater flexibility, “free” long distance, more features, and often lower rates. Our society is going mobile and the call center needs to strategize around that trend.
Some predictions will be wrong. This includes not only the preceding comments but those from everyone else, as well!