Friday, March 16, 2007

The Virtual Call Centre

The rate at which electronics technology is improving remains amazing. Electronic products are getting smaller and smarter, and old products that never had electronics in them are getting infiltrated by electronics, or completely redefined as electronic appliances. The camera, for example. Given the dizzying rate at which old products improve and new ones emerge, the staff of the stores that sell this stuff have no chance of providing comprehensive after-sales service, as stores used to do in the good old days. Increasingly, the manufacturers of these gizmo's have to implement call centres in order to provide after-sales service to their customers. Call centres are springing up all over the place. Given the high cost of establishing them, many companies choose to set them up in second and third world countries where costs are lower. Thanks to constantly dropping communications costs, and new paradigms like Voice over IP, it's affordable to support US customers with a call centre in Ireland, India, or South Africa. And with a suitable geographic distribution, call centres can service customers any time that customers want service, at times that are also convenient for the call centre staff.

But building conventional call centres is still an expensive undertaking, even in third world countries. You have to rent a building, or buy land with a building, or build your own. You need aircon, heating and cooling, power, plumbing, parking lots. You need lots of furniture, desktop computers, and specialised telephone equipment. You need computer servers to handle and route incoming calls. You have to hire and train staff. Having made a big investment in infrastructure, you need to keep every desk manned for as many hours of the day as possible.

This model isn't all that convenient for call centre staff either. They are tied to their desks for 8 hours a day or longer. They must commute to the call centre before they can start work, and commute home afterwards. It may not be easy for them to pick up the kids after school, or to take the baby for her immunity shots, or the dog to the vet.

The Virtual Call Centre can change all of that. And the technology required to implement it is available right now. We would need some new software to make it work smoothly, but hey, that's a Simple Matter of Programming (SMOP - an acronym popular with computer salesmen).

Imagine we wanted to open a virtual call centre (VCC for short) for business. We would need only a server in a server farm, and another server in a different farm to act as a backup. The server would take incoming customer calls, perform the usual metrics, and then distribute them across the available call centre agents (CCAs for short). Oops! Where are our CCAs? We don't have a building. We advertise on the web for CCAs who can work from home. In order to act as a CCA, a person would need a desktop computer, telephone equipment of sorts, and a broadband connection to the Internet. Ideally, they should have these in their own home, but other arrangements could be made (the cottage call centre - but that's another blog). Their telephony equipment could consist of a headset with attached microphone that plugs into their desktop computer. It would link to the VCC's server through Voice over IP (VoIP). When the agent is ready to take calls, he or she would fire up on their desktop a program that they have downloaded from the VCC's website. This would allow them to log on and indicate that they're ready to take calls. The VCC's server would check what product types they're licensed to handle, and start routing calls to them. Since all calls pass through the VCC's servers, they can still be recorded, and monitored for quality (the monitoring staff could also be working from home). As soon as the call is finished, the VCC's server would know that the CCA is available for another call, and could route one through as needed.

Any time CCAs need to leave their workstations, they could click a Hold button on the VCC program on their desktop. If they need to go collect kids or run some other errand, they would terminate the VCC program and just walk away, any time they wanted to. The VCC spends nothing on accommodating staff, and can afford to have a larger number of CCAs so that between them they can take off time when they need to, or work when they want to. They would need to be paid per call handled as well as a retainer for just being online. The VCC client program could ask them a question after every minute of inactivity just to make sure that they're still there and ready to handle calls. With a beep, in case they're crusing the web while waiting. In fact the VCC could beep several candidate CCA's, and the first one to accept the call would get it, plus the bounty for handling it.

Of course to handle calls, CCAs need access to customer and product information. The VCC might handle products for many different manufacturers, and needs to deliver this product information to CCAs on demand. This problem isn't unique to VCCs, it applies to normal ones as well. CCAs could access the required product information through a browser connected to the VCC's server, which could in turn get the required information from the manufacturer's servers via SOAP or some such technology.

The cost savings that could be achieved by VCCs would be huge, but how would the VCCs enlist, train, and evaluate staff?

The VCC could invite potential staff members to enroll on their website by advertising on the Internet or through conventional media. The enrollment software could automatically check the network turnaround time and bandwidth between the enrollee's workstation and the server to see if the enrollee has a suitable broadband connection. If not, the server could ask the enrollee what location they are in, and hand the conversation off to a geographically closer server, if they have one. If the network connection isn't adequate then the enrollee could be informed of this, and invited to try again with better equipment. Even if an enrollee passes the connection test and gets approved as a CCA, each time they log on the client app would have to validate their network connection to make sure that it's adequate. Otherwise the CCA could qualify in a cyber café and then go home to their 14,400bps diallup modem

Enrollee skills assessment could be carried out over the Internet, with the enrollee browsing a multiple choice questionnaire. Language and product area skills would have to be assessed. Just to make sure that enrollees don't qualify by paying a friend to help them through this process, staff could be given short snap tests at random times whenever they are logged on, in between calls. Staff training could be handled in a similar fashion, with online web-based training interspersed with frequent online questionnaires. Staff could be shown on request what skills are in short supply so that they could plan their future training accordingly.

Quality control could be implemented as it is today in conventional call centres, by recording and optionally monitoring calls. When customers first call the VCC, they could be played a message telling them to hit the hash key if they want to break out of a call at any time - if, for example, the CCA gets abusive, or walks away in the middle of a conversation, or simply doesn't know anything about the product (which may happen if the CCA's kid sister is manning the station). Calling customers could also be invited to hit the hash key at the end of the call to give feedback on the quality of the service that they have received. Hitting the hash key would connect the customer to a voice response unit which would walk them through the various options such as providing feedback on a completed call, or complaining about the quality of service that they are receiving.

While I have used the word "staff" to describe the folk that act as CCAs, they need not be full time employees. They can be part-time folk working when it's convenient for them; mothers with a few hours available in the morning while their children are at schools, students with a few hours available in the evenings after lectures, or garrulous senior citizens like me, in between naps. Providing the workforce spans several suitable countries and continents, sufficient numbers will be available at the right times to meet the demands of customers calling in.

The Virtual Call Centre is just a specific example of a much bigger economic trend that I'm sure will start to emerge - the Virtual Office. I wrote about this shortly after the 9/11 incident. If we can get folk to stay at their homes, distributed across wide continents, instead of huddling together in vast high-rise buildings, or buses, or aircraft, we will remove many of the targets that terrorists love to hit. And at the same time liberate people from wasting what adds up to years of their lives commuting.


Blogger Lezelle said...

This is a great article. I can definitely use this to try and explain what I will be aiming at with The Works moving forward. Thanks

6:16 pm  
Blogger Lezelle said...

Great article, Trevor. This will be extremely useful in my proposal to the call centre.

6:17 pm  

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