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There is no better time to be a customer than today, it seems. Every purchase we make is backed by companies eager to differentiate themselves through best-in-class customer service tailored to our individual needs.

But this promise usually falls short at the front line of customer service: the call centre.

In spite of advances in contact centre technology, customer service agents often lack access to basic customer records or, conversely, face an array of disorganised data that is ignored under the pressures of growing call queues. Customers often reach the wrong agent, are transferred and then have to explain their query from scratch.

“Call centres are often seen as a way to manage costs rather than enhancing the quality of [customer] service,” warns Wes Hayden, chief executive of Alcatel’s Genesys subsidiary.

This has discouraged investments in new technology and led management to measure efficiency with metrics such as throughput and call duration, rather than customer-centric measures. “There needs to be a change in C-level executives’ view of call centres,” he says.

This narrow focus has led to call centres being one of the most under-used corporate assets today, says McKinsey, the consultancy.

Beyond fielding customer complaints, the call centre should be closely integrated with other company functions such as sales and marketing.

Some leading companies are focusing on ways to turn calls from customers into new selling opportunities, and finding that callers are more receptive to buying after a positive service experience than they are when reached by outbound telemarketing campaigns.

But the key to maximising call centre potential is collecting and acting on critical customer data.

“Companies need to adopt what I call the ‘Singapore Airlines strategy’,” says Michael Fields, chief executive of Kana, a customer service software vendor.

“In 1998, I flew on Singapore Airlines in first class. The next time I took the airline, two years later, the flight attendant already knew my drink preference. Companies have to manage customer knowledge to that level,” he says.

In fact, companies probably do know their customers better than ever if the measure is the amount of data collected and stored. But much of this knowledge never reaches the call centre agent, the public’s main point of contact.

“There seems to be an attitude that it’s just too big to manage. But it’s eminently feasible,” explains Mark Donkerley, managing director of AXS-One Europe, a records management software vendor.

Part of the problem, he explains, is how data are currently handled.

“Databases are about columns and rows, and the things just grow and grow. It’s a challenge to retrieve information in that environment.”

New archiving software uses a different approach, labelling and indexing data as they are injected into the system, making retrieval quicker and more flexible.

But the key to making customer knowledge actionable is presenting this data efficiently to call centre agents. “A single view of the customer is fundamental,” says Genesys’ Mr Hayden.

Some companies rely on CRM systems to do this.

When Danish mortgage specialist Nykredit moved into multi-channel retail banking, it turned to Siebel to cut across its application silos.

“Before, we never knew if one of our agents had already talked to a customer or if they already had one of our products,” says John Moller, vice-president and CTO at Nykredit.

Now, all telephone agents and branches have real-time access to full customer information and this has changed the way the bank sells. “Today, no single branch or agent owns the customer – the enterprise does. This was a change to our business model,” he says. The result is more successful cross-selling, with more than 50 per cent of customers purchasing from more than one product line.

Microsoft has a different vision. “The traditional approach [to integrating back-end systems] is middleware between application silos – this is very slow to implement,” says Guenter Dahm, EMEA sales director for Microsoft’s telecommunications solutions. The company’s Customer Care Framework solution, developed three years ago in collaboration with one of the US’ largest telecoms operators and which Microsoft began commercialising last year, uses so-called smart client technology to launch back-end applications such as Siebel or SAP on demand within the shared context of the CCF client.

This makes integration fast and there are no scalability issues, says Mr Dahm. When BT launched its mobile telephony service in Germany, the operator used CCF to tie its external business partners (such as billing and logistics service providers) into its provisioning system in less than six weeks.

System integrator Capgemini believes adding predictive modelling to deep customer knowledge can transform the call centre into a profit centre. Real-time analysis of customer data can indicate the likelihood of a client to churn in the coming months or the propensity to upgrade to higher-margin products.

The system then prompts agents on what steps to take with that specific customer, via pop-up windows on the computer screen.

“It’s about knowing what I would like to talk to you about when I get a chance,” explains Nigel Waterson, vice-president of telecoms consulting at Capgemini.

Mr Waterson says that combining predictive modelling with inbound call marketing can make up-selling and cross-selling highly effective. “You can get up to 50 per cent acceptance. That’s more than 10 times better than outgoing calls,” he explains.

But to be successful, management will first need to realign its priorities, warns Shirley Hemstock, principal business consultant at call centre vendor Avaya. “In a survey we did of 100 top executives, the majority said retaining existing customers was more important than gaining new ones. But they were investing in new customers by a factor of two to one. There is a lack of joined-up thinking,” she says.

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