The technology that integrates computers with telephones can relieve drudgery and increase productivity while helping to take the steam out of customer complaints and turn problems into sales opportunities.
Life has got easier during the past couple of months for Rachel Hawkes, manager of telesales at the RAC motoring organisation.
Hawkes manages a Bristol-based team of telesales agents whose job it is to get members to renew their subscriptions. Thanks to new technology, she and her team members have more than doubled the number of calls they can handle a day, from 40 to around 90.
The team uses a computer and telephone system which dials customer numbers automatically and summons their details on to the screen the moment the call connects, a technique known as screen popping. At the same time, the screen displays a script guiding the agent through the conversation.
'The system has done wonders for job satisfaction,' says Hawkes. 'People enjoyed working on it from day one because it is so easy to use.' And increased productivity has had a dramatic impact on the speed with which the RAC can chase lapsing renewals. Customers are now contacted a week before their current policies are due to expire, whereas in the past the call was made anything from two to 100 days after expiry. The system has also enabled the organisation to boost membership with a range of promotions and special offers.
The technology on which the RAC system is based is called computer telephony integration (CTI), a development which allows the computer to be used to dial numbers, route calls, and send and receive associated data. Initially adopted for the automation of call centres, that is, serried ranks of telephone workers, the technology's first applications were in customer service and telesales. However, the advent of new, lower cost systems will extend its scope to administration, finance and marketing.
Datapro, the US market research company, estimates that the global CTI business was worth $3 billion (£1.96 billion) last year and will grow to $10-$12 billion by the end of the decade. The UK is the most developed market in Europe, with around 5% of global CTI receipts and 52,000 people already using CTI technology, according to Ovum, a London-based research company. Ovum expects the user figure to increase to 403,000 by 2000, and puts UK revenues from equipment and related services at $575 million in 2000, up from $156 million this year. Similar growth prospects are identified in new research by Datapoint (UK), a subsidiary of the US telebusiness group. Of 100 businesses surveyed in the UK, Datapoint found 72% expect CTI to be in wide use in their organisations within the next year. Some 94% of respondents cited CTI as a strategic technology for improving customer service, business efficiency and maintaining competitive edge.
The most popular CTI application is outbound dialling. In its simplest form, this means the ability to dial a list of regular contacts by clicking their names on the screen. More advanced outbound systems dial from a central bank of numbers and pass calls to agents when they indicate that they are ready for the next call, a procedure known as progressive dialling.
Alternatively, the system can use an algorithm to predict how many agents will be free at any one time and dial numbers in advance so that agents are automatically moved from one call to the next. This predictive dialling can differentiate between no answer, engaged signals, answering machines and a human voice. However, the algorithms are not foolproof, and sometimes predictive diallers miscalculate when an agent is going to become free. Then the system hangs up on the person being called.
With inbound calls, CTI can log which number has been dialled and may use this information to divert calls to a particular member of staff or to measure the number of responses to an advertising campaign. It is when the technology is used in combination with caller line identification (CLI) that it becomes really powerful. CLI, for example, allows the system to identify known customers as the call comes in so that agents can greet them by name. If the caller has made contact recently, the system can ensure that he or she is passed to the same member of staff, helping create a sense of continuity. CLI also helps take messages. Oliver Hall, director of management information services at Psygnosis, a software games company, explains that, 'if someone is away from their desk and a message needs to be taken, the number of the caller will already have been stored, leaving the message-taker free to concentrate on the content of the message'.
Call centres can use information about the line number to centralise global 24-hour coverage for calls from different parts of the world. Customers in individual countries are given a local freephone number to dial so that a caller in France, say, need never know that her query is being dealt with by a French speaker in Ireland. 'This already happens a lot more than people realise,' says Alan Fitzgerald, marketing manager at Syntegra, BT's systems integration company. 'It is one of the big growing areas of CTI but it is invisible to customers.'
Financial institutions have been among CTI's pioneers. At the Birmingham Midshires building society, for example, a £1-million system has been installed, enabling 32 specialist teams to consolidate into 14; 80% of inbound customer enquiries can now be handled by a single employee belonging to any one of these 14 units. Where necessary, the system also has the ability to transfer in one hop to other experts in the organisation. CTI is used by the society's debt collection team too. 'It provides the collectors with all the information they need to help them be sensitive yet firm and professional on the phone,' says John Suffolk, former director of IT, who set up the system. CTI was introduced as part of a business process re-engineering programme which has seen levels of arrears fall significantly; they are now 30% below the industry average whereas in 1990 they were double the national average.
Similar technology has been introduced at National Savings which receives an average 27,000 calls each month relating to premium bonds, savings certificates, investment accounts and other products. At busy times, call rates soar to more than 240,000 a month, claims Peter Wassall, marketing services manager. Thanks to CTI, the 24 operators will each be able to deal with an average 144 calls a day, compared with 100.3 prior to installation.
This should cover up to around 54,000 calls per month.
CTI is also useful in providing statistics such as call duration, the length of time callers are kept waiting, and the number of calls relating to simple enquiries that could be handled automatically (another facility CTI offers). Such information helps in assessing the effectiveness of the existing system and in planning staffing levels.
Research shows that in the case of banks, for example, customers are happy to deal with 70% or 80% of queries by tapping details such as their account number into the keypad. Some regional electricity companies are introducing an automatic response for customers informing them when engineers are aware of a problem in their area and are already on their way. This will be far more welcome than an engaged signal or a harassed operator who has given the same information to numerous callers, and also leaves staff free to deal with fresh emergencies.
Automated systems undoubtedly cut costs. The downside is that companies miss out on further sales opportunities by not actually talking to the customer. For this reason it should be introduced with care, warns Fitzgerald. For example, if the call is to customer services, it is more often than not a person phoning with an enquiry or a complaint. 'The last thing such people want to do is talk to a piece of technology because no matter how much they rant and rave, they'll get no response,' he says.
The value of listening to ranting and raving aside, the main problem with introducing CTI is the need to combine it with existing databases. In the view of Stuart Bowden, chairman of Actius, the European CTI industry forum, 'the biggest technical hurdle these days is nothing to do with CTI and all to do with accessing your existing customer information'. Inherited files may, for instance, be focused on products, whereas for fully-fledged CTI, records need to centre on the customer. Such misfiled information is certainly a problem for National Savings where staff can't cross-sell premium bonds and other investments because data is held according to product lines. Implementing CTI is relatively straightforward for companies with very modern technology, says Clarke. 'Or, if firms only want to do one thing, such as set up a call centre to look after marketing.' But suppose you want a frontline of staff answering calls, backed up by a body of specialists who can advise on particular types of query? In theory, CTI should enable the caller, the frontline person and the specialist to have a three-way conversation thereby avoiding the need for the caller to explain the problem several times over. Yet setting up these facilities is often quite a challenge, says Clarke.
Cultural and organisational preparation is also needed before CTI is introduced. 'You can't introduce CTI and suddenly become more efficient and effective overnight,' Clarke explains. It has to go hand in hand with organisational and cultural change.'
High prices have prevented many organisations from implementing CTI, but expense is becoming less of an issue. In 1990, a CTI position cost around £35,000, according to Dataquest. The price is now £3,500 per seat, and in five years' time, it should be down to £350. 'There are lots of good packages from smaller suppliers,' says Barrie Jennings, head of Merit Consultants, a CTI specialist. After all, not every customer needs an all-singing all-dancing product with bells and whistles, Jennings says.
'Sometimes the cheaper options give more flexibility.'
CTI's image is sometimes tarnished by its association with redundancy and it is true that because it enables organisations to centralise and improve efficiency, it can also be instrumental in allowing them to shed staff. However, for most companies, the objective is simply to get closer to their customers' needs, says Simon Glassman, senior telecoms analyst at Ovum. 'They may simply want to ensure that the phone is not engaged when people call.'
Many agents report high levels of satisfaction with CTI. At Swedish telecoms operator Telia, staff have welcomed the introduction of a totally automated directory enquiries system. 'Originally, Telia thought there would be lots of controversy surrounding this system,' says Glassman. 'In the event, staff were pleased because it has removed a lot of repetitive tasks, leaving them to deal with issues where callers need personal service.'
Another bonus is that additional workloads can be handled without increasing the number of employees. Some organisations have found the technology such a boon that they have even increased staffing levels. At the RAC, for example, there were six CTI users when the system was introduced two years ago, now there are 16. 'The system has meant we can take on more projects and run special campaigns such as joining forces with motor manufacturers,' says Hawkes. 'And CTI has definitely stimulated motivation.
It helps you get results. Sales is a numbers game - the more people you talk to the better.'
As with most technological innovation, staff acceptance depends on it being sensitively introduced. Although predictive dialling can increase productivity by 200%-300%, it also raises agents' workloads. 'You take away the drudgery and make them more efficient,' says Clarke, 'but to ensure they remain effective, you don't want them to burn out.' So most organisations only run predictive dialling for an hour or so at a time.
Some of the smarter companies are beginning to learn that CTI can be a very strong business differentiator, says Syntegra's Fitzgerald. 'If you keep customers happy, you don't have to spend so much time getting new ones.' Using CTI, he claims, you can take the steam out of complaints and turn problems into sales opportunities.
As CTI gathers momentum, the main growth area is likely to be desktop systems for general staff rather than call centres. 'Organisations are increasingly realising that it makes more sense to treat their entire enterprise as a call centre, putting calls and associated data through to the desk of the right person first time,' says Bowden. When CTI becomes standard on the desktop, the integration of computer and telephone will truly have come of age.