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Call centers rely on rapid response

This article appears in the issue Nov/Dec 2002 [Volume 11, Issue 10]

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

Call centers have the need for speed. The faster agents answer a customer’s inquiry, the faster they can move on to the next call. They don’t have time to fish through a dozen databases to uncover the information they need to help customers work a feature on their new cell phone or program their VCR. Customers often are already perturbed at having to wait on the phone, listening to a recorded voice tell them that their call is important. A faster response means a happier customer.

The support that call center operators provide must be accurate. If the customer has to call back, he or she might turn downright hostile. And customer inquiries that are resolved on the first call are much less expensive for the company.

Call centers have evolved from help desks to sell desks, charged with pitching new products and services to customers who phone in for help. The agents are expected to upsell, which requires having information about customers and products at their fingertips. If a customer is on the line asking a question about an older product, for example, an agent can answer the question as well as provide information about a newer item that might be more suitable. The customer might be receptive to a sales pitch aimed at his or her immediate need.

Throw into the mix the fact that many call centers are now outsourced, and you compound the knowledge management challenge. For example, if a telecommunications company adds a new feature to its cell phone, the information must be provided to the operators—often residing outside of the organization. And if a company updates its user manual, that knowledge has to be shared seamlessly and quickly with the customer service reps.

“The real challenge for call centers today is being able to integrate information from a variety of sources in order to have the knowledge in front of the agent when the customer calls,” says Harlan Hugh, chief technical officer and co-founder of TheBrain.

For example, a call center handling customer support for a PC company is dealing with a number of components—monitor, keyboard, hard drives, software and external storage devices. The rep can pull up an online manual from the company that manufactured the external hard drive as well as internal documents provided by the PC manufacturer.

“The issue is that retrieval has to happen behind the scenes,” says Shelley Hayduk, director of marketing for TheBrain. “Without KM, call centers spend a lot of time teaching agents to navigate by key word. Experienced agents know what key words to type to bring up a particular solution, for example. But that’s not knowledge that is easily shared or remembered,” she says, especially if an agent has an impatient customer on the line.

With high staff turnover and the need for agents to support multiple products, the information has to be easy to obtain. “The users can’t stop to search multiple databases and sources while trying to provide superior customer service," Hayduk says. "It has to be all available from one view.”

While some call center systems require IT support, the trend is toward enabling non-technical staffers to add content to the system, Hugh says. The ability to add knowledge instantaneously is also key.

“It is extremely important to have the ability for non-technical people to share knowledge and get the solution into the database as soon as possible for the next person who encounters a similar scenario," says Hugh. "The problem with KM in call center technology is that what is being passed off as KM is often really just search. If I’m working in a call center and I find a solution, I want to share it with my team immediately. I don’t want to have to go through a complex indexing process to ensure that the information is retrieved when an agent enters a key word.”

At Affina, which serves as a call center for a number of organizations, the ability to have its clients update their own content, which is then accessed by the CSRs as they field customer inquiries, has improved the flow of information. Affina uses technology from Nextpage.

“The CSRs no longer have a binder full of documents on each client, and no longer have to rely on paper,” says Amy Reeves, Affina’s Internet services administrator. “The CSRs go to one location—one URL—to access the information they need to answer calls.”

Usability is a key issue in KM’s role in call center management, according to James Hobart, president of Classic Systems Solutions. The company specializes in designing user interfaces for high-volume systems, including call centers.

“What we’re finding is that these systems need to be designed so that agents can get to the most critical information first,” Hobart says. “You have to examine how the agents are accessing this information and design the retrieval system so that it takes the fewest number of steps to get to the most commonly tasks. CSRs don’t have time for cumbersome navigation paths.”

The need to get to the “common knowledge” as quickly as possible means that systems must be designed differently for different applications. For example, a call center servicing a cable company might be designed so that the “change of address” function is most prominent, but an agent on a help desk for a high-tech software company might need a quick path to different crucial information.

The biggest challenge is being able to match the knowledge management processes with the actual work processes, says Bruce Law, VP of corporate marketing for Nextpage. “The computing environment is becoming so distributed,” he says. “There was a time that the knowledge was kept in a central place and everyone’s work process adapted to that. Now, the knowledge management systems have to adapt to today’s need to pull information into the call center from disparate sources. The speed of resolution times--how long it takes the agent to get to the information—are critical to the success of any call center.”

Law and others say the trend now is toward call avoidance--providing customers with access to the information to answer their own questions.

“This is really the next step in call center management,” Law says. “As more of the knowledge can be pushed down to the customer, the more time agents have to spend with customers who have more complex problems to solve."

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, 732-636-3612, e-mail kimzim2764@yahoo.com


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