Self-service nirvana for call centers

Von Ephraim Schwartz

Whatever industry you"re in, making self-service work for your customers is critical to reducing costs. Certainly, if your company could afford it, it would respond to every customer personally. It would know who that person was and what his or her history with the company has been.

Although that"s not possible for many companies with a large customer base, we have not transitioned well from the old-school salesperson -- with feet up on the desk, looking through the Rolodex -- to the current model, where an outsourced customer service rep sits in front of a computer screen, reading a script and filling a calls-per-day quota.

Something is changing, though. A company called Adeptra is helping with the transition by adding a new ingredient to call centers: the integration of customer data, business rules, and workflow with scripted, automated, recorded phone calls.

Adeptra"s is a managed, pay-as-you-go service that charges by the number of records submitted. There"s no need to change file formats or triggering systems to get the data to Adeptra. The customer can flag specific records for Adeptra to pull, or it can create rules governing which records should be part of the daily payload. The result is a unique combination of push technology -- the company initiates the call -- and that call-center Holy Grail, the self-service application.

Adeptra president Vytas Kisielius claims that auto resolution (as he calls it) is more cost-effective and results in higher yields than most live agents, whether they are in-house or in Bangalore.

"For me, offshoring meets the criteria of Einstein"s definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," Kisielius says. What he means is that, even with outsourcing, all the structural problems of managing and running a call center remain the same. You still have all the costs associated with recruiting, hiring, training, motivating, supervising, and monitoring staff.

What"s more, you can"t expect an offshore customer service rep to be as effective as someone local. Sensible "insourcing" allows a company to keep its top reps -- those who are the most effective, the ones who can make split-second decisions, who can ask, "How about those Mets?" and sound authentic -- and leave the rest of the calls to an intelligent computer system.

Push technology allows the system to tap into a Siebel customer database, pull out the top 50,000 customers, and call them. You wouldn"t want to run a credit rating on 50,000 customers, but the system can choose 5,000 who respond positively, run a rating in real time, and choose the right offer based on the results of the analysis.

Although customers are read automated scripts, the scripts follow business rules and target the unique customer profile. In collections, for example, a company might categorize late-paying customers as those who are sometimes forgetful, those who are juggling their finances or "robbing Peter to pay Paul," and those who are outright deadbeats. The Adeptra system"s tone of voice can then run from understanding to terse and threatening, depending on the type of late payer. Kisielius claims Adeptra"s system gets payments quicker and with larger sums than all but a company"s top collection agents.

Self-service succeeds best when it integrates human intelligence with machine intelligence. This appears to be a first step toward that goal.