The call centre business is changing rapidly. Thanks to bad publicity in the late 1990s, call centres are now re-inventing themselves as 'contact centres', with a greater emphasis on quality of service and better working conditions.
Meanwhile, due to the convergence of voice and data, the contact centre is reaching out into many new areas of activity.
Although there is no doubt that increasingly large enterprise contact centres are being moved to India and Malaysia, the UK adoption of convergence and IP networking is leading to the growth of sub-500-seat systems while offering the potential for firms to create enterprise contact centres with greater functionality.
Not surprisingly, the main focus is cost reduction and doing more with fewer staff while improving customer satisfaction. Today's converged contact centre is defined by an ability to handle a range of media - email, web, instant messaging, fax - as well as being able to analyse and act on incoming calls in intelligent ways.
For example, incoming email can be analysed and routed to the most relevant respondent to ensure faster turnaround.
IP telephony also allows contact centres to be created that span wide geographies, linking staff in different locations, and sometimes allowing them to work from home.
The flexibility of staffing options for management can be increased further by using 'soft phones' - effectively laptops or PCs running call centre software.
This is evident from a recent investment of £2.3m by P&O Ferries in a call centre and CRM system to improve handling of reservations and call handling using Avaya's IP-based Definity platform.
The system allows calls to be shared between the 450 staff at Dover, Calais and Europort centres so peak loads can be shared effectively. P&O says maintenance and systems management costs are reduced by moving from regional standalone centres to this shared approach.
"We now move calls and customers and identify language requirements without the customer knowing they have been diverted," says Nigel Powis, IT director at P&O Ferries.
In keeping with the growing focus on CRM, the contact centre agents use the CRM system to offer promotions based on customer profiles. Most analysts predict IP and the new multimedia focus will regenerate a sector damaged by the impact of centres being transferred overseas.
"This is an opportunity for resellers," says Rachel Power, an analyst at Canalys. "If you have the necessary specialist skills it's a valid area to exploit. But integrating web, email and phone calls is not a straightforward sale.
"It is a market defined by green-field sites and firms that need to link a range of sites to one central contact centre site. It's clear that firms increasingly need to provide a better 'interface' with their customers.
"Contact centres have the ability to provide the kind of integrated solutions firms are looking for. Resellers just have to develop tools to prove the return on investment (ROI) is there."
Mark Boulding, senior analyst at Quocirca, says it is far from easy to produce the kind of integration the 'converged' title suggests. "Voice is voice and everything else is data. Unless we can do voice recognition better they are still separate.
"But what I am impressed with is call mining. There are clear developments there and some real potential."
But Boulding is concerned a lot of effort from vendors is going into making systems more accountable for management rather than making them easier to use for agents.
Converged contact centres (CCCs) are also referred to as 'multi-channel', 'multimedia', or 'cross-media' contact centres because of their ability to deal with different incoming traffic or to share media.
For example, some systems allow co-browsing allowing agents to help customers find information online, although suppliers agree voice and email integration are by far the greatest drivers.
A separate but related driver is the need to integrate with in-house CRM, ERP and data warehouses taking CCCs onto the next stage beyond basic 'pop-up' customer files.
But this opportunity of handling a range of media also throws the old model of automatic call distribution for call centres into disarray. Clearly more sophisticated solutions need to be created to allocate enquiries to staff dependent on workload, skills and other relevant factors.
This requires co-ordination of the different 'work sequencing' applied to different media, which is something of a headache at most sites today. However, it leads to the development of new queuing architectures that use set algorithms to route each enquiry, manage the flow and produce reports or call handling.
Such centres are also seeking to make the best use of workflow software to ensure the so-called 'customer experience' has a clearer audit trail and that appropriate actions take place and that follow-up procedures are carried out.
This can include automatic reminders to tell agents that cases are still open or reminders to send documents by mail.
Wireless technology is also becoming a factor in allowing agents greater freedom of movement while tackling enquiries. This means a call can be routed to an engineer at the customer location.
Meanwhile, real-time voice recognition is starting to make an impact. Search firm Autonomy has launched a spin-off called Audentify, which provides software that recognises the content of a caller's voice.
Once the context has been identified it can automatically trigger a relevant script to help the agent handle the call. It also can aggregate information from calls to alert management if a large number of calls are coming in on a particular topic.
Andy Nolan, applications business manager at distributor Crane Telecommunications, says the driver is the end-user.
"Firms are finding customers are increasingly sophisticated and want services that integrate a number of inputs. Look at banking. You expect to be able to manage an account online and talk to a contact centre as well. Firms must provide online support with the option to speak to someone," he says.
Nolan points out that service levels are also critical. "Firms have to set targets for service levels email response nowadays," he says. "It's no good assuming they get answered.
"It's as if email has become like voice: it needs a form of ACD [Automatic Call Distributor] system to distribute incoming mail and track response rates."
Nigel Jones, business development manager at Alcatel, says the demand for the converged contact centre is coming from two sources.
"On the one hand you have those who are seeking to blend IP with traditional telephony for cost savings, and on the other there are those seeking to integrate more closely voice services with e-business," he says.
Arriving somewhat late to the market in the UK, Alcatel is in the process of growing its reseller base. "We are approaching more IT-focused resellers and those that are more datacentric than we worked with previously," Jones says. Alcatel now has about 150 UK resellers.
Tim Webb, general manager at Toshiba Business Communications, says IP is key to sales in the SME sector.
"IP allows a greater use of home workers, so a virtual call centre can be created; even the supervisor can work remotely. But we don't find much of a demand for multimedia services, although we do see the need to handle larger volumes of email separately from the contact centre."
Campbell Williams, Mitel's contact centre product marketing manager, agrees the emphasis on multimedia is overplayed.
"Resellers should focus on core voice applications. IP is making it more affordable to bring the top-end call centre applications, such as 'estimated wait time' and 'call back', to a larger audience," he says.
Williams adds that his view is backed up by the fact that when Mitel introduced email applications last year, take-up was poor. "People are asking the same questions about email they were asking about voice 20 years ago, but it will take a bit longer before the functionality is there.
"The demand is there because there is a widespread lack of professionality in dealing with emails," he says.
Mitel also has looked at offering web services that allow customers to use a knowledge base to get answers to all manner of questions, but was not convinced that the technology is yet good enough to make a real difference, Williams adds.
Transversal, a Cambridge-based firm that specialises in such services, says it is possible to make a significant difference with standalone web services that can be created by building a knowledge base of questions derived from contact centre records.
It says a typical customer can create a basic service with 400 FAQ items. A web site it created for Fuji has led to a reduction of 62 per cent in contact centre traffic and a saving of £10,000 per month.
Market-leading Avaya says it sees the converged contact centre as an indication of traditional call centres migrating to IP-centric systems with a drive to new applications and more flexibility for agents such as home working.
The two key drivers are the need to get a better performance from the contact centre and to link it to data that resides within the business, Avaya claims.
John Van der Linde, Avaya's director of convergence applications, says: "Agents want to link to all the data associated with that call, and management want to cut the transactional cost so they are creating a more complex environment. Only some agents can migrate to this more skilled environment."
Avaya says another driver is the new push towards compliance, notably because of Sarbanes Oxley and Basel II in the finance sector. And with that comes a greater need to identify accurately the customer prior to any transaction and to profile them at least once a year.
Van der Linde says this is driving security applications that encrypt data on contact centres and organisation authentication to linked databases.
There is also a growing awareness of phishing, whereby organised criminals are targeting fake emails at customers to elicit password and account details.
"My advice to resellers is to understand the business drivers for lower transaction costs and better contact centre environments," Van der Linde adds.
Charlie Wade, director of contact centre solutions in Europe at Nortel, says the contact centre business is changing. "It was traditionally conservative and most concerned about voice quality. Now it is waking up to new propositions," he says.
Wade defines this wake-up call as one of realisation of the "death of distance".
He adds: "Now you are able to place resources almost anywhere - around the UK or even offshore." This, he says, allows firms to adapt their human resources (HR) policies and have agents when and where they want them, using software-controlled call technology known as soft sets.
He also believes there is a trend to centralise call centres in the UK.
"IT spend is usually about six per cent, and HR costs 60 per cent plus, so it makes sense to bring the HR costs down using technology. It's about increasing productivity, cutting cost, and improving quality of service," he says.
IT managers are increasingly interested in being able to push more enquiries through self-service systems. This may take the form of integrated voice response, which increases completion rates on calls.
This is typical in the finance sector, where, for example, basic requests such as balance enquiries are filtered through automated systems to free up call agents for more important calls. Another example is password reset enquiries, which is one of the most common call enquiries.
Self-service can be aided by an automated email service that gives automated responses based on keywords in customer emails. These may be semi-moderated by agents to ensure the answer being sent out is appropriate.
Other systems try to differentiate customers to ensure regular ones or those with a high net worth are guaranteed a higher level of service. This can be achieved by filtering customers via their account numbers.
Security is clearly a growing concern in contact centres, with increasing focus on speaker authentication using biometric technology. Such systems are already being tested in finance, and as costs decline they are likely to be seen in other sectors soon, due to the growing problem of identity fraud.
But according to David Stanford, IP solutions specialist at Aspect Communications, the future will be defined by choice and openness.
"Choice because different contact centre agents will have different working requirements - some working from home and some blending emails with voice calls. Openness because customers will expect to be able to select from different server hardware, different devices and so on," he says.
The secret of selling converged contact centres appears to be a renewed focus on the business aims of the customer to combine internal resources to best meet customer contact needs. The key selling point is the contact centre as the bridge between internal CRM and ERP and customer contact through a range of media.
By reducing simple requests from customers and filtering high-value customers, call centre agents can maximise contact time to improve service and upsell and cross-sell. ROI can be justified in terms of increased productivity and effectiveness of agents.
Alcatel (0870) 241 7267
Avaya (0800) 698 3619
Canalys (0118) 945 0173
Crane (01444) 243 889
Mitel (0870) 909 3030
Quocirca (01753) 754 838
View pictures of all of last night's fights
Acquisitive comms provider swoops on Frontier Voice & Data and StoneHouse Logic
Cybersecurity firm rakes in £3.6m for unwanted unit
Results, reaction and pictures from last night's CRN Fight Night