The contact center may be the most complex, technically, but one of the easiest to succeed at. But, if you don’t do it right, it can also be one of the most visible mistakes. Here are some tips for setting it up right.


As the next tier in customer relationship management, the contact center may be the most complex, technically, but one of the easiest to succeed at. But, if you don’t do it right, it can also be one of the most visible mistakes.

To keep costs low, many contact centers use many different statistics to manage resources. If calls are not coming in, then Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) are not needed. Additional statistics include number of calls by representative, call wait times, dropped calls and call queue length.

But once you start including a CRM system to the mix, these statistics can take on new life. To start with, lets look at the tools involved:

1. Phone Systems

The phone system is obviously the main technology for a contact center. Without it, there really is no need for anything else. Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) is the brains behind call distribution. Basic configurations look at what CSRs are logged into the system and how many are handling calls. Once that is determined, calls are routed to the shortest queue. You can do some pretty fancy things with ACD. You can do skill-based routing. This sends fewer calls to newer employees or routes calls specific to billing or product questions to experts in those particular areas. This is also something you should take into account for software licensing. By creating some specialized groups instead of one large group of generalists, you can provide fewer licenses for the billing software to those who specialize in billing. What is also key here is identifying overflow groups that have some cross training in particular areas. An issue like a mass bill misprint will quickly take up all of the billing specialists very quickly. If the queue reaches a particular length, an automated overflow process is in order.

Another key element to a phone system in a call center is an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system. This is the system that provides the voice queues when you call a contact center: “Press 2 for Billing.” But IVR systems can be used for much more. By allowing your customer to enter in an order number, a customer number, a credit card number, etc., you can determine who your customer is and then leverage that information to route calls. The skill based routing of the ACD can also be used to route high-end customers to a white-glove service within your contact center. More about this later when we talk about Computer Telephony Integration (CTI).

2. Contact Management

This system contains the contact information for your customers. It includes, ideally, a listing of each order that was placed with your company. A good CRM-based contact management tool will also be able to present all of the interactions that customer has had with your company regardless of channel. The contact management tool should focus on the call flow. The call flow is a finite set of directions a call can go before it’s complete. Placing an order would be one call flow. Returning a product would be another, as would a billing inquiry or delivery status. As you map these call flows, there are different paths you can go down. When setting these up, a useful tactic is to walk through the customer contact flows. Ask yourself:

  • If a customer places an order, would they also need to do a billing inquiry?
  • If a customer calls for a delivery status, would placing an additional order ever occur?

Once you start answering these questions and reviewing data as to what customers are actually doing, you can start cross-mapping various call flows. The purpose of the call flow is to direct the customer down the most efficient path for accomplishing this goal. Automating this will prevent needless time-wasting jumping between systems. And it will also minimize CSR training expenses. On that point, a good contact management tool will allow you to encapsulate your back-end applications inside your call flows. I have had a web-based order placement tool and a green screen warehouse management tool in one application. The integration can get tricky, so looking for a tool that has the integration experience is also a key consideration.

3. E-mail Management

This is usually included as part of contact management tools, but most of the vendors like to chop up solutions into modules so they can charge more. E-mail management is a slightly different beast. The CSR level for this tool is typically higher. You would be surprised how many educated make all kinds of connotations, and most of them are not good. The main things to look for in these systems is case management, queuing, and review capabilities. It’s important to continue to associate an e-mail thread to the appropriate issue. Nothing is more aggravating to a customer than having to go back and forth trying to resolve a problem. Once the back and forth has reached a certain level, escalation rules can kick in and a more experienced CSR can take over. This can only happen if the entire history of that particular interaction is captured and can be reviewed.

These are the main systems in a contact center, but there are a bunch of other tools and channels out there. Chat is a channel that is starting to get used more and more. Before going down the path of adding another channel, try to understand your cost structure. A call could cost $3, an e-mail $1.50 and chat $.50 per minute, but it has to be taken in context. If the number of contacts to resolution for phone is 1, e-mail is 3 and chat is 10 minutes, then the phone may be your cheapest channel. When you start adding in additional technologies such as cross-selling and up-selling tools, there may be a revenue element that needs to be taken into context as well. A $3 cost plus an average $5 per call cross-sell is now a +$2 contact.

There are a few other technologies to consider once you have moved beyond the basics. CTI is the integration of the contact management application with the incoming phone call. When a customer calls in, while they are in queue, a cross reference search on the inbound phone number (or an account number typed into the IVR) can “pop” the contact management screen up for the CSR once that customer enters the active queue for that CSR. This same technology can make transferring a physical call for escalation purposes much easier on the customer because the screen transfers with the call.

Another tool for contact center efficiency focuses on e-mail. Natural Language Translation tools have come a long way. There are tools out there that can automatically interact with the customer before ever reaching a CSR. If you think about it, the pattern of inbound contacts is pretty predictable. Pareto Principle plays here as well. 80% of inbound e-mails typically fall into only 20% of the categories. These systems can determine the intent of the inbound e-mail, ask clarifying questions and forward requested information (i.e., shipping status or price checks) back to the customer. If they don’t understand, the system will escalate to a real CSR and include the entire interaction history.

Quality management is also necessary. Systems that record calls for later review with both the CSR and the supervisor are a great route for improving quality in a somewhat subjective medium.

This wraps up the CRM post thread started a couple of weeks ago. There are other CRM tools out there including Sales Force Automation, outbound phone campaign management, media buying management, real-time campaign management for the web, etc., but the bulk of the systems an SMB could use should all be listed.