Does your company see the call center as a necessary evil or as a fountain of vital information about how customers are responding to the company’s products or services? For smart companies, the decision to document customer interactions with the call center is easy. If you’re the call center manager, the challenge is figuring out how to capture that information efficiently and accurately.

This week I’ll share some advice rendered by fellow TechRepublic members for making sure your technology stays in line with the company’s appreciation of your call center’s results.

What good is the ACD without CRM?
In a previous article, TechRepublic members were asked about their experiences with automatic call distribution (ACD) and customer relationship management (CRM) systems. The article asked the question all call center managers hear at budget time: Will the benefits of the new system outweigh the costs of implementing it? Put another way, the question for the call center manager is: Will the new system enhance or diminish the call center analysts’ ability to serve customers?

The theme that rang through all of the responses was that the CRM and ACD solutions are rendered irrelevant if the people using those solutions aren’t properly trained.

TechRepublic member Martiad began her comments with a reminder that ACD and CRM are not the same thing, even if more and more vendors are offering both services in a single package.

“The ACD is call queue monitor and director, while the CRM is customer interaction tracking tool.”

Some companies believe that by putting a new and more efficient ACD online, they’re practicing good CRM. But CRM is more than just a tool—it’s a philosophy. As Bob Weinstein put it in his article “Jump-start your IT career in customer support,” CRM is about capturing, servicing, and retaining customers.

In other words, CRM is more than just about tracking who called and why, and as JMohlen put it, without a good CRM solution, a company “is not doing all it can to ensure customer retention, sales, business development, etc.” JMohlen wrote that a good CRM solution is as necessary to a company and its customers as e-mail, a phone number, and Internet access.

The most important ingredient for success
So what’s the secret to implementing a successful CRM solution? According to Martiad, it isn’t the CRM application but the people using the systems who make the difference. “It is as the old adage says ‘The computer is only as smart as the person behind it.’”

So how does the person behind the computer become a smart user of CRM and ACD applications? There’s only one right answer: training.

TechRepublic member MStanley, a call center consultant for over 10 years, cited poorly trained agents as one source of irritation for customers. “In the quest to cut costs, many centers hire the lowest common denominator, and then fail to provide adequate training,” MStanley wrote. “The result: Agents who can’t think on their own.”

Training is also a critical function for TechRepublic member Missy R., whose company has recently implemented a “home-grown tracking system.” Missy said response by the company’s customer service department has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I can already agree with those who have stressed training,” Missy wrote. “Ultimately the tracking will only be as good as the input of the user, regardless of the magic of the program.”

Testing people
TechRepublic member MStanley said the biggest problem for call centers is that most were designed from the technical team’s perspective—or people working in the center—rather than from the caller’s point of view. If you want to assess the current state of the service being provided by your company’s call center, MStanley prescribes having your CEO experience it from the customer’s perspective.

“When was the last time your CEO pretended to be a customer and called in to your center?” MStanley asked. “Without exception, every time we go through this drill with a CEO, they are shocked at the way they are treated on the phone.”

The upshot is, I think, that call center managers shouldn’t assume all is well between help desk analysts and their telephone customers just because a nifty new CRM solution is in place. You have to check the CRM database to be sure accurate information is being entered, and you should either monitor calls on a routine basis or call in and get a taste of “live” support and judge the quality for yourselves.

Testing software
While most members focused their comments on the human factor of CRM solutions, Comptech3 posted his concern about the dangers of call center systems that generate statistics of dubious value. He cited a problem with his former employer’s call-tracking software.

“If you entered more than 10 lines in the log for a call, the system would indicate that the agent had a second call on the same issue within seven days,” he said. “This would put the agent’s ‘First Time Resolution’ metric into the toilet.”

My initial response to Comptech3’s post was, “Sounds like a software bug to me.” The lesson for call center managers is to thoroughly evaluate any software solution to make sure it captures the information you need to track. In addition, be sure your analysts are aware of the software’s limitations such as, for example, a 10-line limit in a text field.

Comptech3 summed it up when he said that metrics are important, but the knowledge and wisdom to interpret those metrics correctly is equally important.

Practicing ERM
If you’re looking for a way to increase the productivity and quality of service in your call center, try practicing employee relationship management (ERM) and be sure your organization appropriately recognizes the contributions of the center staff. After all, good help desk analysts aren’t easy to come by.

In his TechRepublic column “Defining the call center of the future,” Hector D. Trestini writes, “The most important resource for the future customer management interaction center is the call center agent.”

To hire and retain the best call center analysts, Trestini advises that the agent position needs to be “considered, treated, and marketed as a career, not as a job, if companies expect to hire and keep this select group of people.”

Quality over quantity
So what’s the takeaway from all this discussion? I think the answer is that the CRM and ACD tools a company uses aren’t nearly as important as the attitude toward customer support that the company rewards in its call center analysts.

Let me leave you this with post by TechRepublic member Killian14228, who shared this CRM success story:

“I work for a company that recently took a good hard look at how its CRM practices were affecting its customer relationships. Now instead of worrying about what our call times are, we are encouraged to resolve any and all concerns on the first call if possible.”

“We are now graded based on call quality versus call quantity. The list of quality requirements for the call is much larger than it used to be, but I would rather see more of this type of emphasis when it comes to technical support.”

What’s your company’s commitment to customer satisfaction?

To comment on this column, or to put in your two cents about customer relations, please post a comment or write to Jeff.