Call centers are widely used in numerous industries, from airlines to computer tech support. In the self-storage business, call centers are used to ensure incoming calls are never missed, giving facility operators the opportunity to close more sales. Advancements in technology are rapidly changing how operators interact with call centers, and the vital information they can obtain from calls to garner more business.
If you havent visited a call center lately or if youve never been inside one, you might be surprised by what you see. Although we dont get many visitors at our call center in Columbia, Mo., when people do stop by, theyre often taken aback by how much technology it takes to answer a phone call. Our facility is a small boutique center with some really neat gear, but the technology infrastructure pales in comparison to some of the major centers Ive toured.
I typically tour a few big operations every year to see firsthand the many new innovations working within the call-center industry. One of the most impressive operations Ive seen was the New York City 311 call center in lower Manhattan. This facility answers about 90 percent of non-emergency calls to city agencies for the entire city of New York. At my call center, we jokingly complain about taking a large number of storage-auction inquiry calls on the third week of every month. Can you imagine the number of calls the NYC 311 center gets during inclement weather when everyone in the city wants to know if there are transit delays, school closings or street-parking rule changes? This center sometimes gets more calls in an hour than we receive in a month.
Ive also toured the American Airlines call center near Dallas, and you cant imagine what it takes in space, people and technology to book seats and provide service to passengers for the thousands of flights American dispatches each day. The size and depth of the airlines commitment to customer contact is really impressive.
Even in a boutique center, you need a wide and deep technology foundation to provide the services that make your clients and stakeholders money. It all starts with Internet and telephony connections. These communications connections must have tremendous bandwidth. Then you need server capacity to handle the layers of software that power the phones, the lead-management systems and the integration systems. Whether the center uses internal software, cloud software or a combination, the power and capacity drain on servers is tremendous.
How They Work
Phone systems can take many shapes and formats, but they all require bandwidth and power. Work stations require powerful and reliable phone-set and PC equipment. When centers run on a cloud and use less-powerful PCs, they still need top-quality equipment to handle the workload.
Redundant systems are in place to provide a plan B for loss of power, Internet and servers. The backup systems need to be powerful and dynamic. If American Airlines call center was out of action for even one hour, it would incur a tremendous loss of income and reputation. Customers in most businesses generally have tolerance for about five minutes of downtime once theyre in a relationship with a company. The CEOs and CFOs of these companies have tolerance for about five seconds of downtime once a year.
One big expense often overlooked is sound management. Most centers invest tens of thousands of dollars in sound-proofing and sound-dampening systems to prevent sound waves from bouncing all over the room and ensure the conversations with callers sound personal.
Todays call centers are no longer just call centers. In fact, most now call themselves contact centers. This is because many also handle e-mail responses, live chat, social-media responses or posting and text responses. Depending on the types of contacts and customers being served, a contact center may have as much automated communication as it has personal communication.
The New York City 311 center uses dynamic recorded messages for the most popular message of the day to avoid caller wait times and avert having too many employees on the phone. For example, on a snowy day that promises only a dusting, callers might hear an automated message telling them alternate parking rules are still in effect, transit is running on a regular schedule and all city schools are open. It takes a huge machine to handle 50,000 calls an hour.
American Airlines has a sophisticated voice- and call-recognition system that allows frequent fliers to do much of their planning and re-planning without ever talking to a real person. You might think talking to a machine is a terrible experience, but it shouldnt be when done for the right reason at the right time.
As an American Airlines frequent flier, I can tell you its a great experience to call the customer-service number after a flight has been cancelled at the last minute to hear the automated machine say, Hello Tron Jordheim, I see you were on flight 123, which was just cancelled. You are already automatically rebooked on flight 789, which departs out of gate B6 at 2 p.m. I didnt need to talk to a human to appreciate the good service I received.
Besides communicating with customers, data collection is also a big focus of call centers. Some of the latest technologies address ad tracking and lead-management effectiveness reporting. You can now tell exactly which ad campaigns are driving phone calls, leads, reservations and rentals. With all the various marketing platforms available to businesses in 2012, this function takes on huge importance.
Sales-performance tracking has also risen to new levels. Where previously one could evaluate a call-center agents performance only in general terms, we can now track performance by campaign, type of call and many other variations. This helps a great deal in evaluating sales strengths and weaknesses. Helping call-center reps improve performance metrics drives revenue increases like few other activities can.
All this data collection means better business intelligence is available far more quickly than ever. Collecting business intelligence from call and transaction history enables better short- and long-term planning. Where many businesses formerly could look back at only a small set of metrics that was often 45 or 60 days old, businesses can now project with some reliability well into their next sales cycle. What would it do for your self-storage business if you could predict your occupancy levels 60 days into the future instead of trying to make judgments based on the occupancy you had 60 days in the past?
Call-recording systems have become extremely usable, providing sales and customer-service trainers much better insight into what customers are saying, what they want and what they find helpful. New call-recording and evaluating systems go a long way in helping call quality improvement efforts.
Lead-distribution systems also have become more advanced. When our company first started, we faxed leads to clients. How archaic is that? We might as well have had carrier pigeons deliver the leads. Software integration advancements now allow systems to communicate regardless of platform. This makes for a much more seamless transfer of lead, reservation and rental information. This helps save transaction time and reduces errors. The ability of customer relation management (CRM) systems to talk to each other creates a much better customer experience.
What hasnt changed in the call-center world is the importance of well-qualified people giving live callers a great experience, although the level of qualifications has changed a lot over the last four or five years. Just having good phone reps doesnt cut it anymore. Most centers have extensive training, coaching and education programs in place to make sure the people with the most product knowledge, the best people skills and the most leverage for solving problems are the call-center reps. This holds true whether its an in-house call center handling corporate affairs or an outsourced one managing calls for clients.
Technology is a big help in conducting the training and empowerment work call-center agents need. Webinars, video training, gaming exercises and automated self-study systems have dramatically changed the efficiency and success of training programs.
The next time you talk to a call-center agent, think about all the technology going on behind the scenes. The organization you called has a plethora of people investing a lot of time, money and resources in talking to you. You must be important to them.
Tron Jordheim is the director of PhoneSmart, an off-site sales force serving self-storage owners for more than 10 years. For more information, visit www.phone-smart.info .