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Call centers: Who you gonna call?

United States Rare Coin and Bullion Reserves revamps its IT and call center strategy with contact center distribution system.

The former call center management setup at United States Rare Coin and Bullion Reserve Inc. (USRCBR) was, in the blunt words of COO Steve Orlando, "pretty archaic."

A retail marketer of U.S. Minted gold, silver and platinum coins, the 135-employee firm had separate private branch exchanges (PBXs) at its Austin headquarters and Beaumont, Texas, office. Each PBX had its own service provider and toll-free numbers. There was no centralized system to distribute incoming calls between the two sites for load-balancing purposes. Advertising campaigns had to go out via two 800 numbers, one for each site.

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A sales manager would yell out, "Who's up next?" to determine which representative took the next incoming customer call. Each salesperson kept data on calls and customers they'd dealt with in a three-ring binder. This setup "was highly inefficient and bad from a security standpoint, also," Orlando noted. "Our lifeline is our leads, and anyone could have walked away with a book of leads at any time."

All that has changed dramatically in the past few years. Working in partnership with Edmond, Okla.-based Amcat Inc., the company has completely reconsidered its call center strategy, moving from a largely manual operation to a fully automated, data-driven process.

Salespeople now have instant access to a customer's calling and order history when they pick up the phone. They can set up automated calling schedules using a wide variety of parameters, including customers' gross sales, geographic location, last shipment date, items purchased and last time contacted.

All calls now go through a single central Amcat Contact Center system based on a Cisco Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) switch and Microsoft SQL Server database. An automatic caller ID system directs incoming calls to the sales representative responsible for that customer's account. Furthermore, after-hours calls can now be automatically routed to offsite company cell phones, enabling USRCBR to handle customer calls on a close to 24/7 basis.

USRCBR is not alone. As more companies install VoIP and computer telephony integration (CTI), call centers are increasingly becoming IT management, said Lori Bocklund, president of Beaverton, Ore.-based research firm Strategic Contact Inc. "Voice communication has become just another application on the [IP] network." Furthermore, firms are starting to integrate call center data with business applications such as customer relationship management (CRM), knowledge management and analytics tools.

"Call centers are not islands anymore, their data needs to be leveraged by business groups and subject matter experts," Bocklund said. To accomplish this, IT departments need to adopt a "shared service mindset," working with telecom and business groups. "The less siloed IT and telecom are, the better."

Like many small companies, USRCBR does not have separate telecom and IT staffs -- indeed, telecom and IT systems were the responsibility of IT manager Michael Koch.

Koch and Orlando agree that ongoing, multilevel collaboration was a central factor in the success of United States Rare Coin and Bullion Reserve's management team's deployment strategy. "Michael and I spoke daily with regards to our objectives for the project and our progress in achieving those objectives," Orlando noted. Koch was more the hands-on manager of the project, working closely with his Amcat counterpart on the actual implementation.

The two executives did an initial survey of business users' desires and needs for online customer contacts, and then met twice a month with sales reps and managers during the design phase, and weekly with the Amcat project manager.

"Amcat did a smooth job of installing the new IP-based call distribution system," Koch reported. Much more challenging was defining the types of customer and call data to be collected, and how it would be analyzed and presented to salespeople.

This, indeed, is the central aspect and main value-add of Amcat's Contact Center Suite, noted Dudley Larus, the vendor's VP of global marketing.

Amcat provided USRCBR with an IP-based call distribution system that supports a variety of basic communication applications, including inbound call routing, voicemail, transferring and CRM. The vendor then worked with Koch to develop customized data-driven call center applications.

For example, when a voice call comes in, the system uses ANI to look the caller up in the database, then routes it to the right agent. Call details are then loaded into a database, some automatically by the system, some entered on the desktop by the sales rep. Data includes who handled the call, what type of call, how long it lasted and whether it resulted in an order.

The data can then be packaged into customized reports, charts and graphs that sales managers can use to monitor individual performance, analyze the effectiveness of advertising campaigns and pinpoint problems like customers waiting overlong in the call queue. Sales reps can tailor their presentations and calling strategies to a customer's buying history and habits.

Not so easy

Migration to the new system was not without its challenges.

Sales representatives had to be trained not only on how to use the new screens, reports and data effectively, but also how to use a PC effectively. Koch said about half had little PC experience.

The new data-driven call center system also put a strain on the IT department -- that is, on Koch. "The PBX required very little programming: The dealer came in and made changes as needed," he recalled. His staff now includes a network administrator who also does desktop support, another desktop support person and a programmer who develops customized reports for sales managers.

The new call center system proved its mettle when Hurricane Rita struck. Forewarned that Beaumont was likely to get hit on Friday, "We packed up everything -- Cisco switches, servers, desktops, into a van and moved it to Austin," Koch said. Beaumont lost power for about three weeks. "If we were still using analog PBXs, we'd have been out of business during that time." Instead, while competitors were struggling along with trailers and one phone line, USRCBR was operational the Monday after the hurricane. "Right there, we saved weeks' worth of sales."

It took about a year to get the system to a point "where everybody is pleased with all the enhancements," Orlando said. Proof of the system's success: "The number of requests we get for additional information has dropped drastically in the past three months."

Initial end-user resistance to the new system quickly disappeared when "they recognized the benefit, the power of having all that information readily at hand," Orlando noted. Koch and Orlando continue to meet with end users about once a month; plus Koch randomly monitors the sales rooms to see how things are going. "We would now have to fight to take the Amcat system away from them."

Elisabeth Horwitt is a freelance writer based in Waban, Mass.

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