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Call center's role evolves with CRM

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Sales representatives at NCCI Holdings, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based provider of workers compensation data, do something unusual before they go out into the field: They head over to the company’s 85-person customer service center.

There, they chat with one of the center’s account managers, who gives them the heads-up on any recent contact with the customer, typically an insurance company. As a result, the sales reps are better informed when they meet with their customers and can address any problems expediently. They also can up-sell an existing customer, using specific examples from the customer’s support calls.

"The customer service reps have an entire view of the customers," said Ilene Lustigman, the company’s director of customer service. "It has streamlined service, and our employees can identify trends going on with the customers quickly and easily."

Call centers have always played an important role in the management of customer relationships, though that role has evolved.

Today, customer service representatives are just as likely to answer e-mails or add to their employer’s Frequently Asked Questions list as they are to answer the phones. Their job descriptions have changed, as well. They act as liaisons between salespeople and customers, do real-time analysis of customer needs and suggest purchases of additional products and services.

Uncovering problems

Even more significantly, what goes on in the call center doesn’t just stay in the call center. Using analytic and reporting tools, marketers and salespeople working with customer service representatives are uncovering trends and problems and fitting solutions into future plans.

This shift in call center relevancy has taken hold over the last 18 to 24 months. As more customer service information comes from online sources, it’s being stored, sliced and diced. The tool that’s helping this happen is CRM software.

While CRM has made it into the call center—and some of that call center data trickles out, as happens at NCCI—the exchange isn’t automatic, and it usually isn’t two-way communication. Despite the fact that end users and experts say integrated customer support and CRM systems have the potential to change an entire organization’s bottom line, commingled CRM systems are few and far between.

Mark Wooley, a VP with Cap Gemini Ernst & Young Financial Services, an IT consulting firm, said he counsels clients about the importance of integration. But only a handful have followed through. "The technologies [to make it happen] are there, but few have effectively developed them," he said.

Wooley’s clients, like the majority of CRM users, are implementing CRM in the call center, but they are doing it piecemeal. There’s no master plan to tie all of a company’s CRM programs together. The data are analyzed, but what happens in the call center stays there; what happens in the sales department usually also stays put.

There are many dangers associated with this laissez-faire construction, ranging from wasted time to disappointed customers.

"If you have one person giving a customer one answer when they call and another giving them another the next time they call, you’ve changed the way they are looking at you," said Don Dunbar, a professor at the College of Applied Technology at Boise State University, Boise, Idaho.

Too much information

One expert said companies rightfully worry that mistakes may be made when interpreting merged data.

"[The rep] may not know that small clients can grow to become larger clients—that clients who complain but whose problems are addressed completely can become the greatest advocates," said Valerie Schlitt, president of Philadelphia-based Valerie Schlitt Associates, a marketing and customer service consulting firm. "Customer service reps may tend to minimize service to such customers and focus on the multi-account, noncomplaining customer."

Of course, giving customer service reps and other company employees access to this data isn’t easy or inexpensive. If CRM software costs $1 million, integration can top the $4 million mark, according to one CRM vendor. Also, because many call centers are outsourced, companies may be reluctant to provide background information to outside organizations.

With so many people cutting back major IT projects, integrating a call center’s CRM program with the rest of the company’s customer data seems trivial. This thinking is flawed, Wooley said.

When everything goes smoothly, devoting time and capital investment to link customer service, marketing and sales pays off. This is something Don Edman, director of operations for Amherst, N.Y.-based Remarketing Services of America, knows well.

Edman’s company, which handles end-of-term car leases for financial institutions, has a CRM implementation in its call center. Edman’s reps are constantly collecting data and merging the information with the company’s other CRM and analytic resources. For example, they track which types of cars sell best in which regions of the country and what’s in inventory. Remarketing Services, which handles $4 billion worth of inventory each year, is reaping the benefits of its CRM process.

"It’s really letting us do a lot of data analysis," Edman said. "We’re going much deeper than we ever thought we could. Our clients are expecting us to return profits to them, and this lets us maximize the dollar for them."

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