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Sun 1 Apr 2007 11:31 AM

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It’s good to talk

The 21st century call centre is a hotbed of advanced technology, systems and processes. Implementing the right solution can generate business benefits and cost savings for forward-thinking Middle East enterprises.

The thought of ringing a call centre is enough to elicit a resigned shake of the head and the grudging realisation that the depths of your wallet and limit of your patience are about to be sorely tested. The prospect of calling an extortionate premium phone line and navigating a labyrinth of agents, only to arrive at an automated voice repeatedly assuring you how important you and your enquiry are, is typically best avoided. However, the call centre is in transition. Companies have quickly reevaluated the meaning and importance of the phrase ‘customer service' thanks to the wealth of IT call centre technology currently at their disposal.

The humble call centre has gradually been transformed from the initial company defence (or repellent) to an efficient customer portal for the business. While it still represents the first general point of contact for disgruntled customers, companies are now moving towards a new, improved bastion of professionalism that is capable of catering for every query and providing the service customers are now demanding.

IP telephony, computer telephony integration (CTI), predictive dialling and interactive voice response (IVR) are technologies companies should consider if they want to provide the next level of customer service, and it seems many have been quick to adapt.

"We're finding the region is becoming more and more interested in rolling out sophisticated, intelligent solutions to utilise the resources available to companies and to provide customers with an improved productivity and a better service. Overall the communications are becoming more intelligent," Neville Perry, converged applications manager at Avaya, explains.

Employing six agents and servicing around 350 inbound and outbound calls a day, small centres like the LG Call Centre in Dubai have a fractional customer base in comparison to larger centres but there remains the incentive to actively incorporate new technologies in an effort to provide a comprehensive service for customers.

"We are always looking forward to new technologies to improve our services and provide customers with a smoother and more productive call centre operation. Our system is based on Nortel hardware and Symposium software. We also have Axxium software, Pan Cyber's CTI solution and GFI's fax solution and SMS solution," says Sukamal Boxi, IT manager at LG Middle East.

"We believe quality of service is increased as customers have access to a call centre which is working directly under the parent company. Reports are regularly submitted to the company directors and the managing director for analysis. Because the LG call centre is a non-profit service, we are only responsible for ensuring that customer demands are met and an efficient quality of service is sustained and delivered," he adds.

Operating on a number of systems including Cisco's enterprise internet protocol contact centre (IPCC), Sabre's reservation solution and Witness call recording, Ruth Birkin, Gulf Air's award winning contact centre manager, is eager to outline the role IT is playing within the airline's contact centre.

"We have a Cisco enterprise IPCC - for handling our calls, we use Sabre as our reservation system, so that's what the agents use day in day out - and we use Witness for call recording and quality control which is also operating twenty four seven," she explains.

"We service calls internationally from a lot of countries in the GCC as well as the UK, Ireland and South Africa. We also have offices in France, Singapore, Australia and Germany so it's basically wherever the airline flies to. We're open 24 hours a day here, we never close. When our other offices close , we have an out of hours system that routes the calls to the centre here [in Oman] and it identifies where the call is coming from and what language the customer wants the call to be conducted in, whether it's Arabic or English," she continues.

As companies show an increasing propensity to buy into the ‘one call does it all' doctrine, regardless of the customer-orientated sentiment; it's an ethos that's fast becoming obsolete as a result of the technology deployed in centres. There is a wealth of services available to customers from a single phone call but the role of the internet has a significant role to play in the development of call centres with IP telephony, online interactivity and e-mail, ready alternatives to cater for every customer preference.

"It's not just about calls anymore. We receive a substantial volume of contacts through new direct and legacy voice systems, email, and other means that justifies our continued expansion and investment. This is the future of all successful contact centres: provide as much choice as possible for those needing access to technical teams," explains Rob Baker, support delivery manager for EMEA at HP ProCurve Networking.

Responsible for a 50-agent call centre, servicing customers from the Middle East and North Africa, Baker believes providing as many channels for customer interaction as possible is the key to a successful contact centre.

"We have the legacy HP access solution where customers with networking servers and desktops prefer to go through that because of the multiple technologies available. As a differentiator in EMEA for us, the direct access solution provides a toll-free number and an agent can start trouble-shooting for you immediately in multiple languages. In EMEA we can handle 13 languages," he says.

"How does the customer, user, partner, vendor, whomever want to contact you? What is the most convenient way for them to do so and you should then be meeting those needs because it's not only good for their business it's good for our business from an operations perspective. If you provide as much choice as possible for customers to interact with you, you're going to have a successful contact centre operation," adds Baker.

The prominence of IT and interactive technology has rendered the traditional call centre technologically obsolete. Contact centres capable of incorporating numerous access channels present the customer with various new ways of interacting directly with the company. Extended features like 24-hour access and specially designated teams to deal directly with specific enquiries complement technologies like CTI, predictive dialing and voice recognition.

Both the Gulf Air WPCC and the ProCurve centre have adopted designated troubleshooting teams in an effort to streamline the customer calling process as part of extending services further.

"We have developments like our premium team, which has been established to specifically handle calls from our first and business class passengers. We also have plans to migrate our services to other countries internationally and in the region. We're focusing on generating more calls from Qatar and Egypt and improving our out of hours service for Malaysia, the Philippines and the US. It's about extending our services further," Birkin says.

A recent project headed by Invita, a Bahrain-based business process outsourcing provider, saw Intertec Systems and Cosmocom partner with Invita to establish a contact centre in Bahrain. Housing 60 agents and taking around 4,000 inbound calls a day, the company implemented an IP-based platform as well as dialling technology to deal with the substantial call flow.

"We have predictive and progressive dialling technology. The technology we are using is not called computer telephony integration (CTI); it's called computer-to-computer integration (CCI). This is a newer technology because we are running a fully IP-based platform, so there is no traditional time-division multiplexing (TDM) integration with the computers because the whole infrastructure is running on the IP technology," explains Hisham Al-Rayes, general manager at Invita.

"CCI has improved operations because having the infrastructure run on IP technology allows the clients to monitor their services and applications remotely through the internet and have the call centre extended at various locations across the region," he adds.

For larger operations housing a number of agents, monitoring the constant flow of data is essential to ensure queries are effectively met and that the information is at hand if a follow up enquiry is needed.

"We manage our data in real-time. We can do forecasting, we can do trend analysis and it's all continuously updated. If someone's working on a case, we know the product; the situation, the customer and we can search through our database to glean the information we need," explains Baker.

"We try to have the most technical people possible at all levels of the contact centre (ProCurve Competency Centre). There is no question that having the organisational discipline to keep technical and non-technical skills at the highest level has positive cost and quality impacts. This also provides for the fastest possible solution time. As a proof point we enjoy a first-time fix rate of around 90% for our Middle East and North Africa customers: the first time they contact us on an issue we provide a solution," Baker adds.

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