TELEMARKETING: Revolution down the line - Technology is transforming telemarketing. Rachel Miller looks at how new systems are improving customer communications

The growth in telemarketing continues apace and shows no sign of letting up. Already this year, the use of the telephone has increased by 35% as against market forecasts of 20%. And estimates about the expansion of the telemarketing industry suggest that the number of people working in call centres will double by 2001.

The growth in telemarketing continues apace and shows no sign of

letting up. Already this year, the use of the telephone has increased by

35% as against market forecasts of 20%. And estimates about the

expansion of the telemarketing industry suggest that the number of

people working in call centres will double by 2001.



’The telephone has finally come of age and it’s recognised as a key

communication method,’ says Natalie Calvert, managing director of the

Calcom Group.



There are four reasons for this, says Calvert.



’First, costs have fallen significantly and the telephone is now

recognised as a way of doing business cost-effectively. Second,

deregulation has opened up the industry and businesses in general have

become more competitive.



’Third, we have the technology to communicate on a global basis. Fourth,

as consumers we have become a demand society that wants things

immediately and the telephone provides an immediate access route.’



Clients may be won over by the advantages of telemarketing, but the pace

of change is being driven by the consumer. ’It is all down to customer

expectation,’ says Jon Abrahams, director of customer services at

SSL.



’People expect to speak to an operator day or night, any day of the

year. They want to be able to order something from a catalogue and for

it to be fulfilled within 24 to 48 hours.’



Vital technology



The result is that clients are investing more in call centres but, says

Calvert, they want more for less - and that is where new technology is

playing a vital role. ’Clever use of technology can provide the

answers,’ she says. ’For instance, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) - if

used correctly - allows companies to handle more calls and offer a

better customer service at a lower cost.’



IVR is certainly useful as a way of conveying simple messages and for

basic data capture, but it is also being used effectively to ’top and

tail’ calls handled by an operator. But the main progress, according to

Abrahams, has been seen on the computer desktop.



’We have been able to take information and product knowledge out of the

heads of the operators and onto the screen. We have moved away from the

operator script which is repeated parrot-fashion.’ In its work for Post

Office Counters, for example, SSL has developed an A-Z of hundreds of

transaction enquiries with internet-style links and key words that

operators can be trained to use quickly.



Closer to customers



Harnessing the power of the computer with the telephone has also been

extremely powerful. Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) has brought in

caller identification so that customer details can be brought up on

screen within seconds.



’Modern technology is a means of letting our agents focus on the

customer relationship,’ says Helen MacKenzie, managing director of The

Business Extension, whose clients include Cable & Wireless and

Hewlett-Packard.



’Instant access to the facts makes the call more productive and more

satisfying to both the agent and the customer. CTI allows automatic

scheduling of call-backs, and power dialling presents the agent with

connected calls only.’



New technology is set to revolutionise the industry further. ’I see huge

leaps and bounds on the horizon,’ says the Calcom Group’s Calvert.



’In five years, we will be looking at each other thanks to online video

conferencing for business-to-business calls. Later, there will be no

keyboards as voice text will update information automatically. And the

internet is developing fast.’



SSL is planning to open a third call centre by the end of the year and,

says Abrahams: ’Our call centres will soon become customer contact

centres offering fax, e-mail, telephone and internet services.’ The big

leap forward here has been for web pages to include a ’phone-me’ button

that allows customers to talk to an operator if they have questions,

with the operator looking at the same page on screen as the

customer.



International factor



’In a few years time,’ predicts Abrahams, ’people will expect an instant

answer to their e-mail enquiries as well, which call centres will be

able to provide.’



Meanwhile, international call handling is radically affecting the

telemarketing industry, although - by design - the customer may not have

noticed. Telemarketing firm Matrixx, for instance, has installed a

system developed by BT and AT&T, which automatically overflows calls to

international centres when its UK call centre reaches capacity.



The company has 25 call centres in Europe and the US. It recently

trained a team of 43 multilingual agents in its Newcastle-upon-Tyne

centre to be able to handle work for Kellogg in Germany.



Last year’s launch of the European freephone means that companies can

advertise one memorable number and route calls according to country of

origin in seconds so that customers can talk to operators in their own

language and get in-depth local information.



But deregulation in Europe bring threats as well as opportunities, warns

Calvert. A combination of legislation and technology means that the

industry is now competing on a global basis, she says. And, with high

labour costs in the UK, companies may site call centres in countries

where labour costs are lower, simply switching customer calls overseas -

especially as the 24-hour culture continues to take over.



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