Call centres revolutionised the industry in the 1990s.
Claire Veares looks at how call-centre technology can
slash costs for insurers.

Rumours of the death of the call centre have started to circulate, but they are slightly premature. While the likes of Easyjet persuade most of their customers to get in touch with them over the internet, most companies find many people prefer another human at the other end.

But as a concession to those who are happy to deal without the phone, call centres are changing the way they work. New names, such as contact centre, interaction centre and multimedia centre, have sprung up to reflect the fact that customers can now get in touch by email, internet and even digital television.

The phone looks set to remain the favourite way for customers to contact companies for the foreseeable future, but it is increasingly part of a package of complementary means of contact.

"Voice communications will be a dominant feature of contact centres for a long time, but the internet and related electronic communications are already having a profound effect on call centre technologies and operational changes," says chair of the Call Centre Management Association, Ann-Marie Stagg.

Rob Shaw, IT director of Ventura, which provides outsourced call centre facilities to businesses, confirms changes are under way. He says over the past 12 months, a significant number of his company's clients have asked for help in increasing the number of ways their customers can contact them.

Ventura is looking at the insurance industry at the moment and Stagg says outsourcing is one of the areas to watch. "The call centre industry is seeing the rapid growth of specialist outsourcers as organisations continue to seek to drive down their cost base, but maintain high standards of customer service," she says.

And insurance, one of the biggest employers of contact centre staff, is expected to keep up with the changes.

Principal consultant at IT and telecom specialists Ovum, David James, says: "I think it will probably be one of the lead sectors, as insurance and banking quite often lead in call centre developments." He points to Royal & Sunalliance's use of text messaging as an example.

He says: "The drivers for change in call centres come from both the availability of technology and customer demand. Customers are now more used to using email and their computers at home and at work. They are expecting to interact using other sorts of media."

But whichever means customers use to get in touch with a company, they expect the same level of service. Customers will get confused if they get a different answer back by email than they would by phone.

Integration of media, though, is vital. "In the next couple of years, most large insurance companies will be dealing with their customers using multiple media, if they are not doing so already," says James.

Integrating products
Advances in technology help implementation. Bespoke systems were expensive and time consuming to implement, often being out of date by the time they were eventually installed. Now there are integrated products that cover multimedia, which are often a lot quicker to implement.

Advantages in general technology should also lead to more diversified contact from the public. Shaw predicts digital television will become established over the next few years and improved connections will help the popularity of the internet. "The ability to access details will be easy, as you will be online in an instant," he says.

From the insurer's point of view, this diversity of contact has a major attraction - cost. Direct Line first appreciated that selling insurance over the phone was much cheaper than using a direct sales force. Stagg says the recognised ratio is if retail costs £7 a transaction, then call centres cost just 70p. A truly web-enabled contact centre slashes these costs to 7p. It makes sense, therefore, to automate contacts that are routine and do not add value, such as checking the terms in an insurance policy. Direct Line, for instance, is looking to put all the most common transactions its customers need to do online by the end of next year.

But Direct Line's IT director, Richard Beal, stresses the need for access to complementary services. "I want to feel, if I deal with a website and I am not happy with it, that there is a number to call," he says.

But in the future, he sees far more people carrying out their own transactions. "As time goes by, I think there will be more people who are happy to do everything by themselves."

Stagg agrees, saying: "I believe the future of customer service is self-service and can be accomplished in a more cost-effective way over the web."

Beal acknowledges that the phone is never going to go away, but he is scathing about email, calling it "a technology of the past". It is far easier to communicate by phone or on the web, he says. With email, a string of messages may be necessary to answer a relatively straightforward question.

And those who work in call centres may also appreciate the advances in technology. It may seem logical to think that more automation will lead to fewer jobs, but it seems that what it will actually do is to add variety to existing jobs. Shaw says: "It certainly takes away some of the less value-added services. It frees up more time to deal with the quality customers."

Centres within centres
James predicts a hierarchy among operators in the future, with some able to communicate with customers by all types of media and some only in selected media. "This will generate a career ladder and limit cost," he says. Contact centres are likely to split into centres within centres, with greater opportunities for teleworkers, especially to cope with demand at peak times.

But the head of quality and standards at industry body the Call Centre Association, Colin Mackay, sounds a word of caution. From a staff point of view, he says, rotating the operators would lead to higher levels of job satisfaction, although he acknowledges this is not the cheapest way of doing things. But he warns: "It doesn't matter what wonderful technology you've got if you've got a lot of unhappy people working for you."

How call centres are embracing the web
Contact centres offer customers a variety of ways to contact companies but, as the Call Centre Management Association points out, there are still a few technical barriers to achieving truly web-enabled centres.

Call-back buttons
These allow surfers to ask the company to phone them back. All very well if you have a second telephone line and can be on the computer and on the phone at the same time, but many people will have to shut down the computer to talk on the phone and the moment is likely to have been lost.

Some emerging technologies now allow the surfer to have "voice call waiting" indications on their computer screen and this is likely to help the strategy a great deal.

Text chat
With the text chat window open, the visitor and agent can then send text messages to each other in real time. Some applications provide the agent with libraries of frequently used phrases, sentences and entire paragraphs in order to speed response or even enable the agent to send pages to the visitor's web browser.

Voice over internet protocol (VOIP)
With this technology in place, the visitor clicks on the "contact us" button and, while still connected to the web page, can speak to a live agent. At the moment, VOIP has not had a substantial impact on contact centre operations because of the technical difficulties associated with bandwidth in the public telephone network. But when these have been resolved, you can be sure that nobody will ever be satisfied with call backs or text chat again.

Video over internet
If there is, eventually, the capability to carry on high-fidelity voice conversations over the internet, video connectivity will probably be possible as well. This raises some interesting issues - for example, perhaps contact centres will rely on animated characters or cyber-operators rather than real images. Video games and cartoons are moving this technology forward and driving computer animation to new levels of realism, such as Lara Croft or the film Shrek.