Home Business Telecommunications The evolution of call centres (interview)

The evolution of call centres (interview)

One day it was a call centre, then it morphed into a contact centre, now it is all about omnichannel and customer experience (CX).

So, starts John Latreille, chief executive and co-founder of Lake Corp, a call centre, sorry contact centre, sorry integrated CX specialist, celebrating 25 years in business and counting among its clients top banks, finance, telecoms, insurance, health, retailers, and government.

Its users include ANZ, Westpac, St George and IMB banks, Guide Dogs NSW, ARL, Wyndham Resorts and Apple Telemarketing.

John Latreille“No matter what you throw at us we have experienced it and had to make it work – emphasis on the latter. Sentiment analysis – check, analytics – check, omnichannel – check, IVR – check, security – check, live chat – check, chatbots – check …,” said Latreille and one could not help but respect the obvious depth of experience and expertise this man has – he has spent most of his adult life in telecoms, unified comms and call centres.

Sydney-based Lake Corporation, established in 1992 is wholly Australian-owned. It came about after Latreille spent too many years at Honeywell Computers and Sigma Data (that became Datapoint) and was formed to take on distribution for Davox (later becoming Concerto then Aspect Software) which he had introduced to Australia and was gaining a significant foothold in Australian call centres.

“I had to learn from the bootstraps – what you see is over 40-years of experience. But it is experience including business, staff management, finance, and management – not just programming, comms and computing. It is that package that enables Lake to find the right solution, meeting not only call centre needs but line-of-business needs,” he said.

What does Lake do?

The company is committed to optimal call centre effectiveness with the “one stop shop” implementation of intelligent, multi-media technology backed by professional services, quality training programmes and ongoing support.

Lake recommends, supplies, installs and supports leading technology, focusing on voice, and multi-media interaction. Lake’s portfolio includes the complete range of Inbound and Outbound Voice and Multimedia functionality. This broad range of functionality, integrated and managed by XCalibur – completely designed and developed in-house – enables Lake clients to maximise contact centre effectiveness, contain operating costs, optimise interaction quality, ensure job satisfaction for agents, provide an excellent customer experience and improve business outcomes.

In short, it is our job to look at all the potential offerings available; software, hardware, telephony platforms and put our untarnished reputation on the line to (a) recommend the best solution and (b) install a solution that works.

Additionally, as we observe the market transitioning towards cloud computing, we have established a cyber-security practice to assist our customers to address and mitigate that growing risk.

Our philosophy clearly emanates from my own personal philosophies and they have been developed and honed by life’s experiences and observations – both good and not so good. When we talk of integrity, experience, expertise and support we mean it and our customers will attest to it. We find, train and retain the right people who know their stuff, research and investigate the best tech solutions, and then take on the “Big Guys” by knowing more and offering best of breed solutions – not just products, and not glued to any one brand.

Lake has some very long-term staffers – what do you attribute that to?

I learned from Honeywell, and Sigma Data, that you need great people around you, not only to look good but to perform the miracles that were needed, especially in those early days of mainframes downsizing to mini-computers and huge rooms full of telephony hardware. Lake is run as a family, we can reach out and touch everyone and play to their strengths and minimise any weaknesses. We are not a machine [like IBM was in those days] but we empower our team members and we all take the time to get to know our clients’ needs and make unbiased recommendations without fear or favour. Many of our customers are also long term – they recognise our team’s capabilities, commitment and dedication are part of our mutual recipe for success.

Surely you prefer certain suppliers or technology?

For a telecoms platform – no, not really. Every solution is unique and we don’t shoehorn a client into one or the other because we might make more money from it. We know platforms like Sytel, Mitel and Avaya well just as we have used most other platforms in the past. But hardware is hardly relevant anymore and it is the software that drives it that really counts.

These days we have moved well past huge metal PBX boxes and solenoid switching to IP, SIP, VoIP and Cloud. We need to know what the software does and it takes a lot of researching and soul searching – the platform capabilities and everything else is usually a given.

What do you have to say to claims that telemarketers are seen as a nuisance?

I can well understand that perception and, all too often, that perception is a reality! However, when telemarketing managers insist on (and get) “good” technology (modern, mainstream diallers coupled with capable desktop software); good, well-trained agents (in their offer and how to speak to prospects) who are professionally monitored and counselled; and well targeted calling lists (relevant to the called party and timed to reduce the nuisance element); they’re not generally a nuisance!

In other words – good offers plus thoughtful, well-managed campaigns with sensible pacing plus positive agent experience (AX) generates a positive customer/prospect experience (CX) which equals improved quality, productivity and perception!

How has the call centre changed?

Call centres — inbound and outbound — are still there to answer the customer who needs human interaction. No matter how good IVRs, chatbots, etc., become call centres are unique from the human interaction perspective.

What has changed is the customer expectation of their experience with the company. It is called Customer Experience (CX) and they expect to use whatever channel, at whatever time, on whatever device they have, to have the same experience as if they walked into a store.

CX has driven the evolution of call centres to contact centres to omnichannel centres. But it is all about knowing who the customer is and that is where the Agent Experience (AX) also plays a critical part and where omnichannel often falls over.

Marketing experts call it a 360° view of the customer but let me tell you there are many organisations that have so much compartmentalised information in silos. Agents in one large company typically had to navigate through 17 screens just to change an address. No wonder its returned mail count exploded and its call centre staff were unhappy.

We simply used XCalibur to automate those 17 steps into one click and the issue was solved.

What is XCalibur?

The best way to describe it is as a tool to tie together multiple disparate data sources and the need to combine the right information from different applications when interfacing with customers.

You could say it is our 25 years of collective experience rolled into a GUI (graphical user interface). We started writing routines (modules, or you might call them APIs now) back in the 90’s with Microsoft framework – a fortuitous choice as it has enabled us to preserve all that experience via a browser.

Imagine that we have a huge pigeonhole wall with each routine in a hole. We can pick and choose from a huge catalogue of “things” – it might be to eliminate those 17 steps, or to access a separate payment database, or scripting.

Call centre staff love it because it provides a unified interface that gives them the tools to achieve that 360° customer view – regardless of telephony platform, numerous enterprise servers, CRM, e-commerce, cloud, social media feeds, and more. In other words, XCalibur becomes a tailored solution unique to each of our customer’s needs. We often say that XCalibur is limited only by one’s imagination – it may sound trite but speak to our customers; it’s true.

What is happening in the cloud unified comms space?

In five years everything will be in the cloud – or as I prefer to say a data centre somewhere; just as it is now. For the moment “metal in a data centre” is more secure than a public cloud but those issues will gradually be solved and it will be software driven everything – except the physical interface between a handset and the network but with 4/5G that is going too.

Gradually Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, voice command and more will take over in the contact centre arena but beware, comms is more than technology, it is about people and their need to be heard.

But also remember that a lot of the cloud solutions are OPEX (operating expenditure based) rather than CAPEX (capital expenditure based) and the former can be way more expensive as you grow past your initial scope. Sure, OPEX may look to be the best way for those who require capacity flexibility, or to utilise certain applications infrequently, or simply cannot afford it but compromise will be the name of the game. There is no reason why customers can’t combine the two approaches and get the best of both worlds.

Don’t forget also that there are also privacy, governance and security issues with too many clouds.

The main users of contact centres — banks, finance, insurance, retail, collections, telemarketing know the best answer for any complete solution is using a private CAPEX based cloud — set it up the way you want.

What is your call on off-shore call centres?

Labour is the highest component cost of any call centre. Because of that it is natural to move to off-shore but frankly things like accent (Aussies are less tolerant of foreign accents), time zones (have a nice day at 6pm), the weather (no it is not raining in Sydney today), lack local knowledge (especially in knowing where the nearest shop is) and often a forced “localisation” all put customers off – don’t pretend to be local, embrace your universality.

What is the future of call centres?

There are two things that need to be done for any call centre. First is to use intelligent software to make the call centre agent’s life easier and more productive in talking to a real person and second is to move a lot of the basic transactions to automation. This will reduce costs and obviate the need to use cheap overseas labour.

The industry has done very little to develop new capabilities and even in the best call centres, all you can expect is around 50% “productivity” – 30 minutes out of each hour as you have talk time, processing time and wrap up time.

All the issues are still the same but the focus has shifted to the customer experience – which is intrinsically linked to the agent experience; which is intrinsically linked to quality and not necessarily quantity.

There will always be a need for human interaction whether you walk into a store or call an agent. Talking is often the last bastion of a customer’s sanity – they want something done.

This whole 360° thing is important – know your customer. Monitor their activities on the website, social media, in-store visits, what they buy and what they almost bought. When they call use sentiment analysis to know their mood, speech-to-text conversion to look for keywords like “not happy” or “supervisor” and apply deep analytics to know what your various omnichannel are doing well or poorly.

Invest in things like voice biometrics that can identify a customer before he gets to you, desktops [software] that provide agents with tools and information, and all this will reflect positively on your net promoter score and your brand and that is money in the bank.

I think chatbots have a larger (but carefully targetted) role to play. The inability to answer questions is still too high resulting in an exasperated customer being transferred to a call centre agent – not the best way to start a conversation. Chat bots may be perfect – humans are not.

What are the key messages you want iTWire readers to understand?

  1. Detail/scope your needs – not your hardware or software - and keep adding to them as you begin to understand what call centres can do. Today more than ever the decision to implement a call centre solution needs to be owned by marketing, sales, IT, fulfilment, physical stores, and the board – it is no longer an IT/Procurement issue. The starting point is the information you collect or should collect and how you can use that can help AX and CX.
  2. Comms (unified communications and call centres) are so much more than a bunch of people sitting in cubicles looking at call logs and screens. A solution is only a solution if it meets all your business, staff, and customer’s needs.
  3. A lot of new “fast” shrink-wrapped cloud solutions look attractive but involve too much compromise – you shoehorn what you want into what it does. Don’t compromise or change to fit the solution offered – the right one is out there.
  4. Too many people don’t really appreciate the loss of benefit of getting it wrong – unhappy staff, high turnover, high staff training costs, and poor customer relations …
  5. 25 years is a hell of a long time in the unified comms business – talk to us to discover what is possible based on what we have seen that really works.
  6. Oh… and if you think you’ve got the ‘right stuff’ to join our team please give us a call… 

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!