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Playing and Winning the Numbers Game 

Playing and Winning the Numbers Game

Playing and Winning the Numbers Game

Successful ROI strategies for call centers in a challenged economy.

By Donna Fluss
CallCenter Magazine

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The days of easy money are over for technology providers and buyers.

A slowing economy crimped corporate budgets in 2000 and 2001. And, as the economy now threatens to dip into recession – a prospect that September’s terrorist attacks may well hasten by prompting jittery consumers and businesses to cut spending and investments – 2002 could see further belt tightening, not least among call centers. Indeed, for the rest of 2001, call center investments should substantially slow while businesses fund security and disaster recovery efforts.

Unconventional Wisdom

But by next year, companies should start thinking seriously about enhancing call center operations. That’s because, in a recession, vendors are eager to sell products at bargain prices. And because 70% to 80% of call center costs are people-related, managers who are willing to sacrifice staff, in the short-term, for new investments will deliver savings. Enhancing call centers is the best way to reduce costs while improving quality. Investing now, while many competitors are paralyzed by financial constraints, will give enterprises a competitive edge, particularly once the economy recovers.

The objectives of most call center investments are to improve quality and increase productivity and/or revenue. Successful call center investments must simultaneously address people, process, and technology. Introducing a new technology or application, without analyzing its impact, can doom the effort to failure. Even in the best of times, call centers cannot afford mistakes; in a challenged economy mistakes are unforgivable.

This table shows typical returns from different call center investments. (The ROI calculation includes the development and implementation time.) The benefits are large for many of these investments, which is why they will be funded even when budgets are tight. Use this table as a benchmark for projected ROI, but modify the projected benefits to reflect your internal operating environment.

Select an investment based on a careful assessment of needs in conjunction with the enterprise’s CRM strategy. For example, an enterprise replacing a mainframe-based transaction management system with a Web-based customer service and support (CSS) call tracking application will yield a different return from an organization swapping a three-tiered CSS for an n-tiered application. The first organization realized a 24-month return while the latter will have to wait three or four years before seeing the benefits.

As call centers evolve into contact centers that handle both phone and on-line communication, investments will increase in tactical e-service solutions: e-mail response management systems (ERMs), Web self-help, and virtual agents. When properly implemented, all three of these point solutions have improved quality and productivity in contact centers. Too often, projects fail because companies do not carefully analyze needs and buy the wrong application. Initiatives also disappoint when companies take short cuts, skip testing during implementations, and do not garner adequate knowledge and resources. These failures create incremental costs instead of savings.

For example, Web self-help products, which can pay for themselves in two months, might be a great idea for a call center. There’s one catch: The success of Web self-help products depends on having a pre-defined database or library of answers or knowledge. To have the correct answers, enterprises must accurately anticipate the questions their customers will ask. During the last two years, many self-help implementations have failed because enterprises did not determine customer needs before building the application. This is a classic mistake of answering questions they wanted their customers to ask, instead of responding to what customers were actually asking.

This is a costly and sometimes fatal error. Customers confronted with worthless information will abandon a site and go to a competitor. Or, they’ll revert to calling a customer rep, at a cost at least twenty times that of a Web self-help transaction. (See sidebar.) Minimize the risks by carefully planning and implementing the application. “Time to market” is no longer an excuse for taking short cuts.

Making the Case

There are many methods of justifying investments but the standard is return on investment (ROI). ROI is a short-term measure of the value that an investment brings to an enterprise. It addresses payback (i.e., how long before a given investment contributes to an enterprise’s bottom line).

The ROI analysis forces an investor to assess the costs and benefits of a potential investment. The current ROI approval guideline for most call center investments is 12 to 18 months, though many tactical initiatives are expected to have a positive return in three to six months. Investments that companies properly justify will likely be approved.

Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) are looking for quantifiable numbers, not projections based on market expectations or vendor hype. Most call centers are measured based on productivity metrics; while such metrics aren’t the best measure of call center effectiveness, they offer the hard numbers needed to get an investment approved. Investments that result in real dollar savings and/or cost avoidance are the only ones CFOs will accept. Acceptable investment justification metrics include:

  1. Staff reduction (productivity improvements),
  2. Call and e-mail deflection and/or reduction,
  3. Reduction in training and hiring costs,
  4. Real estate expense savings,
  5. Telecom expense reduction,
  6. Savings in depreciation expense,
  7. Reduction in system development/ integration/maintenance expenses, and
  8. Increase in customer revenue.

All of these metrics result in productivity enhancements, quantifiable savings or incremental revenue.Unacceptable ROI justification measures include:

  1. Increase in customer loyalty,
  2. Enhanced customer satisfaction,
  3. Decrease in account attrition, and
  4. Sales referrals.

The above measures can be included in an ROI analysis. But call centers cannot use them solely for justification because they are “soft” numbers that are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

This table summarizes the justification criteria acceptable for different types of call centers.

When justifying investments, separate the savings categories. Do not lump the savings, avoidance and revenue numbers into one benefits line. Most CFOs accept cost avoidance in an ROI analysis. But many, constrained by budgets, will reject requests for funding or ask for additional information – a common delay tactic.

Such delays often extend for up to a year. And when managers submit the revised analysis, they frequently miss the enterprise’s annual budget cycle. Avoid this pitfall by providing a complete ROI analysis from the outset. Use hard numbers that can be proven. And expect to be held accountable.

Action Item: Obtain the corporate ROI guidelines and project approval forms from the office of the CFO before beginning the analysis.

Investment Strategies

The CRM wave of the past four years has increased the importance of the servicing organization to the enterprise. The subsequent economic slowdown has, however, offset many of these gains.

Businesses might conclude they should reduce their service arm’s budget, due to its high expense base, before slowing investments to the primary revenue-producing groups: sales and marketing. However, the service organization touches the enterprise’s customers more frequently than sales or marketing. The service arm also more greatly impacts customer perception and loyalty.

What is relevant to most CFOs is reducing cost and generating incremental revenue. Effective call centers do both. To gain approval for investments, call center managers must aggressively pursue all savings, cost avoidance and revenue enhancement opportunities. This often means trading staff for funding. Meeting these numbers will make you a hero, but failure to deliver projected savings can be fatal in today’s economy.

Strategies for projecting investment benefits range from using vendor-supplied numbers to conducting an onsite beta, to speaking to references, to taking an educated guess (the last remains the most frequent and overused approach). While it is tedious to analyze all aspects of a potential investment before submitting it for approval, the preparation and planning will ultimately save the organization money by reducing implementation time.

“Economics is everything, in good and bad times,” says Beth Eisenfeld, a research director at Gartner Group. Companies should keep that bit of wisdom in mind when striving to obtain acceptable ROI numbers. When one cannot justify a single investment on its merits, combining related projects (say, quality assurance and training initiatives) into one justification may provide the financial results required to obtain approval.

Combining synergistic projects into one financial analysis is different than justifying CRM suites that include sales, marketing, customer service and electronic commerce functionality. According to Eisenfeld, “60% to 70% of enterprises that try to implement CRM suites do not realize the projected ROI and more than half of these initiatives fail.” The projects with the highest likelihood of success are those that are divided into distinct and measurable phases.

Action Item: Calculate investment benefits aggressively but realistically. Conservative savings projections will not get you fired, but won’t be approved.

Project returns vary depending upon many factors, including:

  1. Call center size,
  2. Call center purpose,
  3. Call center maturity,
  4. Call center risk profile,
  5. Timing,
  6. Skill and experience of management, customer service representatives, and the technical support organizations,
  7. Technology or application,
  8. Previous experience,
  9. Use of investment,
  10. Training,
  11. Product pricing, and
  12. Product implementation.

Because of the uniqueness of each operating area, two companies, or even two departments within the same company, will not likely achieve the same results from an investment. A contact center with 60 seats will achieve different results than a contact center with 350 seats. The larger contact center is likely to accrue benefits more quickly.

Once metrics to obtain project approval are selected, they must be captured and reported on an ongoing basis. Failure to establish baseline data at the beginning of a project makes it impossible to measure the project’s benefits as it progresses.

Final Thoughts

No amount of investment planning and strategizing, to be sure, can guarantee approval of call center projects. But one can substantially boost the chances for funding by planning on a 12 to 18 month payback; trading staff-related expenses for investment dollars; and driving home to the CEO that investing now in call center applications will give an enterprise a competitive edge, particularly when the economy picks up.

Average Call Center Costs

Phone call:   $5.50 – ranges from $2.00 to $12.00
IVR:     $0.45 – ranges from $ 0.25 to $ 1.00
E-mail:    $5.00 – ranges from $2.50 to $40.00
Web Self-Help:   $0.24 – ranges from $0.05 to $ 0.50
Web Collaboration/Chat: $7.00 – ranges from $1.50 to $12.00

Source: Gartner Measurement

ROI Projections for Call and Contact Center Investments

Projected ROI
Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) 18 to 48 months Alcatel, Aspect, Avaya, Cellit Technologies,
Interactive Intelligence, Nortel, Rockwell, Siemens
Interactive Voice Response (IVR) 3 to 18 months Aspect, Avaya, Cellit Technologies, Edify, Interactive
Intelligence, InterVoice-Brite, Periphonis/Nortel, Syntellect
Outbound Dialer 12 to 36 months Aspect, Avaya, eshare, Cellit Technologies,
Davox, Interactive Intelligence, Oracle
Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) 6 to 36 months Alcatel/Genesys, Apropos, Aspect, Avaya, Cisco/GeoTel,
CosmoCom, Davox, eshare, Interactive Intelligence
Intelligent Call Routing
(Network Management)
3 to 9 months Alcatel/Genesys, Aspect, Cisco/GeoTel, IEX
Speech Recognition 6 to 16 months Nuance, Philips, SpeechWorks
Voice Authentication 9 to 24 months Nuance, T-Netix, Veritel
Text-To-Speech Not Yet Determined AT&T, Lernout & Hauspie, Nuance, SpeechWorks
Customer Service and Support (CSS) Call Tracking Application 24 to 60 months Applix, Avaya, Chordiant, Epic or Kana, Nortel/Clarify, Onyx, Oracle, Pegasystems, PeopleSoft, Point, SAP, Siebel, Talisma, Web Tone/SAIC/Broadway & Seymour
Telemarketing/telesales application 12 to 36 months Chordiant, Nortel/Clarify, Oracle,
Pegasystems, PeopleSoft, Siebel
Campaign Management System (CMS) 3 to 18 months Annuncio Software, Aprimo, Chordiant, Davox, Delano, eGain, E.piphany, eshare, Kana, NCR, SAS Institute, Siebel, Talisma, Unica, Xchange
Remote Agent Not Yet Determined Alcatel, Aspect, Avaya, Nortel, Siemens, Teltone
Entitlements 6 to 18 months Antenna Software, Astea, Click Software, DiCarta, Field Centrix, Imany, Metrix, Nortel/Clarify, Oracle, PeopleSoft, Siebel, ViryaNet
Configuration Software 18 to 36 months Calico, Chordiant, Cybrant, FirePond, i2 Technologies, Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP, Selectica, Siebel, Triology
Analytics 9 to 24 months Aspect, Delano, Kana, Oracle, PeopleSoft, Siebel
Knowledge Management 10 to 60 months Chordiant, eGain, Kana, Primus, ServiceWare
Wireless Not Yet Determined Alcatel, Ericsson, eshare, IBM, Lucent,
Motorola, Talisma, Verizon, 3Com
Internet Protocol (IP) Not Yet Determined Alcatel, Aspect, Avaya, Cisco, Nortel, Siemens, 3Com
Management Tools    
Quality Assurance/Logging
Application (QA)
6 to 24 months Cellit Technologies, Comverse, Dictaphone, e-talk, Eyretel, Interactive Intelligence, Mercom, Nice, Thales/Racal, Witness Systems
E-Mail Quality Assurance 3 to 6 months Comverse, Eyretel, e-talk, Nice, Witness Systems
Workforce Management
Application (WFM)
3 to 48 months Aspect/TCS, Blue Pumpkin, IEX, Pipkins
Training Programs 1 to 18 months Departmental or vendor basic training, communications training, product training, sales training, up-training, etc.
Skills-Based Routing 9 to 24 months Alcatel, Aspect, Avaya, Chordiant, Davox, eshare, Kana, Oracle, PeopleSoft, Rockwell, Siebel, Siemens, Talisma
Scripting Software 3 to 12 months Aspect, Avaya, Chordiant, Davox, eshare, Oracle, PeopleSoft, Siebel, Talisma
E-Service / E-Sales    
Universal Queué (UQ) 18 to 48 months Apropos, Aspect, Avaya, Cisco/GeoTel, CosmoCom, Davox, eshare, Oracle, Siebel, Synchrony
E-Mail Response Management
System (ERMs)
3 to 18 months Alcatel/Genesys, Avaya, Banter, Cellit Technologies, Chordiant, Davox, eGain, eshare, Firepond, Island Data Corporation, Kana, Kanisa, Oracle, RightNow Technologies, Siebel, Synchrony, Talisma, Web Tone
Web Self-Help 2 to 12 months AskJeeves, Banter, Chordiant, eGain, eshare, Firepond, Island Data Corporation, Kana, Oracle, PeopleSoft, Primus, Quiq, RightNow Technologies, Service Ware, Siebel, Talisma
Virtual Agents 6 to 18 months AskJeeves, eGain, NativeMinda, RightNow Technologies
Collaboration (advanced co-browsing) May Increase Cost Aspect, Avaya, Chordiant, Cisco, eGain, eshare, HipBone, Kana, Siebel, Talisma
Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) Not Yet Determined Acapel, Aspect, Avaya, Cisco, CosmoCom, Nortel
Community Software Not Yet Determined PeopleLink

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