A recent survey from Call Centre Research (CCR) suggests there are approximately 4000 call centres in Australia, averaging 28 seats per centre. There are over 1500 companies operating call centres, with the majority being run by finance, banking, insurance, telecommunications, utilities, transport, Government and IT companies.
Historically, opportunities for integrators in this space have revolved around working with bulky PABX systems. But with the advent of Internet technologies, systems are starting to appear in the call centre that handle phone, fax, e-mail, Web, and even video streaming content through a single point of customer access. In short, call centres have been morphing into Internet-enabled contact centres, providing new opportunities for Net-savvy integrators.
The other plus for integrators is the high adoption of customer relationship management (CRM) by corporate Australia. Although CRM is often narrowly associated with the software that enables it, by definition it is a process. It is a business theory that suggests companies can get more value out of existing customers if they have a single consolidated view of the customer. While corporate Australia is allocating budgets to CRM projects, the expenditure is moving into the improvement of customer contact and leading to rewarding opportunities for systems integrators.
Channel companies play an important role in getting these systems operational and effective in meeting demanding corporate business goals. The most common scenario is a services company becoming both a reseller of US-produced contact centre software and hardware, and modifying this technology to suit the specific needs of its client.
CTI Interactive, for example, is a company that resells Interactive Voice Response units developed by InterVoice Brite, which runs on the Windows NT platform.
"We buy the speech engine software from InterVoice Brite, which tells the IVR what to do," said Robert Carnell, general manager of CTI's interactive solutions group. "Then we have to write the application that tells it how to respond to answers. In some cases, it may have to recognise up to 50,000 terms, and we have to program all of these into the system. The job varies from case to case, but the first installation may take three to four months. You have to spec it out and actually write the software, get the thing up and running and then get it productive."
Carnell believes customer contact is experiencing rapid growth because call centres are an expensive operation for companies to manage. In several cases he has witnessed, companies are spending in the order of a quarter of a million dollars per seat in a single year.
"For those sorts of costs, you can't afford to have something that's not 150 per cent productive," he said. "The basic customer enquiries can be handled by IVRs and speech recognition, freeing up the people to get the high-end stuff done."
The opportunities are such that systems integrator Data#3 has dedicated a division to the CRM space, where it resells and integrates one product for each of its three key areas. In the inbound call space (helpdesk), Data#3 has a reseller agreement with a software company called FrontRange, which recently became the home of former 3Com Australia/New Zealand manager Archie Wilson. In the outbound space (sales and marketing), the company resells a co-branded product created by Compaq and Rockwell Electronic Commerce. For broader CRM implementations, they have an agreement to resell AIPC's Applix product.
"It's a relatively new and small area as a percentage of our revenues, but it is still absolutely key to our business," said Data#3 CEO John Grant. "This is because it provides an additional, differential way of getting customers. It is about providing new services to attract customers and then being able to provide our core services, infrastructure and support, on top of that."
Data#3's CRM division is managed by Paul Dixon, who sees the growth of CRM and the contact centre industry as a reflection of changing business attitudes. "Organisations need a point of consolidated contact with their clients," he said. "This is one of the real drivers, to have a focal point where you can catch that information.
"We are seeing a changing business environment where our customers are uncertain about aggressive consumer behaviour and low margins," said Grant. "They are looking for answers as to how to secure existing customers and grow their business."
CTI's Carnell sees IVR and voice recognition as the technological hotspots where future opportunities are likely to arise. The Internet has also created a wealth of new opportunities, such as the recent moves into voice portals in the US by companies such as AOL and Yahoo. Mark Holthouse, Speechworks' senior vice president of operations, sees voice portals as an exciting opportunity for smaller systems integrators and Web developers to find fresh markets.
"Web-based developers are taking services that are deployed on the Web, and speech-enabling them for the phone using VoiceXML," he said. "Why? Because there are over 2.3 billion phone users in the world, and only 600 million browsers."
But while the industry is experiencing rapid growth and creating a variety of opportunities in the channel, convincing clients of the technology's value can often be a challenge.
"The biggest challenge in this industry is for people to understand what can be accomplished with this technology," said Carnell. "The first time we go to see a potential customer, I think they are sceptical. They don't realise that this technology is available, that this technology will work. They think it's a bit of a gimmick. What I do is give them a phone number and say: Have a play with it', and they'll call me back the next day.
"Most people aren't taking advantage of these new technologies," said Anthony Seaegg, director of professional services at Datacom. "In a way it's similar to the initial reticence to using ATMs."
When Dixon began Data#3's CRM division, he found it a challenge coming to grips with the same learning curve customers are now facing. He also believes there is a great deal of uncertainty in the SME market over a series of takeovers, mergers and name changes among suppliers. A CRM product called "Heat", for example, was once owned by Bendata, then moved to a company called Goldmine software, before it changed its name to FrontRange. FrontRange now sells the Heat product alongside another product, called Goldmine. Dixon sees this confusion as a hindrance to client confidence.
Both CTI and Data#3 have come up with schemes to restore confidence about the potential return-on-investment when using the technology. Data#3 has developed a low-end introductory contact management product for companies wanting to dip their toes in the water before making the large investment necessary for a full-scale system. CTI has priced its IVR products in such a way that the client doesn't pay anything until a certain proportion of their calls are handled by the IVR. These special price offers are to fend off pending competition from vendors such as IBM and Lucent, which are rapidly moving into the contact centre space.
According to research by callcentres.net director James Organ, 87 per cent of organisations with call centres are expecting to make significant changes to their configuration in the next 12 months. Their findings also reveal 73 per cent of organisations with call centres expect to increase in size and 49 per cent will be upgrading their technology.
"This drive for change is to do with the integration of Internet servicing into call centres and CRM," Organ said. "Systems integrators will play an important role because you can't have efficient CRM without fully integrated systems. There are huge opportunities for integrators to get involved with large organisations who are reconfiguring their call centres to make them more effective."
Organ says there will be a reduction in the total number of call centres in the next 12 months, with large organisations like Telstra consolidating their operations into single centres, but the overall number of staff is more likely to increase rather than decrease.
"I think there's at least another three years of these opportunities [to be had] before the likes of Microsoft decide to move into speech," said Carnell.
Data#3's Grant believes the biggest opportunities are in the next 12 months, saying the market is presently "lots of talk, but little action".
Datacom's Seaegg on the other hand, is confident the industry will provide ample opportunities well into the future. "This type of growth will last as long as people want to pick up a telephone and get action, or as long as companies see the benefit in reducing the expense of having mobile sales forces," he said. "The call centre industry will be thriving long after I'm compost."