Systems Issues in Customer Call Centres

Although call centres have been around in the private sector since the early '90s, when RSLs first considered setting them up, they found that a lot of the hardware and software available was both very expensive and not very easily adapted to their requirements. Over the last three years housing software suppliers and IT/telecommunication suppliers have recognised the market potential and are designing products that are far more geared up to RSL use, while competition continues to drive price down.

RSLs that have established a call centre as a business opportunity to provide services to other organisations may have needed to invest more heavily in the technology. On the other hand RSLs that have developed a CSC primarily for services to their own tenants have found that their existing IT and phone system required only slight modification. Most RSLs upgrade and renew IT hardware at least every 5 years therefore the cost of buying slightly higher specification equipment for the CSC is marginal.

There are three specific areas of technology used in call centres:

Whilst each of these is important in isolation, the real benefits are gained through using them as a group of technologies. It is equally important to ensure that they are fully integrated into the business systems of the organisation.

Unstructured ICT (information and communication technology) in any organisation will simply deliver new systems, hardware and equipment. Nothing else will have changed. It is for this reason that the housing sector must see ICT as an integral element in the strategic management process. It is not a 'bolt on' to which cursory attention should be paid and resources only applied when things go wrong but as important as the business plan, housing strategy and corporate mission.

Bjorn Howard, Drum Housing

Information Systems

The Information Systems provide the information available on the agents' screens and can be in a variety of formats. Traditionally there would have been separate screens (or even separate terminals) for each application and the agent would have to switch between applications to be able to access different pieces of information. It is now more likely that systems will have been integrated into a single front-end application. This does not necessarily change the original systems but a new application will take pieces of information from various systems and incorporate it into a single screen. An alternative to this is the implementation of an entirely new system. There are systems designed to meet almost every application including customer service and customer relationship management (CRM). The fact that these systems are replacing old legacy systems can result in real benefits in terms of rationalisation of data but also in terms of redefining the business processes that support the old systems.

A key factor in any system is the infrastructure. This could be the cabling systems, networks, central equipment (Servers, Mainframes etc) or the desktop equipment (PC's, terminals, printers etc.). In all cases the infrastructure needs to be aligned to the technology that it is carrying / supporting. The applications are driving the platform specifications higher and are a serious factor. The application itself may be relatively low in cost but the requirements from the supporting infrastructure may be extreme.


The advancements in the telephony area have been quite dramatic with a number of new products and services being developed and made available. A number of technologies are described in more detail below.

Automatic Call Distribution - ACD

An ACD can be provided in one of two ways; either as a stand-alone system or more commonly, as part of a main telephone system (PABX). The functionality is similar but the PABX version will also accommodate other telephone users on the same system.

Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) enables calls to be directed to the most appropriate person to answer the call. In the majority of cases this will involve putting all incoming calls into a queue and the longest waiting call being answered by the first available agent. ACDs can also route calls based upon the skills of the agents, the time of day, the type of call etc.

The agents on ACD's have a more robust telephone terminal which is often referred to as a Turret. Additional specific functionality is provided on these terminals that aid the high volume of calls that are processed. Headsets are provided to allow agents to use both hands and there are a number of different features such as 'Wrap Up', Log In & Log Out, Emergency, Make Busy etc.

The turrets will normally have a display that will provide the agent with information about the call. This may detail who the caller is (information provided by Calling Line Identity - CLI), the number that the caller has dialled (Dialled Number Information Service - DNIS) or indeed some other programmable message. Other displayed information may be the duration of the call in progress, the time of day or even statistics about calls that are waiting to be answered.

Computer Telephony Integration (CTI)

CTI connects together the computer and the telephony applications. It can be a very simple integration completed at every agents PC / Turret or more commonly a more complex interconnection at the central systems location. Whilst it can improve the efficiency of the service provided, the quality of the data is important when providing this service and has to be 'real time'.

Management Information Systems

Real Time Information

Real time information provides a picture of the current situation at any moment in time. In all cases the only accurate picture is provided as a steady state for a few seconds. The type of information displayed will normally include the agent status (active, make busy, logged off etc) together with an analysis of the calls in progress and those waiting to be answered. The information is normally displayed on a Supervisors terminal and is critical in terms of making immediate changes to group configurations to ensure that all calls are answered as efficiently as possible. The majority of agent screens will display information in a colour-coded format for easy recognition. Parameters can be input to show the service that is expected. If these parameters are exceeded then the colour could change to red. Wallboards are also used to display high-level performance information for the agents and can motivate agents and engender a competitive spirit in trying to beat yesterday's performance.

Historical Data

Historical data identifies what has happened after the event so it is possible to examine trends, peaks and troughs for incoming calls and identify how many staff are needed at specific times of the day.

Typical reports show various matrices measured at regular intervals across the day and can focus on the entire Call Centre, specific groups of agents or even individual agents. For example:

Most organisations will need to offer service levels for handling the calls that they receive. Historical data can provide support in setting the service levels and it is also a measurement of the performance against those levels. Reports are generally configured to run automatically at the required periods.

Call Monitoring / Voice Recording

There are two technology-based methods of assessing the quality of calls. The first is by the Supervisor listening to calls taken by an agent, either from a second headset on the turret or from the supervisor's terminal. Silent monitoring can be undertaken without the knowledge of the agent but also, an agent can alert the supervisor when they have a problem with a call e.g. an abusive caller and get assistance.

The second method is that of recording the calls with Voice Recording Systems. Some systems will now also record not only the conversation but also all of the activity relating to that call on the PC. Systems can be configured to record specific calls based upon a number of parameters such as specific agents, times of the day, particular numbers etc.

The two main applications of Voice Recording are as a training aid and to record a transaction made over the telephone. It is important to note the legislation involved in recording telephone calls.

The cost of setting up a CSC will depend on the quality of the existing IT and telecommunications and on the proposed scale of the operation.

As prices fall and systems become more reliable, products such as document imaging, work-flow and caller identification are becoming more readily used by RSLs. Many RSLs will invest in these systems in order to improve organisational efficiency, irrespective of whether they have set up a CSC.

Although the systems difficulties are not as great as three years ago, RSLs still face delays in opening their CSC because telecom. and IT. systems don't do what they are supposed to do. There have been several frequently encountered types of problem that RSLs considering establishing a CSC need to consider:

Suppliers almost always seem to over-promise. Particular problems have been encountered over the reliability and post-sales service of some of the telecom. systems suppliers. Several RSLs commented that the account manager played a critical role and that the quality of the service boiled down to how good their account manager was.

'We were very badly let down by our telecom supplier and very nearly ended up in litigation against them. The main problem was not being able to get hold of a responsible person. Engineers kept coming in and undoing the work of the previous person so we couldn't stabilise anything. As it was I know that our account manager was fired as a result of the debacle.'

Customer Service Manager, Thames Valley Housing

'It came down to the quality of the account manager. Ours was excellent. He phoned daily right through the implementation phase and was incredibly supportive.'

Call Centre Manager, Orbit

Problems with our existing telecom supplier caused us significant delays, they were just not responsive to our needs. Eventually we brought in an alternative supplier just for our Service centre.

Project Manager, East Thames Housing Group

The pace of change in the IT industry forces suppliers to release new versions of software before they have been fully tested. Users of the latest version of some housing management system software have discovered that in fact they have been unwittingly piloting the product for the supplier. In a call centre environment, the reliability and functionality of the systems are critical to provide a one-stop service

The compatibility of some front-end systems has been a problem in several CSCs. This has been due sometimes to a Windows-based product trying to interface with an older UNIX based system. Often it has been because the RSL's system has been over-customised in the past and is now incompatible with new releases of the system. As 'front end' suppliers recognise the business opportunities of RSL CSCs, more are working in partnership with other software houses to ensure that their systems are compatible and also to jointly develop new products.

Some products that have been designed for a traditional housing management service and work very well in that context, can become practically unworkable in a CSC environment. The schedule of rates (SOR) is a case in point.

'When we opened our repairs line in 1996, we recognised that the SOR was too cumbersome for the call centre. We identified the 250 most frequently ordered jobs and coded them so that it would be much faster for the CSOs to identify the work and place the order. The detailed SOR lies behind this screen but CSOs rarely have need of using it.'

Call Centre Manager, Orbit

'Our original SOR contained around 2000 items enabling us to specify to a very fine degree the work and parts that a job required, for instance there were about 20 different items for ordering a change of tap. The SOR was developed with maintenance inspectors and surveyors in mind and enabled them to exercise a high degree of control over contractors and spend. However, in a call centre environment, the SOR as it stood was too detailed: the tenant cannot specify all the widgets needed to mend the loo and the CSO similarly does not have the time to work through all the possible items to place the order. The result was that 65% of orders were being raised for scheduled items against a target of 90%. We have now developed with Omfax an SOR of 58I items, enabling us to reduce the scope for variation orders. We have also developed a closer partnering arrangement with our term contractors and have specified that they must have ISDN lines and modems in order to streamline repairs ordering and invoicing.'

Customer Service Manager, Thames Valley Housing

Practically every commercial call centre operator works in a tightly controlled environment, using menus of scripted and diagnostic screens. In the RSL CSC, the complexity and variety of calls often makes these aids/controls unwieldy and redundant. Many RSL CSCs do have on-line policy and procedure manuals, diagnostic repair screens and occasionally, scripted screens. Feedback is that they were very valuable in the early days of the CSC and as training aids. However, as operators quickly acquire skills and knowledge they found that these aids slowed down the transaction so it is important, as with any system design, that there are fast options for trained operatives. When linked into the SOR and used with a tenants' diagnostic repair handbook, this system has increased the accuracy of repairs ordering and reduced the number of non-scheduled items. It also provides greater managerial control over operator's decisions by specifying which repairs can be ordered for which groups of tenants and preventing unauthorised orders being placed.

For largely historical reasons, responsibility for IT in most RSLs rests in the finance directorate. In some instances this has created tensions and difficulties for the CSC operation because of its location in a different directorate or business unit. When a fast responsive service is essential throughout the day, any system failure or software problem needs immediate action and in some cases the CSC manager has found themselves in the position of having to compete for an often over-stretched corporate resource which is outside their control. For this reason, RSL CSCs are increasingly retaining their own dedicated IT support team which can carry out the several functions of trouble shooting, system support and system development.

'We have our own dedicated IT team who have developed most of the software in-house. The software amazes everyone who visits our CSC. The secret of its success is that it has been done mainly by housing managers. The approach they took in developing it is to ask 'What's the very least I need to know in order to give a satisfactory answer to a question?'

Call Centre Manager, Orbit

Many RSLs have devolved responsibility for the CSC capital budget to the CSC manager and this has again enabled a much faster response when modifications are required.

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