A study of North American consumers, released in late March 2006 and developed by Five9, a global provider of call-center solutions, sounded an alarm for call centers. Key findings of the survey include:
- Seventy-six percent of respondents reported 24x7 support to be important (52 percent) or extremely important (24 percent) to their purchasing decisions
- Seventy percent of respondents changed products/services or did not make a purchase due to a bad experience with a call center agent
- Thirty-five percent of respondents reported being highly dissatisfied when the hold time was too long
- Ninety-one percent of respondents reported being locked in a self-service menu unable to request to speak with a live agent
The travel industry's high levels of customer interactions position call centers as a potential critical impact on a travel agency's market share. But since consumers have become more demanding in their expectations of the quality of call center services, the bottom-line impact won't be positive unless there is a positive customer experience.
We spoke with two travel-related companies that, through outsourcing, eliminate the chance for the negative outcomes cited by the study's respondents. Both have call center technology--for a low monthly fee and no up-front capital investment in equipment--by outsourcing to Five9's hosted on-demand call center solution.
Start-up Strategy for Vacation Package Calls
Until recently, ALVA Pacific Franchise Corp's main business was operating a chain of 30 Internet cafÈs in Metro Manila and other major cities in the Philippines. It also owned and operated three franchise schools specializing in hotel and restaurant administration as well as a newly opened 32-room bed-and-breakfast hotel business in Baguio City, a major mountain resort area of the Philippines.
When the Philippines' Internet cafÈ business became more competitive in 2005 and the Philippines emerged as a preferred location for call centers, ALVA Pacific decided to capitalize on this phenomenon as well as its in-house expertise in the small hotel business. It launched a unique "Internet CafÈ by Day and Call Center at Night" business model that could be easily replicated in a franchise.
ALVA Pacific determined it could leverage its existing pool of more than 1,000 computers and highly qualified workforce; all it needed was a solution to build a feature-rich call center--cost-effectively--and have the ability to take on new clients and new travel agents as the business grew, without adding or replacing expensive equipment. After considering purchasing VoIP phones for an in-house solution and a number of other competitive solutions, ALVA Pacific determined that Five9 had the most cost-effective plan.
It took less than 48 hours to deploy the Five9 Virtual Call Center Suite and a few minutes to train agents on the user interface, and ALVA Pacific was in business with its new venture. Six months later, the call centers were running in four Internet cafÈs, had grown from four to almost 30 seats, and this revenue was the source of nearly 25 percent of ALVA Pacific's total business volume, says Ed Saldajeno, Managing Director, ALVA Pacific.
Initially, the call center handled only outbound calls to set appointments for selling time shares and vacation resort packages for large clients primarily in California and small resorts in Alberta, Canada. "Call centers are now servicing small-to-medium-size resorts," explains Saldajeno. "With our cost model, we can service them with just one agent, if necessary."
ALVA Pacific brought on board a trainer with expertise in US time-share sales in the Philippines, and recently added another trainer/consultant with expertise in running UK time-share campaigns in India so the call center agents would have excellent skills in direct sales.
Now it has added inbound calls for customer care to its repertoire. The company hired agents who graduated from its hotel and restaurant schools. It has started hiring former chambermaids and kitchen/dining staff and training them for call center work. "These are people who already know what it takes to make customers happy," explains Saldajeno. "Also, the work opportunities in the Philippines' travel and tourism sector are not encouraging, and people are happy to work in our call centers."
ALVA Pacific added a unique component to its customer-service training, sometimes sending its agents to the company's hostel in the mountain resort town ofBaguio City as though they were tourists. Saldajeno says, "We send them there to understand what it is like to be a resort customer and what tourists expect. Here, our agents really learn to listen to complaints and be courteous. In the end, it helps our customer satisfaction and helps our agents up-sell when they are on the phone."
The company's next step is to branch out in September 2006 and establish a 20-seat call center in Xiamen, China, where there is a large volume of travel business. ALVA Pacific already has partners who speak fluent Mandarin, and setting up the technology for the call center could not be faster, easier, or more cost-effective, thanks to its outsourcing arrangement with Five9.
Because of its 700 percent growth rate, the company plans to convert all of its remaining Internet cafes to call centers by early 2007.
"This solution has made it extremely easy for us to start our call centers with limited up-front costs and ensure that our franchisees all have the same high quality and dependable solution," says Saldajeno. The outsourced solution also allows him and his business partners to monitor the call centers from anywhere--an important functionality since the hours of operation are currently in the evenings.
Solution Facilitates Home Agents and Ends Downtime
Unlike ALVA Pacific, CondoExpress.com was an established travel agency when it turned to Five9's Virtual Call Center Suite. CondoExpress markets resort condo and hotel vacations through several Web sites. Prior to outsourcing to Five9, it had significant technology challenges with its customer contact centers.
"We had a tremendous amount of downtime due to bad weather and problems with the phone service in Florida and Georgia where our reservation specialists are located," says Wilbur Hudson, COO. "It wasn't unusual for the phone service to go out two to three days a week. We bounced from one phone company to another trying to remedy this situation. The lost revenue during downtime is immeasurable."
Hudson adds that there was no technology connecting the agents in the three locations. Although a strategy of using home-based agents was attractive to CondoExpress, the lack of connectedness in terms of customer questions or other problems was more than an inconvenience. In addition, the call volume in evening hours was slow--justifying call forwarding--but they could only forward calls to one location.
They switched to the Five9 Virtual Call Center Suite a year ago. Since then, outsourcing has reduced phone service costs by 40 percent, there has been no downtime, and the system has enabled the home-based-agents' strategy to be more efficient. "We're all connected now through the Internet, and our reps can easily contact each other to get answers to customer questions, if need be," says Hudson.
Hudson says the system gives CondoExpress more efficiency in placing its callers in queues that get answered quickly. It also cuts costs, provides better clarity in the phone service, and gives the company the ability for better tracking of inbound and outbound calls.
"The administrative functions are very important to me," Hudson states. "At any time I can pull a report and look at the types of calls that are coming through during a certain time period and the disposition of those calls. It helps me determine the number of agents needed for a particular call volume." Through recording for quality control, the system also facilitates supervisors' and managers' knowledge of how well the agents are handling calls to clients' satisfaction.
"This system is worlds apart from what we were accustomed to before," Hudson claims.
Infrastructure On Demand
Advances in technology now make it easier for call centers to achieve competitive differentiation, cross-sell, and build customer loyalty. As CondoExpress and ALVA Pacific learned, the advantages of outsourcing to a virtual call center solution include more than cost-effectiveness and rapid time to market.
This outsourcing model allows clients to easily add (or eliminate) seats on demand, making it a flexible solution. In addition, clients don't need an internal IT department to manage and maintain the resources. And, unlike the respondents in the Five9 survey, the reliability of the world-class technology infrastructure ensures customers won't turn away because of inefficiencies.
Lessons from Outsourcing Journal:
- The ability to add or eliminate travel agents on demand without adding or replacing expensive equipment is an important component of cost-effectiveness in call centers.
- A positive customer experience and 24x7 support are critical to bottom-line success and buying decisions via call centers.
- An outsourced solution for call center infrastructure reduces the up-front costs and ensures high quality, dependable technology.
- Administrative functions, allowing a buyer's managers to monitor call disposition and quality, and determine the appropriate number of agents necessary to handle call volume, is a key success feature when comparing call center technologies.