Call Centers 2.0
The conventional wisdom in call centers is, ‘I want to get you off the phone as quickly as possible,’” notes Bob Denman, president of Bloomington-based communications IT firm Avtex. But thanks to the recession, good customers aren’t so easy to come by, or to keep. Denman believes that these days, companies are seeing what’s being called “customer contact” and “customer experience” less as an expense and more as a revenue driver.
This is where Avtex sees its opportunity. Founded in 1972 as a provider of technology for call centers—increasingly termed “contact centers” in this multi-channel communications era— the “new Avtex” is focused on developing a broader array of communication and collaboration technologies. Contact center software and systems are still the largest part of Avtex’s business. But Avtex also offers online technology that can provide companies faster access to internal and customer data, better ways to view content, and tools for integrating traditional and digital modes of customer communication.
Avtex also is expanding its offerings in “unified communications”—the integration of real-time communication services such as instant messaging or chat, presence information, telephony, video conferencing, data sharing, call control, and speech recognition with other communication services such as integrated voice mail, e-mail, and fax. Avtex believes that these complex types of communication modes will become increasingly crucial for not only for contact centers but businesses of all kinds.
Avtex 2.0 is the product of a merger of three Twin Cities–based IT firms that was finalized at the beginning of this year: the “original” Avtex; Convergent, a unified communications solutions provider; and Inetium, a developer and systems integrator using Microsoft platforms such as Share- Point. The merger was put together by the Pohlad Family Companies, which purchased Inetium in 2005—the family’s first foray into the IT space.
Executives at Marquette Technology Companies, the holding company for the Pohlads’ IT firms, believed that “Avtex and Inetium started to look very much like the same company,” Marquette Technology CEO David Johnson says. The Pohlad group also saw that adding Convergent could expand the Avtex/Inetium combination’s unified communications offerings to its customer base. That base comprises 600- plus customers, mostly in the Upper Midwest, including Toro, Caribou Coffee, Connexus Energy, and the Walker Art Center. Now employing 209 full-timers, Avtex projects 2011 revenues of $50 million, with plans to reach $100 million within three years.
The communications tools and consulting services that Avtex is developing and selling are rooted in several perceptions about the market. One: Customer contact is no longer all about the phone.
As Eric Raarup, senior vice president for technology and marketing at Avtex, notes, “Some people don’t want to talk on the phone. They’d rather type.” Customer interaction is increasingly performed over a company’s Web site, or via social media.
Another market perception: Improving customer communications tools can do more than boost efficiency and productivity—it can actually drive revenue. Improved tools can give customer contact agents a better chance of providing more information more quickly to customers, which in turn can offer more opportunities to upsell and build customer loyalty.
The merger gives Avtex a greater capability to built more of its own communications products to address the changing market—to have “some control of our destiny,” as Raarup says: “We’ve been a value-added reseller, we’ve been a system integrator, but can we offer our own products as well?”
Avtex’s three component companies had been working on their own applications before the merger, but the combined entity now can integrate those products into stronger offerings. Avtex now has 20 such products, most built atop Microsoft applications and Indianapolis-based Interactive Intelligence’s contact center technology.
One Avtex product that has developed as its own platform, so to speak, is Interaction Portal, which Denman describes as “a kind of mashup that allows [a customer contact] agent a single point of entry for back-end databases.” Many businesses require their customer service people to operate with multiple screens and applications to access information. Interaction Portal unifies that information in a single screen.
In the version of the technology that Avtex built for New York–headquartered cable-TV company Mediacom, Interaction Portal centralizes outage information, core customer information, access to promotional materials for upselling, even the weather in the customer’s location—information the call center staffer can use for both casual conversation and to determine whether weather might be affecting reception.
Another defining idea behind Avtex’s thinking is what Raarup terms “a culture of customer service and cultural experience in the organization” that isn’t limited to “20 people in the back room handling the phone calls.” While contact center agents remain the main interaction points for customers, they increasingly need to tap internal expertise.
To meet this need, Avtex has developed Elle, a patent-pending “interactive knowledge management” software application designed to enable salespeople and contact agents to quickly dig up experts, skills, documents, and data inside the company. Elle’s applicability isn’t restricted to contact centers: It also can be used in finance and banking, health care, and other industries requiring quicker access to centralized data.
One client that tapped Avtex to create a central knowledge base is the Minnesota Timberwolves. “We have some great talent on the sales staff that tends to be young, and we have great institutional knowledge. But we were not very good at connecting the two of those together,” says Ted Johnson, the Timberwolves’ chief marketing officer and senior vice president of marketing and communications.
The veterans knew the nuances of relationships with companies that have sponsorships and other deals with the team. To help the rookies connect with those street smarts, Avtex used Microsoft Dynamic CRM sales and marketing application as a platform to create what Johnson describes as “a centralized repository of that relationship and all of its tentacles, and a way to connect that to the frontline salesperson who’s trying to figure out the best product or best solution to interface with.”
Johnson notes that Avtex provided more than IT—it also offered ways to “fine-tune” the Wolves’ sales and marketing operations: “Avtex didn’t present themselves as a technology provider. They really presented themselves as business consultants.”
Avtex also is developing Game Day, an application to help the Timberwolves handle the dozens of what Johnson calls “miniature events taking place in the arena” at a home game. These logistical challenges include special giveaways, booking national anthem singers, and coordinating youth groups’ meetings with players and executives. Rather than trying to manage all of these ancillary activities by e-mail—“a pretty laborious process,” Johnson notes—Game Day will allow Wolves staffers to coordinate them through one universally accessible application.
As the business communications market and digital technology continue to evolve, Avtex is anticipating new ways for organizations and their customers to interact. The company’s innovation team is keeping tabs on “what’s coming over the horizon, how does that positively or negatively impact customer experience, transferring that information to the general marketplace,” says Tim Bakke, Avtex’s director of strategy and innovation. These include products for mobile Web and smartphone technology as well as cloud-based solutions via Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. Avtex also has created Video Kiosk, which provides live video interaction.
Other directions that the innovation team are exploring involve “natural user interface”—interactions involving the human senses. These include touch screens, speech activation (using Microsoft’s new Tellme technology), and even gesture. Using as a platform Microsoft’s Kinect— designed to track hand movement for Xbox 360 gaming consoles—Avtex has developed an interactive system that can allow, for instance, a visitor to check into your offices simply by waving her hand over her name on a screen in your entryway.
Customer contact an expense? Heck, it can even be fun.