Ex-Sony Workers’ Software Smooths Call Center Woes
As frustrating as it is to call a customer-support line, navigate the automated voice-response system, then wait on hold for 15 minutes to speak with an actual human, the call-center experience can be even harder for the people on the other end of the line. A number of trends are making life more harried for call-center reps and their supervisors, including ever-growing call volumes, the pressure to work through the queue faster by spending less time on each call, and the countervailing pressure to spend more time placating angry customers (since it’s so expensive to acquire a new ones). But to make even small changes that might lighten the load—for example, rerouting some calls from overloaded call-center agents to idle front-office workers—call center managers usually have to get help from IT staff.
Can more technology provide the answers to problems that technology created? Rex Doricott, CEO of Exony, thinks so. The nine-year-old company, which has offices in Boston and Newbury, outside of London, makes software for managing “virtual call centers,” large customer-service operations where agents themselves are scattered across several facilities. The latest version of Exony’s software, launched last week, gives call center managers direct control over call routing changes and other operations that used to require technical staff. It also gives them what Exony calls “customer interaction intelligence”—data on the performance call center workers who may be located in corporate offices spread across many time zones, or may even be working from their homes. The so-called Virtualized Interaction Manager (VIM) software automatically produces reports that help managers figure out which agents are productive, which ones need help, and which ones need to be disconnected.
“Our system is about empowering people with management tools,” says Doricott. The old metrics used by call-center managers were rigid and counterproductive, he explains: for example, it was common to penalize agents for being on the phone with a customer longer than five minutes. “So agents used to put the phone down at 4 minutes 50 seconds, even if the call wasn’t finished,” Doricott says. “Now you can track that, and be more fair and flexible in the way you manage people. It’s unfair to penalize someone for spending 6 minutes on an important customer-retention call if they haven’t handled that type of call in a month.”
Exony’s VIM sits on top of and interfaces with the voice-over-Internet-Protocol software from companies like Cisco Systems and Genesys that typically handles the nuts and bolts of call switching in modern call centers. It’s used widely by financial-services companies, especially European firms like HSBC, BNP Paribas, Lloyds TSB, Alliance Leicester, and Yorkshire Bank—businesses where “there’s a good service culture,” in Doricott’s words. Prudential UK, a pension administrator, recently adopted Exony’s system to manage 1,800 agents in contact centers around the world. “The financial services industry is extremely competitive and our customers rightly demand a high level of service,” Al Jeffrey, a planning account manager at Prudential, said in Exony’s announcement of the sale. “The Exony VIM system enables us to manage this expectation more effectively.”
Doricott and three colleagues started Exony in 1999; all four, and another six who joined the startup later on, were defectors from the software R&D wing of Sony’s professional broadcasting technology division. (In fact, the name Exony is short for “ex-Sony.”) The switch from a television technology lab, where Doricott and his coworkers were building systems that put digitally recorded TV programs into the right time slots in broadcast lineups, to a company that makes call center software might sound like a stretch. But according to Doricott, “the technology skill set around the infrastructure—for example, the role of databases—is almost 100 percent overlapping.” But such a radical change of business domains did involve “a bigger learning curve,” Doricott admits.
Exony set up its Boston office recently to sell the Virtualized Interaction Manager and the company’s other services to more North American users. Landing Microsoft, which bought seat licenses for 12,000 employees in 65 call centers around the world, was one big success. The company’s has engineered its expansion on a relatively tiny amount of capital: Kennet, a venture firm with offices in London and Silicon Valley, gave Exony $5 million in 2003 and then another $2 million a couple of years later, Doricott says.
Exony faces serious competition: Aspect Software in Chelmsford, MA, for example, sells “unified communications” software that includes workforce monitoring and management tools, and just this week Aspect formed an alliance with Microsoft that will integrate its software with Office Communications Server, the system many companies use to manage the information systems that call center agents use to look up answers while they’re talking with customers. (Apparently Microsoft still needs Exony’s interaction intelligence software to keep tabs on its call center agents.)
But Doricott believes the overall market for call center management technology is still expanding. “Total interaction volume is going up,” he says. And while company websites offer more customer-support options these days, such as forums, FAQS, and chat-based help, “You can’t beat the customer satisfaction of talking with a human,” Doricott says. “If they want to buy something, if they just want to shout at you, you have to take the call. Losing customers is very expensive—so if you can convert someone ’round to being happy, it’s much, much better.”