Twenty years ago, there was little established knowledge about telemarketing. Virtually no technologies, training programs or scripts were available to insurance agents or companies. Only small handfuls of companies engaged in market research (focus groups), or what we now call proactive telemarketing; and the call center itself, as we think of it today, was in its infancy. We had trouble convincing large brokerages and carriers to use proactive telemarketing 10 years ago. Today they are our steady customers.
Telemarketing certainly went through many hardships in the early days. Until the right way to conduct effective, ethical and quality telemarketing was found, every mistake in the book was made, and then some. However, as the old saying goes, failure is the fertilizer for success. Today, telemarketing has come of age; and agencies, wholesalers, MGAs and carriers all use call centers to conduct database marketing, build customer loyalty and retention, and to expand market share. And they do so while at the same time protecting their valuable reputations. The call center, whether out-sourced or handled in-house, has become the profit center. Why? Because it is far more effective than any other form of marketing. It ties together all aspects of customer contact in the marketing/sales matrix of any business. No agency or carrier can ignore it.
Growth in Telecommunications Technology
One of the reasons for the growth in the use of telemarketing is the revolution that has taken place in telecommunications technology. We now have predictive dialers, automatic call distribution, call blending, computer-telephony integration (CTI) and the Internet.
All of these have increased telemarketing's effectiveness, but they also have made setting up a call center and running it properly a more complex and time-consuming proposition. It calls for increased sophistication in sales, marketing, customer service and technical know-how.
Call centers have screen-pop application. Telemarketers get screen pop ups of information about the person with whom they're speaking. This way they know the person's name, the reason for the call, and what the person's history is relative to the business or product he or she is calling in about.
With CTI, calls also can be automatically routed to the person most able to help the caller. Is the telemarketer who has helped the caller available? If so, perhaps the call should go there. What did the caller request last time? If the caller is likely to have a similar need, the system can determine who should get the call. Is the caller likely to be aggressive? If so, CTI can determine which person is most likely to be helpful.
For example, let's say you are an unhappy customer of company X. You call in and get an automated attendant that asks you to enter in certain codes and a message with your situation. Your message goes into a queue and by the time the telemarketer answers your call he or she is answering the call by your name and knows your problem before you reply with a hello back. That is powerful. In fact, this application is just as strong for in-bound sales. There is no reason why the call center application I described cannot be implemented into every agency, brokerage or carrier. The essential questions to ask before the implementation are: Is it cost effective? What is gained? Add the growing predominance of the Internet in the mix, and you have a whole new way to reach, and be reached, by your market. Internet call-back technology makes this possible.
Internet call-back technology
You can safely assume that if individuals take the time to surf your Web page to check out your agency or company's offerings, they're interested. It is in your best interest to provide a direct and immediate channel to your company for that potential customer. Let's face it, people buy when they're readynot when you're ready to sell them. If the urge to buy hits them while on your page, but they still have some doubts, they can click an icon and speak with a live person who can assuage those doubts and perhaps even set an appointment, turning the potential in a golden sale.
The list of technological advancements in the telemarketing process goes on, but when you get right down to it, they all are simply providing up-to-the-minute information to the telemarketing reps dealing with your prospects and customers. This information enables a telemarketing rep to ensure that the prospect or customer has a quick, fruitful and painless interaction with your agency or company.
Effective telemarketing ensures that the prospect is not left hanging on the telephone while waiting for an agency principal who is doing other work he or she cannot interrupt. It also keeps an agency principal from being tied up on the phone with a half-hour call that a telemarketer can handle effectively.
An agency principal's job is to simplify the agency's interaction with prospects and customers through the proper employment of technology. A prospect or customer should be treated to a well-oiled, incredibly capable machine, whose powers are brought into motion to resolve the issue at hand with ease and alertness.
Another important part of a call center is unified messaging, a facet of computer-telephony integration. This spectacular feature lets every single fax, voice mail or e-mail be routed into a single inbox. All are treated as data files and can be sent as attachments, forwarded to colleague's clients, or deleted and saved. A good example of computer-telephony is the 911 service that we all have access to. This is called Automatic Number Identification or ANI. Believe it or not, computer-telephony also resides in many of your local pizzerias. They know your address, name and telephone number since the phone call is directed through their server and finds your telephone number in the database.
Our very own Internet Callback service is another good example of computer-telephony. When someone visits your Web page wanting to speak with a representative of your agency, carrier or MGA immediately, he or she can click on a button. This will pull up a form that the prospect or customer can fill out and send to a call center (<%=company%>) which is transparent to the customer or prospect who thinks the call is being delivered to the agency, carrier or wholesaler. Once the call reaches our office it's directed to our server and searches for that telephone numberusing automatic number identification (ANI)and sends the call to a designated work station through Automatic Call Distribution (ACD). A screen-pop is sent to the telemarketers' monitor and the system automatically dials Mr./Ms. Prospect back or puts him or her in a queue to be called at a specific time and date.
One last example of computer-telephony would be an agency's searching a customer or prospect record in whichever agency management system it uses, pointing and clicking on the telephone number and having it dial the customer. This is called preview dialing and is used primarily for outbound telemarketing. Many businesses are still waiting for the technology to come down in price before they make an investment to handle the above scenario.
If you do not have this technology in the near future and instead provide a slower means of access to your company, your potential customer might become your competitor's customer. According to the Best Practices study, the most successful independent agents use direct mail and telemarketing.
How will you get the end user to your Web page? Another sensible use of Internet technology is in the help desk arena. Right now, you employ people, who are your most expensive resource, to handle your tech support. Imagine customers having Web access to a database of solutions through which they could browse on their own. From a purely mercenary perspective, it costs a lot less to let your customers fix their own problems instead of calling you and having you fix them.
Obviously, any Web solution deployed in this fashion must be intuitive and easy to use; otherwise, you will create more problems than you solve. Similar solutions can and are being implemented in such arenas as product inquiry, package tracking, banking inquiries, and a host of others. It is not hard to envision AMS, Applied and Delphi releasing upgrades via the Internet, or building a map of fix-it tools readily available to the user via the Internet.
Using people where they are needed most
Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not saying that sales or customer service is best left to a technology solution. I am saying that human resources are your most expensive resource. You should deploy them only in situations where it is warranted. Many sales and customer inquiries can be automated, but there is a limit to self-help functions, and many people are still uneasy about ordering products over the Internet or do not like pushing number after number in an IVR interface. Human contact creates positive feelings that cannot be obtained any other way.
I firmly believe that in order to maintain your company's competitive edge in the next millennium, you will need to focus on computer-telephony integration, the Internet, direct mail, video and the call center. The Internet will soon make abundant your agency's or your companies' offerings. If your firm doesn't have the technology to handle or create a well-thought-out marketing campaign or customer service, outsource it. The call center is constantly in touch with the ebb and flow of the market place and will become the acknowledged focal point of your business.
Jeff Neilson is executive vice president of National Marketing Services, a leading insurance telemarketing and direct mail bureau. Click <%=company%> to visit National Marketing Services business center.
This article originally appeared in the October 1998, Rough Notes magazine.