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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Call Centers Help Firms Fight for Customers

Any company that relies heavily on the telephone to make sales knows how easily a client will jump over to a competitor if he gets a busy signal or is put on hold too long.

The solution for a growing number of traders and service providers fighting for every potential customer amid Russia's economic woes has been call centers - expensive telephone systems based on computer-telephone integration.

Call centers make it possible for fewer operators to take more incoming calls, redirect them with greater precision and wrap them up quicker than any regular intra-office telephone system permits, industry experts said.

One of the most important advantages of the system is that the client is put on hold for a relatively short period of time and is unlikely to hang up. A call center also allows a company to register every call and its results while supervising operators and assessing their efficiency.

The technology is nothing new in the West where any large company has a call center, but in Russia it largely has been limited to telephone providers, paging companies, travel agencies and telemarketing companies.

However, Russian companies still find call centers unjustifiably expensive and very few have realized the advantages of installing one, industry experts said.

A call center for a small office telephone system can service several hundred lines and costs up to $20,000, while centers for large local networks can service tens of thousands of lines and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

One of the more recent Russian companies to be won over is cable television provider Kosmos TV, which installed a call center several months ago.

"It is simply unrealistic to work in a different way - there are a lot of calls, and we didn't have any statistics," said Alexander Yevlanov, telecom manager at Kosmos TV.

Installing digital lines and the call center allowed Kosmos to service twice as many clients with the same number of operators.

Before, Kosmos used to receive complaints from the local city telephone exchange that it was overloaded with thousands of calls to the company, while Kosmos was in the dark as to how many calls of each particular kind it received and how many potential clients never got through.

"[Before], you could not get through to Kosmos for a week," one industry expert said.

Simply put, a call center is a computer with pre-installed software connected to the office telephone system that lets the call be directed to one of several automatic call distribution groups, or ACD groups.

Thus, an operator working for a company selling several different products or services can route a customer to the employees dealing with the requested product or service. After the call is completed, the employee registers it, using one of many call codes, which allows to catalogue all calls by their nature and results.

Kosmos has two ACD groups, one for billing and technical support and the other for sales. Its operators use a number of call codes to categorize incoming calls, indicating by pushing a button after the call is completed that, for example, the call was transferred to another ACD group, that a technical support team was dispatched to a client's home, or that the line was cut off.

The last feature is one of the most important ones, since it allows the company to keep track of bad lines and alert the telephone company, Yevlanov said.

A message that there are more "lost" than taken calls is a signal to the supervisor to immediately bring in more operators and keep conversations short.

Maria Makarova, senior sales support officer at Belgian airline Sabena, said a call center is crucial for business. Sabena is installing one in its new Moscow offices after losing at least 20 percent of all calls under the old system, she said.

"We have felt the necessity to install a call center for a long time," Makarova said. "We were constantly short of operators [under the old system]."

Industry experts said that although companies are showing a lot of interest in call centers, the high price tag was keeping many at bay.

"Interest in call centers is high, but from a very narrow group of customers," said Alexander Titov, telecom manager at Computer Mechanics company, which sells call centers.Andrei Gusev, vice president of Computer Mechanics, said few Russian companies invest in costly equipment like call centers because information technology managers are scared of provoking their boss' wrath by stretching the budgets.

"They are told not to spend a kopek over the budget, they simply fear for their jobs," Gusev said.

Even businesses that one would expect to try and make the most of a call center, such as paging companies, refuse to use them, industry experts said.

"Funny as it may seem, few paging companies, apart from the largest and richest ones, use call centers, in part because of their stringent cost-cutting policies," said Igor Shumov, head of sales at SATEL, another company selling call centers.

However, most companies that shun the new technology appear to do so simply because they don't fully understand its advantages.

Paging companies prefer to rely on a larger number of modestly paid operators whose work doesn't require much training, Shumov said.

"When a paging company fails to take a call, it is unpleasant but not terrible," he said. "When a sale worth several thousand dollars falls through, it's another thing."

However, Shumov added that he expected demand for call centers to pick up in Russia in one or two years as more companies realize the system will pay back in the future.

Those companies which do install call centers, tend to increase their capacity after they see the advantages, Titov said.