Stealing Pages from the Call Center Playbook

There's a reason why calling Land’s End to buy a windbreaker produces an entirely different customer experience than calling your local appliance shop to fix your wall oven.  When you call Land’s End, whoever picks up knows your name, your size and your favorite color; she knows your shipping address and maybe even a few suggestions for T-shirts — in the crew neck style you favor -- to layer under the windbreaker.

When you call the appliance store, whoever picks up first has to interrupt his other call, or pull off the road, or put down his socket wrench, or his parts catalog, or his sandwich. He has to be reminded that you bought the oven from him two years ago, with the extended warranty. He has no idea where you live.

The difference between the two calls is not genius, clairvoyance or attitude, of course; it’s the gaping divide in customer service phone technology. But here’s what appliance stores and other small-to-medium businesses need to know: They can close that gap.

Sophisticated PBX systems and CRM databases, both running as hosted services, have leveled the playing field. They can deliver call center agent tools at a price SMBs could never afford to install in-house. And if those SMBs already have a PBX, with some vendors they’re still good to go, for the considerable customer service, mobility and intelligence benefits.

In SMB terms: The next time you call the appliance store, you’re asked if you’d like to be automatically routed to the person you dealt with a year ago; she addresses you by name, asks how you’re enjoying that wall oven, and if you ever got the dishwasher you were considering. She sees, on her PC or smart phone screen, a CRM cheat sheet that lays out your previous customer history. She also sees if the field service dispatcher is free to take your call, no matter where he is. She can transfer you to him, sure that you won’t land in voicemail. Also, she’s working from home, but you can’t tell.

To get from Before to After, read on for a brief introduction to these tools and their use.

CRM and PBX: Collaborating Clouds
The two parts of this call-center-for-the-masses breakthrough are CRM (customer relationship management) records and sophisticated, intelligent call routing. You can rent them to operate separately (in which case you’ll be frantically reading the caller ID when the phone rings and punching up customer records based on that). You can also rent them to operate together, so that the system delivers the call to the phone and the data to your screen together; what call centers call screen-pop (see the figure). Several hosted PBX (switching) platforms deliver this with varying degrees of integration complexity.

CRM-as-a service was first popularized by, but other options exist, including Google’s free Contacts application at the most basic level. No matter which you choose, you must now discourage jotting notes down on scraps of paper. If you’re to share customer history across the organization, you’ve got to get people to enter those notes on screen.

To make this cheat sheet most effective, enforce a consistent layout. The most recent interactions should appear first. Categorize your calls; know which percentage were sales inquiries, which support calls, which new callers, and you’ll have a better handle on staffing needs. Categorize your callers, too: Everyone should know incoming VIPs from DOAs.

Your host’s platform should also automatically log calls made to or from customers, at a minimum ensuring a record of who spoke to whom and when.

On the Caller Side
Intelligent use of routing and automation ensures your callers the best possible treatment and you the most efficient use of staff, whether they’re on-site or in satellite locations. Through your browser, you should have controls to your host’s platform that allow you to:

  • Be reachable while mobile: “Find-me/follow-me” settings direct the hosted switch to ring an employee’s extension simultaneously or sequentially on desk phone, cell phone, or a temporary phone number. 
  • Expand your company’s working day: If you have staff on the west coast or those who work early or late, direct the system to route by time of day.
  • Leverage your workers’ expertise across the board: Record a company greeting that mentions an extension for Spanish speakers and assign it to your bilingual staffer(s). 
  • Respect your caller’s time: If he or she is on hold, have your system offer to call them back when the called worker is free.

 Remember, the goal here, as with enterprise-scale call centers, is making every customer feel as if you’ve been waiting all day/week/year just to resume your last conversation. Such treatment can make the difference between an uninformed, out-on-a-limb decision and a well-informed, coordinated response; or between a sale and a pass.

Michael Zirngibl is co-founder of Ringio, a hosted service that intelligently routes calls to any phone or business extension along with relevant information about the caller.  Entrepreneur, investor and inventor, Michael holds more than 30 U.S. patents in the field of voice technology.  Prior to Ringio, Michael was founder and CEO of, a leading service provider of speech and IVR solutions to more than 2,000 business customers. Based in Herndon, Va., he can be reached at


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