Every business analyst will agree that the barometer for any country’s market doing exceedingly well is the amount of cash readily available in the market. Be it a home or personal loan, incentives to buy the latest cars, open new bank accounts, own additional credit cards, invest in health insurance plans, or then innovatively planned mortgage schemes. We all know financial institutions can be…well…forbidding at worst, or tough at best. However, when they dish out largesse with fewer than usual strings attached, you sure know your economy is on the fast track.
While all in booming economies can rejoice about the economic upturn and even uncork the bubbly, it may be time to sit and ponder on whether we, the general populi, are really `getting there’ or merely getting carpet-bombed by the new communications weapon deployed by businesses and financial institutions – wired or otherwise – while ignoring the fine-print. And it is all thanks to the latest and most potent industry the world over -– third-party call centers.
Let me get to the point. The world today is in the throes of the Great Mobile Revolution of the 21st Century. Just a decade or so back, the concept of anyone receiving an unsolicited call for selling a product or service was unheard of, literally speaking. Mobile service providers were just about gearing up their infrastructure and taking the first stuttering steps to establishing their operations – wrong numbers, dropped connects, out-of-coverage problems, et al.
The manufacturing of mobile hardware was in an embryonic stage, and handsets (which bore a distinct resemblance to two-way radios in most parts of the world) were either imported or bought at exorbitant prices from the grey market. And anyone who could afford one had to belong to the upper echelons of the society because mobile services cost an arm and a leg to boot. In one Asian country, the regulatory framework imposed the ridiculous double-billing tariff structure wherein the caller and the receiver were both billed for the same call at roughly a dollar a minute for those days. Now just imagine the situation if the mobile population of the country at that time began getting bombarded with inane sales calls for buying credit cards. Even the few that could afford mobile telephony then would have turned into lynch mobs!
Times have changed since then but the story that is still making news is the number of unsolicited calls that third-party call centers make to millions of mobile owners today. Ask any average executive about her pet peeve and the stock reply would be, ``We have a serious problem with service providers, banks and insurance companies not understanding simple, basic telephony ethics and etiquettes and farming out mobile phone numbers to third-party call centers that would try and sell you a car or home loan – even if you owned two!’’ What makes the situation worse is that these telemarketing calls almost always land on your mobile phone when you’re probably taking the morning shower, driving to work, or then busy in a client meeting! Small wonder then that third party call centers are considered more of a pain in the lower side of the anatomy rather than a crucial modern-day information dissemination warehouse.
Given the spate of complaints emanating from the irate mobile user population against service providers for unwarranted and unsolicited intrusion of privacy, President George W. Bush signed a bill in March 2003 to enforce a ``Do Not Call’’ (DNC) registry aimed at helping mobile users block unsolicited calls. The bill also put into effect a penalty wherein erring service providers could be slapped with a fine of $11,000 per offense. Over 32 states in the U.S. including Florida, Massachusetts and New York have put statutes in place to eliminate unwarranted telemarketing calls.
Elsewhere in the world, the outcry has been just as strident with parliaments and regulatory bodies, acting on Public Interest Litigations (PILs), coming down strongly not only on service providers but banks and financial institutions as well. Antidotes by way of public interest warnings of not giving out mobile numbers, and methods to block intrusive calls have been issued. But in countries that are at the learning curve of the telecom revolution, these issues will take time to permeate into collective sensibilities, and before more stringent laws are enforced in `larger public interest’.
Fact is that the call center industry is on a roll and the tide of deluging subscribers with very inane offers isn’t about to abate just yet. Fact also is that while we have the software and technology to run an almost perfect call center, we unfortunately haven’t explored the market avenues in terms of actual applicability…as yet. What is more than evident in the call center industry is the usual market dynamics of blindly following the leaders and making the bucks while the going is good.
There are very few third-party call center companies that have actually broken the mold and looked at market and revenue opportunities in a holistic or innovative way. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the business does ``credit card/insurance sales; products/services/upgrade announcements; debt collection drives, or new company plans and policies’’. Very few call centers are able to get over the obsession with the financial side of things and focus on areas that could actually make a difference – not just to the public that they call, but to their own bottom lines. A bit of innovative thinking, some social conscience and awareness could make a crucial difference between a call cut in mid-stream (and added to the DNC list), and one that translates to revenue for the call center and the principle parties represented.
Let’s look at healthcare for instance. Five years ago, in my part of the world, GlaxoSmithKline did a door-to-door campaign with some large and medium-sized corporations on their new vaccination for Hepatitis B and C. It was unique in that it was claimed as the first vaccine that provided immunity against both strains of the disease. Needless to say that it was a huge success because the company backed its claim by sending medical reps and a qualified physician to administer the vaccine – in two doses, ten days apart. There was a cost but it was insignificant considering the import of the matter. The middle and upper classes in the metros in the country responded overwhelmingly.
Now this, as is any serious healthcare issue and its prevention, is a prime business avenue for collaboration between, pharmaceutical companies, healthcare institutions and third-party call centers. For the pharma and healthcare companies, the costs of reaching out to the vast milieu could get cut down dramatically – a phone call quite logically, will cost a fraction of what would be spend on a sales rep going door-to-door, or then the dollars spent on mass media advertising. In turn, reduced sales and marketing overheads would mean a lower cost on the vaccine for the consumers. As for the call center, the hit and conversion ratios – the metrics by which all call centers live or die by – could prove to be the highest in such initiatives. Basically, it’s a win-win situation for all concerned, including the beleaguered phone user.
Telephony, and its availability, has changed the market landscape unimaginably. With the phone being ubiquitous, and language barriers having been broken down, opportunities for leveraging the market through communications for the call center ilk have expanded tremendously. However, the trick doesn’t lie in slick software that does intelligent routing, enables free-seating for agents or ensures optimized pacing ratios. It still lies in communicating the right …and not just any message. Just because the call center has a number on its roster might not mean that it can help sell a credit card or a vehicle, but tell the called digits that it might be a matter of a healthy and safe life and that you are concerned, could prove to be a different ball game altogether.
Over the years, since the rise of call centers, I too have been bombarded with all kinds of offers and schemes ranging from add-on credit cards to exotic holiday packages. However, the one call that made a difference to me was the one I got from the designated call center of my bank after the major earthquake in October, 2005 that devastated parts of neighboring Pakistan, but had milder implications in my city. The apartment complex I live in shook pretty violently and within seconds, the residents of the complex rushed to the front lawns.
Luckily nothing untoward happened, but I bought the insurance against natural calamities.
Murli Menon was Editor of Computers & Communications (C&C), a leading Indian infotech and communications publication brought out by Media Transasia India Pvt. Ltd. from 1987 to 1994. He went on to set up the IT Publishing Division of Media Transasia in 1995 and as Publishing Director published PC World, IS Computerworld and Communications World in collaboration with IDG, U.S.A. until 2000. He now runs his own knowledge, content, and information management company –Virtual Digital Media.