Call centres: are virtual agents closer to reality?
By , independent journalist
They call them call centres, but they?re anything but central: when you call for help for your computer or your new purchase you could be talking to someone anywhere from Madrid to Madras. You might even talk to someone sitting by her own fireside wearing her slippers and drinking a cup of cocoa.
In the wired world, English is supposedly the common language. That?s all very well if you?re buying a computer online. But if you don?t have fluent spoken English and you?re a customer looking for help, or you hear burglars downstairs and call the police, or if you?re an asylum seeker trying to explain your history to social services in London, the wired world is a million virtual miles away.
So multilingual agents are still needed, for all sorts of jobs. But people who speak more than one language fluently are highly paid. According to software giant Nuance, there will always be a need for live agents to handle complex situations such as customer complaints or exemptions to normal procedures. "But let?s face it ? agents are expensive. It is far better to offload routine requests for information or simple transactions and allow your agents to concentrate on higher value."
In the wired world, English is supposedly the common language. But if you don?t have fluent spoken English and you?re a customer looking for help... the wired world can seem like a million virtual miles away
Nuance says there is a lot more to consider than an agent?s salary. "Take a look at the real cost of an agent being paid $22,000 per year," it says. "First, there?s corporate overhead that includes facilities, equipment and software, and supervision and support staff. Estimates for computer and network equipment alone are often over $3,000 per seat. A 40 per cent overhead equals an additional $8,800.
"Second, there?s employee payroll tax and benefits. A conservative 20 per cent equals another $4,400. Third, there?s employee training. Assuming new employee training costs about $3,000 and that agents turn over every three years, we have to add another $1,000 to the equation.
"So what began as a $22,000 cost has nearly doubled to $36,200 per agent. Even worse, this figure is not constant ? it is rising every year with wage inflation."
A live agent can handle about 28,350 calls a year, says Nuance, and multiplying the calls an agent handles in a year?s work hours gives us the cost of an average call: $1.28, though this varies among types of call centre.
Software and hardware are the great white hopes for saving some of this money. The right technology can route calls to centres where wages are lower. It can automatically send calls to countries working office hours, when you ring up at midnight. And it can send calls home to agents who are teleworking.
Speech-enabled software is beginning to come into use - Lernout & Hauspie?s JetCentre call centre uses speech-enabled application to handle over 3,000 calls a day for almost 2,000 travel agents
Convergent Systems supplies software and hardware to the call centre market. One of its clients, a company called LanguageLine, has a large number of home-based multilingual agents capable of performing in-line simultaneous translation.
Says Rufus Grig, chief technology officer of Convergent Systems: "The agents are largely in the UK, but they also have agents in Australia, in Europe and in the States.
"Customers call in, and say ?I need an Albanian translator?, for example, and the software will locate an Abanian translator who has arranged to be available for work at this time."
Clients include the British ambulance service and police service, and benefits agencies. "There are quite a large number of Albanian-speaking asylum-seekers in the UK at the moment, as a result of the war in Kosovo," says Grig. "So the social services need to be able to communicate with them, and if they can?t speak English they might well use LanguageLine?s services."
The company also offers commercial services to call centres. "If you run a call centre and need multilingual capabilities ? if you?re an energy supplier or whatever, or if you?re selling software or widgets ? you can use their services to provide in-line translation if you have a customer that doesn?t speak the same language as your agent."
While the software is locating an agent who speaks the customer?s language, it plays messages to the callers in their own language. "If you?ve been arrested by the police, or you?re in a benefits agency, you?re going to need to know what?s going on."
"The first thing a caller might understand is hearing a message on hold that says, in their own language, ?please hold the line while we try to get hold of an interpreter?."
Another of Convergent's clients is a car manufacturer with an office in Japan. Japanese engineers can call directly into LanguageLine?s call centre for technical support, and have a three-party conference call with an interpreter and an English-speaking engineer. "The hardware is enabling them to operate multilingually by effectively brokering the response, getting an interpreter in place" says Grig.
The software and hardware must also monitor the call to see how long it is, so that the client can be billed and the interpreters ? usually freelance ? can be paid.
The "chase-the-sun" trend was begun by multinationals. Before 9am you route your calls to your Indian call centre, and after 6pm you route them to your Californian call centre
"Telephone calls are getting cheaper. If you divide the world into three, and there?s a working day in Asia, a working day in Europe and a working day in the United States, and you realise that most of your call process is going to take place in your own local working day, and therefore you only have trickles of calls coming in outside your working day, then it can be more cost-effective to route those calls over to the call centre abroad.
"Before 9am you route your calls to your Indian call centre, and after 6pm you route them to your Californian call centre," says Convergent's Grig. This can work out cheaper than running a 24-hour facility and paying expensive agents overtime.
This "chase-the-sun" trend was begun by multinationals, and outsourcing companies are taking it up. "An awful lot of call centre work is being outsourced ? instead of a company running its own call centre, it will go to a specialist group of people who run an outsourced call centre for it. India is becoming popular for this, partly because the people costs are low, they have a large number of highly skilled, highly educated people who cost less to employ."
A company selling goods may place advertisements on television and in newspapers giving a phone number to call. "You do a deal with an outsource telemarketing call centre, and you say ?We?re going to expect this number of calls between this date and this date,? and you do a price per call." Outsourcing companies include 2Touch, SR Teleperformance, Sitel, and , which is part of the Next clothing group.
"The setup time isn?t that complicated, the training required of an agent isn?t that great, because al they?re really doing is taking a name and address, what newspaper did you see it in and what particular item are you interested in, then sending that data back to a fulfilment house.
"Agents are typically multi-tasking, taking calls on behalf of various different clients. One call might be for a car manufacturer trying to sell cars, another for a water utility trying to sell water, whereas if it?s customer service management that?s being outsourced, they?re probably dedicated to that client," according to Grig.
Software helps the agents who are multitasking. "Scripting software helps the agent and prompts them with the appropriate things to ask, and to make sure that they collect the data in the most appropriate manner. One of the key things is to make sure that the data is all formatted correctly so you can actually work with it."
Scripting packages can pop up different scripts, according to the source of the number that comes up. "You might publish several different numbers ? one for Italian, one for English, one for French ? and be able to pop up the script for each language for a multilingual agent ."
The same call centre may be answering calls to numbers published in Italy, France and Germany. "Holland is particularly strong in this, because the Dutch have very good linguistic skills. You?ll dial a local UK number and the call will be routed over to Holland, where software is running in the call centre that knows the skills of the various different agents, and will make sure that a call coming to the UK will only be routed to an agent with English skills."
"Last year we processed 3,000,000 calls from customers in 14 Western European and 45 Business Development Group countries in 11 different languages" -- Compaq
You can get even cleverer than that ? you can assign a value to the skills: ?this agent is particularly strong in English?, so you only route a call to someone who is less strong in English skills if a call has been queueing for a specified time. Convergent Systems? Callmedia software is designed for this task.
Numbers can be huge: Compaq?s multilingual customer support centre in Dublin, which this year won the Call Centre of the Year award, provides support to customers throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "Last year we processed 3,000,000 calls from customers in 14 Western European and 45 Business Development Group countries in 11 different languages," says Compaq.
Freelance teleworking is popular with both agents and employers ? employers because it is cheaper for them, and agents because it allows parents to work part-time from their homes. Says Grig: "The company really acts as a commodity broker: it gets somebody on the phone who needs an Albanian interpreter, and locates the interpreter, sets up a deal and takes the commission later.
"In those cases, because the agents aren?t employed by the call centres but are called upon when they?re needed, it makes sense for them to be based in their normal place of work. The other type of work is when you want, for example, flexible working.
"Some companies might want to employ parents who want to work two three-hour shifts during the day, but need to be able to do things like collect the children to school. Travelling to a call centre to work would make that impractical, but if they can work from home it can be done.
"Some call centres are growing, and running out of space. The cost of relocating would be prohibitive, so to be able to have some additional people based at home helps them to grow."
The employer owns the computer and installs a dedicated phone line. "You need two links - you need to get a speech path down to the agent, and you also need a data link so the agent can access the company's computer systems."
Simultaneous translation performed by machines
The lines are ordinary phone lines as a rule, not ISDN or xDSL, because of cost. "The trouble is that there?s an issue with call centre staff turnover rates, and ISDN costs a reasonable amount to install, and also there?s a minimum rental period of a year," says Grig. "So you need to have somebody who?s not going to up sticks and leave after six weeks, because the employer?s making quite a commitment and an outlay."
Multilingual software also helps agents. There are free translators on the Web - though when I put "spare the rod and spoil the child" into one in English, and then ran the translation back for re-translation into English, I got "spare the bar and spoil the boy", which might be a good ad for Tia Maria but will not necessarily be acceptable to a human translator.
But for professionals there are packages like dictionaries and thesauruses, as well as standard programmable translation software like Trados. Natural language speech recognition technology is evolving, but not yet for the kind of things that call centres do. Research in Europe continues in the meantime, funded by the European Commission and National programmes in projects such as NESPOLE! (EC) and VERBMOBIL (DE).
"Telephone lines are not particularly hi-fi quality," says Grig. "In order not to take up too much bandwidth they?re compressed: you filter off the top 3.4 kilohertz, which is why it?s difficult to tell the difference between consonants like F and S ? the differentiators between those consonants are above 3.4KHz in the spectrum.
"This presents problems to the technology. But it is getting better all the time, and we may end up with a situation where you could process a caller?s message and use text-to-speech technology to translate it into English." This technology is dominated by Nuance, Philips and SpeechWorks.
The general public is not entirely won over yet, however, and is resisting the use of speech recognition for access to information, according to a recent report by Jupiter Media Metrix. In their report, titled Managing the Migration to Speech Systems Jupiter analysts are advising companies not to feel compelled to replace current touch-tone systems with speech technologies.
Speech-enabled software is nevertheless beginning to come into use, though slowly, within service sector: for example, Lernout & Hauspie?s Jetcentre call centre uses speech-enabled application to handle over 3,000 calls a day for almost 2,000 travel agents, handling requests for bookings and cancellations, holiday price and availability.
"The Jetcentre call centre uses the L&H speech-enabled booking system to handle calls from 1,850 Dutch and Belgian travel agents," says L&H. "The speech-enabled input module allows users to interact with the JetAir database for routine calls, quickly establishing availability and price, as well as holiday booking and cancellation requests."
"Before we implemented the new system, we lost 20 percent of our calls because our operators were busy," says Bart Brackx, JetAir Belgium's managing director of tour operator operations. "The number of lost calls has [since] dropped sharply, and we're looking forward to an extra 150 calls per day, thanks to our increased handling capacity. If each of these calls is a $500 booking, that could increase our revenue by up to $25 million per year before costs" says Brackx.
Simultaneous translation performed by machines rather than humans is probably only a few years away, says Grig. "If somebody had a real desire for it, and a real need for it, you could already start to put such a system together."
is a independent journalist based in Dublin, specialising in technical articles; she also runs a course in building computers.
The editors of HLTCentral would welcome any feedback on the article.