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Phones Ringing Off the Hook?

June 1, 2005

By Masha Zager

Housing sales are setting records, new members are joining faster than you can count them, and the phones are ringing off the hook. During busy periods, it's easy to lose track of inquiries. So what are you doing to make sure all calls are answered in a timely and appropriate fashion?

Many associations are trying to reduce the number of incoming calls by promoting member self-service. They're adding user-friendly features to their Web sites, providing new-member kits on searchable CD-ROMs, and even placing kiosks in their lobbies to streamline the membership application process.

Helping members help themselves is an excellent long-term strategy. In the short run, however, it is limited by members' technological know-how and may take time to become effective. Making more information readily available to members can actually increase call volume initially as Ann Guiberson, CEO of Pinellas Realtor® Organization (St. Petersburg, Fla.), found. As members become more educated, they begin asking new questions. At least, that was the experience of Guiberson's organization when it listed MLS rules and regulations on its Web site and experienced a surge in incoming calls.

Fortunately, technological solutions previously affordable only to giant call centers are now being adapted for much smaller operations.Automation for all sizes
Automated call distribution (ACD) systems are one example of such technology. ACD systems can route calls to the next qualified representative, based on the nature of the call. ACD systems can be cost-effective if you're receiving as few as 100 customer inquiries per day, according to Kimberly King, a contact center consultant in Tampa, Fla.

In addition to routing calls, ACD systems tell you how many calls get busy signals, how long callers wait to speak to representatives, and how many callers abandon the call before its completion. Armed with this information, you might reschedule staff to meet peak calling periods or cross-train staff to answer frequently asked questions.

Even without an ACD system, smaller associations can log calls using an Excel spreadsheet, off-the-shelf programs or the Call Tracking Manager module in Rapattoni Magic. With computerized call logs, you can run queries to find out what members are calling about and step up educational efforts on the issues that generate the most questions.

With more sophisticated tracking systems, you can be even more proactive. Customer relationship management (CRM) systems, for example, can tell you how many times a particular member has called and why; or how many complaints are received, and what people are complaining about. Like the ACD systems, CRM systems too, are now affordable for smaller organizations, according to King.

Custom member management

The Pacific West Association of Realtors®, Orange, Calif, developed its own CRM system three years ago, built as an add-on to Rapattoni Magic. In addition to using the system in-house, it has sold it to seven other associations. According to Art Carter, chief operating officer, Pacific West's system tracks not only phone calls but also other contacts such as office visits and e-mails. When the representative enters the contact category, relevant information pops up on the computer screen, making it easy to answer the member's question. If the question can't be answered right away, the system sets a tickler for follow-up. Supervisors can then make sure open calls are returned before the end of the day.

Another type of tracking software is called business process management (BPM). BPM not only tracks but also automates case processing. According to Bill Hartwick, vice president of sales and marketing at Sajus Technologies, Mississauga, Ontario, BPM systems can pinpoint bottlenecks in a process. They can send e-mail alerts to staff who forget to follow up, expedite overdue cases to supervisors, and report on key performance indicators.Operators for hire

Outsourcing your call center is also an option. The Chicago Association of Realtors® uses a call center in Bangalore, India, to answer routine education and bill payment calls. The overseas call center is a supplement to trained in-house member services staff. "We try to steer most calls to our staff because they have more knowledge and access to resources, and the personal touch is valuable to members," says Myron Larimer, the association's director of member services. Larimer can turn the overseas call center connection on or off depending on the volume of calls at any time. "Generally, the call center works as an overflow for bill payments when we're getting close to our quarterly payment deadline," he says.

Customer satisfaction is partly a matter of perception, and it's important to know what your members' perceptions are. You may feel you're being responsive, but members may have a different view. Today low-cost online tools make member surveys easy and inexpensive. So before you invest in an automated solution, gauge the type of service your members desire.rae

Promote Self-Service via Your Web site

Self-service: a strategy that can put a smile on the face of any association staffer who answers member calls. Associations not only save time and resources by diverting customer interactions away from live staff to information posted online, but studies at Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality show many callers actually prefer clear options to use other channels like Web self-service, e-mail, and interactive voice response systems to obtain their answers.

For your Web site to be a true self-service alternative, present the information clearly and make it accessible from your Web site's home page. Consider creating a "self-service" or "frequently asked questions" section on your site to which you can direct callers from the "hold" message on your phone system.