Call centre technology revisited

Computer entry systems have been with us for decades.
Fred Rayman
August 31, 2008
By Fred Rayman
Computer assisted central order entry systems have been with us for decades. Pizza Pizza was a visionary in this regard, having introduced the technology in the late 1970s.

Being able to manage high volumes of orders, correctly price them, and send them to the correct store within seconds gave the chain a tremendous competitive advantage. Franchise locations could focus on what they do best: creating a quality product, managing walk-in traffic, and delivering the product within a short window of time.

Soon it became apparent the data collected electronically could be massaged, and yield valuable information about customers and products. Many chains quickly realized if they did not embrace this technology, they would be left behind.

Over the next three decades, technology continued to evolve. Computers, once affordable only by the rich and famous, became a commodity within everyone’s reach. The advent of the Internet made it a brand new ball game.

Today’s call centres have features previously unimaginable. Bulky terminals have been replaced by small microcomputers with space saving LCD monitors at a fraction of the price and with more capabilities. New computer languages have sprung up to take advantage of the improved speed and capacity.

Utilizing this same technology, telephone systems have evolved. Features previously available only on large systems costing hundreds of thousands of dollars are now available on beefed up microcomputers. With a few extra boards, and the right software, a relatively inexpensive computer can replicate substantially all the features of the large systems.

Industry leaders are now moving away from large central call centres. Why this shift? Home agents offer a huge opportunity to save on overheads and offer improved customer service. In using the new phone systems and computers, agents can take calls from anywhere in the world with no long distance charge, and without even needing to have a telephone. The computer acts as both their telecommunications device and their link to the central server.

Where does the phone system end and the computer begin? The line has certainly become blurry. “Open Source” telephone systems allow software developers to customize the phone software, and integrate it with the order entry program to create a unified device. Based on the caller ID transmitted to the phone system, the order entry screen is pre-populated with the customer’s profile. Incidence of incorrectly taken phone numbers has all but disappeared.

Because disk storage has become unimaginably inexpensive, and compression algorithms have been developed to reduce the file size, recording of all calls and their retention for extended periods of time has become feasible.  Linking of the computer order to its phone conversation eliminates disagreements about what was said by the customer and/or the agent.

It goes without saying that today’s phone systems are expected to yield the tools necessary to manage a work force. How many calls have been taken? Are abandoned calls within an acceptable level? Are we backed up in order taking, or customer service? Is everyone taking a call that is on the schedule? How many calls are in queue, and how long has the oldest call been on hold?

Of necessity, training methods have been forced to change. How do you train an agent that is thousands of miles away?

Sophisticated interactive training software is a part of the answer. As well, trainers have the ability to monitor the agent’s calls and keystrokes to ensure protocols are being followed. Is the order being read back to the customer? Did the agent remember to upsell? Was the tone of the agent’s voice clear and friendly?

Remember, the person taking the call is your first contact with the customer. You only have one chance to make a good first impression.

However, the agent must be supported by software that facilitates taking the order quickly and accurately. The standard is that customers have the duration of a commercial break to place their phone order. If it takes longer than two minutes to take the order, today’s sophisticated customers will find it unacceptable.

The software must be smart enough to correctly assign stores to addresses without having to ask customers for additional information. There are over 300 Church Streets in Canada, and John Streets are not far behind. The computer must be able to flawlessly differentiate these streets.

If the order goes to the wrong store, and the store receiving the order doesn’t notice, there are two problems to deal with – the store that wasted time and product, and the customer who will be receiving the product late.

Does the software ensure all the right questions are asked? How many times has a driver arrived at the delivery address only to find that the agent didn’t ask for the apartment number and/or the buzzer code? If a pizza was ordered, were all the toppings and cooking instructions properly entered? At the store level, the order should be printed out with the toppings sorted correctly in the order of the make table. 

The issue of credit cards as a settlement type has received a lot of attention these days, as the payment card industry is reacting to the increasing incidence of credit card fraud, facilitated by hacking into computers and getting access to banks of credit card numbers.

Sophisticated encryption algorithms, making it almost impossible to read the number without the key, are becoming mandatory. However, this does not mean that credit card orders should be avoided.  Many consumers prefer the convenience of paying by credit card.

In some chains, as much as 30 per cent of their delivery orders use this option. If a centralized merchant number is used, a significant cash flow is generated. Moreover, the average ticket of a credit card order is higher than that of a cash sale.

If credit card orders are accepted for delivery, extra care must be taken. Many chains favour pre-authorizing the credit card for the face amount plus a gratuity allowance, while the customer is still on the line.

During busy times, the restaurant is utilizing all its resources to get the product out on time, and often simply doesn’t have time to perform this task. However, if it is not done, and the driver delivers the product only to find afterwards the card was not valid, unnecessary losses occur. 

Let us now turn our attention to the store level. Originally, it was good enough to simply produce a clear, accurate customer invoice in a timely fashion.

In order to meet today’s demands, a lot more is required. Walk-in business, previously ignored by franchisors, has now gained focus. A good touch screen point of sale system is becoming mandatory.

Since space at many stores is limited, it is desirable to utilize the same hardware both for receiving orders and for a cash register. Price changes can now be centrally controlled, while still giving the franchisee the ability to run local specials.

Company stores require additional controls in place to ensure sales are being accurately recorded, and inventory is being correctly managed. To ensure recipes are being properly followed, some chains are printing the recipe out on a work order that goes to the make line.

Putting a computer near the oven allows the tracking of orders as they flow through the production process. Where late deliveries occurred, was the problem due to the driver (who is usually blamed), or was the order late coming out of the oven?

The final critical control point is the dispatch station. One simple, though often overlooked feature, is printing the hot items at the top of the bill, and the cold items, added to the order at shipping, at the bottom.

Another desirable feature is ensuring there are a correct number of boxes, by printing a computer derived total number of items on the bill. The cost of sending out a driver with a missed item often makes the difference between an order making, or losing, money.

In many chains, drivers are contractors rather than employees. Where previously the CRA had ignored this sector, more recently it has started to introduce controls. Not only is proper documentation, such as social insurance numbers, driver’s licences, and proof of insurance necessary, but also good records need to be kept. Proper software can help organize the information and calculate the drivers’ fees without a great deal of effort.

Most drivers are paid based partly on time available, and partly on number of deliveries. When a driver leaves the store, the computer asks them what order, or orders they are taking.

After the order numbers are entered, the computer, if desired, can provide driving instructions and an optimal sequence for multiple carries. Having this information available to the customer service agents allows them to accurately respond to customers inquiring as to whether and when the order has left the store.

Some chains are being pre-emptive. When the order is taken, the agent asks how the customer would like to receive notification the driver is on his way – by phone or by e-mail.  If e-mail is selected, the agent requests the e-mail address – a piece of information coveted by marketing. The computer and telephone systems routinely perform this function without agent interference, thereby reducing customer service calls and increasing customer satisfaction.

All of this is “free information” generated as a byproduct of your driver control system.

Up to now we have been focusing on the flow of orders originating by a call from a customer. An increasing sector of the market prefers to order using alternative channels, either IVR (interactive voice response) or through the web. These methods allow them to place the order at their own pace without having to wait in a queue.

Loosely, interactive voice response refers to telephone technology that interprets information either spoken by customers or entered by touch-tones, to guide them through the process. Because the process of entering a pizza order in this fashion may be lengthy, many chains limit the use of this method to placement of a previous order on file.

By using text to speech conversion, the computer reads back the previous order to the customer and receives confirmation from the customer that the information is correct. Upselling is routinely performed, and the customer indicates a settlement type. The order is sent to the computer server, which then goes to the restaurant printer looking exactly the same as an order taken by an agent.

Having a web presence is pretty much a requirement is today’s business environment. At a minimum, many franchise chains use it to collect information from prospective franchisees, give customers an idea of what’s on the menu, and let people know where their restaurants are located.

It is also becoming popular to do an e-commerce (electronic commerce) site to allow customers the option of ordering on line. A well-designed website can bring in as much as 30 per cent of off premise sales.

Good graphics and professional product shots are key to the success of the website. Customers love the fact that they can see the products they are ordering, and navigate easily to get a price without having to go through an agent.

In fact, once customers have ordered on the web, most continue to order through that channel.  Franchisors are attracted to the fact there are no labour costs associated with the order-taking process, and there are no agent errors to contend with. Marketing departments are excited about the ability to contact customers with an e-flyer, to advise them of specials and promotions, without any printing costs.

All of this sounds very exciting, but, “Is my business big enough to use all this technology?”

It is not simply an issue of size, but one of business philosophy. I have worked in a business that started with a call centre servicing two stores, and watched it grow to 80 locations.

A mandatory requirement is commitment, to allow you to weather the bumps in the road. There are some who feel delivery is on the way out – that the increased gas prices and driver controls will make it prohibitively expensive, and people will pick up instead.

Studies have shown consumers are willing to pay a premium for delivery, and that sector is less sensitive to price increases than the pick-up sector.

As I write this article, watching the pouring rain and wondering what food to have delivered, I hope this option is here to stay.



Fred Rayman, P.Eng., has been developing systems for the hospitality industry for over 30 years. Fred is vice-president of EZ Foods, as well as V.P. of Opalonline, an industry leader in integrated call centre solutions. The OPAL product encompasses all aspects of contact centre activities including POS, CTI, and web technology. Over six million orders per year are processed using OPAL, including the most successful online ordering site in Canada for home meal replacement. Fred can be reached at 416-646 0414, or by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Add comment


Security code
Refresh

Subscription Centre

 
New Subscription
 
Already a Subscriber
 
Customer Service
 
View Digital Magazine Renew





Most Popular

We are using cookies to give you the best experience on our website. By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. To find out more, read our Privacy Policy.