Tim Macer's bi-monthly column on software for researchers
The way to the virtual call centre
|With so much software available for Windows these days, it comes as a shock, when looking at CATI systems, to find so much still in DOS, UNIX or on other non-Windows platforms and so little that is truly Windows based. At present, there is a race on to deliver true Windows CATI and only a few have got there.
Converso, from Merlinco, have made it (see December review) and others are hot on their heels. But Ronin Corporation, who have also just brought out a Windows version of the CATI module in their integrated "Results for Researchers" suite are well into the second lap by aiming to deliver a web server based CATI system by the end of this year.
Ronin, a USA-based started developing software in the US as recently as 1991. As a research and management consultancy, they were unimpressed by the software available for research, finding it overly technical and not PC-oriented, and decided to develop their own. In 1996, they set up a UK call centre, using their own software, and started marketing the software to other agencies too.
|Charles Whitlock, Ronin's senior sales associate in the UK said "Our aim is to make it so you don't need a DP department so much but can carry out the whole task, right from creating the scripts, from within the research teams. It's very much the way we work here at Ronin. It's software that's proven to work - it works 24 hours a day and 6 days a week. It is a fully integrated windows system that offers an interface with the whole management process, interviewers, sample, as well as questionnaire design then testing. I don't think anything else does this yet."
The different modules of the system are presented as different drop down menus of one single "Results" application. This means that access to everything, from the interview set-up, to the allocation of sample, quotas and interviewers, productivity statistics or the actual results themselves is from this one program. Skilful application of database and network technology means that the package works as a true multi-user system, allowing an unlimited number of people to be working on set-up and management tasks in parallel, and while interviewing is progressing.
The package seems robust and high-spec. The questionnaire design module is not the most elegant one that I have seen, but seems to do its job well. It supports a very wide variety of question types, beyond the standard single, multi-coded or numeric. It cleverly provides automated support for allocating the common bottom-of-the-list answers to questions such as "others", "other specify", "don't know", "none" or "refused": surely a real time saver. There is also excellent support for the validation of answers which must help to deliver one of the key benefits of CATI - clean data that does not need editing. Something I had not seen before was the facility to build context sensitive help into your interviewing script, which might provide another neat way of tackling quality of data issues. It was only the application of questionnaire logic and routing that I felt was not quite so strong - it is an area that few CATI systems seem to get right.
What puts Results in a class of its own is the ease by which sample management can be accomplished by the lay-user, rather than by someone with a double first in computer science and witchcraft. Sophisticated calling strategies can be set up and fine-tuned very easily. Get the calling strategy right and you use less sample and make less calls to achieve your targets. Quota controls are equally elegant. Results contains sophisticated levelling-out controls to prevent all the easy-to-get quota cells filling too quickly in the lifetime of a survey. There is also a wealth of management information at the user's fingertips.
Diagnostics Plus in Pennsylvania started using Results a year ago for business to business research. Telephone centre director Noret Flood singled out the management features for praise.
"You can instantly know how individual interviewers are doing and also how the questionnaire itself is working, how long respondents are taking over each question and how the survey is working out. Right away we know when interviewers are having difficulties and which areas they are having problems with. It also lets us see which interviewers are performing at a higher level and so we can remunerate them appropriately. In fact, it streamlines the whole process of giving interviewers pay raises".
"Our project managers handle most of the data management and data processing themselves. We do have survey technicians who look at the sample management but we don't have a 'computer scientist' on staff".
In some ways, the best is yet to come. Ronin's networked CATI product is close to completion, and will be completely compatible with the Windows version. Instead of using a network or mini-computer to drive CATI, web-based CATI uses a web server to deliver CATI interviews to interviewers in the call centre as web pages, which they view in their web browser. With the advent of network PC's it should mean simpler and cheaper CATI systems, and brings other advantages too. Split sites or multiple call centres can operate as one, with a single Internet server providing all the work. Using a secure server with "firewalls" in place, interviewers can be anywhere, provided they have a connection to the Internet.
And why not? With an already dispersed workforce that includes many individuals juggling the demands of work and home, this technology presents an opportunity that the research industry is well placed to exploit.
Perhaps we are about to see the dawn of the virtual call centre, with interviewers and supervisors all dialled into one big happy world of fieldwork from their kitchen tables.
Results for Research and Results for the Net are available from Ronin Corporation tel. 0171 903 7000 in the UK.
Published in Research, the independent voice of market research, October 1998, Issue 389.
© Copyright Tim Macer 1998. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.
Top | Index