You wouldn't think the lowly call center would be a strategic part of a business, but it is at DaimlerChrysler AG. Information gleaned from 37,000 calls from mechanics each month, fielded by 56 call-center agents, is transferred electronically to engineering, where designers review it with an eye toward improving vehicles. Like DaimlerChrysler, a number of manufacturers are finding that the information gathered by their call centers is valuable in helping build better processes and products, as well as in nurturing relationships with customers and business partners. "You put all the customer knowledge in one place," says Robert Kelly, president and CEO of Bethesda, Md.-based CenterForce Technologies Inc., a developer of software used in call centers. "Then you can elevate the understanding the company has on a customer, and use the information to make business decisions." Introduced in the 1970s by the airlines, call centers in the U.S. now number about 70,000, reports Datamonitor, a research firm with offices in New York and London. And the number of call centers is expected to continue growing to an estimated 78,000 over the next three years. Even so, the proliferation of call centers is likely to slow somewhat, from expanding at a 4% clip in 1998 to an increase of just under 1% by 2003, Datamonitor reports. Slower growth is anticipated because of consolidation and new technologies that increase the efficiency of call-center employees. One such technology is automatic call distribution, a system that routes calls to employees best trained to handle certain questions. In the past, call centers were seen as a way to cut costs by using technology, rather than humans, to automatically answer routine inquiries such as questions on the status of an order. But today companies are realizing the value of the information contained in their call centers. "Companies recognize that [call centers] are not necessarily evil, but contribute to the financial health of the organization," says Fred Manus, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based senior manager of customer care with Nortel Networks Corp. While many in the industry tout the shift in focus from "grinding calls through" to really building customer relationships and databases of information that let companies operate more effectively, there still is work to do, says Peter Theis, president of ConServIT Integrated Teleservices, a telephone response and database management center in Gurnee, Ill. "Most companies give lip service to the idea that their call center is important to business," says Theis. At the same time, he notes, they often impose cost-saving measures, such as forcing all callers through a voice-mail system, rather than giving them the opportunity to talk with a person. The results are frustrated customers and lost opportunities, he contends. To support his argument, Theis poses this question to various groups: When you call a company and get voice mail, do you proceed through the menu of options or dial zero to get to a live person? Most people say they dial zero. Even at DaimlerChrysler, things didn't always run as smoothly as they do now. Today each call from auto mechanics handled by the company's Service Technical Assistance Resource (STAR) Center is electronically transferred to the firm's engineering database. But when the STAR center opened in 1993 (prior to that time service technicians' calls were handled regionally), hold times quickly became unacceptable -- up to seven minutes or more. As a result, about one out of six mechanics dropped off the line rather than wait. Today the system is designed to enable the 56 employees at the STAR center to take the time to educate callers, rather than just answer their immediate needs. A mechanic uses the phone's keypad to punch in the vehicle identification number of the car he or she is working on, as well as the type of service the car needs. This information electronically flows to the call-center employee, and appears on his or her computer screen as the call is connected. The center uses Aspect ACD Software Release 7 from Aspect Communications Corp., San Jose, to handle the call distribution function. Having this information available electronically cuts about one minute from each call. At 37,000 calls per month, that calculates to savings of more than 600 hours. Hold times now average about two minutes, with more than 97% of callers getting through to an agent. And the STAR employee knows whether there have been any prior calls on a particular car. For instance, a previous call may have revealed that the owner of the car installed an alarm system after buying it. That system could be contributing to the problem at hand. To make sure STAR employees have the information they need, the center links with 26 separate databases around the company that contain such information as vehicle specifications. STAR center employees receive all the technical training that's available to the dealers, so they can converse in the same language. The increased productivity resulting from the system saves the company about $225,000 annually in personnel and equipment costs, says Wunder, who declined to say how much the system cost. Getting the system up and running took less than a year. The benefits of improved call-center systems are available to companies of any size. New England Business Service Inc. is a $500 million manufacturer and direct marketer of products for small businesses such as checks and invoices. NEBS has two call centers; one is in its headquarters city of Groton, Mass., and the other is in Flagstaff, Ariz. Between the two, about 500 representatives handle calls to and from NEBS' customers. In August the firm rolled out a new contact-management system for outbound sales calls. The system lets employees keep more accurate track of all the customers they're dealing with. "It's a support tool to help keep them organized. Now they know what customers call for what pro-ducts," says Susan Nawrocki, NEBS' vice president of marketing. Here's how it works: Each customer works with a specific representative. As they talk, the rep can key into a database of notes from their conversations, as well as the customer's orders and requests. The representative can search the database by key words, so that he or she can quickly get back up to speed during subsequent conversations. The program was developed in-house over a six-month period. It runs on a client-server platform, using an Oracle database. While the company prefers not to develop its applications in-house, its volume of products and customers made it difficult to find a vendor that could meet its needs, says Nawrocki. NEBS sells some 4,000 products, many of which are personalized, and has more than 1 million customers. While it's too early to pinpoint overall productivity increases, Nawrocki says that representatives who work with NEBS' best customers have been able to boost the average order size by about 18%, although some of that increase is a result of marketing the program. In addition, the company has been able to increase the number of calls it can handle by about 15%. Even as call centers adopt new technology, having a dedicated, engaged workforce remains key, both to ensure that the costs of operating a call center remain in line, and to provide good customer service, says Bruce Tsuji, director of marketing at Mitel Corp., a Kanata, Ont.-based provider of call-center hardware and software. Given the low unemployment rate, attracting good employees is a challenge. Some companies are going to great lengths to motivate and retain their call-center employees. Management at GTE Corp.'s Atlanta call center, which supports the company's wireless division, spent almost $500,000 on employee incentives last year, says Fred Jefferson, a supervisor at the center. Network Associates Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., which developed the McAfee VirusScan and other software products, hired Sento Corp., American Fork, Utah, to manage its call-center operation partly because of the way Sento's management tries to motivate call-center employees, says Scott Lessard, Network Associates' manager for McAfee Software technical support. A key component is Sento's emphasis on training, says Lessard. Over the course of 18 months, agents are able to earn certifications in Microsoft, Novell, and Cisco products, among others. The result? Lessard says attrition averages about 10% annually, versus up to 50% quarterly at some centers. Call centers are morphing into what some call "customer contact" centers. That is, they're becoming central points for customers' messages from any medium, as well as companies' responses. "Now, no matter what kind of medium a company uses to contact customers, the person who has knowledge can serve them better," says Kelly of CenterForce Technologies.