The call center is a vital link to a company's customers. It's also something of a money pit. Fortunately, customer service executives polled by Network World say many things can be done to reduce costs and ease administration.Here is their advice for breeding call center success:Shop around. "Definitely look at three vendors, at least," says Andre Harris, director of reservation training and quality assurance at Houston's Continental Airlines. Harris and her team investigated call-monitoring products for two years before choosing software from Witness Systems. Before finalizing the deal, Continental ran a six-month pilot in one of its four U.S. call centers, where 5,200 agents handle 60 million calls per year.Look for a long-term partner, adds Jim LaManna, director of customer service at financial services software maker FutureTrade of Lake Forest, Calif. You need to be comfortable that your vendor contacts "will roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty and do whatever it takes to not only complete the implementation successfully, but also continue to support your needs in the future," LaManna says.Look ahead. Start-up FutureTrade, which makes a direct-access trading platform for institutional investors, is essentially starting from scratch with CRM, LaManna says. The company's immediate need was for a support application. But FutureTrade considered other departments that might need software down the road, such as human resources and financials. "We did our requirements assessment based on needs of an entire enterprise, even though we were going to focus our implementation on support," LaManna says. The company chose PeopleSoft for its broad portfolio and Web-based technology. FutureTrade eventually will have a lot of users in the field, so Web-accessible data is key, LaManna says.Listen to users. Being successful in the IT department requires understanding what users do and what they need to make their jobs easier and more effective, says Scot Struminger, vice president of IT at FedEx. The Memphis, Tenn., company uses ClarifyCRM from Amdocs to connect 16 U.S. call centers and approximately 3,000 customer service representatives who manage more than 300,000 customer interactions each day in the U.S. "I like to go and sit with agents a lot and listen to calls. It's the best way to understand, from a development point of view, what you need to do," he says. To his peers Struminger says, "this should be in your top five things to do to be successful."Visit customer references. "A customer conversation on the phone isn't good enough," says Harris, who visited three Witness Systems customers as part of her evaluation process. Each customer was in a different stage of deployment. One had just deployed the software, one had deployed the software six months ago, and one was up and running for a year. "This is a credit to Witness Systems - they opened their client list and said, \u2018have at them,'" Harris says. "That was more powerful than any sales presentation."Get user buy-in. FutureTrade made sure everyone from the support representatives using the application to the executives using reporting tools were involved in the product evaluation and comfortable with the selection. "If people aren't going to use it, your implementation is going to fail," LaManna says.Don't skimp. The adage is true: You get what you pay for, Harris says. "The Witness product wasn't cheap, but the [return on investment] has been there," she says. One area Continental has seen success in is the number of calls that have to be escalated to internal support - which costs about $2.50 per call, Harris says. Between 1999 and late 2001, roughly 6% of calls were escalated to internal support. Using Witness Systems' software to identify training opportunities and monitor agents' use of resources, Continental has lowered its escalation rate to 3.5%, Harris says.Choose appropriate technology. FedEx today uses Clarify CRM Version 10, a thick-client application. For future deployments, FedEx will consider Version 11, which offers thin-client options. The combination is key. In large call centers with hundreds of agents and a local support team, it makes sense to use the thick client because performance is better, Struminger says. In smaller call centers, it makes sense to go thin, he says. "With a purely thin application, you trade off with speed and reliability vs. life-cycle costs," Struminger says.Limit customization. "We knew that we wanted a system that was going to function for us out of the box with very little customization," LaManna says. The company used PeopleSoft's built-in workflow templates and adjusted its business processes to fit. "PeopleSoft quoted us seven weeks, soup to nuts, and they did it," he says.Think outside the box. Continental bought the Witness Systems software to make it easier for managers to monitor agent calls, rather than using manual tape-recording methods. But the company has found the software - which captures the conversations and keystrokes of agents - helps identify and fix bugs in Continental's new internally developed reservation system. Before the Witness Systems rollout, 75% of bugs or errors that agents experienced couldn't be duplicated by the IT team. "Today if there's an error, I can see what keystrokes led to that error," Harris says. "From a programming standpoint, that's priceless."Don't reinvent the wheel. Following a merger, FedEx wanted to provide a single point of access for all FedEx Express and FedEx Ground customer service needs - without requiring the two divisions to get rid of their current systems. The Clarify software was built on top of the existing systems. "When customers call, it doesn't matter what company that information is going to on the back end. On the front end, with the telephone call, it's seamless," says Sheila Harrell, vice president of customer service at FedEx.