Happy talk

Call centres have changed the way people feel about companies. Increasingly the most common point of interaction between many businesses and their customers, call centres arguably exert a greater influence over the brand of an organisation than any other form of interaction.

And the importance of pleasing customers when they are dealing with a business has never been greater than it is today. Faced with an ever-wider choice of buying channels and an unprecedented ease with which they can ‘churn’ to another supplier, today’s customers are capricious.

"There’s no such thing as customer loyalty," says Paul Greenberg, president of CRM consultancy the 56 Group. "There is only the degree to which they are prepared to tolerate a mistake or an inconvenience to them."

Greenberg cites a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review, which found that 60% of customers who had switched telecoms provider actually expressed a high degree of satisfaction with their previous provider. But something still pushed them to make the change.

In the light of such ‘account mobility’, organisations – from mortgages and credit cards vendors to utilities companies and mobile operators – are only too aware that every call into the service centre, every outbound call to upsell to the customer, is a potential trigger for the customer to take their money elsewhere.

The impact of offshore call centres

What those triggers are is a subject of much debate. One hotly contested issue is whether the trend towards offshore call centres, while reducing costs, improves or dilutes the quality of service.

Trapped in the middle of that debate are the people who face the customer. As a direct result of offshore competition, wage levels of contact centre workers – while always low – have in some cases been falling. For example, according to the Association of Technology Staffing Companies, hourly rates for IT helpdesk contractors have decreased from £16 an hour to £12. At the same time, call centre agents across the board are under pressure to deal with more calls, faster, to justify their existence.

That downward price pressure seems to contradict other priorities. Research by CRM and contact centre industry analyst ContactBabel has demonstrated that over the past two years the goal of improving customer satisfaction has risen to the top of businesses’ priorities for call centre managers.

The opposing forces show up in other analyses. While shaving a second or two off call times can support cost-cutting goals, in many cases the assumption misses a fundamental truth about what people want when telephoning a call centre. Yes, they want to keep the call as short as possible, but not at the expense of their issue not being dealt with satisfactorily.

According to research by analyst house Gartner, a one second decrease in the average length of a customer call improves average customer satisfaction by only 0.03%. But for each 1% increase in the number of customer calls resolved first time around, customer satisfaction rises by 0.64%.

The evidence suggests that technologies which ensure that a customer speaks to a call centre agent skilled enough to deal with their enquiry during the initial contact – and who has the authority and access to information to do so – will result in higher customer satisfaction rates and, ultimately, greater loyalty.

Routes to success

Cable TV and broadband provider Telewest is a company that has grown fast through acquisition. As such, it owns a variety of call centres located in different regions in the UK. Historically, calls from Telewest customers would be routed to their geographically nearest centre.

This proved impractical: 50 customers might be waiting in a queue at the Edinburgh call centre, while 50 agents in Dudley were sitting idle. Telewest’s solution was to implement a country-wide routing system sourced from contact centre software vendor Genesys, which effectively created one large ‘virtual’ call centre with agents at any site responding to calls from around the country. That presented the opportunity to improve not only call-waiting times for their customers, but also the quality of the service they received on connection.

Before the new routing system had been implemented, call centre agents had to have experience of all the core areas that customers were likely to call about: from broadband connections, television services and telephone lines to billing and account management. Given the high employee turnover rates, the company often found itself struggling to ensure all agents were adequately trained to satisfy the customers.

Now, however, after identifying a customer’s area of concern via a simple automated menu system, the system routes the call to an agent with the relevant level of knowledge, experience and authority.

"We’ve arranged ourselves around a ‘centre of excellence’ approach," says Steve Stewart, customer care director at Telewest. "Having someone on the end of the phone who really knows what they’re talking about saves us time and money – for example, the cost of sending out an engineer for something that can be fixed by the customer." Three years ago, 48% of Telewest customer problems were fixed over the phone; now that figure is 65%.

Furthermore, integrating the routing system with customer data lets agents know how many times a customer has called recently – if that number is over a certain limit, they are connected directly to an agent. Data about the flow of customer calls also quickly shows whether there is a local fault impacting multiple users, such as a main cable or switching problem.

The feedback from customers has been positive. Since implementing the system, says Stewart, customer satisfaction levels have increased by 3% while the number expressing dissatisfaction has dropped by 2% – valuable improvements in an industry that suffers high rates of customer churn.

Elsewhere, routing technologies are changing the very nature of the call centre. Rapid growth at lingerie vendor FigLeaves.com forced the dot-com company to establish a call centre to deal with customer follow-up calls – but as an Internet-centric business, it wanted to keep that investment low.

Its first move was to pass call centre operations to an outsourcing partner, but the company soon found the service was lacking in many areas as a result of poor product knowledge on the part of the call centre agents. FigLeaves now manages its own call centre through an on-demand service operated by RightNow Technologies, with traffic regularly handled by a group of (almost exclusively female) homeworkers who are highly knowledgeable about the product line.

This use of a home-based, distributed call centre – a structure that has been made much easier through the use of IP telephony – demonstrates how call centre technology can both better serve the customer and satisfy the finance department.

Consistent customer contact

But it takes more than product knowledge to keep the customer happy. "One thing you must not do in a call centre is ask callers to repeat information they have already given," says Steve Cramoysan, a speech technology analyst for Gartner. If a customer is redirected to a second agent during a call, failure to pass on details of the information already gathered suggests incompetence or, worse, a lack of caring. But often it simply indicates a lack of database or security integration.

Collaboration tools in the call centre, says Nigel Jones, business development manager of communications technology vendor Alcatel, help multiple agents to give a consistent experience for the caller and to access timely information from a variety of sources while on the phone.

"Classically, the agent has been seen as a lone operator," says Jones. "If that individual doesn’t have the information they need at their fingertips, there is very little they can do to ensure first call resolution."

Instant messaging and SIP (session initiation protocol)-based presence technologies let agents share information rapidly, and evaluate the availability of relevant experts. For medium-sized businesses especially, this real-time collaboration can erode the distinction between the call centre and the business itself, and offer customers access to relevant employees within the business.

"Some of the companies we are talking to now are hardly operating call centres at all," says Jones. Because call handlers can see which employees are available to talk at any time, companies with a low volume of customer calls can deal with them quickly, effectively and without the need for distinct call centre functionality.

Other technologies that can improve customer satisfaction, while reducing call centre overheads, centre on automated self-service. Speech or keypad input-based systems are often valued by customers – not only do many feel that talking to a machine is more secure, but it cuts out any agent waiting time.


Speech-based call centre automation


  • Apply business rules by customer
  • Seek applications where you can get a first-call resolution
  • Let callers know how long they can expect to wait
  • Ensure project leaders understand speech technology


  • Treat speech as an alternative to dial-tone menus
  • Ask callers to repeat information
  • Send callers to back to the first menu if they exit the queue

    Source: Gartner  


"When customers call up a bank to find out their balance or to conduct a transaction, there is a sense that speaking to a machine is more secure than a person," says Ian Mackay, research director of business process company Graham Technologies, which alongside its core contact centre software sells ‘virtual agents’ that can (using word recognition software from a third-party developer) analyse long spoken sentences on the basis of keywords and have the capability to manage routine business processes.

By siphoning off calls that concern standard processes to automated agents, says Gartner’s Cramoysan, ‘live agents’ can focus on complaints that are more complex and where there is a greater danger of the customer defecting.

He admits, however, that some automated call centre implementations have damaged customer satisfaction. "A lot of systems were implemented when the technology wasn’t so good," he says. "But now the technology is up to scratch, businesses have to know what to do with it. If there is a menu system with hundreds of different options, callers will get bored or confused."

And just as callers being passed from one agent to another expect their details to go with them, any automated system that ‘forgets’ information callers have already given creates the impression that it is "not listening", says Cramoysan.

Multiple channels

Today, the telephone is just one of many modes of communication a customer might use to lodge a request for service with a business. But integrating email and Internet-based customer communications with the call centre operation – so that customers who have emailed and subsequently call do not have to repeat themselves, for example – is a complicated task that many businesses fail to perfect.

The key to successful management of multi-channel contact centres, says Sanjay Popli, vice president and general manager of online CRM vendor Salesforce.com’s service and support arm, lies in the workflow. Designing the flow of jobs through the call centre with channel-independent problem resolution in mind, says Popli, is a essential for providing customers with the flexibility they now demand.

"The important thing is not to impose any single way of communicating on the customer," he explains. "To do this, you need a highly flexible workflow." For instance, a business may well have staff in the contact centre dealing solely with email complaints, but should a customer call in who has previously emailed, then the call centre agent they speak to must be able to access the email, or the email complaint agent must be able to access the call. Too rigid an internal workflow results in constraints, and so frustration on the part of the customer.

It is at the level of the workflow, says Graham Technologies’ Ian Mackay, that call centre managers must scrutinise their performance. "Many companies audit the performance on the basis of the ‘wrap screens’ that agents complete at the end of calls," says Mackay, "but this doesn’t necessarily get the customer’s viewpoint across."

By measuring the number of times calls are transferred, and the number of steps agents have to take to resolve their issues, call centre managers get a first hand view of the metrics that impact customer satisfaction, rather than second hand reports from agents.

The principle of serving customer satisfaction by granting call centre agents flexible access to information has been taken further by some companies which extend business intelligence, classically the preserve of business analysts, to customer-facing employees.

At UK telco BT, for example, call centre agents are able to maintain customer satisfaction proactively thanks to an innovative system which compares current customers’ interactions with the business against previous contact patterns. Agents can then identify which customers are likely to file a complaint or request information from the company in the near future and make a call before they do so – a significant boon to customer satisfaction.

This may be a pioneering use of customer data, but behind it lies a basic principle that all customer-centric businesses need to apply: empowering agents to understand and respond to customer concerns dramatically reduces the likelihood of them taking their business elsewhere.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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