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Call centre technology: Help or hindrance?

18th Nov 2008
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Customer satisfaction with contact centre experiences remains low - and many firms believe that the IT systems implemented to improve service are actually more of a hindrance. Stuart Lauchlan explores whether the investment in contact centre technology is worth it - or whether businesses are simply spending their money on the wrong IT.

By Stuart Lauchlan, news and analysis editor

George Bates could be forgiven for not being a big fan of call centres. George was the man who recnetly accused an Indian call centre operator of freezing his Abbey bank account and changing his identify to that of a Ugandan divorcee. He was unable to access his account for "security reasons" and found his overdraft facility had been withdrawn and direct debits totalling £750 had been cancelled - resulting in £60 worth of bank charges. All because, he claims, he gave the call centre operative a bad feedback score.

It's an extreme case, but George is not alone. New research has found that UK consumers are fundamentally fed up of call centres. A recent survey, conducted by online insurance company, found that 91% of callers are aggravated by the length of time waiting to get through to a call centre, an increase of more than 10% on the same survey carried out in 2005.

"Minimal progress has been made in adopting a more customer-oriented, CRM-based approach within the contact centre over the last 10 years."

Alex George, Dimension Data

Call quality continues to be a problem, with 84% of respondents claiming to have experienced a bad line after being connected to a call centre abroad. In addition, call centre waiting times have increased. In May 2005, one in 20 callers experienced waits of more than an hour which has now risen to more than two hours, while nearly half are regularly put on hold for half an hour. In addition, four out of five have been cut off after waiting for 10 minutes or more.

According to a recent study by Benchmark Research, eight out of 10 service providers believe that they provide a 'superior customer experience' through their call centres. Unfortunately, fewer than one in 10 customers agree with them. The vast majority of consumers base their judgement of a company's image through their interaction with the contact centre according to Benchmark Research, while over half of them say that they would stop using a company's goods or services if they have had a bad call centre experience.

What's interesting is that it could be construed as an example of bad workmen blaming their tools as two-thirds say that the IT systems that have been put in to help them do their jobs are actually proving to be more of a hindrance, with 25% of calls being delayed by computer-related issues. It's not an uncommon complaint: research by Siemens Enterprise Communications found that 41% of respondents to that study want more computer and systems training to help them cope with their work and address these shortcomings.

“On average staff are using five systems during the course of one call, but in a small number of cases, about 5%, respondents admitted to using 15 different applications during the course of a single transaction. This must also create an enormous overhead, in terms of the need to manage such a complex IT environment,” said Tim Bishop, head of strategy at Siemens Enterprise Communications.

Endless automated options

Not that there isn't a good deal of technology in call centres – it's not just a case of picking up the phone! In 1997, 90% of contact centre calls were handled by an operator, but that figure has fallen by almost half. Interactive voice response (IVR) and web-based systems now respectively account for 15.5% and 13.7% of all transactions.

"In some cases respondents admitted to using 15 different applications during the course of a single transaction. This must create an enormous overhead, in terms of the need to manage such a complex IT environment."

Tim Bishop, head of strategy, Siemens Enterprise Communications

Of course, one of the main complaints about call centres from customers is that you can't get to talk to a human being, so maybe that's a bit of a double-edge sword. Indeed, according to the study, nearly 75% of people are so frustrated by the endless automated options that they deliberately press the wrong number on their telephone key pads just to ensure they spoke to a human being.

But from a corporate standpoint, IVR and self-service is an enormously compelling proposition, especially in an economic downturn. Call centre consultancy Dimension Data estimates that the average self-service transaction costs a business £2, compared with £17 for one handled by a human agent. Then again, is the investment in technology worth it? Not necessarily. Dimension Data suggests that it now takes an average 39 seconds for centres to respond to a call, compared with 23 second in 1997, while the time taken to respond to messages left by customers has almost doubled from 11 to 20 hours.

Of course, it could be the case that it's just the wrong type of technology that's being invested in. While spending big bucks on sexy, bleeding-edge technology like IVR might warm the cockles of the CIO's heart, it could be that spending on good old-fashioned CRM might be more in order. Rather shockingly, 10 years ago 39% of call centres reckoned they had CRM capability, according to Dimension Data, with a further 45% planning to implement CRM to produce a single view of the customer within two years. Admirable intentions to be sure, but something's gone badly wrong in the interim. In only 34% of call centres say that they possess such a single view of the customer.

"Minimal progress has been made in adopting a more customer-oriented, CRM-based approach within the contact centre over the last 10 years since the Benchmarking Report was initiated," said Dimension Data's Alex George. “The development of a more holistic and sophisticated approach to customer management is less of a priority today than it was 10 years ago, and there is a back-to-basics trend with contact centres focusing more on basic performance efficiencies and cost reduction. There has been a major shift away from the tenets of CRM over the last decade."

Voice over IP

VoIP adoption is on the rise, although call centres are lagging somewhat although IP-based call centre systems have been widely available since the late 1990s. According to recent study of 100 companies by VoIP vendor Interactive Intelligence, some 37% of respondents said widespread VoIP adoption has had the biggest business impact over the past year with 73% saying they have implemented VoIP or plan to implement it within the next year.

"Our results show that over 50% of contact centres are not using personalised routing as part of their applications."

Bruce Eidsvik, Genesys

The slow progress of IP has traditionally been blamed on problems such as poor voice quality, an inability to scale up beyond more than 100 agent positions as well as limited routing and queuing features. But VoIP can now almost match reliability levels of traditional telephony, so that excuse is wearing a little thin. Indeed, there are many reasons why call centres should be taking a greater interest, according to recent research by FrontRange. It found that the benefits of VoIP for call centres include reduced call costs, reduced call centre churn and reduced admin costs.

There are some notable examples of VOIP call centres in action. For example, Carphone Warehouse relies on Cisco-based IP call centres to cope with increased demand triggered by growth. Centres located in Preston, Birchwood and South Africa house 1,800 new customer service advisers who benefit from increased facilities such as CTI technology with screen pop-ups. Callers are automatically recognised giving agents open access to their history and preferences while calls can also be placed depending on the agents skills, ensuring individual requests can be appropriately answered.

Then there are other more advanced technology options. Gensesys Telecommunications found from its research that a top priority ought to be to offer a more personalised service through an intelligenct Customer Front Door (iCFD) approach to routing that identifies both the caller and the purpose of the call. But over half of call centres still employ Dual Tone Multi-Frequency (DTMF) systems that force customers to wait through many options. The research also found that only 5% are using speech activated systems, which enable callers to voice their requests and 'jump the queue'.

"iCFD is the next generation of call routing," commented Bruce Eidsvik, vice president of voice portal sales, EMEA at Genesys. "It not only identifies the caller based on his or her name or account details, it also intelligently maps the intent of the call by collecting context information from the back office system. We believe that a personalised, intelligent service is key to improving customer satisfaction. Yet our results show that over 50% of contact centres are not using personalised routing as part of their applications. As automated menus rate among the worst offenders for customer frustration, now is the time for contact centre managers to begin looking for new solutions.”

Other articles in this focus report:

  • How to transform your contact centre into a service and revenue hub
  • Call centre outsourcing: A finger on the pulse
  • Call centres in action: Orange
  • Call centres in action: Thomas Cook
  • Call centres in action: Shepherd Chartered Surveyors
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