Contact centre 2.0: Return of the personal service

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Forget the old ‘cost centre’ moniker; contact centres are in the midst of a mass rebranding, and are set to be repositioned as the beating heart and central nervous system of all organisations within the next 6 years, if you buy into Dr. Nicola Millard’s relationship hub prophecy or Martin Hill-Wilson’s social command centre vision.

Driven by changes in the way consumers interact with brands, and a gradual industry-wide awakening to the fact that endless cost-cutting exercises have been causing long-term damage to customer retention, an array of big businesses have been in the process of ‘bringing their boys home’ in the last few years – re-shoring their call centres in a bid to become more customer-centric.

The re-shoring process is just the tip of the iceberg, however, and the concept of relationship hubs and social command centres are also being driven by a much wider business need to not only appear to be geographically closer to customers, but to better understand them with data analysis across different channels and the removal of silos – by physically placing certain departments and operations closer together.

As EMEA Marketing Manager for headset manufacturer, Plantronics, Richard Kenny has witnessed constant industry upheavals first-hand over the course of more than a decade, but believes the current shift could be the most substantial thing to happen to contact centres since they first came to prominence:

“Contact centres have totally transformed in the last 5 years,” he explains. “This has been more significant than all of the change seen in the previous 35 years of the industry.  Traditionally, we had call centres which were focused on efficiency and process. Their main roles were answering complaints and they were focused on phone calls.

“Now, against a backdrop of decreased marketing effectiveness, multi-channel customer interactions, and customers armed with social media, we are seeing departments shift to measuring on effectiveness, and having a significantly raised influence on the business and the brand.”

Changing skillsets

As a result of the transition to multi-channel interactions, another profound shift is occurring in terms of the skillset contact centres require from their employees. In a 2013 research report from the CCA, leading call centre managers stated empathy, independent mindset, motivated self-starting and problem-solving abilities as the key traits required from modern day contact centre agents.

The requirements are a result of consumer fatigue – in a recent study by Netcall, 95% of consumers said contact centres were falling short in providing first contact resolutions across various channels, forcing 50% of people to pick up the telephone as a secondary point of resolution.

And businesses seemingly have their work cut out, with one in three (32%) agents stating they lacked sufficient knowledge to help customer issues and 22% claiming incorrect or inconsistent customer information held on different systems was also a major problem.  

This has led to contact centres having no choice but to confront employee churn – CCA’s report states that the average annual attrition rate for UK contact centre employees is 20% with it costing an average of £2,000 to recruit a new agent, not to mention training costs. However, with the drive for more motivated individuals capable of problem solving and independent working, contact centres are now focusing on incentivising staff better in order to put a halt to the rapid turnover.

Relationship hubs

Dr. Millard’s prediction is that as customer experience becomes a more pivotal part of the contact centre’s primary role, businesses will need to rely more and more upon expertise within it, meaning that not only will recruitment and staffing become increasingly vital, but that more of an emphasis will also be placed on the physical requirements of building a ‘relationship hub’.

A number of businesses have taken the relationship hub idea and made it their own, especially in the US, where businesses such as Gatorade and Salesforce are placing data analytics at the centre of their operations, turning the concept of the contact centre on its head by making proactive problem-solving the primary objective, as opposed to the traditional role of being reactionary.

“The relationship hub or command centre name ultimately promises something that many companies should be aiming for – a return to a more personal service,” Kenny adds.

“The hub brings in expertise from the organisation to resolve customer issues, and also feeds the voice of the customer into the organisation to drive more customer-centric design of processes, services and products.”    

Kenny suggests two factors have become necessary considerations in developing similar modern-era ‘command centres’ – hierarchy and design. In order to meet the needs of the multi-channel customer, he argues that silos can only be broken by co-locating historically separate business units, such as finance, logistics and billing, with the teams responsible for front-line service, in order to improve agility and improve first contact resolution rates.

The second point – design –is often a case of understanding the work patterns of modern contact centres, and creating environments that fit. As Kenny states, this can often be a case of assessing the simple acoustic output of an office space, while taking into account four key work patterns:

Communication: High energy calling needs aggressive acoustic treatment (barriers, tiles, white-noise generators) to ensure the noise does not spread to other areas. 

Concentration: Multi-channel work such as web chats or emails need minimal disruptions so the acoustics should guarantee quiet.

Collaboration:  With the nature of calls becoming increasingly complex, teams need to work together to resolve them.  We need dedicated spaces for this collaboration to occur, with acoustics that ensure sound does not stray into other areas.

Contemplation: Work is becoming more intensive and we are not machines.  We need breakout spaces to recharge and these should be natural, comfortable areas with acoustics to match.

While physical design and acoustics may seem like an elementary part of a business’s operations, especially in a digital age, in the previous ‘cost centre’ model that many contact centres operated under, the elements Kenny mentions were not always a viable option for business leaders.

However, with redesign a necessity in terms of developing environments less likely to create employee churn, many contact centres are having no choice but to confront the sticking points affecting their working spaces, and develop more of a scientific approach to aspects such as acoustics, in order to combat silos and help deliver this more ‘personal service’ across channels.

Shirking from home?

One other element dramatically changing the make-up of contact centres is home-working. What was once described as “shirking from home” has now become the call centre industry’s biggest trend, with over 10% of US employees now regularly working from home, according to stats from Stanford University last year, and figures in contact centres expected to exceed this by 2017. At present, 59% of contact centres are said to have either implemented home-working, or are trialling or investigating it.

The benefits of home-working agents are well-documented, however the challenges involved are yet another factor that is dramatically changing the concept of what a contact centre’s physical space should incorporate.

“Home working has great benefits for many people – no commute, quiet environment, and work/life balance, and also many benefits for business – increased employee satisfaction, improved retention and lower costs,” Kenny explains. 

“However, our research with the CCA showed two main barriers – trust and poor technical connectivity. Once trust is established, home working can be adopted very quickly.  While the survey showed that reliance on broadband connectivity (which can vary in its reliability) was the top barrier to home-working for 62% of respondents, it’s not all bad news.

“Technology such as Unified Communications (UC) makes collaboration and communication between home and in-house agents possible by indicating the presence of an employee and if they’re available to communicate. In turn this means customers get their issues resolved faster, boosting productivity.”

And this is perhaps the key takeaway – changing the contact centre, but ensuring customers get problems resolved quicker, and in a personal manner, despite the increasing complexity of multi-channel support. Home-working may provide more flexibility both in terms of employees and the workspaces they start to free up, but only if it doesn’t affect the push to improve customer experience.  

OK, it may not be as simple as calling the current shift in thinking a ‘2.0’ moment, but the good news is, all roads appear to point towards positive enhancements in the contact centre both from a physical and digital perspective. And in an era where engagement and personal service are increasingly important to building longer-lasting customer relationships, it will be the businesses that work out how to deliver this most effectively that are likely to prosper.  

About Chris Ward

Chris Ward

Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.

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16th Nov 2018 22:25

You raise a very good point about home-working agents. We have seen an increase in this over the past few years. It is a trend that is likely to continue. How it affects contact centers is going to be interesting?

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