Multichannel, multi-disciplined and multi-tooled, the modern contact centre is a thing of staggering complexity. Integrated with numerous departments, supporting cross-channel communications and leveraging leading-edge IT, there are cultural, technical and operational obstacles that must be identified and addressed. And all of this while being prudent with the purse strings.
Unsurprisingly, a strategic approach to your contact centre is the only sensible way to proceed.
“A tactical approach, supported by the right technology, can bring initial gains, but the contact centre strategy projects that really transform an organisation typically combine best practice technology with true operational change,” says Stuart Dorman, head of consultancy at Sabio. “This requires a commitment from the business, a detailed understanding of all the operational processes involved, and both the will and the ability to implement change.”
So how do you build a strategy that will simultaneously ensure that it delivers value to the business and satisfaction to the customer?
Laying the groundwork
Start with your customer, days Dorman. “What do you want your customer journey to look like – understand who your customer is – what tasks they’re looking to achieve, then focus on mapping an appropriate customer journey to those tasks. It is important to distinguish between those simpler tasks that can be handled by self-service technologies such as mobile Web or IVR, and more complex interactions that will require intelligent support from people with necessary levels of emotional intelligence to re-assure and help customers.”
Jeremy Payne, director for international marketing and alliances at Enghouse Interactive, adds: “If you have identified and segmented your customer base, you will have a handle on how they like to interact. For example, if your demographic is predominantly 16-25 year olds and you’re selling tech gadgets, games, etc, then you will need to allow these customers to interact in a way that suits them. This will mean a lot of social media, chat and instant messaging, as well as forums and opportunities to share. For example, GiffGaff mobile doesn’t have a formal customer service operation. It relies on power users helping other customers and then rewards these users for helping their peers.”
He continues: “Understand who your customers are, what they want and what your competition is doing. Most markets in Western Europe are mature – meaning there are really only three variables that act as differentiators; price, service or innovation. Next, it’s worth considering how hands-on you want to be with the technology and how strong your own IT function is.”
Evaluating the present state of your existing architecture and processes will provide you with an accurate picture of the gap between what your contact centre currently provides and what the customer demands. This process will reveal if there is a shortfall between what your company is promising in terms of service proposition and the reality.
“Getting the fundamentals right should be the core focus,” notes Jonathan Collard, Commercial Director of Tripudio Telecom. “The larger question you need to ask yourself is; “what customer service structure is in place and how does this marry with the company ethos the organisation wishes to promote?”
The process of evaluating your present structure and technology will also give you a clearer indication of where investment is required, and where the existing frameworks and IT are sufficient.
Collard continues: “When developing the contents of your contact centre strategy, it is natural to research all outputs such as ‘what customer service centric structure is already in place, is it fit for purpose and with a bit of work, can we fine tune it rather than replace it altogether?’
“Also consider what, if any, past investment has been made and does this need to be written off? Perhaps your finance team can be a little innovative. Try to be honest with yourself, as more often than not, it may be what your competitors are already doing that is driving change and you are simply counter reacting.”
Dorman agrees that your competitors can provide some valuable steer when it comes to evaluating how well your present contact centre is performing. “Contact strategies obviously differ from organisation to organisation,” he says. “However, it’s important to be able to understand how your contact centre is performing, and know whether you’re delivering a better service than your immediate industry competitors.”
Building the strategy
Once you have a thorough understanding of your competitive landscape, your customers and your own capability, then you are in a position to outline the goals you want to achieve, and the steps that are required to meet those goals.
"A strategy is essential to ensure that the contact centre is helping to achieve overall corporate business goals, be it boosting revenue, lowering costs or improving customer satisfaction,” says Tim Moynihan, vice president of marketing at Empirix. “If there's no definition of global business measures, then it becomes a major challenge to ensure that everyone is working in line with each other."
He continues: “Identify your overall goals, which can vary from organisation to organisation. Some may want to handle a certain number of calls and chat requests per hour where others may strive for a 95% first call resolution rate.”
And this in turn will give you an idea of the investment required – “develop a detailed budget, without this you won't get very far. From here you can decide where it is that you're going to invest your money."
Unsurprisingly, much of this investment will be earmarked for technology. But with so many channels and so many solutions available, it can be easy to spend money on capabilities and tools that are over and above what is required, leading to significant wastage. Fortunately, if you have done your homework in the earlier research phase, you will have a clear idea of the needs of your customers and any shortcomings in your existing service. You are then able to start examining the vendors and their offerings with confidence.
“It is important to look at your technology approach and evaluate what kind of strategic vendors and solutions you're going to use,” says Moynihan. “For example, are you planning on creating a global intelligent routing system or use regional systems? Do you want to include instant messaging on mobile self-service apps? To do this you need to full understand your audience and how they like to contact you, both today and in the future, so that you can adapt to further changes in the future."
He continues: “It's important to look at how you can effectively mix legacy equipment and new technology. You also need to understand your capacity constraints, for example if you know you can only handle 120 customers per hour yet you need to serve 500, there is going to be a problem. You must understand real world volume versus capacity constraints. If you don't understand your traffic pattern from the beginning, in terms of how many people like to use instant message versus the number of people that prefer to call during a specific period, then you can't effectively provision solutions. This leads to potential issues and leaves a lot of people underserved. Security is also a key consideration, both in terms of attacks from the outside and for validating the customer, for example do you need voice biometrics to effectively validate customers?”
Payne provides the following checklist for businesses to consider before they are ready to start investing in IT solutions for the contact centre:
- Geographies. Are you global or single country?
- How complex are the products and services you sell?
- How strong is your own IT function?
- What other technologies do you need to interface with? For example, CFM or Salesforce?
- What’s your business strategy around homeworking? (office space and business continuity)
- How quickly do you need to be up and running
- What’s your budget now and on-going for support and upgrades?
“Once you have a handle on these issues, you can start to map out what is really important to your business and customers,” suggests Payne. “Many people make the mistake of thinking they need everything or all the bells and whistles when the reality is that they could easily do what they want on a pay-as-you-go, Cloud-based service.”
But Collard warns that businesses should keep in mind that IT isn’t the answer to all your problems. “We often talk with clients and hear statements such as ‘I need a social media strategy, what software package should I buy?’, to which we happily reply, ‘well what are you doing to fix the issues your consumers are moaning about on your social media sites first?’ and ‘what ROI model do you think you wish to apply?’. Remember, opening up the flood gates via a new channel will in-fact only compound an already delicate situation if agent resources aren’t correctly earmarked and trained to respond using the new text-centric lexicon.
“Technology alone will not fix anything. The old adage ‘garbage in = garbage out’ still applies, so try to keep things simple. Consumers react well to honesty and genuine timeliness, so always focus attention on areas that ease and remove points of inertia, both internally and within your supplier/distribution chain.”
Doman recommends that businesses should ensure that the following six key areas are all key areas of focus within the contact centre strategies:
- Operational efficiency – With the pressure to reduce costs and deliver a superior customer service, your organisation needs to focus on driving contact interaction quality and efficiency.
- Resource optimisation – The most successful contact strategies are inevitably those that continuously develop their staff and optimise resources to meet evolving customer demands.
- Measure accessibility – Customers expect to receive the same, consistent service regardless of which channel they choose to use. Do you make it easy for customers to do business with you? What steps are you taking to reduce customer effort?
- Contact data acquisition – Gathering the right information is critical to contact strategy success. What are customers saying about your products and services? What information do you need to help you improve performance? Traditional contact centre metrics – such as average summary data – don’t provide the insight needed to move an organisation forward.
- Challenge demand – Understanding why people are contacting your organisation is key to providing better service, and plays a key role in helping to manage demand effectively. Often you can deliver a better overall service by actually reducing a customer’s need to contact you.
- Apply automation – Successful automation that’s easy-to-use and appropriate for the customer task needs to sit at the heart of an organisation’s contact strategy. Well-designed automation gives customers choice and flexibility, and leaves skilled contact centre staff free to handle those interactions that are more complex or require a human touch.
But work on your strategy should be an ongoing process – refining and improving your operations to ensure that any problems are rectified and any changing conditions are adapted to.
Moynihan explains: “Testing, monitoring and analysing are fundamental to your strategy. Don't launch anything until you know that it's going to work. A bug found in pre-deployment costs 100 times less to correct than a bug found in a real-life situation. If you're not monitoring your system continuously and there's a problem with one of your channels that you're not aware of, the customer will simply go elsewhere. In terms of analysis, it's a continuous process of review to optimise the system and ensure you’re giving the best level of customer service."
Payne recommends the following as an ongoing strategic framework to keep your contact centre at the cutting edge:
- Define your customers – who they are and what do they want?.
- Define what makes your business different; price? (low cost airline) product (Apple) or service (First Direct).
- Define your primary customer journeys – 80% of interactions are typically about a small number of things.
- Optimise and streamline these journeys and processes so that they require as little effort from the customer as possible to get what they want. In other words, reduce friction.
- Map the best people in your organisation to these processes.
- Weave technology around them to drive efficiency and economies of scale.
- Use analytics and real-time monitoring to drive continuous improvement and then go back to step one.
As final advice, Collard says: “Looking ahead, the advent of social media will have the biggest impact on support capabilities of any new communication channel since email, so it’s right that any future strategy should incorporate this. Just remember humans still like to talk to ensure enquires are 100% resolved, so telephony based support is by no means dead and will continue as the foundation of support way into the future.
“Happily, the era of technology driving the business is long dead. The good news is that the flexibility and 'light' nature of modern contact centre systems means business goals can be met at lower cost and in faster timescales. In summary, it’s okay to say “I need help” so talk to the people or suppliers that will work with you to advance the project in a diligent and professional manner without promising the earth, ideally sharing the risk of deployment with some ‘skill in the game’.
Collard summarises the stages your strategy should take as follows:
- Discovery - the “as is”
- Distillation - what works and is perhaps salvageable
- Determination - the testing and agreement of the “to be” objectives
- Demarcation - who will do what and how
- Deployment - project roll-out
- Deconstruction - onward calibration of key metrics against origination objectives.
Payne concludes: “The only thing we can be sure of is that pace and frequency of change has and will continue to accelerate. So, creating an agile approach and a culture that embraces and thrives on change will be a differentiator.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.