From bricks and mortar to a virtual home in the Cloud, Jeremy Payne examines the changing face of the customer contact centre.
Over the past few years, the relationship between corporate business and consumer has radically changed. Across the western world, we are seeing power shifting back to the customer. Most markets are mature and this speed of commoditisation has made it all the more important to handle customers in the way they want to be handled at a time that’s right for them.
Making this focus on customer service still more important, customers are becoming more ‘savvy’ than ever before and they have at their disposal – through the Internet, through content aggregators, comparison and peer-to-peer sites - a raft of ways to share information on corporates that simply did not exist a few years ago. For all these reasons, it is more important than ever that businesses get customer service right.
Terms of engagement
Today, most companies have straight-through processes and business systems that allow them to operate economically with an acceptable level of customer service. When issues or problems arise, however, the service is really put to the test.
It is at these ‘moments of truth’ when the customer wants to interact with the business about something that really matters to them, that customer service really needs to shine. At these moments, customers wanted to be treated as unique and expect customer service excellence.
If you just go back five years or so, the approach most customers took if they had a problem with a company’s products or services or a query or issue that they wanted to raise, was to phone the physical contact centre between the hours of 9 to 5 from a fixed landline and speak to a customer service representative (CSR).
Today, this is just one of a raft of a rapidly growing number of options that an individual customer has to establish contact with the company. Mobility has become one of the key factors in these interactions.
People will typically make contact with the centre via smartphone or tablet – maybe on their way to and from work. They may switch channels when they get home – perhaps to their laptop. They might want to open a chat window or to use ‘face time’ and strike up a video multimedia conversation. And increasingly, they may be looking to self-serve, either through online forums with other customers or by visiting the company’s website to find the information they need.
In short, we are seeing a proliferation both of the ways and places to interact. Currently, most contact centres are struggling to evolve sufficiently to keep pace with these developments. Many still haven’t picked up on the fact that the younger generation, in particular, are far more willing to self-serve; to look on the internet or the company website to find out what they want without interacting directly with anyone representing the company itself. Yet, many companies are being left behind because they are not putting the right tools in place to allow their customers to do that.
Stuck in the past?
Until recently, the traditional contact centre effectively acted as a switch for customer enquiries. The CSR would make notes and fill in a form or route the caller to another department. Typically, the approach was low intelligence – basically repeating steps that the customer could have taken themselves through a self-service mechanism.
This model is retained today by many companies but gradually we are beginning to see a shift happening as more and more organisations appreciate the dangers of being perceived to be stuck in the past by their customers.
The role of the contact centre moving forward is beginning to change. Organisations are starting to bolster the front-end layer which allows smart streaming and triaging of customer queries at the interaction stage, based not just on the nature of the query but on information intelligently gleaned about the customer’s value to the business.
The ultimate aim is to create a frictionless interaction, making it as easy as possible for the customer to get what they need from the engagement process. The next stage is to provide the right self-service tools enabling customers to self-serve and help each other.
This is in tune with the approach that customers are increasingly looking for. At the same time, it is enabling companies to streamline their customer service operations and make significant savings as a result.
This development is happening in tandem with the move away from the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ contact centre to a more virtual and in many cases Cloud-based approach. The keynote today is proliferation of choice. We are certainly not talking about a one-size fits all approach here. Prospective providers can have the whole solution on premise – within their own firewall. They can run their own private Cloud or they can outsource to a BPO who runs a community Cloud. Alternatively, they can pay a subscription on a multi-tenant public Cloud.
The issues are often intertwined and many of the vendors promote a single perspective as the ‘holy grail’ as this is all they have to offer. Yet, in making their decision, organisations have to take into account a range of issues including: security; scalability; flexibility; geographic needs; regulatory compliance; cost; customer service: availability and reliability.
The key trend that underpins most of this is the on-going move from physical to virtual contact centres, which in turn makes it possible for operatives from all over the world to help solve problems for people in any other part of the world as a part of a new ‘skill and need’ contact centre model.
A change in personnel
In tandem, we are seeing a change in the nature of the contact centre workforce away from the low-value, low-impact call centre operative, unable to offer much added value beyond the ability to route the caller to someone who can actually help. Replacing these individuals are new knowledge-based workers, experts on particular topics who can be brought in to provide help and advice as part of the virtual contact centre.
In addition, as we move into the future, the use of remote workers will become increasingly popular. Organisations will have far greater flexibility to bring staff on stream to help service the virtual contact centre at busy times and then effectively ‘switch them off again’ during quieter periods.
We can also expect to see more seamless transitions between the core company and external business process outsourcers. So, for example, a bank with multiple product lines would typically want its own staff to deal with high-value heavily FSA-regulated products like mortgages and man its own contact centre or interaction platform. For lower value products, though, it might well make sense to push the engagement out to a third-party company that is allowed to use the bank’s technology, systems, platform, infrastructure and business processes.
Again, this ability to multi-tenant and ‘carve out’ the infrastructure to allow different organisations to share it at the same time is one of the great strengths of the Cloud-based virtual approach to contact centres. And, as we look to the future, it is yet another compelling reason why the traditional image of the office-based contact centre with operators wearing headphones packed together like battery hens will increasingly be thought of as an outdated concept.
Jeremy Payne is international group marketing director at Enghouse Interactive.