Transactional vs transformative: Is your contact centre leading or lagging?

19th Sep 2013

Today’s contact centres sit at the apex of an extraordinary set of major global trends – in particular, social media, Cloud Computing and omnichannel. At the same time, they are beset by tighter regulatory pressures, rising consumer demands, an increasingly channel-agnostic customer, and of course the volatile economic climate.

This last point has ensured that in recent years, businesses have been working hard to ensure that their contact centres are more than the traditional cost centres, and that they can become instruments to create additional value for both customers and shareholders.

Little wonder then, that the contact centre sector is witnessing unprecedented change.

“Today’s omnichannel contact centre environments are very different from the call centres of 15 years ago,” says Stuart Dorman is head of consultancy at Sabio. “Then it was all about enabling a new way to access organisations that were still trying to shake off a legacy of different offices, locations, multiple divisions and too many telephone numbers. Contact centres were designed to bring all this disparity together using a centralised team of people and earlier generation automatic call distribution technology to improve the efficiency of handling calls. It was hard to see any great sense of customer focus in these early centres – it was always more about increasing call-handling efficiencies. Today it’s very different - we tend to view average handling time as an out-dated performance measure and good customer service is key across the multitude of different customer touchpoints.”

And this shift has been absolutely critical, as the modern consumer is also undergoing a fundamental change, increasingly using a blend of all channels available to him/her, empowered by the knowledge provided by the internet, and able to tap into the collective wisdom of the crowd thanks to social media… which of course also provides the perfect platform to communicate any displeasure with unfriendly brands!

“These days customers have far higher expectations when it comes to service,” notes Tim Moynihan, VP of marketing at Empirix. “This, combined with the rise in multichannel options, has brought with it a wealth of customer-related issues. Previously, companies simply had to focus on having enough call centre agents to cover the number of incoming calls but now organisations must adapt to changing customer preferences and consider their multichannel strategy. This new world, it is essential to ensure a consistent level of customer experience across the board, from traditional communication channels, to emerging ones, such as social media or mobile apps.”

Art Schoeller, principal analyst at Forrester agrees: “We’ve got a lot of data on consumer channel preferences and there's still a lot of desire to talk to an agent but web and mobile and now social and many other channels are coming into play more and more. So channel strategy is a struggle.”

The social channel

The popularity of social media as a platform to voice dissatisfaction at service, products and brands themselves has forced businesses into using the channel to interact with customer. And while social media has had a tendency to sit within the marketing department’s arena, brands are increasingly seeking to integrate social media with the service department, and more specifically the contact centre.

“For a while there was flux and nobody knew what was going on,” says Anne Marie Forsyth, chief executive of the Contact Centre Association. “But there are now expectations around social – if I tweet something to an organisation I expect them to come back fairly promptly. And if that is happening in volume then it needs to be structured and scheduled, and you need to have workforce management to do it, so it comes part of the same structure as your normal contact centre structure.”

As an example, Forsyth points to Tesco, which originally placed social media within marketing, before deciding that the best way to respond to the large volumes of social activity was to create a team of 30 full-time people working with the contact centre focusing on social. And according to Forsyth they will probably be looking to expand the team soon.

But there still remain some grey areas, for instance in the media world of customer communities, whether they be company-moderated or self-managed, where customers help eachother and troubleshoot problems.

“There’s software and techniques for managing communities within the social world, but that traffic is not necessarily that appropriate for contact centres,” suggests Schoeller. “You’d need the contact centre agent you’re paying $12 an hour to weave their way through the community gently and appropriately and put in the right comments out there. It’s quite a different thing for them to be doing. And that’s where we see more of the social being handled in the marketing department. But even then, once marketing has started to handle social, they then see that it’s starting to scale and some of these requests are more straightforward actionable service requests. So maybe marketing starts to handle those or starts to connect with the contact centre and give them the service requests to handle.”

All of this means that businesses are having to consider how contact centres can integrate with other departments.

“As of 2013, we’re beginning to mature that connection between marketing and contact centre and starting to put in the technologies and processes to cater for the more actionable specific customer service requests,” continues Schoeller. “If I have a problem with my cable modem, for instance, and it is posted on Twitter, maybe the response is over Twitter or maybe it is shifted to another channel such as email. Those are the ones that are now starting to fall more and more into the contact centre and last year we were really not figuring that out but as of 2013, more and more companies have started to sift and sort that.”

Multichannel contact centres

The challenges surrounding social media shouldn’t distract businesses from concerns with addressing more traditional channels, however, because in some cases there is still much work to be done. And nowhere more so than in the case of email, says Forsyth.

“We’ve just finished a study into email management and some of the results for it are fairly horrific in terms of response times from organisations,” she explains. “Yet whenever we ask consumers how they want to contact businesses they always list email as a very high choice, almost next to telephone.”

She continues: “Customers love emails but companies don’t because they are expensive and hard to manage. Businesses are starting to seriously look at their email channel and I think you will see quite a lot of movement in more effective email management and more effective response times. Certainly organisations that are not taking this channel seriously are risking alienating customers.”

Despite the proliferation of channels – or perhaps even because of it – according to a Genesys survey, only around a quarter of contact centres are truly multichannel, enabling customers to move seamlessly between channels. But the same study of 200 contact centres found that over half acknowledged how important it was and that they must improve how they handle multiple channels.

Speaking of Forrester’s own research into this topic, Schoeller says: “In a survey across US, Canada, UK, France and Germany, 34% of respondents said that in the next 12 months they are going to deploy multichannel capabilities. Whereas in the past, people might have just been handling email in just a straight old inbox and then someone went in and handed them to the agents, this is now getting into the real queuing and routing and reporting so you can get a better handle on what the traffic looks like and do a better job of managing it.”

Trying to bring all the channels together into a consistent integrated offering is of course a huge undertaking, and there are numerous obstacles that must be overcome. Jon Arnold, principal of J Arnold & Associates, suggests that businesses need to answer the following questions before they can deliver a multichannel contact centre:

  • Which new channels should we add? The options are ever-expanding so assess, define and measure the benefits of each channel, as well as determine its impact on the network and overall operations.
  • Which channels for which customer? A difficult task, so use customer analytics to establish the right mix of channels for each inquiry.
  • How do we bring new channels to market? Customers cannot take advantage of new modes if they don’t know about them.  Building awareness and adoption takes time.
  • How will each of these channels be managed? Each channel is distinct, and requires a skill set to work with. Some contact centres may be sophisticated enough where all agents can manage all channels, but the more likely scenario will be specialised, where agents will only handle one or two channels. This has implications for the skill sets needed.
  • How will all of these channels be managed? It is not unusual that a customer would engage the company across three different channels at the same time. What reporting tools will the company use to monitor performance here? Managing performance on a silo basis can be pretty straightforward, but managing across channels requires more sophisticated tools.
  • What management tools will be needed? The more channels you have, the more complex it becomes to measure, monitor and manage the contact centre. Each channel will likely require its own set of metrics, and then you need to consider how to compare performance. Multichannel will always be a moving target, but as long as performance management tools keep pace, the contact centre will have the ability to use them effectively.

Cost centres to value centres

With the aforementioned attempts to break down both silos between customer touchpoints and between inter-company departments, contact centres are tackling head-on some of the major structural and technological legacies that have constricted businesses for a generation.

“The production approach to management has always created silos, and then tried to make them very efficient, which is where production lines came from 150 years ago,” says Paul Smedley, founder and executive director of the Professional Planning Forum. “We’ve taken that approach to customer service - you can get very quick at completing transactions make it efficient and reduce costs by bringing it into telephone systems, and then by making it more e-based so that customers can do self-service.”

But a by-product of this approach was a focus on efficiency over service, leading contact centre managers to measure staff on metrics such as average call handling time (ACHT), rather than whether the customer’s query was resolved, or whether it was a satisfactory experience. This was, in hindsight, often a false economy – if a customer needed to call a second time to have their question answered, or worse still decided to terminate their relationship with the company altogether, then clearly it was not such an efficient approach. Recent years have witnessed a reappraisal of this production line strategy, prioritising satisfaction over efficiency, and therefore metrics such as first contact resolution over ACHT. And the breaking down of silos, both departmental and channel, has only served to support this service revolution.

“Where companies have been successful in turning contact centres into things that genuinely add value to an organisation is where they are actually joining these things up from a customer point of view,” continues Smedley. “That is a big move. And some organisations are getting there, and may are just talking about it.”

Adding value to the customer may be one of the chief goals for contact centres circa 2013. But given the costs involved with such a massive modern multichannel undertaking, shareholders are also demanding that there is requisite value for them.

Forsyth notes: “This is a topic that is very much on the agenda for many boards now, because when companies are talking about adding in new channels, they are having to ask really quite searching questions about their existing proposition. It is always being discussed, but sometimes it gets tucked away when there are high volumes and everything is getting handled and they are getting their KPIs delivered at board level. But when they are being asked to make big new investments then obviously the discussion is back on the table.”

Contact centre technology

However, with something of a renaissance occurring in contact centre technology, partly driven by the proliferation of Cloud Computing, a whole host of new opportunities have opened up for contact centres to become more profitable operations and deliver more value to the wider organisation.

“There’s never been a more exciting time for customer service organisations to leverage technology to support their activities,” says Dorman. “We have identified what we believe are the 12 key technologies that will help drive performance improvement over the next key phase of contact centre development.” He lists:

  • Web-enabled technologies
  • Knowledge management
  • Virtual agents
  • Optimised ‘Contact Us’ strategies
  • Increased role of smartphones and tablets
  • Social media
  • Effective call steering
  • Improved contact centre security
  • Customer feedback
  • Speech analytics
  • Effective performance management for improved engagement

Contact centre software vendors are certainly responding to the industry need – for instance, a growing number are integrating social media modules into their solutions to enable agents to rapidly identify social conversations that are most relevant to the client’s businesses. And it’s not just social media – speech analytics is providing similar value for voice traffic as well.

“In the past companies have been put off of analytics by the huge investment required, but now there are other ways of doing it - with hosted solutions you can rent in your diagnostics for somebody else to analyse your data for you and use good analytics tools,” notes Forsyth. “Analytics is now one of the fastest growing areas and lots of organisations are now looking at it, and not just for giving them sales leads – though that is clearly one of the biggest benefits – but also for staff training and coaching. Given that most contact centres is 70% an investment in people, if they can see even a 5% return on that investment then clearly it is a big win.”

Value advice

Smedley shares the following advice for those looking to drive more value from their contact centres. “You have to make sure you’re listening to your frontline people and ensure you have the ability to change things as a result of that,” he explains. “Probably 90% of what you actually learn from Voice of the Customer you could learn from your frontline staff because they are talking to customers many times a day, every day. The know what works and what doesn’t, if they just stop long enough to think about it, and you listen to them.

“And if you have a process of putting change into place, with a continuous improvement involving your frontline teams so that it can go beyond the contact centre, that is very powerful for an organisation.”

Smedley points to the UK’s local governments as an example of how this is working in practice. “Over the last 10 years, a lot of local government contact centres have been forces for change in the council. There hasn’t been a lot that has forced councils to change at an operational process level, but because there are people in the councils dealing with customers who are frustrated by things not working, and these people are being listened to, and the councils can do something with this, and suddenly things are changing. A surprising number of councils are doing this and it’s a really good example of how contact centres can add value to the wider enterprise.”

But contact centre management shouldn’t rely on their leaders to drive this change – sometimes they themselves will have to be the catalyst to become value centres. And Forsyth’s final piece of advice is for contact centres to stand up and be counted, to demonstrate that they have a voice within the organisation – and prove that they are not just a cost to minimise, but they can make a huge contribution to the business.

“They have got to make sure they have a seat at the table, that they are being heard in all the different parts of the organisation, because if the customer service end of the organisation doesn’t have relationships with marketing, finance, IT, ops, and doesn’t understand their issues, then frankly it is probably not going to be as valued as it could be,” she explains.

“Don’t become cocooned and transactional. If you don’t take the time to be transformational you will absolutely be left behind. There is so much happening and so much changing. The organisations that are on this journey are the ones that are being listened to. And the ones that are battling with KPIs around call waiting times are not. If you’re not looking ahead and you’re not being transformational then you’re really not going to be successful and your organisation is not going to be successful.”

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