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Will we ever love call centres? Interview with BT's Andrew Small

19th Aug 2009
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Customers hate call centres, right? Wrong, says Andrew Small, head of CRM capability at BT Global Services. He tells Stuart Lauchlan that what matters is the appropriateness of the service element.

SL: BT Global Services has had a notably rough time of it of late but, at the same time, global demand for CRM and contact centre solutions seems to be holding up. How does the economy look from where you are?

AS: In the CRM business, we have a had a good period of business. We are seeing more projects and thinking among customers that is becoming more incremental rather than transformative. There are fewer projects where someone is saying that they will rip out their entire contact centre and replace it. There are a lot more people who are doing more add-on stuff. There is no doubt that there is a stronger focus on business cases and more focus on the short to medium term rather than the medium to long-term. We also see the CFO being involved more. A business case has to stand on its own financial merit, but customers still value things that we do that are not as financially measurable. Customer service is, in the end, about more than just its cost.

SL: In the past, talking about CRM and BT meant talking about Siebel. Is that still the case?

AS: Our technical focus is more on the contact centre infrastructure than on the CRM software. We still have a Siebel capability, but it's not what we lead on. If we do find that clients have nothing in terms of CRM, then they are more likely currently to go for something like But we are at the point, as an industry, where most customers have some form of CRM software and we are more often than not integrating new applications onto what they have. So we're more concerned with integration tools and the cost down.

SL: BT has made a big push into the hosted contact centre space. What are the benefits of taking this approach for clients?

AS: We have a good track record as a company and the move to hosted contact centres suits us nicely - it pulls through good revenue and customers benefit from it as well as they can buy something that is repeatable and resilient. That's what customers need – more reliable and repeatable services. The benefits of having a hosted call centre isn't just about being cheaper. One of the biggest drivers towards the hosted approach is the variability in month to month call centre demand. It's not a straightforward debate about being cheaper or more expensive. You have to build in variables.

The other thing that is driving the hosted model is that if you don't have capital expediture then operating expenditure becomes more important and appealing. I think now that we've gone down that route, it's not easy to go back. I'm not a financial analyst, but I doubt we'll go back to the days of such easy money again. People have got used to having no CapEx, but once that's out of the way you can be more flexible on OpEx. Do you calculate OpEx in terms of cost per agent, per minute, per successful transaction and so on? It's like the mobile phone market; it was a long time before the consumer got used to the idea of different tariffs.

SL: One of your showcase clients is Expedia, isn't it?

AS: One of the things that Expedia wanted to do was to be able to use Cloud contact centre service to be able to move around various outsourcing partners. Lots of firms increasingly want flexible outsourcing. Once you have a hosted call centre then you can move things around more easily. Expedia have felt the advantages of deploying this kind of contact centre. The lack of CapEx made for a compelling business case and the flexibility of the pay-as-you-go structure helps the company to manage seasonal demand and emergencies efficiently. During the Mumbai terrorist attacks Expedia was able to get in touch with all affected customers within a matter of hours - something that would have been more difficult previously. The virtual contact centre has been deployed across all of Expedia’s own and outsourced contact centre locations. Customers have felt the benefits due to improved efficiency and the ability to interact with the most relevant agent immediately, due to automatic, targeted routing.

SL: Beyond the hosted contact centre, what other innovations do you see coming to the fore in the CRM space? Is social CRM part of BT's thinking?

AS: Contact centres are inherently not so much conservative, but are about doing the simple things well. Call centre managers want to see demonstrable business cases. We see our strength as delivering innovation - we are always watching out for innovation that will work at scale. Social networking technologies will become part of the contact centre in time. The thing we are watching most closely is unified communications in order to extend the call centre into the back office and forward towards your customers. We have a social networking site called Hubbub, which we created for the Home Hub. We found that the early adopters of the Home Hub were the technology wizards who took it home, rewired it and plugged it into things that it wasn't supposed to be plugged into, then it didn't work. So we created an online forum to allow them to post questions. It allowed our product guys to help but also enabled the early adopters to help one another. It allowed us to take some of the answers, test them in the labs and push them through to our knowledge bank and into our FAQs. It's a good example of the wisdom of the crowds.

SL: Do customers really want self-service capabilities as much as vendors seem to think they do? Wouldn't they prefer a human being who could help them?

AS: The key aspect of self-service that needs to be addressed is appropriateness. Self-service itself is not just one thing, it's a range of options and offerings. What is clear is that self-service is much cheaper than putting a customer through to an agent. When used appropriately, customers prefer it, so a lot of effort needs to go into determining when and where it is appropriate and then to ensure that it is reliable and enjoyable for the customers. Customers need to want to do it. Should there be any failure of  a self-service system, there needs to be someone on-hand to intervene. I know of one software company where 60% of their interactions began at the FAQ section on the website. The question that company faced was what happened when the customer couldn't manage - when should they intervene and how quickly? If a customer has searched for the same thing three times, then what should an agent do? It's the same with chat; where and when and how is it appropriate? It would, for example, be hard to have a voice agent who's also doing chat. There are times when it is just more appropriate to have chat functionality.

SL: Will people ever really love call centres? Every study seems to suggest we all hate the things?

AS: I think love is a very emotional word – we don't love going to the supermarket but we do it. I don't think that people actually hate call centres. People have got used to them now. If we try, we can all think of an experience with a call centre where we have been pleasantly surprised. It happens a lot more than we think it does. What we expect from call centres is service.


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By npoulos
20th Aug 2009 15:11

I enjoyed this perspective. Outsourcing in our current economic situation still is such a sensitive, and perhaps, parochial situation as well. But what I really wanted to add has to do with how we as practitioners position this inherently, powerful service.

In Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon plays with "the power of names". "Call center" just doesn't carry with it the strength, dignity and potential power of what people do within such a center. Afterall, not everyone in a call center is actually tethered to a phone with a tube and a script.

Delivering service and value each and every time, simplistically, is the goal for each person within the center. Yet for all the importance of what our representatives do, more often than not call center managers see those call center employees as replaceable cogs, while the agents themselves see themselves less fulfilled as employees than they might be.

I've been in call centers since forever (30 yrs) and I strongly believe that industry practitioners, clients and the general public would be rewarded if we no longer called this service "call centers" but instead renamed them "Customer Management Centers".

The power inherent in renaming our call centers, contact centers, etc - and naming them "customer management centers - should spill over, cascading into a mutually reinforcing wave of improving employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, loyaty and growth
Managing Director, Chrysalis Marketing
[email protected]
"to live is to do battle with trolls in the vaults of heart and mind;
to write, that is to hold domesdag over one's self." - Ibsen

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Aki Kalliatakis Photo
By aki.kalliatakis1
21st Aug 2009 08:00

As usual, CRM Executive Mr. Andrew Small has looked at it from the perspective of his business, not the customer's needs. I live in South Africa, and am not really in touch with BT, but if its service to customers is anything like our own Telkom, or the countless other call centres I have to deal with, then he is awfully wrong.

Customers hate call centres. Full stop. While there may occasionally be a rare encounter that goes well, in the main they are seen as time wasting, impersonal, irrelevant, and a strategy for the company to save money rather than take care of the customer. While useful when one needs a quick answer to a simple question, ("Where's my order now?",) the usefulness is diluted by businesses' insistence on using the call centre to update their information, to cross-sell and up-sell products and services to their customers, and to achieve greater levels of efficiency and cost-to-serve.

Add to this the fact that most young people employed in the centre are poorly paid, inflexible and disempowered, demoralised at worst, apathetic at best, (and often poorly trained,) and the chances of success are severely diminished.

No Mr. Small, you are living in a world of illusion if you think that customers sometimes like call centres. And while going to the supermarket is a chore, it simply cannot be compared to the horrid experience of waiting interminably on the telephone for someone who cannot or will not help you solve your problem.

Aki Kalliatakis
Managing Partner, Customer Resources Centre
[email protected]

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By shaungisbourne
03rd Sep 2009 09:43

Call centre in my experience = Noble ideal that has been raped and pillaged.

Front line staff that are poorly paid and poorly trained is the norm for the industry, and yes, people do talk in terms of there being a call centre industry regardless of the business sector or company the call centre is serving and whether the call centre is an independent (outsource) business or an in-house unit within a larger entity.

Managers talk in terms of call centres being cost centres. In most cases these are profit centres for the companies that operate them in the sense that if they were run properly and appropriate levels of service were delivered through them, then it would cost the companies that operate them far more than it does currently.

Call centres, by and large, have done a lot to dehumanise the sacred ideals of customer service on both sides of the telephone. Companies feel the need to "be seen to be doing the right thing", the fact remains that in commoditised and highly profitable industries like banking and telecoms, the bare minimum is good enough for those on the inside, far from satisfactory for most customers... You get what you pay for, but I for one would gladly pay an extra £1 / $1 per month for a mobile phone contract (for example) if it would assure a higher level of service from staff that are actually valued at the companies they work at or work for.

If money talks and bullsh*t walks as the saying goes, it seems to me that call centres manage both.

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