- Outsource Magazine
- On September 28, 2011
This article originally appeared in Outsource Magazine Issue #25 Autumn 2011
The word “revolutionary” is bandied about extremely liberally, and frequently inappropriately, in business – but the impact of technology upon customer service over the last few decades certainly fits the bill. The emergence of the call centre, and later contact centre, as the dominant model of customer contact has revolutionised how organisations secure, communicate with, retain, exploit and even disengage from customers, reengineering the very concept of “customer service”; meanwhile the rise of the outsourcing model has given rise to a paradigm shift in the nature of the relationship between company and customer, service and service user. Together these trends have created huge and diverse opportunities for businesses – but have simultaneously produced challenges with which even the most supremely proficient organisations wrestle with varying degrees of success.
Technology in the customer contact arena can be broadly divided into two sets – that whose primary purpose is to improve the customer experience, and that designed primarily to benefit the business’s bottom line – and it should come as little surprise that, historically, much of the greater endeavour in the field has gone into the latter set than the former. First and foremost, technology has been deployed to drive efficiency: as the volume of customer interactions grew, so did the value of having centralised facilities dedicated to handling them, and optimising the processes which then evolved.
However, if the primary challenge for businesses during the early phases of this revolution was the motherlode of cost-minimisation, today that efficiency must be mined much more carefully in an explosive landscape of a much-increased level of expectation amongst consumers. Furthermore, as the interactivity model moves from “call centre” to “contact centre” and increasingly tech-savvy customers demand more and more choice and sophistication from their providers whilst utilising technology for an increasing array of purposes and activities, the techniques required to maintain the requisite balance become ever more intricate.
Many of the most problematic issues associated with the application of technology to customer contact – certainly from the customer’s perspective – stem from the fact that historically most interactions have taken place at times when the customer either is unprepared for them (in the case of cold sales or research calls) or, more frequently, requires a solution to a problem which may well have created a degree of anxiety or anger. In a state of heightened emotional sensitivity, negotiating with a potentially complex automated system can drastically intensify these negative responses – especially if the customer believes the system is designed primarily for the organisation’s benefit, and certainly if this interaction does not result in a resolution of the problem in question, or if the call involves a lengthy queuing period (regardless of the quality of “hold” music or the depth of sincerity of the reassurance that “your call is important to us”).
Furthermore, the natural human requirement for sympathy when confronted with difficulty can rapidly result in a sense of dehumanisation when it becomes clear that the sought-after ‘human touch’ will not be forthcoming from the caller’s electronic counterpart. Such problems can seriously impact upon the customer’s relationship with the business and can potentially lead to a permanent disengagement and subsequent loss of custom.
“When you see an IVR where it’s impossible to find a human voice, and the IVR is not set up to find a problem that you’ve got personally, I think people’s annoyance rapidly moves into mistrust,” believes customer relationship specialist Don Peppers. “They think ‘these guys are only out for themselves’ – which in fact they were, when they set the system up in the first place. My guess is that when you can’t trust a system like that, if you drill down into the internal methods of the company, the system was designed so as to reduce costs, and there may have been some attention paid to customer service – but the attention would have been as a constraint. They would have said ‘let’s reduce costs as much as possible, and not reduce customer service below this particular given measure’. As opposed to the other way around, which would have been very customer-friendly, and which would inspire trust. But companies don’t do that – for whatever reason.”
Once the call centre model became firmly established, and such challenges became clear, the need to avoid such potentially damaging repercussions saw a great deal of effort and R&D spend put into reducing potential emotional triggers (for example, messages notifying the caller of his or her place in the queue and the expected waiting time); streamlining the routing process, simplifying menu systems and reducing as far as possible the number of inputs required of the caller; and ‘humanising’ the automated elements of the call (for example ensuring that messages are delivered by a sympathetic-sounding, albeit recorded, human voice rather than an electronically generated one). More recently opportunities to extend and amplify the human touch have emerged through the rise of internet-enabled video communication, with a growing number of centres allowing customers to see the person with whom they are interacting.
All these innovations, of course, come at a cost – yet compared with the unattainable ideal of having a person answer every call immediately this cost is minimal, while the laws of the market maintain a downward pressure on cost through the sheer proliferation of providers and platforms.
Furthermore, the awareness within business of the potential damage resulting from inadequate service is being matched by a grudging acceptance amongst consumers that there really is no alternative to at least some degree of automated contact; that – assuming the process is as pain-free as possible – it’s a necessary evil (it’s instructive that in both the US and UK, after a lack of first-call resolution consumers now consistently highlight issues relating to the offshoring of call centres as their biggest gripes – and this is, of course, a very human problem). Especially in straitened economic times, technology is a weapon which, having been deployed, will never be removed from the organisational armoury – indeed, cost pressures are actually driving innovation which eventually has a positive impact on the prices at which customers can obtain products and services.
“More than before, I think companies are aware of budgets and restrictions on spending,” says Michelle Murray of Ireland-based call centre solution provider VoiceSage. “The downturn in the economy has lasted long enough now that companies have learnt to adjust to survive, maintain their business or even grow. Call centres are expensive to operate; even outsourced centres still weigh heavily on finances. Being able to recognise areas that money or resources are leaking or aren’t being effective enough is vital..”
If in the area of problem resolution a balance between “First Do No Harm” and cost-minimisation remains the order of the day, and troubled callers continue to require a degree of person-to-person interactivity, in other areas of the customer experience technology is playing a radically different role. The proliferation of consumer technology and an increased familiarity with – even dependence on – smartphones and other internet-enabled devices has seen the development of a contact centre model in which services are provided which, far from requiring human contact, allow consumers to engage with companies on an entirely electronic level – driven as much, if not more, by the demands of the consumer as much as those of the business.
Where previously paying bills, transferring funs, making purchases – indeed a spectacular array of activities – may have necessitated either cumbersome paperwork or a call to a company (with all the potential pitfalls described above), now interaction can take place via a few keystrokes or swipes of a smartphone screen – which, assuming the kit works as intended, suits the time-poor customer down to the ground. It’s a sign of the distinction between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ models of tech-enabled customer contact – between the ‘call centre’ and ‘contact centre’ phases, that if as noted earlier technology historically fell far more frequently into the set of “primarily benefiting the bottom line”, the new wave is much more firmly focused on enhancing the customer experience (which of course brings its own bottom-line benefits – as does technology which now enables companies to reach out directly to customers, existing and potential, with tailored offers via texts, email and social networks in a way which causes infinitely less irritation than the much-maligned cold call).
“There are two words driving tech evolution: ‘mobile’ and ‘social’,” says Murray. “The majority of your customer base is now mobile; getting information to your customer is easier than ever… Interacting with the customer should be a multi-tiered approach across all the technologies available.”
But therein lies the foundation for a whole new raft of challenges – for if in the past an organisation had to deal with the significant headache of maintaining the service-cost balance in its customer contact, the explosion of new formats and growing demand for multiple touch-points requires a huge degree of sophistication and investment to develop and maintain a competitive level of capability. Even the arena of problem resolution has now become significantly more complex with a dramatically expanded choice for the customer to obtain assistance.
“Think back to the early ‘90s, when your customers needed answers – their choices were to ask their friends or the call centre for help,” says Ian Tickle, VP EMEA for customer interactivity solution provider RightNow. “Unfortunately, the call centre was also set up as a call avoidance centre, some with bad IVR strategies trying to automate every customer interaction. Fast forward to the present and your customers have many more choices: they google, tweet, text, visit forums and communities, get social, visit your website (and your competitors) – the list of resources to turn to for assistance and information is vast.”
For even the largest organisations, engaging in battles on such a relatively sudden proliferation of fronts is extremely challenging; for smaller firms fighting to thrive or even merely survive it’s significantly more so. In most cases maintaining such a multitude of contact capabilities – with all the human and technological resources this entails – in-house is a practical impossibility. The overwhelming urge in the current climate is to focus on core competencies – and even if customer service is considered a core competency, developing a cutting-edge app or a compelling social networking proposition probably isn’t. Which is, of course, where outsourcing comes in…
Outsourcing customer contact (as opposed to merely buying the relevant technology from an external supplier) is of course nothing new – but the drivers now are perhaps more urgent than ever, and as consumer demands grow more sophisticated so too does the capability to be found within a provider base which, unlike many of its clients, has contact as a core competency. Indeed, organisations are increasingly dependent on providers of technology to keep them in touch with the consumers whose custom is their very lifeblood.
“The new ‘anytime anywhere’ access for various services and solutions being given by companies to their customer base is bringing new challenges to the contact centre industry,” believes Abhishek Verma, CMO of outsourced contact centre provider HEROtsc. “Clients are today looking forward to a supplier who can manage multiple streams of customer streams right from voice, email, web-chat, white mails, and web-mails on their sites as an integrated stream to create seamless customer interactions across multiple customer queues… to give the very best of customer services satisfaction and delight.”
These sentiments are echoed by Derek Parlour, Head of Commercial for National Rail Enquiries, who says that his organization is “mainly looking for people now with more expertise in the mobile market because we’re seeing more and more of that going away from the internet to mobile channels. So we’re starting to deal more and more with smaller companies, people who have got expertise in Blackberry, Palm or iPhone or Android.”
Parlour continues: “What’s really driving us is users’ changing use of technology: we’re seeing people moving away from call centres. The web is now by far our main channel and we’re seeing more and more people using mobile applications. There’s a move to self-service with the internet, with mobile applications; people are familiar enough with those so they can use them themselves, so we’re becoming more and more of a self-service channel. So it’s not so much about technology within the call centre, it’s technology that’s driving people away from the call centre. The call centre now only represents less than three per cent of our contacts.”
HeroTSC’s Verma believes that many buy-side organisations are increasingly of the opinion that a proliferation of platforms does not necessarily require a proliferation of providers and are consequently seeking to minimise the complexity of their sourcing strategies.
“Large companies, having experienced the first cycle of outsourcing, are now looking forward to integrated solutions to their business challenges and to consolidating multiple suppliers, to a single or at best two suppliers for customer services solutions. Management of many suppliers having multiple environments, generating different customer experiences for the same set of customers, has its danger, and is now clearly recognised by clients who are keen to give their customer and prospects set a homogeneous and seamless customer experience.”
The dangers associated with outsourcing customer contact do of course go far beyond those potentially resulting from a superfluity of suppliers. If there is still a residual aversion amongst many senior executives to handing over control of back office processes to third parties, there is a much greater level of concern over transferring control of “front of house” operations to an external provider. There is of course the business-critical issue of data security, and placing faith in the third party that they will protect your customer’s data from all wrongdoers. Perhaps even more critically however, outsourcing contact means to a degree transferring control of the relationship between brand and customer. Therefore, ensuring that a potential provider values your customers, and the customer service ethos, to the same extent as you do is a critical aspect of outsourcing.
“We have our values, as every company does, and at the top of ours is obviously customer service; without customers we’re nothing,” asserts Qasim Ali, Vendor Service Manager for Carphone Warehouse. “All of our suppliers are absolutely aware of those values. We disseminate all of our values and objectives: operational objectives; personal objectives; whatever it is that drives us from a day-to-day point of view, and from a strategic point of view, we not only make sure our suppliers are aware of it but we ask them to show us that they have cascaded that information down to the call agents, the service desk agents, the engineers; whoever else is working on our account. We want them all to know what our values are as the starting point for instilling the customer service ethos that we have.”
It’s clear that the outsource/in-house decision is far from being the archetypal “no-brainer”, and a great deal of work must be undertaken to ensure that the organisation is comfortable with the degree to which it is moving contact outside its own embrace. However, to a certain extent, as a consequence of the aforementioned growth in platform complexity, the increasingly urgent demands of the customer base, and an ongoing squeeze on discretionary spending, it’s more and more a case of “needs must” and “grin and bear it” even for many organisations which have hitherto resisted outsourcing call centre operations.
Meanwhile, of course, many other firms are embracing the model with aplomb, relishing the new cost-effective customer service, sales and marketing, and data analysis capabilities – and even more abstract profit opportunities via on-call advertising – generated by emerging technologies.
As is the case throughout the BPO space, outsourcing customer contact relies on robust checks and balances, solid and coherent strategy, and good old-fashioned trust. Technology can be a superb enabler delivering compelling competitive advantage; as noted earlier in this article, applied incorrectly or badly it can also be a cause of great dissatisfaction and eventual customer disengagement – and this holds true regardless of whether the service is delivered in-house or via a third-party. However, it is increasingly clear that the huge distance we have come from the time when customer contact technology was primarily deployed for problem resolution encompasses an equally huge leap in the complexity of the challenges facing organisations already assailed by countless other environmental difficulties; ironically, it may now be the case that in order for companies to keep their customers, they’re going to have to hand them over to the machines…
Into the future
What are the most prominent areas of emerging technology which are driving change in the call centre space, and how?
Ian Tickle, VP EMEA, RightNow
We believe there are actually four mega trends driving the call centre environment today. The first is consumer empowerment. Outside of empowerment through the internet and social networking sites, our research also shows that consumers are ready and willing to pay more for an excellent customer experience. I don’t believe that consumers actually want to spend their time posting negative comments on Facebook and Twitter about their bad service engagements, which is why they are starting to see that paying to guarantee a premium experience might well be worth a small investment.
The second trend is that cloud computing is going mainstream; more and more companies are turning to the cloud as the benefits are realised; scalability, security and total cost of ownership. Companies are realising that they need to focus their resource and budget on the core business, not on the technology behind it and how it works.
Third, mobile technology and social networking sites are driving a proliferation of online interactions. Mobile is becoming the preferred internet access device and traffic will surpass that of PCs. Many online businesses are already seeing a high proportion of mobile sales, so it’s imperative that businesses configure their support pages to be mobile friendly. Combine fierce mobile growth with the mammoth growth in traffic to social networking sites and it’s really possible to see how the customer support world is changing. It’s no longer possible to wait for the customer to come to you for assistance, you have to be serving not only in the places where you sell, but also where your customers chose to spend most of their time: ask yourself, why should the consumer drop what they are doing on Facebook to come and ask me a question – why would they? Is that a good experience for them?
Finally, the other major shift is the trend we’re seeing in legacy system displacement. With the consumer empowerment, mobile and social trends, enterprises have to evolve their contact centres to become customer experience-centric. Yesterday’s call centre systems cost too much to maintain, they don’t have the flexibility required to do the job that today’s call centre has to do and they certainly don’t have the ability to deliver full multi and cross-channel experiences. The benefit of updating systems mean increased agent productivity, reduced training costs and alternative agent strategies, new workflows and the ability to capitalise on outsourced relationships.