Rising customer expectations and extra communication media, such as web links, pose operational nightmares for call centres, as forecasting staffing needs is virtually impossible.

The rapid growth of DRTV advertising is causing problems for many companies, as providing adequate human resources for the medium is very difficult. As customers come to expect integrated service channels, they are increasingly unwilling to understand the complexities of peak-and-trough demand that cause poor service from the call centres they are telephoning.

From a consumer’s perspective, it makes no difference whether the DRTV response mechanism is a web link or a call centre, says Simon Daisley, head of business development at The Customer Contact Company.

“The consumer expects consistent response and how you arrange staff for that is a major issue. Often, the most successful campaigns cause the greatest problems, because an excellent creative execution provokes a much higher response. Expectations are set by the creative brief and the initial customer response has to be handled well, otherwise all the brand building work that has been done is flushed down the pan.”

Consumer expectations of response quality have never been higher, says Daisley.

“Consumers expect to be served on an individual basis, but attempting to do that consistently, conveniently and cordially can create chaos. DRTV is particularly complex because it is difficult to forecast the level of response. The planning is probably the most difficult part and that is why a lot of organisations simply regard DRTV as too difficult to resource.”

Most in-house call centres can arrange staff around a short-term DRTV campaign, but communication problems are often brewing well before the point at which calls come in, says David Powis, IT development director for FFwd Precision Marketing.

“Everyone talks about how important it is to bring data together in a central database location. The more communication channels you have, the more difficult it becomes. If you suddenly introduce another two or three communications media, like DRTV or WAP phones, each of these adds another link in the chain that a company must maintain. In many cases, different communications media are controlled by separate organisations, which all hold different bits of information on the same customer.”

But it seems there is no simple way around this.

Powis adds: “It is very difficult for a company to implement customer relationship management (CRM) techniques if it has ten different routes to market through ten different communications channels, many of which are being outsourced to specialist companies with no common reference.

“Add to this the fact that many call centres are working with legacy systems that are about five years old – many of which are hardware-driven – and you can see that call centres have a major challenge on their hands. The best call centres are set up as software centres where the whole system is controlled by programmes that can be individually developed. The alternative is expensive boxes of equipment that have to be written off after three years.”

It is the peak and trough nature of DRTV that makes it tricky.

Planning for peaks and troughs

Outsourcing Insight managing director Mike Havard explains: “DRTV works in 15-minute segments as opposed to the seasonal or weekly peaks and troughs seen in call centres generally. This makes it difficult to recruit people specifically for that period – especially when you have to have people working for a minimum of three or four hours at a time. The options are to adjust your pricing to recover costs from the supplier during down times, or to find enough overlap of the peaks and troughs to keep staff busy.”

Havard believes that as a result many organisations have concluded that it is too difficult to make money from handling DRTV because of the operational challenges involved. Competent managers who know how to run complex forecasting systems are in short supply and, with the call centre market growing as a whole, companies are finding there are revenues and clients that can more easily turn a profit for them.

“DRTV is inherently a transient business and it’s very easy to move the response handling around suppliers. For this reason, people who previously undertook bureau response management are moving towards lifecycle customer management instead,” he adds.

One of the main complaints against call handling is when customers are put on hold the moment they get through. Jonathan Grant, director of On Hold Services, refers to some grim statistics regarding on-hold casualties.

On-hold casualties

“A Leicester University/Co-operative Bank Survey in 1998 found that 70 per cent of business calls are put on hold, transferred or put in a queue. A survey by Teleconnect Magazine found that 60 per cent of all callers faced with silence when they are put on hold put the phone down within 40 seconds,” he says.

“Companies spend so much money generating response and then leave the caller lingering, listening to the most awful music or silence. It is far better, and possible, to identify the caller’s profile and then target messages at those callers, distracting them from the fact that they are in a queue,” says Grant.

Another approach to the realities of erratic staffing levels in call centres is to make use of caller identification solutions to shorten the time the caller would otherwise waste hanging on the phone. A free call-back service can make the difference between retaining and losing a customer, says Anna Grund, managing director of SurfBuy UK, which produces solutions that mediate between callers and call centres.

“When someone phones a busy call centre, it is possible to offer a free-of-charge call-back option. Caller identification technology collects the incoming number to be used for the call back. Alternatively, the customer can provide a preferred contact telephone number for the call back by using the telephone keypad,” explains Grund.

Keeping customers interested

But keeping customers calm is one thing. Even more important is the ability to make the most of their desire to buy something there and then. What would make this process easier, according to Pete Williams, programme manager for interactive television at AIT, is if people took the concept of integrating different channels to market more seriously.

“The different channels to market are all treated with a silo mentality. People capture information through DRTV response – but they don’t relay that to the retail outlet. The real challenge is providing a customer relationship management system to integrate these systems. The companies which will really do well are those which understand that different channels to market might entail various ways of communicating with the customer – but it in fact represents the same business.”

High price of success

In many ways, DRTV has been a victim of its own success. Consumers have responded so well to the immediate call to action that advertisers and their back-up services have often been caught unaware.

Lowering consumer expectations of response time and quality is not an option. It is far too late for that. However, for many advertisers, the level of back-up now needed to conduct a truly successful DRTV campaign is now beyond their reach. What often happens is an uneasy compromise between doing the campaign and settling for an adequate back-up system rather than not doing it at all.

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