Customers call the tune now

Call centres are the fastest-growing employment sector in the UK, but they have been criticised for poor customer service. Now things are changing

The call centre industry has grown by a massive 237 per cent in the past four years and is one of the fastest-growing employment sectors in the UK today. According to research by The Listening Company, the industry already employs more people than teaching and farming put together and by 2008 it is expected to employ 665,000 people.

This is a clear indication that call centres are an integral part of virtually every organisation today. The industry is also one of the most controversial, having attracted negative press coverage on stressful “factory-style” working conditions and problems of staff recruitment and retention (MW November 8, 2001).

So, is it fair that the industry has been labelled the ugly duckling of marketing services? The Listening Company believes that the industry has faced up to its challenges.

Perceptions of call centres have definitely shifted. Out of the 1,000 people interviewed, only just over five per cent say that they are unhappy with the people who answered their call. This indicates the industry has successfully jumped one hurdle – the quality of call handlers.

Additionally, 93 per cent of those surveyed prefer to speak to an operator, which shows that one-to-one human interaction on the telephone is still valued by most consumers. However, the survey shows that there is room for improvement in other areas, including automated systems.

The study reveals that most consumers are very unhappy with automated systems. Nearly 50 per cent of those interviewed are frustrated at having to press key after key on their telephones just to get an answer to a simple question.

This was particularly true of 51to 65-year-olds: 64 per cent admit to having lost patience and having hung-up before getting through to an operator.

From a practical point of view, automation for call centres is a way of reducing costs and improving efficiency. But this could have an adverse effect for companies in terms of customer retention and building customer relationships. According to The Listening Company, the majority of consumers would rather talk to operators than use automated services.

A major cause for concern among customers is the rise of credit card fraud and the concern that the companies they are dealing with might break the Data Protection Act legislation. For this reason security and privacy have been growing issues in the call centre industry. The research shows that under half of the consumers interviewed (42 per cent) do not feel secure when giving personal or banking details over the phone.

The integrated voice recognition (IVR) system, a service for channelling calls to the right department, is a way of ensuring that the best person answers the call – so long as it is picked up quickly at the end of the process.

The call centre industry is undergoing rapid change as new technologies continue to embed themselves in popular culture – the trend for using e-mail is an obvious instance. However, research shows that the British are a conservative nation and that on average 60 per cent of us prefer to speak to someone over the phone rather than use e-mail. Certainly for consumers at home, e-mail is not yet the convenient medium it promised to be. Few people have e-mail at their fingertips and most have to go through the laborious process of booting up their PCs and getting an Internet connection. Poor experience in e-mail response times hasn’t helped and most consumers want the reassurance of talking to a real person.

Every rule has an exception and companies need to make sure they understand the younger generation, since 73 per cent of all 16to 20-year-olds prefer to use e-mail to communicate with a company.

Looking at attitudes to customer service across different industries using call centres, it is clear that some still have work to do. Some 33 per cent of those surveyed complained that they are unhappy with the services provided by their utility companies. Banks are second worst with 19 per cent complaining about the service that their banks provide. Good news, however, for the air industry – with only six per cent of consumers complaining about its services.

As we steer our way through a downturn, a major priority for any organisation should be the quality of its customer service. The research concludes that the call centre industry has gained increasing acceptance among UK consumers and despite the bad press it has received in the past, satisfaction with the call handling experience itself is encouragingly high.

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