Whose call is it anyway?

All too often the technological systems in place at call centres are designed by the IT department, without any real input from the very people who are using them. By Jo-Anne Flack

Who would be a call centre manager? As businesses increasingly make use of call centres as a point of contact with customers, these managers are having to become more flexible and multi-talented.

Call centre managers usually get the top job through an ability to motivate and encourage, sometimes, vast teams of people to operate fast and effectively. But now it seems, not only do they have to possess these “people” skills, they also have to have a technical knowledge that would leave most people gasping.

Steve Payne is marketing manager at Callscan, which provides software and training for call centres. He says: “Call centre managers work very long hours and have to deal with a number of different systems: the telephony system, the company database, a scripting package and a voice recording system. They need to understand them all and usually produce weekly reports on them.”

Call centres are the one point in the marketing communications mix where IT and the art of effective communications are on a constant collision course. Call centres could not operate without the technology, but neither could they work without effective people skills.

Balancing act

The point is how to get the balance right. At the moment, it appears as if technology is proving more powerful, with many in the call centre industry complaining that an over-reliance on IT is having a detrimental affect on business.

Payne points out that 90 per cent of the investment in call centres goes into the technology, with the remaining ten per cent on people.

“I’ve also seen figures quoted of staff turnover in call centres of up to 35 per cent. Maybe there is a link between the ten per cent [investment] and the 35 per cent,” he says.

Payne acknowledges that IT can be expensive but “no matter how good a system is, at some stage people will have to interact with it”.

Chairman of hosted contact centre, Port@l, Glenn Hurley, is convinced the balance is wrong. “Call centres are investing &£3,000 a workstation on technology and only &£300 on training the operator,” he says.

One of the results of all this technology is the growing influence of IT departments which, in most sectors, have a reputation for possessing knowledge and information that is only available to a select few. This reputation feeds on itself to the point that businesses believe they can’t make any decisions until the IT department has been consulted.

Noetica develops call centre software and conducted a survey that shows exactly how intrusive IT departments have become. The survey investigated the timelines and mechanics of campaign creation and modification.

When asked how long it took to make a modification to an existing campaign, 27 per cent said it took “several days” and 22 per cent said it took “several weeks”. Although coming in as the lowest response rate, a significant 11 per cent said it took “several months” to make a modification to an existing campaign.

When asked to what extent the internal IT personnel got involved in these modifications, 79 per cent said the IT department was fully involved in the changes.

Noetica commercial director Keith Symondson says: “All too often, the complexity of some call centre technologies demands that IT departments are involved in even the smallest script amendments. This can leave call centre managers and staff feeling powerless and frustrated.”

And it is not as if technical knowledge gained from working in one call centre will necessarily be of use in another. It seems there are as many different IT packages and systems as there are call centres – each configured to suit the needs of one particular centre.

And the bigger the call centre, the greater the problem.

Payne says that the multinational centres are likely to operate within a global system that is mainframe-based. “In these cases, it will take a long time to make changes to a campaign. But you also have to consider the length of a campaign. If it is ongoing, a few weeks or a few months is not a long time,” he says.

But it could be that the very nature of the call centre business means that the clash of IT and people may always be a problem.

Conflicts of interest

Chief operating officer at IT consultancy Tek Garden, Neil Jeffries, explains: “Call centre systems have to try and fit a conflicting set of requirements. The immediate operational requirements tend to mandate a relatively proscriptive and inflexible system.

“Later on, this means that future campaigns tend to be dictated by the system already in place – this is the factor in shifting control away from marketing towards the IT function.

“The key characteristics that tend to govern systems implementation are: high staff turnover, relatively low staff skills and training levels, high call volumes and high reporting requirements.

“This means systems are very prescriptive and structured in order to maximise efficiency, minimise training requirements and staff discretion when handling a call and provide a wide variety of statistics for monitoring.”

Jeffries adds that the longer-term requirements of a call centre system are different and are usually ignored when the initial implementation takes place. And there is a good reason for this. “It means significantly increased cost at the point of first implementation,” he says.

Also, the longer-term requirements of call centres may be unrecognisable at the outset. Operations development manager at Merchants, Seamus Murphy, points out that when a customer calls a bank for instance, the call could relate to one of very many options.

Murphy says: “The customer expects to make any transaction they would face to face. Some banks have about 400 products. This inevitably leads to having complex systems.”

Getting to grips with it all

However, this technical complexity and the need for call centre managers and staff to come to grips with it will not go away, according to Murphy. He says the general trend continues to be towards more complex systems that will increasingly put pressure on call centre managers. Yet this is not the real problem, he says. What is causing real frustration is when the IT departments take operational decisions – those decisions that should be left to call centre management.

The picture then becomes blurred – and what are in fact business changes, which would normally be handled by management, are mistaken for IT changes because they have been made and implemented by the wrong department.

“Problems occur when businesses adopt an IT solution to a business problem, and don’t involve anyone else in the decision-making process. Unless you engage the people who will be using that IT solution, you significantly reduce the chance of it working,” explains Murphy.

This links back to Jeffries’ comments. He says the longer-term requirements of a call centre include the flexibility to implement new programmes and the ability to run several programmes concurrently.

“But this introduces conflicts with the operational systems already in place,” Murphy explains. Business rules suddenly need to be variable and even a number of different sets of rules need to be accommodated.

The problems arise when the IT department is asked to solve these operational issues, usually without consulting the staff.

Another consequence of the over emphasis on technology in this business is the inevitable commoditisation of telemarketing, as the importance of the managers and agents is forgotten.

Hurley at Port@l says that although technology is providing many opportunities within call centres “it could also spell the end of them”.

“We are in danger of devaluing ourselves by placing all the emphasis on technology. What we should be doing is enhancing the services we provide. If 70 per cent of the costs involved in call centres are people, then surely the technology should be there to support those people,” he says.

One thing that would enable call centres to adapt and focus more on people and less on technology is a change in attitude towards call centres by clients. At the moment, call centres are still seen as a cost rather than an investment.

But for many clients, call centres represent the only real contact they have with their customers – and although technology is important in facilitating that contact, the only thing the customer is interested in is the voice at the end of the phone. Until more money is invested in the quality of that voice, call centres will continue to be a hit-and-miss affair – no matter how much technology is involved.

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