Foreign exchanges

In recent years many UK companies have relocated their call centre operations overseas in an effort to cut costs. But there are concerns that customer service suffers as a result. Alex Blyth reports

It’s just what you’d expect from a call centre in Middlesbrough. Operators are answering a steady flow of calls, one dealing with a technical query from a customer in Bedford, another taking a debit card payment from a customer in Camden. Above the hum of activity you catch snippets of conversations between operators and customers: one operator is laughing about last night’s episode of The Office, another is agreeing that the rise in gun crime is worrying. In fact the only odd thing is that this isn’t Middlesbrough at all – it’s Manila.

Over the past few years many UK companies have moved their call centres from the UK to countries with lower wage thresholds, predominantly the Caribbean, India, the Philippines and South Africa. These businesses have come under sustained criticism from those who believe that lower costs lead to lower levels of customer service. However, others, such as Rob O’Malley, chief operating officer of Asian Call Centres, a 160-seat operation based in Manila, argue that the reverse is true.

Money talks

O’Malley says: “Undoubtedly cost is the primary motivation for moving offshore. It is at least 30-per-cent cheaper to run a call centre here. But, I believe customer service can actually be better here than in most UK call centres. In the Philippines, working in a call centre is a career, and, because we pay over the going rate, we get the pick of the top graduates. We receive over 1,000 applications for each vacancy. Our staff stay with us and are highly motivated, attending training sessions after work. Can you imagine staff in the UK giving up their own time like that?”

NSPCC database manager Sara Mansfield is not so convinced that relocating call centre operations overseas is a benefit. “We made the mistake of using a company that was new to the market; it had set up a huge call centre in America’s Mid-West. The problem was that callers were confused by the American accents – they thought that they, or we, were paying for a call to the States. That’s never going to make a charity look good to its donors,” she says.

Chey Garland, chief executive of Garlands Call Centres in Hartlepool, believes clients must be clear with their objectives when using offshore outsourcers: “For outbound telemarketing and higher-value inbound calls, such as handling customer complaints, UK operators can offer greater cultural empathy and so are a clear benefit to UK companies. When you consider that it costs eight times as much to acquire a new customer as it does to retain one, companies simply can’t afford to put cost before customer service.”

Speaking the same language

Even the strongest proponents of offshore outsourcing admit that there can be problems. Primarily these are concerns over local telephony systems and cultural differences. Yet, a broad consensus seems to be developing that overseas call centres can be effective for the simpler, lower-skill campaigns where UK labour costs makes the use of live agents prohibitively expensive.

Mini Callcentres managing director Nick Hansen believes that the trend will be for companies to outsource overseas through a UK call centre: “Only 15 per cent of call centre capacity in India is in use because many of them were set up by profiteers who don’t understand the business. Clients want cheaper service but they also want to deal with someone who understands the telemarketing business, someone they can talk to, and ideally someone who is subject to the same laws as them.

“For this reason, many of our clients are happy to pay us to deliver results regardless of where we choose to get the work done. We have built relationships with good overseas call centres and have developed stringent quality-management procedures. This enables us to pass on considerable cost savings to our customers while also delivering work of the highest quality.”

It is increasingly accepted that technology can save money and enhance customer service – but only if used in the right way.

We’ve all experienced the frustration that can be caused by maze-like touch-tone systems, but Dudley Larus, vice-president of marketing at software provider Amcat, points out that there are technologies available that improve customer service. “VIP queuing allows customers to leave their name and number, so registering their place in the queue. When they reach the front of the queue, they are called back. It’s simple and inexpensive, but removes the stress customers feel at being made to hold for 20 minutes.

“Skill-base routing is also useful. It’s where the system automatically directs the call to the operator with the most appropriate language, experience, or technical skills.”

BT Ignite director of global voice services Frank Schaffer believes that combining technology with offshore outsourcing is the key to uniting the twin goals of cost savings and customer service. In January, BT launched its Multimedia Contact Centre to do just this.

“We’ve used a series of centrally located servers to bring together our global IP network and our global voice network, which serves about 5,000 call centres, so companies and customers can be connected via voice or data between any two points on the planet. It saves clients money as they don’t have to host the network at their premises – they can locate their agents anywhere in the world and can use the Web where it’s more appropriate than a voice call,” says Schaffer.

Voice of reason

Even the much-maligned voice-recognition technology is generally accepted to be useful for certain functions, such as bank balance enquiries or for booking cinema tickets.

However, Andy Akerman, head of marketing at Direct Excellence, believes that customers remain opposed to voice recognition: “Most have a dislike of recorded messages, particularly those that give option after option. Having said this, the lowest-scoring call centres are those that have no automated component and still keep customers waiting. There is a misconception that technolo

gy is the only way to prevent this happening. In most cases a few simple process modifications are enough to reduce queues and keep customers happy. For instance, scripts aren’t usually reviewed frequently enough, so your agents could be wasting time and irritating customers by asking irrelevant questions.”

NTL South head of marketing David Meadows agrees that technology should not be seen as a universal panacea: “Many of our problems were resolved by developing a good relationship with our call centre, Telecom Express. Outsourcing means I don’t have to over-staff our in-house operation and I’m able to alter scripts rapidly and so deal with any problems almost before they crop up.”

NSPCC’s Mansfield agrees: “My focus is our relationship with the call centre. I look closely at the contract, tackling things like excessive management fees, and making sure I pay by the minute, not by the call. I do everything I can to motivate the team that is doing the work. I go into the call centre to sit with agents, I give positive feedback where appropriate, and generally I try to make them feel part of our team.”

Call Centre Association executive director Anne-Marie Forsyth reaches a similar conclusion: “Call centres need to be easy to deal with or they are worthless.

“Last year we launched our CCA Standard Framework for best practice on training in an attempt to correct the imbalance between technology and training. It’s important to review three key factors: staff training, the relevance of technology and the focus on customers. If UK call centres do this there is no reason why our industry shouldn’t continue to deliver cost-effective, quality customer service.”

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