Fountains tinkling over carefully-designed rockeries, an in-house radio station, online access to information about projects in the community and your very own Café del Mar for relaxation. Is this a top-flight London design company? A trendy accountancy firm?
No, this is a Stockton-on-Tees call centre service provider. In fact, Garlands has three contact centres in the Tees Valley area, employing 3,000 staff. It prides itself on its long-term partnerships with clients such as Virgin Mobile, Virgin.net, and Vodafone.
Unfortunately, this type of working environment is not typical of the industry as a whole. And this picture is certainly at odds with the portrait painted in the media and in the public imagination.
A few high-profile issues have blackened the name of call centres over recent years, blurring the distinction between outbound and inbound services in the process. Silent calls, cold-calling, off-shoring, the sale of personal details to fraudsters, frustrating waits and impenetrable automated routing systems head the list.
myth of outsourcing The negative image associated with contact centres is compounded by the popular misconception that most activities are outsourced, says chief executive of the Call Centre Association (CCA) Anne Marie Forsyth. In fact, around 80% of UK telephone work is done in house, she says.
Keeping call centre functions in house is, of course, no guarantee of perfect performance. The same issues of staff motivation, training, brand presentation and communication arise. And for Forsyth, the decision to outsource in itself is less momentous than the overall importance – and value – attached by a brand to customer service. “Regardless of where it is, the brand should get the point of contact right,” she says.
But if Forsyth believes there are shortcomings with this “point of contact” for many brands, she takes issue with the idea that the agent’s workplace experience is to blame. “Working conditions are generally very good,” she claims. “And pay is often linked to incentives.”
Forsyth says: “Lots of organisations have cut costs, but the fundamental question they avoid is: ‘How much have I spent to make this call work?’ All the marketing spend that led up to a call can be thrown away through poor investment in the call itself.
A first step for many brands, Forsyth maintains, should be to reduce the volume of incoming customer service calls. “The stress of the agents’ job, the monotony, often stems from not being able to help the person on the other end of the line,” she says.
automated benefits As Forsyth explains, more thought is now going into differentiating various categories of enquiry, and into tailoring the response. Automated systems may leave most consumers cold, but they reduce the volume of straightforward queries, she suggests.
The high-growth broadband sector is looking particularly hard at this question of differentiation. Service provider PlusNet has introduced a premium line number for complex, technical enquiries, while maintaining a free 0845 line for more urgent service calls.
Marketing director Neil Armstrong is adamant that the new higher-rate line is not about turning a call centre into a profit centre. “There’s nothing worse than phoning your service provider and finding you know more than the person on the other end of the line,” he says. Having well-trained staff able to handle these more involved calls is essential – but also potentially expensive. Currently, around half of the company’s 60-plus in-house agents are trained to this higher level.
PlusNet claims that its real objective is to channel customer enquiries between the two phone options towards solutions. By employing better-qualified, better-paid staff to handle enquiries which are not simply diagnostic, PlusNet seems to be ensuring that the agent can actually help the caller.
Garlands tackles this issue in another way, says executive assistant Simon Reay. Improvements in technology mean that much more information can be accessed from software tools and knowledge bases. “The agents have to be experts in using the software, but not necessarily experts in the client’s technology,” he explains.
A focus on one particular set of skills or products may help the agent feel he or she is making a difference, but it may also reinforce the monotony of the job.
The Data Base Factory combats this by balancing inbound and outbound. “We like to offer agents the opportunity to progress from one to the other,” says UK manager Peter Gale. “It can be surprising who makes a good sales person.”
learn to empathise One major contributor to the satisfaction and effectiveness of call centre workers is, of course, training. For Data Base Factory, this includes techniques aiming to get inside the mindset of the target customer in telesales. “For us, rather than recruiting senior people to target the senior market, for instance, it’s more about the ability to empathise and build a rapport,” says Gale.
For its part, Garlands explains that training has changed significantly over recent years. Says Reay: “There is an initial training, and then agents return with some experience. You are immersed in the client’s culture, but in other ways, it’s far from being a ‘sheep dip’.” The training period is now between 50% and 75% longer than it was before, he says, though this is partly to do with the complexity of products.
Trade union Amicus says it has concerns about levels of training in the industry as a whole. A spokes- •woman argues: “Call centre operators need to invest in training and development, if for no other reason than to be able to compete in the global economy. With offshoring on the increase, we have to ensure that the level of service at UK call centres is high, with positive customer feedback.”
Media portrayals of call centre malpractice often leave the agent carrying the can. This may actually suit the organisations that employ them, which in this way duck any suggestion of responsibility.
a holistic approach In fact, as Forsyth makes clear, it is about much more than the agent or even the call centre. “Our new auditable standard means that organisations must think more holistically about contact centres,” she says. “Staff must have a means of identifying a customer complaint and taking action by referring it to board level.”
This is important in outbound telemarketing, where services are more often outsourced. Chair of the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) Contact Centre and Telemarketing Council John Price talks about a “shameful lack of awareness on the part of clients about the people who do the telemarketing.”
Like Forsyth, Price has strident views on call centre standards. “We’re working in an industry of great intimacy, but one which can also do great damage,” he explains. “Brands haven’t been sufficiently connected to the risks, and sooner or later it’s going to bite them.”
To take the example of the much-vilified silent or abandoned call, Price explains how a financial company, for instance, will present a telesales team with several thousand records, cleaned against Telephone Preference Service (TPS) opt-outs. The team will be expected to contact a high proportion of customers, and achieve a number of sales. Anything above that level will provide some sort of bonus.
Price spells out how, towards the end of the month-long campaign, the team will be down to a residue of customers. “They will be using predictive dialling and working very hard to get hold of those people. They’ve got to squeeze them dry. So some poor consumers end up being badgered with up to ten silent calls in a day.” He adds: “We’re talking about anxiety and fear. That’s why the DMA got involved.”
The DMA’s involvement helped to establish new outbound call regulations from Ofcom that now prohibit abandoned calls.
Agents and employers will be keen to see if the watchdog has teeth. Anything that helps the call centre sector to restore its good name will be welcome. • Call Centre Expo Call Centre Expo 2006, the leading industry event where marketers can view hundreds of the latest products and services from over 200 suppliers, runs from October 3 to 4 at Birmingham NEC. Exhibitors cover everything involved in running a contact centre from training, recruitment and incentives as well as all the latest technologies.
Keynote sessions include: • A lively Industry Panel Debate entitled: “Putting the Contact Centre at the Heart of Your Customer Management” • Industry experts Brad Cleveland, aka Mr Call Centre, and Michael Weissman, author of acclaimed book The Paradox of Excellence, delivering practical advice on improving customer loyalty • Former England rugby captain Will Carling providing inspiring insights into leadership and team motivation.