Reputations on the Line

Call centre staff are many consumers’ first (and main) point of contact with a brand. Companies need to ensure call-takers are well-informed, motivated and backed by the right technology to keep customers satisfied, according to Richenda Wilso

The call centre industry has been so maligned since it started to take off in the early Eighties – with talk of astronomical staff turnover, “dark satanic mills”, sweatshops and Big Brother monitoring – that it comes as no surprise that call centres are failing to meet their service level targets. Successful centres still sound like the exception rather than the rule.

But the industry has had 20 years to sort itself out, and while annual growth rates of 20 per cent are undeniably challenging, it would be disingenuous to attribute current difficulties to “teething problems”. Why is it that many call centres aren’t meeting their targets and how do you ensure that the one you are using performs?

The first shocking bit of news is just how far short of targets the service levels at many call centres are. Independent consult

ancy Optium conducted research this summer into 50 call centres, each with more than 200 seats. It discovered that just 30 per cent of them were meeting their own performance targets even though 94 per cent of managers at these centres thought their targets were being achieved.

Optium director Ken Reid says: “Our research suggests that the failure to measure service levels effectively is a fundamental flaw for the vast majority of call centres, making it impossible to get staffing levels right.”

Reid suggests part of the problem is that some centres use two or three service measures, which complicates matters. The most popular measurement parameter is the percentage of calls answered within a certain time, say 20 or 30 seconds, followed by “abandon rate” and average speed of answering. Conflict between these three may be adding to call centres’ problems.

All this serves to emphasise the importance of using appropriate systems to measure these criteria, but some industry insiders go further and raise questions about whether these are the right measurements to be making.

Worth the wait?

Stephanie Rouse is operations director at outsourced call centre company MM Group. She points out that research conducted across Europe into queue times and satisfaction levels found that expectations varied between countries. She says: “You shouldn’t just assume that you need to offer a certain service level – customers may accept a longer wait for better service. People want to speak to someone who can intelligently answer their query. Ideally you deal with people on first contact, but you may find customers are happy to be called back.”

Caroline Warboys, director of business strategy and marketing at telemarketing service company Broadsystem, agrees that measurement systems in the past have tended to rely on quantity not quality, and that service level agreements should consider elements such as customer satisfaction, reducing complaints and measuring lifetime value.

“Performing to measures of both customer satisfaction and commercial results requires improved efficiency and service levels,” says Warboys. “Good scripting is invaluable, backed by strong management and an information flow that facilitates real-time decision making and pre-empts problems. The call centre should have good knowledge-based systems to back up calls, including information such as store locations or additional numbers to contact.”

Rouse points to the benefits of using sophisticated automated answering and routing systems to help lower abandoned call rates. When a call comes in at a busy time and the wait will be longer than 20 seconds, for instance, an automated voice could apologise for the delay and offer the caller the chance to leave their number.

MM Group has plenty of experience in dealing with peaks and troughs in demand and is about to get more, since it has just won the contract to run Floodline, the Environment Agency’s information service, which took 500,000 calls from the public at the height of last autumn’s flooding, making it the second most-dialled number in the UK, after 999.

MM uses an electronic workforce management system, from technology company Aspect, which works out staffing requirements based on predictions of traffic patterns. If staff request a shift change, the system can juggle the numbers around, and it even monitors whether staff are sticking to their schedules and taking lunch at the right time, says Rouse.

She adds that the company has other ways of dealing with peaks in demand, including emergency call-out procedures and using outworkers. MM’s three call centres, in Bristol, Bangor and Ashby-de-la-Zouch, are networked so that calls can be rerouted to other sites.

Peaks and troughs can also be ironed out by having staff deal with multiple media, says Rouse. “If calls peak between 10am and 11am, for instance, everyone could be answering the phones. But, after 12, when it’s quieter, some people could be answering e-mails or dealing with Web chat.”

Avoiding burn-out

Many commentators agree that offering telephone agents the chance to work with different media or learn new skills will help them to avoid burn-out. Indeed, Richard Overy, IT and operations director for the Hoseasons Group, which runs outsourced services for Reader’s Digest among others, considers the treatment and loyalty of staff to be the main factor that ensures success.

He says: “Companies should pay people well, train them well and give them an identity. Our staff have control over their working lives and are encouraged to comment on aspects such as rest areas and shift patterns. It even goes down to the small elements, such as being able to open the windows or adjust the air-conditioning.”

Hoseasons’ staff turnover rate is incredibly low for the industry, at just five per cent a year, though Overy admits its centre in Lowestoft is in an area with high unemployment and little competition. However, the figure is still impressive and bodes well for customer service in that long-serving, committed staff are more likely to have the knowledge to answer customers’ queries at the first point of contact. Overy emphasises that regular qualitative research is used to check that agents are correctly opening, conducting and closing calls.

Martin Williams, marketing director of the Listening Company, which runs three call centres serving clients including BUPA, Lloyds TSB and British Gas, agrees that people management is a major factor when choosing a call centre, and he suggests further ways to check this out: “What is their attitude to technology? If technology is the first thing they talk about then clearly their people are not at the top of the agenda.”

Maggie Evans, head of marketing for iSKY Europe, which provides a bureau service to major clients including AXA Sun Life, Clerical Medical Investment and Ericsson, offers the following checklist before choosing an outsourcing partner: “Ensure the price is right and that your partner is charging competitive rates for services provided; take up references; evaluate the partner’s reputation and expertise; make sure they are financially stable; and seek a good cultural fit with your company.”

Get it in writing

Evans adds that it is important to ensure your contract with them covers the following points: “A detailed description of services to be performed and the resources that will be dedicated to your account; the transition team and process; performance measurements, standards and consequences including penalties and incentives for underor over-performance; reporting requirements; confidentiality; ownership of data; dispute resolution processes; and emergency plans.”

Williams offers more questions to ask before committing to a deal: “Are they prepared to put faith in their own abilities and offer risk-reward pricing? Are you prepared to reward excellence? But are they promising too much? Brief a number of call centres and compare their responses. It may be tempting to go with the supplier that promises the Earth, but beware the company that promises to do significantly better than the others.

“Do they really understand your business, your market and your objectives? Are you treating them as a business partner rather than a supplier? It surprises me sometimes how many clients treat their call centres as commodity providers and how few chief executives participate in the selection of an outsourced supplier.

“The best clients involve their call centres from the earliest point in their planning and ensure that their call centre team is sufficiently well-briefed to handle any question that might be thrown at them. The worst clients only partially brief call-takers, and are then surprised when the project goes live that the call handlers are unable to respond satisfactorily to callers’ requests.”

Vanessa Hartnoll is head of consultancy at telemarketing specialist CPM Consulting. She agrees that insufficient briefing can allow the relationship between client and call centre to go horribly wrong: “Clients work heavily with creative agencies on the wording of copy but don’t get the call centre involved, beyond putting the contact details into the creative work. If call centres are not given advance notice of impending campaigns, then there may not be enough staff to cope with demand, which will lead to a trail of disappointed customers. Simple things like staggering a mailing will help to prevent this.”

See for yourself

Hartnoll suggests that failure to communicate means clients miss out on valuable feedback from previous campaigns and fail to gain information such as where the caller came across the number. In short, she says, there is nothing more effective than visiting the call centre and seeing customer interaction for yourself: “Listen in on calls and hear the customer experience. Phone feedback offers a rich source of information, enabling you to develop and improve the process for next time.”

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