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Outsourced Contact Centres: Focus on your customer

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So many market developments and technological advances have impacted the evolution of the contact centre in the last 5 to 10 years. Things such as social media, big data, cloud computing and mobility are having a tremendous impact. The most important change, however, is the shift from focusing on internal performance metrics such as length of call, to metrics that help manage and improve the customer experience.

From  its humble beginnings in the 1980s when it was referred to as a telemarketing centre or call centre to being called a contact centre or customer experience centre, technology and market trends have greatly altered the definition and the role of the contact centre within the modern enterprise.

Regardless of what it’s called, the contact centre is now one of the most important elements of a company’s Customer Experience Management (CEM) strategy. Anita Bowtell, President of the Contact Centre Management Associations comments, ”The evolution of the call centre to contact centre to customer experience centre has been driven by the expectations of consumers, and organisations looking to address the needs of their customers. These expectations are tightly integrated with the enterprise’s sales and marketing objectives.”

The rise of the modern contact centre

The current definition of a contact centre increasingly includes the handling of various types of interactions other than telephone calls. For this reason, most individuals and organisations refer to it as a “contact centre”. The rang of terms used generally reflect the proportion of  interactions done through the telephone to those  made through other channels such as e-mail or Web chat as well as the nature of those interactions. Bowtell adds, “People may refer to it as the customer service centre or infoline or whatever depending on their use and how they manage it.”

To many organisations the contact centre is the most important operation they will let a third party to manage; therefore its efficient and effective operation are a key factor in their own overall success.

Many organisations now entrust the bulk of their customer service, sales and marketing campaigns to third party call centre operators.

Customer Service and Management trends within the contact centre

A customer’s primary touch point is often the contact centre, yet somewhere along the way contact centre agents became guardians of handle times and hold times. With the ever increasing emphasis on Customer Experience Management, however, there is a growing realisation that the agent is instead the guardian of the relationship between the customer and the company. While in the past, some companies were so obsessed with reducing the time it took to serve the customer, now it is no longer about the call but about the customer.

Despite the ever-changing models and terminologies used, the metrics for contact centre and agent performance are substantially still traditional, but the customer profiles  are not. Even disregarding the percentage of customer contacts through e-mail or Web chat, the “typical” contact centre inquiry changes in nature the moment self-help enters the equation.

With more customers resorting to self-help and solving problems on their own, when they do need to call they tend to have challenging issues that entry-level agents cannot resolve. Therefore, there is a need for agents adequately trained to do multi-tasking and conflict resolution, or resolution management as CRM practitioners call it. The key shift in the mind set for call centre managers and agents is to optimise the current customer’s call rather than using it to speed to the next one.

Contact centre management is beginning to realise that with more responsibilities given to the agent, more training is required, and as more is expected of him/her, proper compensation and incentives are required.

So the current mindset is:

  • pay agents to sell and they will sell.
  • pay them to solve problems , and they will solve problems.
  • pay them to keep queue times low and they  will.

The former preoccupation of call centre management with technology and time based performance metrics has given way to customer service management of which the agent is at the front line.

Aligning the outsourced contact centre with Corporate Customer Service Strategies

The outsourced contact centre’s value lies in its ability to increase revenues and profits for the client organisation, where its role has become crucial in managing customer experiences. It is therefore necessary, to align its strategies and programs with those of its client. That means that C level executives from both organisations need to be involved in the planning, establishment and ongoing management of the outsourced contact centre project.

Usually, the client first hires the BPO provider on a consultancy basis, with the specialists of both sides going over the client’s overall corporate objectives, marketing programs, sales targets, customer base and composition, customer service goals, and other related information.

The BPO provider gives their own inputs and insights, such as on the most appropriate CRM/CEM software applications and may propose changes in certain areas. The process is reversed when the client goes over the providers’s CRM/CEM programs.

They agree on the metrics for the centre’s performance and in the end, the objectives and targets that both have agreed on become the new contact centre’s own. To gain product or service knowledge and otherwise internalise important aspects of the client’s business, the agents assigned to the client’s account may have to pass muster by the client and go through an orientation process.

Even as the centre constantly monitors and evaluates the agent’s performance using the appropriate metrics, the centre in turn evaluates its own performance in relation to the parameters and goals agreed with the client.

The Impact of the Cloud

Cloud computing is arguably one of the most welcome innovations in the BPO industry, particularly to contact centres which have to deal with unpredictable fluctuations in customers’ demand for their services. Cloud computing enables a contact centre to have a scalable online environment where increased volume of calls can be handled without affecting system performance.  A contact centre can provide unique services utilising large-scale computing resources from a cloud service provider and then nimbly add or reduce IT capacity to meet high or low service demands while paying only for actual capacity used.

Cloud computing offers lower IT operating costs since a company can just rent server space for a few hours at a time, rather than maintain proprietary servers.  Cloud providers also have the flexibility to host their virtual IT infrastructures in locations with the lowest cost, so that many contact centres have been able to decentralize operations and deploy agents in other continents.

Social Media Contact Centres

A universal consensus has emerged among contact centre experts that social media is a viable, even necessary component of the customer service mix. The customers are there so the contact centre has to be there, so goes the logic. Bowtell comments, ‘Social Media has had a tremendous impact and change on the contact centre. It’s not just the communication that’s coming into the centre. It’s the huge amounts of customer data coming in via multiple channels.”

“Technology allows the data collected from all these channels to be used to create a better picture of a customer.”

However, organisations that have moved forward with social media have done so with insufficient staffing and service-level planning, without the same attention they give to other customer-facing channels, so the results so far are not as good as originally and over-optimistically expected.

A contact centre’s ability to solve complex customer issues in the social media is impeded by their limited character strings  (140 characters for Twitter).  All that most call centre agents now do is use social media as venues for customers to make inquiries or complaints and continue the interaction by phone or web chat to resolve issues.

If for no other reason, the contact centre has to be in social media so that it can pick up on what customers are asking for, gather competitive intelligence and get inputs on products and services.

Mobile Customer Service

“Advances in technology have made it possible for customers to interact with companies in a variety of ways; they now decide when and how to initiate contact and companies must oblige”, says Bowtell. The days when they can dial a call centre only at designated business hours are long gone and contact centres are learning to adapt.

Through mobile devices, customers can now download a company’s mobile application and make purchases on their computer tablet or smartphone any time. Some company mobile apps auto-generate customer data (purchase history and other account information) so that the customer does not need to keep providing it repeatedly. A company needs such a direct channel within its own mobile application to handle customer issues, instead of diverting questions and complaints to its e-mail or web-based customer service.

The company’s Customer Service desk in the call centre has to be flexible enough to deal with this fast growing channel or else the customers will post negative comments in the company’s app, vent their frustrations through social media, or abandon the company’s app (or business) altogether. On the positive side, a company can close sales quickly and use customer-initiated calls as touch-points for enriching the customer experience.  
July 16, 2013
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