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The Rise and Fall of the Australian Contact Centre

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Australian Customer Contact CentreBy Martin Conboy.

Australian Contact Centres still struggle with the age old problem of escalating costs driven by employee and customer frustration and how to create a significant, positive impact on their parent business. Will this lead to more and more operations going offshore and the further decline of the local contact centre industry altogether? Or can something be done? Can the local industry fight back? Or has the horse already bolted?

There was a time, during the nineties, (Back in the good old days) when contact centres represented a fast growing and booming industry in Australia. The rapid growth, though generating numerous opportunities, generated a number of problems that emerged within the centres mushrooming around the country.

Plagued by high staff turnover, consumer dissatisfaction, and an inability to improve performance, the industry struggled to define its place within the broader business community and the public. Though the boom times are over, these problems, however, have not gone away.

One of the main challengeswithin the business, out of a number, stemmed from centres operating as a silo within an organisation, somewhat disconnected from the other departments and operational centres. Brett Feldon, General Manager at Salmat’s Speech Solutions business, comments, “Contact centres can tend to operate in an independent fashion from the rest of the business. For example, there may be disconnects between what the marketing team is saying and how it represents the business to the customer and how the contact centre operates in relation to the customer”.

Feldon points out, “Centres are built and organised around the organisation not around the consumer.  It’s like saying, ‘This is how my business is structured so please tell me how you fit into that structure’, rather than structuring the business and how the centre represents it around the consumer.”

Unfortunately, the local contact centre industry and the organisations that employ contact centres have not been able to overcome these issues. This has contributed, combined with the general high costs of doing business here in Australia, to more and more contact centre operations being sent off shore to low cost locations such as the Philippines.

From a small amount of  agent seats in the late Nineties the Philippines now has nearly 40,000 seats servicing Australia. This may only be the start of a mass exodus.

It may not necessarily improve the level of customer satisfaction, or that a contact centre in the Philippines doesn’t have the same issues as a contact centre in Australia, but it certainly makes the whole exercise more cost effective.

In the Philippines, the BPO, contact centre and service sector is seen as a national mission with the full weight of the government behind it. In Australia, it is seen as a minor sideshow from the nation’s real strength in mineral exploration Tourism and agriculture.

And in Asian centres they are working relentlessly to improve quality, and to innovate.

To fend off offshore competition, obviously the answer lies in innovation in the way we do things and technology to automate those things. But technology is only part of the answer.

Feldon advises, “Essentially, businesses need to re-align themselves and structure their operations in regards to what consumers think and expect. That’s where the true innovation needs to take place. Technology and the automation on top of that will maximise the benefits.”

This, off course, presents a whole array of additional challenges. Many beyond the scope of the majority of businesses. How do we build a true picture of what the customer/consumer wants and deliver it across all customer touch points? And how much do we invest in the process.

The answers require the effort and focus of the entire industry. And Technology is not the solution but would be fundamental in building it.

The next wave of technological innovation for the contact centre and customer service industry has commenced with Robotic Process Automation and the emergence of virtual BPO and contact centre agents.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) aims to reduce costs, improve efficiency and productivity by removing repetitive and manually intensive tasks. As a result organisations are able to respond quickly to new markets.

RPA relies on software robots performing mundane and repetitive back office or front office operations leaving agents to handle the higher value tasks and functions. RPA is expected to have a significant global impact on the outsourcing, contact centre and service industries in the next few years as organistaions look at further ways to reduce costs as well as improve performance, customer service and profitability.

Will the local ride industry ride this wave or will it simply flounder around trying to find its place in the sun?  Please share your views.

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July 16, 2014
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