The future is here

What’s happening with off-shoring and how are standards progressing? Is learning and development still an issue and what’s happening on automation and the future. What other issues remain current? We try to answer some of these questions here.

As for off-shoring, according to Professor Phil Taylor, Professor of Work and Employment Studies, University of Strathclyde Business School, the trend to establish offshore contact centres in India to handle UK customer calls is accelerating despite concerns over impending shortages of qualified labour driving up costs. However, Professor Taylor cautions that the continued rise of India’s call centre industry does not herald the demise of the UK industry which continues to achieve steady growth, albeit at a slower rate.
“We can expect that call centre off-shoring will increase but it is important to understand that does not mean the death of the domestic call centre industry,” says Taylor who has completed fresh research into the phenomenon of call centre off-shoring.
He adds that although the cost differential between the UK and India is narrowing India is still an attractive option on a cost basis, particularly for financial services companies, many of whom have relocated not just call centre operations but back office functions to India – a development which Taylor describes as of equal importance to call centre off-shoring.
Taylor also challenges India’s record on employee turnover, which he says is far higher than the industry claims. “Perhaps the most salient feature of the Indian industry today is the rate of employee turnover which we estimate is 65 per cent to 75 per cent - that’s substantially higher than NASSCOM’s estimate of 30 per cent to 40 per cent,” he says.
Also, despite its large population Taylor says labour shortage concerns are moving up the political and economic agenda in India. “Amazingly as it sounds, in terms of voice, there are labour shortages on India as regards cultural and linguistic and educational fit.”The Indian government has recognised the potential serious situation of a labour shortfall and is proposing a series of radical measures to combat it including building new integrated townships to increase labour supply.”
So the current view is that India will continue to attract offshore contact centre operations, but a complex interplay of factors means that in future it is unlikely to be a case of one-way traffic when it comes to investment and job creation.

Standards in contact centres
The CCA Standard, the operational framework supporting contact centres in continual development of best practice has gone global. The standard is being promoted overseas through members with centres in locations throughout the world and for example the Prudential Centre in Mumbai is now accredited.
In addition to improving performance members see the benefit as standardising customer service across their whole operation.   An updated version of the Standard was launched earlier this year with six sections one of which focuses specifically on the relationship between outsourcers and their clients.
On a broader front the European Commission has instructed the European Standards Setting Body (CEN) to write a European code. The committee is created and supported by BSI (British Standards Institution and the UK representative body on CEN) to help steer the standards agenda and input the UK experience in to Europe.

Learning and development
Learning and development remain also top priorities of the industry - as with most industries, skills are acquired through experience and training, and the main goal for the industry is to ensure that the people they recruit are constantly updating their skills to help them move along the career path within their organisation.
According to a report published by Dr David Holman and Professor Stephen Wood at The Institute of Work Psychology in the University of Sheffield “the average length of induction for new employees of contact centres is 12 days. After induction, they receive an average of 15 days training in their first year. After the first year, agents receive an average of 7 days training per year. In 70 per cent of call centres, the training needs of all staff are systematically collected through training audits or performance appraisals.” Behind these bare facts lies a whole area of further support and further learning since most organisations introduce new skills in a way designed to allow newly qualified employees
to walk before they run.
CCA has been involved for some years with a European funded project to develop and launch innovative new training for contact centres.  Funded by a Leonardo grant the project looked at 15 centres using training best practice across five European countries. The output from the Contakt Project will focus on the now recognised essential for successful customer interaction, Emotional Intelligence. Among other areas the new training will cover positive self talk (how to talk yourself in to looking on the bright side), dealing with difficult people (because not everyone is like you) and understanding the difference between aggression (bad) and assertion (good). Training materials on Emotional Intelligence produced through the project are available free from CCA.

Automation and the future
Predictions of the growth in multimedia contact made by analysts in the late 1990s now look a little premature. Estimates of between 25-35 per cent of interactions into the contact centre moving to email, real-time ‘text chat’ or through online web collaboration may have been optimistic. A more recent survey of 290 contact centres shows a different picture. Over 90 per cent of contact is still through voice although the other channels are growing, particularly, in some sectors, web contact. At least two major organisations have closed centres this year saying their customers were choosing to go online to deal with them. It is still acknowledged, however, that voice will remain the primary element for the foreseeable future. The numbers employed in the industry, currently standing around 800.000 will top a million in the next few years.
According the Contact Babel Operational Review undertaken in 2005 automation has been in contact centres since the very beginning. The much-maligned IVR system has few fans outside of the contact centre, yet has saved firms many millions of pounds in staff salaries, buildings and infrastructure. Although automation has the potential to reduce costs drastically, its development remains held back by user inexperience and negativity, poorly-designed and maintained knowledge bases, the considerable expense and resistance to change inherent in implementing new technology and risk aversion at all levels of the business.
It is a desire for a ‘human touch’ that assures the future of the contact centre in some form.  As we get more sophisticated in our use of technology, we realise the fallibility of systems, and prefer one-to-one contact for important or urgent interactions.
There are of course other issues current within the contact centre arena. How to put customer service in to the DNA of the Board Room and place the centre by right at the heart of the organisation, fraud and identity theft currently much promoted in the press and of course the threat of an impending flue pandemic to name but three sitting at the heart of the CCA  agenda. In an ever-changing world the key to future success is to focus on the issue that will most affect your organisation.

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