Keeping in contact

The current economic climate is challenging but it is providing the opportunity for much needed changes in government contact centres. In an extensive survey of over 200 private and public sector members of the Customer Contact Association (CCA), emerging trends have been identified, which provide insights for any organisations seeking to provide services to citizens and build public sector trust.

More for less
When asked, “Given the economic downturn, if contact centres need to reduce operating costs by 20 per cent, what action would you recommend they take?” the top recommendations of contact centre managers were:

  • Improve planning and forecasting (97 per cent agreeing)
  • A more flexible workforce (94 per cent agreeing)
  • Reduce calls by increasing self-service on the web (88 per cent agreeing).

For some areas of the public sector these strategies will count for little in the face of rapidly increasing demand for services such as benefit and advice. For them ‘more for less’ is even more pertinent.

Is self-service the answer?
There is a common perception in the private sector that the contact centre model will change based on a new era of increased self-service and increasingly skilled staff – the knowledge worker. Past experience of contact centre professionals shows that the impact of self-service may be to increase the number of contacts overall by making organisations more accessible. This has been likened to the ‘M25 Effect’ – add another lane and more people use the road.
    
The CCA Membership Poll highlights the fact that live agent calls are not necessarily declining. In fact, 50 per cent of contact centre managers agree with the statement: In my experience, the impact of internet self-service in reducing call numbers is overstated.
    
While some services have been effective in enabling the public to access certain information and to book appointments online, there is no question that people find the immediacy of the phone attractive, particularly the younger generations. We must also remember that some 30 per cent of the population do not have access to the internet thereby highlighting, as one public sector remarked: “some consumers are flying with technology while others remain wedded to traditional media”.
    
Call centres must aim to satisfy all consumers with their choice of communication channels and cater to individual needs in order to improve customer satisfaction and retain valuable customers.

Will e-mail help or hinder?
The CCA Membership Poll asked contact centre managers to predict the future usage of channels by consumers in the next five years. The phone is still expected to account for nearly 60 per cent of contact, with a significant proportion of that from mobiles (which don’t always benefit from low-call or free-call rates).
    
The expectation is that e-mail will account for just 13 per cent of all contact in five years. The paradox here is that we know from consumer research by BT Global Services that e-mail is the preferred contact channel for the 70 per cent of UK online consumers and managers have noted the “change in customer expectations, particularly with regard to e-mail response”.
    
Are contact centre managers in both the private and public sectors underestimating the demand for this channel from the public?  

Human resources
“Staff retention”, “motivating junior staff” and “recruitment and training of quality staff” were highlighted as major issues for the future of contact centres. Much is being done well in today’s contact centres: personal development plans are in place; effective training structures have been developed for agents, team leaders and managers alike; appraisal systems have been successful; employee satisfaction surveys are being conducted.
    
The paradox is that in spite of these robust HR practices, attrition and engagement levels are often poor. Contact centre management is more engaged with 56 per cent of anticipating staying in the business for at least another five years.  
 
Outsourcing
Outsourcing is commonly deployed to improve performance or lower costs of operation. The Membership Poll questioned respondents about their current performance and how it compares to other contact centres. The results show that respondents rate their customer satisfaction as better than average while their cost control is scored less highly. This was particularly the case among public sector respondents.
    
The economic recession and the need for organisations to cut costs could provide impetus for outsourcing. Equally, some contact centre managers say it is easier to reduce operating costs by cutting outsourced contracts than reducing headcount, with one professional stating: “The current environment has meant that value for money is key when prospective outsourcing contracts are being awarded.” We are being continually challenged to improve the quality of service as well as reduce the overall costs of service – the question is how to achieve this?
    
Over the whole sample, some 24 per cent think that off-shoring of contact centres will grow again and 42 per cent think that outsourcing can be beneficial in terms of reducing costs. However, others argue “the economic slow-down has seen clients become more nervous about outsourcing – they started to make moves to reconsolidate in-house and so gain best advantage from their own cost base”.

Meeting customer needs
All of our efforts in customer contact are about meeting the needs of the public in terms of both efficiency and good service. The economic environment has made citizens more needy in terms of reassurance and advice. Much of this is best made face-to-face or over the phone.
    
The CCA Membership Poll asked contact centre managers to identify the ways in which the public is becoming more demanding:

  • More knowledgeable about products/entitlements – 78 per cent
  • Expect the call to be answered more quickly – 75 per cent
  • Ask to speak to someone more senior – 75 per cent
  • Ask for compensation – 68 per cent
  • More aggressive on the phone – 59 per cent
  • Threaten to contact the regulator/ombudsman – 58 per cent
  • Ask us to call them back to save call costs – 52 per cent
  • Ask for the agents full name – 52 per cent.

Summary
The need for cost-cutting measures whilst retaining and improving customer services is a tough, but necessary, balance to strike. The need to plan effectively, create the right infrastructure for agents and workers to flourish are all vital components of this change, as well as the need to meet tight budgets and constantly improve efficiency and service.
    
The Customer Contact Association (CCA) is here to provide advice and networking to enable contact centre managers develop and change their organisations. The CCA Global Standard has been certified to nearly 300 contact centres and acts as a framework for managers to overcome the paradoxes and challenges set out in this article. Government call centres have much to be proud of in customer contact together with challenges for the future.

For more information

For further information about the CCA Membership Poll or the CCA contact marcus.hickman@cca.org.uk.

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