Surviving the financial crisis

A very recent survey, commissioned by Cactus Search, found that nearly three quarters of respondents felt secure in their role within the UK call centre industry. Also, nearly two-thirds of respondents believed that their call centre staffing levels would not shrink over the coming months.
    
So it seems that, although today’s news is full of crashes and collapses, and every day media reports add further to our sense of anxiety, the UK call centre industry is optimistic about its role and its future.

Shrinking economy
Informed opinion forecasts that we can expect a 12 per cent nominal reduction in consumption spending in 2009 translating into a staggering 7 per cent reduction in nominal GDP – this means that in real terms the UK economy will shrink by at least 4 per cent this year and by a further 2 per cent next year.
    
This is outside of everyone’s experience and it is consequently very difficult to predict how consumer behaviour might change. One thing that we can predict with some confidence though is that credit will be more difficult to obtain and also expensive. Simply put, customers are likely to buy less and as a consequence our staff are likely to become less productive.

Understanding the customer

A volatile environment and a general feeling of uncertainty will take its toll on customer confidence in both organisations and relationships. It’s safe to say that whatever your organisation is experiencing, your customers are in a similar situation so it’s important to understand this and not try to fight your customers desire to defer their next big purchase. Ever more aggressive sales campaigns and bombarding your customers with calls, visits and information will have little positive impact.
    
Your customers are sure to be looking for maximum value from you and will be very sensitive to any sign of weakness in either product or service so beef up your “repair and maintenance” offerings rather than trying to push the next big thing harder.
    
Our latest research indicates that in the main customers care most about issue resolution and not about wait times so, if necessary, cautiously relax service levels, but carefully monitor resolution rates during such periods. Customers are probably willing to trade 30 seconds of extra wait time for a 1 per cent increase in the likelihood of first contact resolution.
    
Despite our optimism in the call centre industry there is little doubt that industries beyond financial services will experience consolidation and will have to work through the accompanying changes. This will cause further distraction at both the organisational and individual level. The economic downturn offers you an opportunity to take a hard look at your operation and to make sure that they are working as efficiently and effectively as possible. Take a look too at what your competitors are doing – looking at innovative solutions from your key suppliers should also be a part of this review.

Build in flexibility

It’s hard to expand or shrink to meet market demands if a large chunk of your budget is devoted to fixed costs so build flexibility into cost structures wherever possible to allow room for manoeuvre in response to any unanticipated changes. Renegotiating supplier contracts (and staffing models) to build in options to grow or shrink support as needed merits the additional cost.
    
Of course, if you have enough money (and remember that in a downturn cash is king) it may be possible to outspend the competition and build a strong position for when the economy recovers.
    
Given the rising levels of unemployment, your agents may not be thinking of moving right now but monitoring their engagement is critical. Remember that disengaged employees put out 63 per cent less discretionary effort and therefore provide a lower quality service experience.
    
Anticipate a rise in risky behaviour among staff as financial pressure mounts on sales and marketing teams to meet goals. Partner with your compliance and HR teams to avoid the potentially damaging risks to your company’s reputation that can stem from such behaviour. Price pressure will be intense so re-examine any incentives and use coaching and education to ensure that your agents hold the line on price.

Cutting costs

If it is necessary then cut your costs by reducing training spend on formal courses but don’t lose sight of staff development. Focus on effective coaching (not simply more coaching) to develop staff and increase coaching capacity by using your high-performance frontline staff.
    
Like all things though, the current downturn will pass and life will certainly go on. So here are some thoughts on how we can make sure that our operation is ready for the upturn:
    
Contact your defecting customers and ask them key questions: “What are you substituting with?” “What drove the decision?” If they are joining you: “What were you buying before?” “Why did you move to this product?”
    
Stability and reliability are no longer assumed so identify the specific places where there is a stability advantage over your competitors and accentuate them explicitly in a clear way. Don’t let the stability message crowd out your articulation of a clear value proposition message: “This is what you get from choosing us.” Such clarity is critical to the consumer.

Clear communication
Communicate empathetically and remember that this is a time for simple, real language.
    
Try and increase the visibility of your CEO and other board members to both your own staff and, wherever possible, your customers. It’s reassuring to speak directly to senior management and to feel that there is a well thought out and well communicated business plan in place.
    
Make sure that employee communications about the company’s direction receive a great deal of focus, energy and volume. Do a reality check on all messages and their execution beforehand though so as to remove any language that may sound trite, insensitive or too corporate.
    
When the market turns staff retention issues can quickly arise. You should manage engagement levels carefully during the downturn to mitigate future staff attrition.
    
Use this moment to make space in your organisation for rising talent and new hires. Seek out talent that may not be officially “in play” but that is disengaged and open.
    
The Brits are good in a crisis; we dig deep into our character and crank up the levels of humour. Once we become clear on the situation that we are in then we will sort it.
    
The situation is becoming increasingly clear: our wealth will have halved by the end of 2011, and our real income will have dropped by 10 per cent. But the sun will still come up and there is still 90 per cent to go after. We must keep our heads while others are losing theirs.

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