Meeting the needs of a click-happy culture

The way we experience customer service and our expectations of it as consumers is transforming the way in which contact centres operate. Speak with people working in and around the industry and you will hear comments ranging from ‘customers have become far more demanding’ to ‘overall service standards are not where we need them to be’, or conversely, ‘customers have never had it so good’. There are aspects of truth in each statement, but the one undeniable truth is that contact centres are more important today than they have ever been, but there is still room for improvement when it comes to standards and professionalism.

Changing times
To understand where we are right now as an industry we need to go back 20 years – coincidentally, this is when the CCMA was founded. In many respects the world looked very different and this is in no small part down to the technology revolution that we are currently living through. Today, I can have 4G access to the internet on my smartphone whilst on the train, often faster than my home broadband. Yet back in 1994 the worldwide web was just taking shape (Yahoo also launched in the same year), mobile phones were the preserve of the wealthy executive and whilst I did have basic email access via my dial-up modem connection, our office relied heavily on fax machine, post and the landline telephone.
Thinking back to those days, I realise how patient everyone seemingly was. When email was first introduced in to call centres (heralding the change from call to contact centre) the debate raged about how long it should take to reply. I recall the automated ‘we will endeavour to answer you enquiry within 48 hours’ message and I would accept that (just so long as they were true to their word). But now we as a society are much less tolerant of anything that delays or inconveniences us. Through technology we have become accustomed to the things we want to happen, happening faster. In many respects we have also become far more self-reliant, and this has changed how we interact with contact centres.

Empowered by information
The internet has placed huge amounts of information resources at our fingertips. Now if I want to buy something I can look at the specification, check price comparisons, read reviews watch product demonstrations and make a purchase all without leaving my chair. In fact, thanks to 4G I can easily do all this and more on the train with my smartphone. I am a far more informed and confident customer and if I have an issue, chances are I will have attempted to resolve it before I make a call.
So, if and when I need to interact with an organisation I will have already done my homework and I expect that the person I speak to or chat with online will be more informed than I am, and have the power to resolve my issue without hiccups.
This has been a big change for contact centres and its agents, who previously in their daily shifts would spend the majority of their time firefighting very basic and repetitive enquires, such as giving a customer their bank balance, or making a simple transaction. Then, if they did come across a complex problem they would escalate it to a specialist.   
Contact centres are responding to this changing dynamic by making their front‑line agents subject matter experts in their respective areas and deflecting – to the benefit of both the organisation and the customer – simple tasks such as balance checking to self-service channels. However, this isn’t without its own challenges, for the industry is still marred by the issue of high agent churn rates. In this respect little has changed in the past 20 years. Contact centre managers are all too aware of the need to invest in training agents to meet customer service demands but with high staff turnover it can be tough to retain knowledge and expertise.

Fighting stigma
The harsh fact is that there has long been a stigma associated with working in a contact centre, fuelled by an increasingly misplaced perception that it is low-paid, holds few career prospects and is something you turn to when other avenues are closed. Sadly, it is indicative of the way in which we have come to value service in this country. I am often struck by how service is treated so differently on the continent, for example the way in which being a waiter in France is considered to be a career, which is reflected in the way they conduct themselves and how they are treated.
In many respects the contact centre industry in general has not helped itself in the past, to challenge and alter this perception. Yet speaking with contact centre managers in operations of all sizes and sectors I am extremely confident that things are changing for the better.
Launching a gold standard
For our part, as the association representing the industry, the CCMA is taking an active role in helping to ingrain professionalism at every level of the industry with our training, seminars, workshops and networking events. Most recently we have collaborated with industry partners to introduce two new initiatives launched last month that aim to improve the perception of contact centres, improve standards and encourage people to seriously consider a long-term career in the industry for the next 20 or more years.
We are very excited about the work we are doing with the Professional Planning Forum and the University of Ulster to introduce a bespoke stream of study for contact centre operations managers within its BSc in Customer Contact Planning and Management. The first cohort of students will begin this three-year undergraduate qualification in January 2015 and it represents a hugely significant step in a career working in contact centres and customer service being recognised both internally and externally as a highly skilled profession.
The second initiative is the launch of the Gold Standard, which is open to contact centres in the UK that want to benchmark their service operations based on customer feedback, operational effectiveness and employee engagement. By attaining the Gold Standard a contact centre will have clearly demonstrated, through a wholly independent and rigorous assessment process, that it is delivering consistently high standards of customer service. In time it is hoped that this will become a ‘badge of honour’ that will also instil confidence in consumers.  
The past 20 years has seen the contact centre industry transform in response to the changes happening in the world around it. However, it is the next 20 years that excite me the most. All of the right foundations for success are in place – a marketplace that is placing increasing emphasis on the service experience; organisations are beginning to appreciate the contribution contact centres can make to the success of their business; those working at the coalface are beginning to be recognised as the skilled professionals that they are.

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