One way or another, the UK contact centre industry will change beyond recognition within the next five years. The twin challenges of automation and overseas outsourcing are very real threats to the UKs job market, and contact centre influencers and managers must understand the danger which their operations (and own jobs) are facing. There are ways to avoid or minimise the effects which the industry may endure, but UK contact centres need to understand and act upon these immediately.
Contact centre management needs to appreciate that the industrys situation today is very different to how it has ever been before. UK contact centres are faced by real threats, especially to low value-add work: overseas outsourcing and automation are real alternatives to the traditional call centre model, and are already being piloted, running alongside or actually replacing UK operations.
Overseas outsourcing is mainly being delivered to UK businesses by Indian operations, although outsourcers in South Africa, the Caribbean and the Philippines are also keen to win UK business. HSBC, Lloyds TSB, Prudential, GE Capital, and ClientLogic are amongst major businesses to have some Indian capacity, with many more large UK businesses running pilot projects.
Such overseas operations are often staffed by agents with a high level of education and lower salaries than their UK equivalents. The overseas outsourcing sector is experiencing a lot of flux, and companies will come and go: but as in most industries, it will mature and become a real option even for the risk-averse UK businesses.
Automation has been with the industry since its inception, with solutions such as ACD and IVR having cut costs throughout the industry. However, the new breeds of automated solution, including voice self-service, speech recognition, automated email response and web self-service can mean that interactions are completed entirely without human input.
Increasing levels of consumer broadband penetration (increasing in number by 20,000 per week) will drive multimedia interactions as well, reducing the proportion of contacts which are person-to-person, and thus threatening to reduce contact centre employment.
Taken together, overseas outsourcing and automation are significant obstacles to the future of the UK contact centre industry, as it stands today.
The main challenge of the UK contact centre industry in the next few years is not technological, or even process-driven. It is about getting the recognition, support and investment it needs from the senior level of businesses in order to survive and thrive.
To do this, the contact centre must start talking in commercial language. It is no longer enough to focus upon and emphasise the cost savings which the contact centre could make by implementing new IT systems: technology-driven savings of, for example, 5 per cent, pale into insignificance when compared with the wholesale cost-cutting deemed possible by shipping the whole operation off to Bangalore (perhaps sometimes ignoring the hidden costs of relocation).
The answer for contact centres is to become, and be seen to become, an integral, key and strategic part of the business, and to do that very quickly.
For many businesses (especially banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, telcos and utilities), the contact centre offering website support as well as standard telephony is where the customer meets the business, and decides whether to purchase or look elsewhere. Bearing this in mind, the low esteem in which contact centres may be held by senior commercial management seems, at best, naïve.
Shoddy contact centre service can negate any advantages a product or service has over its competition: there is a real risk that a single poor customer experience can lose a potentially-profitable customer forever. Furthermore, business is experiencing generally very low levels of customer loyalty, driven by predatory competition (for example, 0 per cent credit card balance transfers), increasing customer expectations, deregulation, and low levels of tolerance for mistakes.
The vast majority of analysts, industry-watchers and associations agree that the UK contact centre industry has to compete on quality, not price on effectiveness, not just efficiency. This goes against the grain for many, who are used to measuring success by shaving seconds off call times, and reducing call abandonment rates.
However, we can see a definite change to the industry. Over the past two years, more interest has been paid to the human aspect of the contact centre, with solutions aimed at agent empowerment, upskilling, quality monitoring, e-learning and reduced agent attrition have appeared. The effectiveness and quality of an individual agent is being mentioned for the first time.
On a wider scale, contact centre management must make it a priority to make the whole business aware of both the strategic position which the contact centre holds, and how the contact centre has the power to support or erode a brand:
1 – Contact centres should make a point of feeding actual customer comments, demands and reactions back through the company in a formalised way.
2 – Understand the real business of the contact centre and how it fits into the wider business: if the business is spending massively to encourage prospects to call you in the first place, does it really make sense to judge short call durations as success?
3 – Measure success of the contact centre accordingly introduce metrics for quality, customer satisfaction, loyalty etc. move the goalposts away from cost reduction, towards something the UK can compete in.
4 – Encourage the contact centre to be the hub of all contact the business has with its customers regardless of media – and do it in a unified and consistent way. The creation of quality across multiple media and physical locations must be the aim: poor telephony service will lose customers, even if the website service is excellent.
5 – Encourage boundaries between contact centre and business to be broken down. Implementation of IP telephony and converged networks creates an excellent opportunity for the contact centres capabilities to be rolled-out and acknowledged beyond its actual physical location.
Parts of the UK contact centre industry are in for a rough ride over the next few years, but visionary contact centre managers will move immediately to safeguard not only the wider industry, but also, more tangibly, their own jobs. Only by proving their contact centres worth to executive decision-makers, and by showing how the quality of customers experience is a key to success can the UK contact centre industry hope to continue thriving.
Steve Morrell signs this column every month.
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