ave new multi-channel world, the vision was that customers would be able to interact with companies however and whenever they wished.
Whether it was a phone call to the call centre, a text message, e-mail or using live web chat with an agent via the company's web site, companies that wished to retain business would have to make themselves available around the clock via a multitude of different channels.
It's two or three years now since multi-channel enabling of contact centres became a burning issue. But despite the fact that many of the more advanced operators have invested in the necessary IT infrastructure to make these types of services available to their clients, they remain the exception rather than the rule.
While clients are enthusiastic about these services, they are mostly reluctant to pay a premium to deliver them to their customers. "It's true to say we have been disappointed by the take-up of these services," admits Maggie Evans, head of marketing at the contact-centre operator iSKY Europe.
"There are signs that things are starting to happen, but I hold my hand up to having said exactly the same thing two years ago."
The sort of value-added services on offer from contact centres include e-mail, web chat, web self-service and a variety of others. Of these, only e-mail and web self-service have made any sort of an impression. So much so that in a report published in January, the US research firm AMR Research advised contact centre operators: "E-mail and self-service technologies are the only necessary additions to your phone-based support strategies for at least the next two years." AMR says most of the report's findings apply equally to the UK.
So what are these services that contact centres are so excited about - and their clients seemingly less so?
E-mail is so ubiquitous that it needs no explanation. Web self-service uses a section of the company's web site to give out automatic responses to standard questions, thereby freeing up the agents' time to deal with less routine enquiries.
But the self-service concept goes further than that. Twenty years ago, a consumer dealing with their bank would probably have spent a lot of time visiting the branch. Today, with cash machines, interactive voice response-based phone banking and internet banking, many customers rarely need to visit a branch.
As Stephanie Rouse, operations director at the contact centre operator MM Group points out, this has implications for the agents dealing with customer enquiries.
"All this self-service means that the point at which you do go into your bank or make a phone call, you're probably going in to do something of a relatively high value or high importance, so the agent needs to be more skilled and of potentially higher value," she points out.
Which means, of course, that the agent may command a higher salary. As Rouse points out, MM Group examines the competencies and skills for every job in the business and then benchmarks those against the local and national market in terms of pay and benefits to ensure that it is rewarding people appropriately for the work they do.
"All jobs are reviewed at least annually sometimes more frequently where circumstances are changing rapidly," she says. "We also move people through a reward system based on acquiring competencies and skills as a result of training or experience." The acid test is whether an organisation is able to recruit and retain staff.
The cost of paying agents a higher salary is passed on to the contact centre's clients, but, says Rouse, given the amount of technology available to handle routine enquiries, it should not necessarily cost any more to offer a better service.
"It doesn't need to be more expensive, but you do need more highly skilled agents than in the days when the only reason people rang was to get a balance on their account," she says.
In addition to e-mail and self-service, there are another half dozen principal applications which, while seemingly attractive on paper, are not being taken up in large numbers.
Web chat enables a site visitor to communicate with an agent via text, much like an internet chat room. Though it has not taken off in any big way yet, Edward Boddington, director, voice operations for customer contact company Telescope, says it will one day.
"Something like 50% of online forms are abandoned halfway through, so any companies that don't offer live help or a web-chat facility to help people complete the form are throwing business away," says Boddington.
For the moment, though, he concedes that clients are less interested in things like web chat than in what he calls "the multi-channel sell".
"The ability to communicate via phone, e-mail, mobile, fax, even post, with a good database as the glue underpinning it, is the approach to take," he says.
Visitors to a web site who want to have a voice conversation with an agent while they are browsing have two options. The first is to use Voice Over IP (VoIP) to turn the user's computer into a phone, enabling the user to stay online and hold a voice conversation via the computer with an agent.
Alternatively, if there's a 'call-me' button on their web site, the user can click on it to send a request to the contact centre for an agent to call the visitor to the site on a date and time of the customer's choice. This provision is necessary to cope with the majority of internet users who have only one phone line at home, so cannot be called back until they have logged off the internet.
VoIP has been held back principally because it's not an easy concept for most consumers to get to grips with, while anecdotal evidence suggests companies don't always respond to 'call me' requests quite as proficiently as they should.
If the user does have a dedicated line for the internet, or a broadband ADSL connection that allows them to make and take calls while they are online on the same line, he or she can speak to the agent on the phone while both look at the same web pages, enabling the agent to help the user with any queries.
Collaborative browsing takes this idea one stage further. The agent and the user talk via VoIP or text chat. At the same time, the agent can assist the user in browsing web pages, even to the point of pushing a web page to the user's screen.
If the user is having problems filling in a form on the web site, the agent can either explain what to do, or even fill in the form for the user. And if they think it might be helpful to draw a diagram for the user, they can call up a virtual whiteboard, draw the diagram and then push the file on to the user's desktop. At this point, both the agent and the user can amend or annotate the diagram or photograph using a set of drawing tools similar to those found in any PC art or design program.
At first glance, some of these services seem immensely appealing. So why are clients not going for them in large numbers?
ISky's Evans identifies a number of factors. "It's not cheap or easy," she points out. "So most marketers have failed to grasp the nettle." She adds that because there has been no great rush to web-enable contact centres, there has not been the same impetus to keep up with the competition that characterised the early days of the call-centre business. And finally, she says, the idea of offering services such as web chat and collaborative browsing is too far down the line for firms that have not yet mastered the basics of responding to e-mails within an acceptable timeframe.
"E-mail is the most basic of internet communications, but is still poorly handled," Evans says. "The reality is that often we cannot expect a response inside a couple of days, and a high proportion are never replied to at all."
CM Insight, which describes itself as a customer management solutions company, has recently published a survey into outsourced contact centre pricing structures, and its findings show that the more advanced contact centre services are very much off the agenda for clients at the moment.
The Outsourced Contact Centre Pricing Survey, published last month and available at www.cm-insight.com, found a consensus of low-interest from contact centres when it came to high-tech projects. When asked how interested they were in high-tech projects such as internet, e-commerce and customer relationship management, 6% said they were 'not at all interested', 6% 'slightly interested', 53% 'moderately interested', and only 35% 'very interested'. Among larger operators that might be expected to have the financial muscle to invest in the necessary IT infrastructure, only 13% said they were 'very interested'.
"Although the benefits of leading-edge technology are much vaunted, it is clear that outsourced service providers (OSPs) believe many more clients are willing to talk about it than invest in it," the report concludes.
OSPs in the survey also comment: "There is huge interest in multi-channel capability - mainly focused on e-mail and web chat. Collaborative browsing is a way off yet. We also have substantial interest for automated solutions and SMS."
Significantly, though, the comment continues: "Most interest as yet has not materialised into commitment - with a few notable exceptions. Client interest is generally quite a different thing to their willingness or ability to invest in this area."
Cost as a priority
Penny Bousfield, outsourcing director at CM Insight and co-author of the report, says that in the current climate, where clients are looking for the best possible service at the lowest possible price, it's no great surprise that services such as web chat and collaborative browsing are not at the top of contact centres', or clients' agenda.
Indeed, she says, a majority of the contact-centre operators surveyed said the most significant threat they face is attempts by clients to reduce margins. This being the case, operators can perhaps be forgiven for not pitching the more advanced services they can offer too hard. But it's not all about cost, says Bousfield.
There are technology issues too. On the consumer side, there is not yet sufficient broadband penetration to make collaborative browsing or web chat appealing to sufficient numbers of consumers, while for the contact centres, the technology they are using remains to some extent unproven.
"In four years, I don't think I have ever seen one completely smooth, uninterrupted web chat demonstration," says Bousfield. "The technology is still very unreliable."
Peter Cohen, senior director of corporate marketing for Concerto, which supplies contact centre software, picks up on this point. "Web chat and collaboration makes for a cool demo, but it can be hard to integrate them with the rest of the contact centre's IT infrastructure," he says. "It's little use asking customers if they would like to have a web chat if the agent doesn't have access to details of their previous phone conversations or e-mail exchanges while it's happening."
So if these more advanced services are largely unused by contact centre clients, when will things change? Around 2004 seems to be the common consensus.
Despite AMR Research's conclusion that contact centres should concentrate on e-mail and self-service this year and beyond, its senior analyst Kevin Lucas says technologies such as VoIP and co-browsing should start to make their presence felt.
"I can see great uses for co-browsing in a service situation," he says.
"If someone has been having trouble accessing part of your web site or finding what they want, you could give them a URL, but if an agent could walk them through it and take them there, that's potentially very useful."
And even if clients are not crying out for these types of services right now, he says, contact centre operators should bear them in mind when making their purchasing decisions. "It makes sense to buy something you can plug these things into incrementally," says Lucas. "So when the demand is there, you're ready for it."
UK PASSPORT SERVICE IMPROVES ITS SERVICE
Contact centre operator MM Group has been working with the United Kingdom Passport Service (UKPS) since January 2000. It was brought in as one of many measures designed to improve the UKPS' service at a time when it faced severe criticism for the time taken to process passport applications.
MM's main role is to handle inbound calls to UKPS Adviceline and Textphone numbers. But in addition, it also books appointments for regional passport offices on UKPS' behalf. UKPS recently introduced appointment-only and tiered service at its public calling offices. MM Group agents advise customers of the appropriate application route. Where an appointment is required, they give advice on the fee and documentation needed and then book the appointment.
The company also answers e-mail enquiries received via the UKPS web site, and hosts UKPS' appointment scheduling web site, downloading data daily to the queue management system within the public calling office at each regional passport office.
Finally, MM Group hosts the UKPS' online application-form completion web site, accessed via its main web site.
This section of the site includes a collaborative browsing facility, which enables an agent to assist, both verbally and physically on-screen, with the completion of a customer's application form.
Data from this site is downloaded to a third party, which prints and despatches pre-populated application forms for signature and return with photographs and documents.
According to Graham Foster, MM Group contract manager at the UKPS, the cost of these premium services is money well spent. "These services are not part of the UKPS' core function and free-up highly trained in-house staff to concentrate on determining customers' eligibility to hold a British passport," he says.
"These services also contribute greatly to the high level of customer service that the UKPS now aims to provide to offer its customers.
"MM Group has enabled the UKPS to offer its customers a 24/7 telephone advice line and e-mail enquiry service 365 days a year, and thereby greatly improve customer service, which it would not be cost-effective to provide in-house."
CALL CENTRE EXPO UK 2000 FOCUSES ON KEY ISSUES
Call Centre Expo UK is the UK's foremost call and contact centre exhibition. The event has doubled in size every year since its launch, and takes place this year at the NEC in Birmingham on September 17 and 18. More than 250 exhibitors are expected to take part in the show when it opens for business.
The show focuses on three key themes: people and workplace; business process and strategy; and call- and contact-centre technology.
It's a showcase for a wide range of call and contact centre technology, including management systems, call-flow scripting, predictive diallers, interactive voice-response systems and off-the-shelf internet protocol contact centres.
Alongside the exhibits, there's a conference programme with a heavy emphasis on case-study material, using real-life examples to give delegates an insight into what other companies have done to make a success of their contact centre operations.
The conference is divided into the same three themes, with each divided into hour-long conference sessions, enabling delegates to put together a personal educational programme across one or two days.
There are also free daily keynote sessions, which take the form of a roundtable debate. At these sessions, delegates can hear the views and opinions of a panel of leading industry experts, discuss the issues pertinent to them, and put questions to the panellists.
Event: Call Centre Expo UK 2002
Venue: NEC, Birmingham, Hall 9
Date: September 17-18
Opening times: 10am - 5pm
More information: www.callcentre-expo.com
TOP FIVE TELEMARKETING AGENCIES
Rank Agency Turnover 2001 Turnover 2000 % change
1 Vertex 159,400,000 155,900,000 2.25
2 Ventura 101,250,000 123,300,000 -17.88
3 Sitel 53,200,000 66,612,000 -20.20
4 7C 45,000,000 35,000,000 28.57
5 Merchants 42,404,000 63,050,000 -32.75
Source: Marketing's Telemarketing League Tables