When consumers cite phoning a contact centre as the second-most stressful thing in life, something is clearly very wrong. While moving house was understandably quoted as the most stressful event in a recent survey by Empirix, a call to a contact centre surely shouldn't be more stressful than getting married.
But is it really any wonder, when consumers are left on hold or passed from one agent to another? Consumer confidence has been further damaged by instances such as HSBC admitting that it decides whether to direct callers overseas or to a UK call centre depending on the amount of money in their bank account. Yet more harm to the industry's reputation came with a Channel 4 documentary in March, which exposed the practice of British consumer data being lifted from Indian call centres, claiming that thousands of credit card and passport details are being stolen and sold on.
Contact Centre League Table
The backlash against overseas call centres has prompted some brands to return their operations to the UK. While the move offshore was seen as a way to cut costs, it has led to complaints of poor service and frustrated customers. A lot of outsourced work should have remained in the UK, argues David Payne, managing director at Maia Consulting. 'Customer service work should certainly remain within European culture,' he says. 'Yet for every company announcing its return, there is another leaving for overseas providers.' While Lloyds TSB has brought its operations back to the UK, for example, Barclays has moved more jobs out to India.
NatWest, meanwhile, has used its UK-only call centre policy as a marketing tool. In its ad campaign, it guaranteed that customers would be put through to contact-centre bank staff in Barnsley or Cardiff, rather than Bombay or Calcutta.
However, investment in such marketing activity is money wasted if poor call centre experiences drive consumers away. While it might seem obvious that the customer experience suggested in TV ads should marry with the reality, Anne Marie Forsyth, chief executive at the Customer Contact Association, believes that often they are all too different. 'However, innovative companies are now starting to join the two together, which is seen in job titles such as director of customer experience,' she adds.
Insurance company More Th>n is one company that has managed to put customer service at the heart of its marketing strategy, introducing personal managers for customers calling its contact centres. They are guaranteed to reach a named agent, either by phone or email, and hear back from them within 24 hours if they don't get through immediately. Its current ad campaign highlighting the concept is the first time More Th>n has led with such a service proposition. 'Everyone talks about First Direct and its service messages in banking,' says head of marketing Pete Markey. 'We want insurance consumers to think of us for service.'
While More Th>n runs this service in-house, the concept has garnered interest in the wider outsourced industry. 'One of the big challenges is developing the capability of individuals to provide a high level of personal service, by ensuring they have all the relevant information and that they are correctly trained,' says Ian Bateman, managing director at Inkfish. 'From a logistical point of view, that individual might not always be available. We are likely to see more of this strategy - but limited to specific industries and for certain services.'
Getting companies to commit to this sort of training is not as easy as it should be. While contact centres have evolved from a simple response mechanism to handle the lion's share of customer communications, many businesses still view them from an old-fashioned perspective. 'Many clients do not see the phone as a brand-enhancing service - they see it as a cost centre,' admits John Price, chairman of the DMA Contact Centre Council. 'Until big service firms really look at what they are doing, instead of cutting costs and compromising customer value and service, we will have bad practice,' he says. 'We're expecting staff to put the brand values upfront, when the ethos of the company is often to give the least amount of service at the lowest cost for the biggest profit.'
Not everyone sees the landscape in such stark terms. 'It was a case of acquisition at any price 10 years ago,' admits Chay Garland, chief executive at Garlands Call Centres. 'Today it is about getting the image of contact centres right in the eyes of the customer. Organisations understand the value of keeping customers,' she adds. 'They are the richest source of marketing information a business has access to.'
One insurance company that has taken this strategy to the extreme is Swiftcover, which trades on the fact that it has scrapped its call-centre strategy. Customers can get quotes and sort claims online, with a team of 12 on hand to answer calls if necessary and more for email support. Axing the overheads of a contact centre means cheaper premiums, explains Tina Shortle, marketing director at Swiftcover. 'We wanted to shake up the industry, which was too traditional and not thinking enough about the customer experience,' she says. 'It also made consumers realise that they don't need to go through a call centre if they don't want to.'
Similarly dedicated to its 'customers', The National Blood and Transplant Service runs a helpline for donors, which receives about 2m calls a year, and makes nearly 2.5m more. While primarily a reminder service, it has introduced some customer-service elements, such as asking donors if they want to make another appointment and to discover how a first-timer's experience went. As a result, outbound calls will grow. Only 28% of donors currently make appointments; the target is to increase that to nearly 80%.
'When people are looking to do something altruistic, we are competing with 235,000 registered charities,' says Ian Hamerton, its national call centre manager. 'We ask a lot from our donors - they visit a draughty village hall and have needles stuck into them. We need to give as good a service as we can.'
To ensure that this service is top-notch, it runs a number of checks on its contact-centre agency, Teleperformance. At least 300 random callers complete a survey covering empathy, understanding, clear information, listening, politeness and service recommendation, and a 10-point satisfaction scale is applied. The service only counts 10 as a success - more than 80% score 10s, and less than 0.5% score 0. 'We have to deliver what the customer wants,' says Hamerton. 'Nobody ever calls for a chat.'
To provide an effective service, it makes a big difference if advisers have all the relevant information about a customer on-screen. This aids customer service as callers can be dealt with by one agent, rather than being transferred around several, allowing for more integrated cross- and upselling opportunities. Yet such systems remain some way off for most firms. 'It is difficult because companies build up different business areas with various propositions, which operate on diverse systems,' explains John Byrne, marketing director at Vertex.
Some firms have added CRM to existing systems, enabling all the data to be viewed from a central point. 'But such systems cost money and there is a strategic debate; the client must decide whether to make that investment based on what the return might be,' says Byrne. While systems are improving, according to Maia's Payne, 'you'll still see agents switching between screens and systems'.
Of course, no matter how high-tech the system, it will only be as effective as the employees who operate it; if they are disengaged or poorly trained, they are unlikely to offer a great brand experience to callers. 'We employ staff with life experience, who can have a grown-up conversation with customers,' says Byrne.
Lifestyle is a recruitment factor for Merchants, which tries to match the lifestyle of staff with the brands they will be representing. 'There's no point trying to talk to customers about life insurance if you have no experience of it,' says Martin Dove, Merchants' managing director for Europe. 'We're looking for genuine interest. It has a direct correlation with their ability to empathise with the customer.'
One approach being tested to attract more involved staff is allowing them to work from home. Teleperformance uses home workers for specialist services such as Welsh-language speakers. Vertex currently has about 130 homeworkers - not as many as Byrne would like. 'We often have clients who want a long-day service, and it is a good way of filling the gap either side of nine to five,' he says. 'I could see virtual businesses set up where people sit at home, but link into a call centre and provide that service because they are a specialist,' he says.
However, Ben Dixon, chief executive at customer management firm LBM, does not believe that these employees will be able to offer as good a service. 'It is nice to think it could happen, but you can't instill company culture or provide the same training if staff are remote,' he says. Payne agrees: 'It's not going to work. You need people around to keep your energy levels up,' he argues. 'But I could see contact centres fragmenting into regional units, so you might have a 20-person unit in a village.'
About 14% of the UK's near-6000 contact centres are outsourced, totalling 581,000 agent positions. This number is predicted to rise 31% by 2011, stressing the importance of getting customer service right now. Those that leave it too long will find that both consumers, and brands, won't think twice about hanging up and turning to a company providing a better experience..