As cash-strapped consumers stay close to the brands they trust, the attitude and helpfulness of customer service agents will come under greater scrutiny.
Keeping a caller on hold for an extended period before cutting them off is hardly likely to endear them to a brand. In fact, it is a sure-fire way to lose their confidence, and they will probably bemoan the experience to friends.
Contact centres are located at the more functional and unfashionable end of the marketing spectrum, but they play a key role as a higher proportion of budgets are shifted below the line and brands seek to protect their customer base. Most companies run their contact centres in-house, but many will be considering the benefits of outsourcing to a specialist.
'There is no doubt that some clients are struggling and looking at ways of reducing their volumes and costs,' says Neville Upton, chief executive of The Listening Company. 'In a recession, people are much more disposed toward outsourcing because of the cost and flexibility.'
Stephen Bentley, chief executive of Granby Marketing Services, argues that a combination of in-house and outsourced expertise works best. 'Outsourcing does become a popular option during a recession as businesses attempt to reduce all possible overheads,' he says. 'However, in my opinion, outsourcing works best when the agency works with an in-house operation in sync, rather than the brand purely outsourcing.'
Although many contact centres deliver a good service for their clients, the cheaper providers have given the industry a reputation for long call queues and unhelpful agents. In a recent survey by researcher Harris Interactive, consumers' main concern was agents who are difficult to understand. A strong accent can be a barrier to effective communication, no matter how well-trained the agent.
'This is typically due to ultra low-cost operations based in India,' says Philip Michell, consulting director at outsourcing specialist Vertex. 'With the exception of clients operating in low-margin markets such as travel, we have found it more effective to handle voice calls from the UK.'
Bentley adds a proviso. 'Accents aren't a problem, but clarity of voice and pronunciation are,' he says. 'These are all too often compromised by brands.'
Some brands are now promoting the fact that they operate contact centres only in the UK. Meanwhile, Vertex is exploring South Africa as a suitable location for some operations.
Crucially, in the Harris Interactive survey, 82% of respondents said customer service influenced their perception of a company. Nearly two-thirds of those who had had a bad experience stopped doing Â business with the brand in question, and more than half of all respondents said poor service would probably make them switch to another company.
Brands usually agree a service level with their contact centre provider, such as 80% of calls being answered within 20 seconds, but research by Vertex has highlighted that the priority for consumers is having their problem resolved in a single call. 'Measuring call response time or even average handling time risks this being ignored or negatively affected,' says Michell.
As brands seek savings, there will inevitably be continued demand for a commodity-driven service. But many outsourced contact centre providers are working hard to change public perceptions and convince clients that a better quality of customer service improves ROI.
'If you compare what we do with offshore centres there is a big difference,' says Upton. 'Even if you upset only 5%-10% of the customer base, that could be the difference between making money or not.'
He adds that the level of customer service required should be linked to customer expectations of the brand. He cites the example of budget airline Ryanair, which takes bookings online; customers are primed for limited levels of service if they have a specific query or complaint.
Some outsourced providers are demonstrating their versatility by integrating email, SMS and web chat, giving customers a greater choice in the way their query is handled; having a phone call followed up with an SMS confirmation, for example, or a web chat with an email. Instant web chats, in particular, have become a convenient way for consumers
to get further information, or even just a degree of human reassurance, when they are considering an online purchase.
This is all well and good, but raises the issue of whether companies can afford such 'bells and whistles' in the current economic climate. Tele-performance divisional managing director Rachel Robinson says marketers face a quandary.
'Companies are finding that getting new customers is both extremely difficult and expensive,' she explains. 'But keeping the loyalty of existing customers is getting ever-more important. At the same time, cost pressures are real. How do you do more with less?'
While many agencies are helping budget-slashing brands find a cost-effective way to meet their customer service requirements, Teleperformance has identified a gap in the market for a premium service. With this in mind, it has launched TP Platinum, aimed at top-end brands. 'We are seeing more money being spent on supporting premium brands,' says Robinson. 'This is translating into the contact centre in terms of grades of service.'
For example, a standard service might mean that 80% of calls are handled within 20 seconds; a premium service could guarantee that 95% of calls are answered within 15 seconds, with personnel at the ready 24 hours a day.
Robinson says premium services are not essential, but 'nice to have'. 'The call-handlers' level of training and expertise is increased; these are not critical to being able to meet the service standards of the client and the satisfaction of the customer, but, say, enable the agent to discuss next season's product range,' she explains.
Such service relies on buy-in from call-handlers and agents, as well as staff retention. The Listening Company has identified this, and is poised to become the latest contact centre business to launch its own training academy, offering NVQs and incentives to encourage agents to view their job as a career.
Looking ahead, the emergence of slicker voice-recognition software and the changing demands of consumers with regards to how they interact with companies means that contact centre suppliers cannot stand still.
Robinson expects more services to be made available that offer an alternative to the more traditional format. 'We are seeing companies spend more on marketing to drive contact centre traffic, and the introduction of innovative ways of engaging with the customer, such as "upselling" during a customer service call,' she says.
Michell claims the internet will drive change. 'The opportunity exists to more effectively serve customers by providing multiple service channels and driving customers to the one most appropriate to their requirements,' he explains. 'Web self-service and email can be much more effectively used at the first stage - with the possibility of voice self-service now usable because of the development of voice-recognition technology.'
Vertex is positioning itself as an outsourcer that can provide a flexible service during the downturn, but one that can increase its service level quickly when the recovery begins.
Ultimately, Michell says, all companies must make a hard decision. 'Brands need to view their customer service operations in one of two ways: either as a necessary evil that needs to be delivered at the lowest possible cost; or, the more enlightened view, particularly for revenue-generating businesses, that each customer contact is an opportunity to enhance the lifetime value of customers.'