The changing face of the contact centre

Lance Harris
By Lance Harris, freelancer
Johannesburg, 13 Feb 2012

With a workforce of around 2 000 people handling more than two million calls a month, financial services company Absa runs one of the country's largest in-house contact centre operations.

This service infrastructure is at the heart of the bank's business, providing frontline service and support to existing customers as well as supporting the customer retention and acquisition strategy through outbound calls.

Like many other contact centres in SA, it is under pressure to evolve to meet the changing needs of customers who want to interact with companies using electronic channels such as Web, e-mail and social media, as well as the telephone.

“We are at a crossroads, the point where we are starting the transition to the next phase of contact centres,” says Nolan John, managing executive of Absa's contact centre. “Our biggest challenge is to understand our value proposition for the business and for our customers.”

Absa is by no means alone. The contact centre industry is changing at a faster rate than it has for years. Sophisticated new sourcing strategies, the maturation of technologies such as cloud computing, spiralling customer support costs and the rise of the connected consumer are prompting companies to rethink the role of their contact centres.

Call centres rose in the 1990s to replace face-to-face contact, says Siva Pather, GM for customer interactive solutions at Dimension Data. Now, they're increasingly playing a supporting role to other channels such as the branch and the Web. Organisations need to align the call centre - that once operated as silos - more closely with their other channels.

Companies are looking towards commercial models such as risk -and reward-sharing to improve the performance of their contact centres.

Johann Kunz, Fusion Outsourcing

Call centres are finding their budgets under pressure in a tight economic climate - another factor spurring them to change the way they operate, says Gary Hart, executive head of managed network services at Vodacom Business.

“Companies often see the contact centre as an operational evil rather than as a tool for enhancing their businesses,” says Hart. “Call centre managers need to demonstrate value and show why the call centre is not just a grudge purchase.”

Craig Gibson, a director at Dimension Data company Merchants, says a more mature mindset is starting to take root as South African companies begin to see call centres as a central part of customer retention and revenue protection strategies, rather than as valuable only for their role in customer acquisition.

Driving down costs

Driving down operational costs is top of mind for most companies that are running large contact centre operations. Outsourcing remains a popular option for companies that are looking to drive down operational expenditure, says Gerald Terblanche, operations director at Inter-Active Technologies.

Terblanche says the outsourcing partner takes away the burden of infrastructure investment and maintenance from the client and offers a fixed cost for its services over the term of the contract.

Outsourcing allows companies to better control costs in the face of rising inflation since they can get service providers to compete for their business at the end of every contract term.

By outsourcing, companies can modernise ageing call centre technology and replace it with newer solutions. Outsourcing firms can also enable their clients to expand the range of customer channels they support - for example, adding e-mail, Web or SMS to the mix - in a cost-effective manner, Terblanche says.

Call centre outsourcing isn't new, but companies are thinking about it in a more mature manner. “The old per-seat costing model is out,” says Johann Kunz, MD at Fusion Outsourcing, a large business process outsourcing firm that employs over 1 600 people. “Companies are looking towards to commercial models such as risk- and reward-sharing to improve the performance of their contact centres.”

In addition to the cost benefits, outsourcing gives companies the flexibility to easily ramp the call centre services they use up and down in response to variations in demand during seasons such as the Christmas holidays or the end of the financial year, says Kunz. “Our IT and recruitment structures are geared towards providing the client with flexibility,” he adds.

South African customers have benefitted as a result of local business process outsourcing firms competing for business in the offshore market. Kunz says companies such as Fusion have embraced global best practices to compete for business from offshore companies, offering these to local clients as well.

Most of the market is still using old, proprietary technologies that are costly to support and hard to integrate.

Karl Reed, Elingo

Outsourcing firms in SA are taking advantage of a range of incentives such as a Department of Trade & Industry grant for offshore business process outsourcing firms to lower their salary bills and train up their workforces, says Terblanche. The benefits impact their South African clients as much as their offshore customers.

The question should not be whether or not to outsource, but how and where a company can access the capabilities it needs to achieve its business goals, says Gibson. “South African companies are awaking to the power of strategies that are all about sourcing for the right reasons,” he says.

“They are looking to acquire the capabilities to deliver on the vision and brand promise of their organisations.” Often, organisations are mixing outsourced and in-house resources or partnering with multiple service providers to achieve their goals, Gibson says. Increasingly, they are tying contracts with service providers to measurable targets such as revenue generation or cost reduction.

Absa has the scale to justify running its call centre itself, says John. The complexity of the regulatory environment it operates in and of the products it sells also means it makes sense for the bank to run an in-house contact centre. The bank invests heavily in training staff around laws such as Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act, he notes.

Many of Absa's call centre agents are highly qualified professionals trained to give portfolio advice to private banking and platinum clients.

Shifting to self-service

One of the most significant trends reshaping the call centre market is a movement towards low-cost self-service channels such as interactive voice response (IVR), the Web, USSD and SMS. Most organisations want their customers to pick up the phone and speak to a service representative only as a last resort.

Kunz says many companies are trying to move simple and repetitive transactions onto self-service channels, a trend that will see voice call volumes drop over the next three to four years. However, more complex customer interactions will still involve a conversation between the customer and a call centre agent.

“You will probably never get to a point where the customer can do everything online, but interactions through a call centre agent need to be the exception rather than the rule,” says Stuart Scanlon, sales director at New Era Solutions.

Fokion Natsis, Interactive Intelligence's SA country manager, says many customers still value the human touch. Organisations that try to force all customers to use electronic channels rather than speaking to an agent may end up alienating customers, he adds.

Natsis points to Unisa as an example of an organisation that is still taking heavy flak from dissatisfied customers following a decision last year to close down its voice channel and force its students to interact with it using SMS, the Web and e-mail. Rather than shutting down the voice channel, Unisa should have tried to optimise it, Natsis suggests.

For Absa, the call centre is a way to provide a level of human contact that builds affinity with its brand among its customers, but at a far lower cost than it can through its physical branches, says John.

However, Absa has had some success offsetting basic transactions such as balance enquiries to IVR, freeing up resources to focus on more valuable interactions

IVR, USSD and SMS are perfect for simple transactions, says Terblanche. If self-service across these channels is too slow or complex, they will simply frustrate customers and add to the call centre's burden. But companies that do not have such self-service channels in place will need to employ a larger workforce to deal with the most basic interactions and will often struggle to service clients with more complex queries as quickly and efficiently as they'd like to.

Multiple channels

After years of hype about the need to support multiple channels, South African contact centres are facing up to the need to interact with customers across media such as fax, e-mail, the Web, SMS, and, increasingly, social media. Absa, for example, is incorporating a range of digital channels into its mix.

The bank has created a specialist call centre team to handle e-mail, which is already popular among its customers. Absa is also evaluating where Web chat, video presence and social media will play a role in its contact centre, says John. “These new technologies are top of mind in our future strategy.”

Absa is trying to understand in which transactions the call centre should support other channels and when it should lead them.

As more of today's schoolchildren and students join Absa's customer base, the bank expects to see a bigger shift towards digital platforms in its customer service and support mix. Growth in voice contacts has already flattened out while online banking, mobile banking and other electronic channels are growing, John notes.

“In the past, we would prescribe to customers how they would interact with our businesses,” says Karl Reed, chief marketing and solutions officer at Elingo. Now, customers are telling companies how they would like to communicate with them. When an organisation doesn't support their choice of channel, they will find someone who does, he adds.

The problem is that few South African contact centres are truly geared up for multi-channel interactions, apart from e-mail or fax. “The South African market is not ready for the multi-channel world,” says Hart. “Only 10% of call centres are able to handle multimedia contacts.”

One problem lies in the fact that many contact centres are running legacy applications that are not ready to process multimedia transactions and are reluctant to rip them out and replace them with newer systems, says Pommie Lutchman, CEO at Ocular Technologies.

Inter-Active Technologies' Terblanche advises contact centres to invest in platforms that will allow them to track and manage interactions across a range of channels from a unified console. The more advanced platforms allow teams to create internal knowledge bases that can also be translated into Web self-service content, so that they can deal consistently and efficiently with common queries across multiple channels.

A new channel that most contact centres are struggling to come to grips with is social media. Although South African companies are making effective use of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to deliver marketing messages and address brand queries, most have not integrated social media into their contact centre strategies, Terblanche says.

But there is an opportunity to post solutions and answers to common queries and questions in social channels to reduce voice traffic to the call centre.

Absa has yet to formalise a policy for social media, but its call centre agents are big advocates of social media as a platform for customer service, says John. “They understand the importance and requirements of social media, but we need to be clear about how we will integrate it into our service strategy,” he adds.

Transformative tech

Lutchman says the global contact centre market has stagnated over the past few years in terms of technology adoption and innovation. However, many companies are now looking to replace ageing call centre systems - many of them hardware-based and proprietary - with newer technologies.

The old computer telephony integration model is on its way out, with call centres increasingly using standards such as Web services and service-oriented architecture to integrate call centre applications with each other and with corporate systems such as customer relationship management applications, says Erastus Matodzi, Avaya product manager at Business Connexion.

Most contact centres are also upping their investment in real-time analytics solutions that help them understand what they need to do to reduce customer churn, improve customer satisfaction and enhance call centre performance, says Pather.

New Era Solutions' Scanlon agrees that today's call centre is driven by up-to-the-second data that help managers manage resources more efficiently and ensure that agents are hitting their service level targets. This information is used for performance management and ongoing process improvement.

Contact centres are also investing heavily in security solutions that allow customers to perform transactions over the phone more securely than they could when they had to read their credit card numbers, card verification values and other personal identification numbers to call centre reps.

Dimension Data's Pather says voice biometric systems are becoming popular for security and verification, as are Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard solutions that allow customers to input credit card details using a touch-tone phone rather than needing to give them to an agent.

Hart says that since labour accounts for upwards of 60% of a contact centre's running costs, many organisations are looking to invest in technologies such as predictive diallers to improve agent productivity and efficiency. To save on technology costs, they are turning to solutions such as hosted contact centres and cloud computing.

Hosted contact centre solutions can be deployed very quickly and turn call centre technology costs into an operational expense, Hart says. They are affordable for smaller companies and can be easily scaled up and down in response to business growth or seasonal fluctuations in call volumes.

“The trend towards cloud computing makes a lot of sense for SMEs and for setting up temporary call centres,” says Matodzi. “Cloud-based services can allow for very quick, cost-effective deployment of a contact centre.”

Natsis believes that although many companies will buy certain applications in a cloud model, they will prefer to retain their voice recordings and data on their own infrastructures so that they can keep control over their customer information.