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Industry Research : Call Centres Can't Dismiss Voice
Although using multimedia and self-service options drive down call volumes and costs, call centres should not be quick to dismiss the importance of the role of voice in customer service.
So says Jed Hewson, director at 1Stream, who notes that, with managers and IT under increasing pressure to lower costs, some of the tactics used may be doing more harm than good.
According to Hewson, staff costs are the most significant expenditure in any call centre, and in an effort to reduce these costs, the market has seen an uptake in companies that choose to use low-cost, self-service channels to complete simple transactions and queries.
"These might include interactive voice response, whereby users select menu options, SMSes, social media and Web portals. Others increasingly turn to multimedia options in an effort to decrease the workforce," he explains.
A recent survey conducted by Interactive Intelligence found that 59% of respondents still preferred to communicate with agents "live" via the telephone, as opposed to only 1% who preferred social media and the 4% who preferred a self-service option via the Web.
Hewson notes that while multimedia and self-service options can greatly enhance any call centre voice offering, they can't replace voice in its entirety. He says distance learning organisation Unisa discovered this when, in 2011, in an effort to drive down costs, it decided to close down the voice element of its call centre, preferring to communicate with students via SMS, e-mail and Web tools.
"Disgruntled students immediately took to the Web to complain, even launching a petition urging the institution to bring back the call centre," he says.
According to Hewson, Unisa underestimated the power of human interaction as a form of brand-building, or it had simply not evaluated the types of queries it was likely to receive. He says one of the most significant complaints students had was that character limits on SMSes and tweets made it difficult to relate complex information via the channel, and large volumes of texts and e-mails went unanswered. He points out that it may have been better for the institution to slightly reduce its workforce, and to divert simple queries to a self-service channel, with the option to speak to an agent if the need should arise.
"None of this means that multi-channel call centres or self-service tools are ineffective or unwanted. After all, they were developed to improve customer satisfaction, not necessarily to replace agents - and with the right provider, they can certainly do so."
Many of the gripes customers have about self-service options in particular have less to do with the tools themselves and more to do with poor implementation or a lack of understanding about how individuals prefer interacting with companies, says Hewson.
He notes that there are numerous ways of cutting costs in a call centre, but a company should never lose sight of the customer. He urges companies to speak to their technology providers about finding a happy medium, and partner with them to find out how new tools can enhance the voice offering.
"The business case for social media and multi-channel call centres was based on the fact that companies should speak to their customers using the tools their customers prefer to use. At the moment, that preference is for a mixture of voice and other channels - which, if balanced and managed correctly - can not only cut costs, but also improve customer service."
Hewson concludes that, while this may still change, it may be a while before the first "voiceless" call centre becomes a success.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Monday, September 2, 2013