Industry Research : Calling Time on Old-style Call Centres
When is a call centre not really a call centre? When telephones are no longer the primary form of communication.
For most of us, a call centre will conjure up an image of rows upon rows of people, head-sets afixed, spending hour after hour on the telephone to customers.
As Derek Stalley, operations director for Sky Ireland, who first started working in the sector some 20 years ago recalls, "it was about lots of bums on seats and call after call after call".
With the advent of social media however, call centres are moving further away from this old mode of working. Now known as contact centres, telephones are no longer the tool they once were.
"We’re seeing huge development in terms of how companies across all sectors are handling interaction," says Dorothy O’Byrne, managing director, of the Contact Centre Management Association (CCMA), noting that companies are now adopting a "multi-channel" approach.
Stalley agrees. "Five-plus years ago it would have been predominantly call-related, but we’ve since started to tap into other channels, and are doing more web-related stuff," he says.
Indeed Facebook, online web-chats, Twitter and YouTube are where it’s at now. eBay for example, gives training on successfully selling on its auction site via YouTube, while 02 promotes its "GuruTV" on the medium, through which you find out about tech-related problems.
Bookmaker Paddy Power introduced web-chat in 2009 on the back of customer demand, and it now accounts for more engagement than all its other methods.
"It’s an incredibly popular tool of communication," says Ronan Wall, operations director with Paddy Power, which has 150 people working in its contact centre in Clonskeagh, supporting all its online products.
The firm has a dedicated social support team, whose role is to manage and monitor support queries through Facebook and Twitter.
For a younger generation of customers, social media can be a more preferable communication tool to picking up the phone.
"We know that the younger generation don’t necessarily want to pick up the phone to speak to someone," says O’Byrne.
And for businesses, it can be a cheaper and more productive way of keeping in touch with customers, with employees able to to facilitate several web-chats at the same time – as opposed to just one phone-call.
But social media also brings with it its own challenges. "It is difficult, because it’s so free and open. It’s difficult to have a response to every permutation," notes Stalley.
So what do companies do if they find their brand being disparaged on Twitter?
"What we try and do is if we can offer some help, we will engage, and we will try and privately communicate with the individual to resolve the problem," says Wall, but adds that the support team "don’t answer every comment, if there’s nothing we can add to it".
By facilitating customer service online, it also gives a perception that help is at hand 24-7. But is this something companies can fulfil?
"For us our core hours are between 7am and 11pm, but one of the things we’re looking at is if there’s an appetite outside those core hours," says Stalley, adding, " part of being customer-centric is about convenience".
While the transition to new forms of communication can be expensive for companies, it doesn’t have to be.
"We don’t necessarily use the most expensive technology. We make the most out of the technology that we use," says Wall, noting that Paddy Power uses free technology such as Tweetdeck, which allows you to filter different Twitter conversations.
But if companies are changing how they communicate with their customers, they’re also changing their view on where they want to be located.
Go back a decade or so, and talk in the sector was that the future for call centres would be in lower cost jurisdictions in eastern Europe and the far east.
In 2008, insurance group Aviva caused furore when it announced that it would move up to 500 jobs service and support jobs to Bangalore in India from Ireland. However, this "offshoring" vision didn’t work out quite as had been expected, with many companies finding that while it was cheaper, it had a cost nonetheless, in terms of customer satisfaction.
As a result, some companies took the decision to move operations back from far-flung locations, closer to home, but as Stalley notes, this is a "big cost drain". "It becomes a bit of a false economy. It looks cheaper on paper but if you’re serious about being customer focused, then it has a cost," he says. Now the focus is on being physically close to the customer, understanding the nuances of the culture and language.
"It’s absolutely about being closer to the market," says Stalley, noting that the TV and broadband operator took the decision to invest in a new contact centre in Dublin for this reason.
The company has already employed 400 people at its operation in Burlington Plaza, and expects this to grow to 900 by July.
"We’re trying to be closer to our customers and to respond to their needs," he says.
Wall agrees. "I think it’s really, really important to keep the contact centre close to the rest of the business, because it’s not just the voice of the business to the customer, but also the voice of the customer back to the business".
This focus on contact centres feeding information picked up from customers back into the business has seen both Paddy Power and Sky locate their contact centres at the heart of their business operations.
"This brings with it lots of opportunities because with all our people under one roof, you can go and search out expertise and sort out problems very quickly," says Stalley.
Looking ahead, mobile technology is likely to drive the next wave of innovations in customer support, as organisations look to leverage on the capabilities offered by the move to smartphones.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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