At Datapoint, we firmly believe in the importance of customer service to gain competitive advantage. As such, we are committed to helping companies build effective call centres as the front line of customer service, ensuring they are efficient at a commercial, operational and technical level. One of the frequently important and most overlooked aspects of this process is to ensure the call centre agents are provided with the best facilities and environment in which to provide excellent customer service.
At the beginning of this year, we commissioned this research report to explore the state of UK call centres and to highlight best practices centres in terms of environment, facilities and good operational procedures.
The research finds that in the majority of cases, call centre agents are provided with excellent working environments with measures in place to support them and help develop their skills.
The research clearly highlights the enormous progress industry-leading call centres have made. Their emphasis on providing first-rate working conditions benefits both employees and customers alike. A positive external image can only be achieved through an equally positive and supportive internal atmosphere. This ultimately boosts customer service and reduces both customer and employee churn.
As in all business environments there is room for improvement and our research highlights one of these instances. For some call centres there is progress to be made in using technology to help serve their customers and provide their agents with the best possible information. It is imperative for organisations to understand how their technology can work for them, providing agents with all the facts about each customer and ensuring callers receive impeccable service every time they communicate with the call centre.
However, call centres are clearly ahead of the pack in terms of personnel development, and it is encouraging to see the obvious investment in training and development and the benefits this brings. Call centre agents must be properly trained and acquainted with the company's products, brand and values. If this takes place agents can be trusted to use their own judgement, making call handling slicker, more productive and customer orientated.
It is critical that companies in the UK invest in their call centres so that they can focus on delivering high value services and remain competitive in an increasingly global economy. In a few years, if the findings we have uncovered with this research spread across the rest of the industry then the customer service industry with be full of homegrown talent that understands the vital role that call centres play. Other industries should sit up and take note.
Can technology really impact upon the contact centre environment?
Clive Sawkins, vice president, Avaya UK and Ireland:
The belief that overall business success is directly linked to a positive environment that makes employees more productive, is finally gaining credence. This positive environment in a contact centre is made up of a variety of factors including company culture, strength of management, infrastructure, facilities and the empowerment of agents to do their jobs fully. An important part of the infrastructure and facilities is the technology available to the agents. Getting the technology right is critical as the contact centre agent has greater potential to influence customer behaviour - and, therefore, revenue generation - than almost any other employee.
By enabling agents to do their job better, technology can help create a more positive atmosphere in a contact centre and will also impact upon customer service. Conversely, poorly implemented or out-of-date technology can often hinder agents and, in my experience, many of the sweat shop images stem from this problem. However, simply purchasing new technology is clearly not the answer to improving the working environment. Before even considering the various solutions on the market it is essential that companies discuss the impact on the contact centre environment that the solution is likely to have. A plan for full implementation, communication of the change to agents, agent training and plotting Return on Investment from the system are all key.
When skills-based routing was first introduced, the industry focused on how it would improve customer service. These days, with more sophisticated systems, we can increase productivity using the same solution. Skill-based routing can help you revitalise your contact centre by giving management more flexibility to best use agent knowledge, reduce call handling times, reduce training times, support better incentive programs and lower operating costs. Intelligently distributing calls to agents, reducing unnecessary transfers and enabling agents to become specialists gives you cumulative results that make your contact centre more effective.
From the agent's point of view, skills-based routing can make them stand out to their employers; they are being recognised for their skills and the value they add. As a result their line managers are more likely to be able to develop a tailored development plan for them, with appropriate coaching, training and objectives - much like employees in most other office-based jobs. It also gives agents a chance to take more control of their own careers, choosing and adding new skills that keep their job interesting and expand their knowledge. They are therefore more likely to stay in their job for longer.
Call centres are an important employer in the UK, yet have been unable to shake their 'second-rate' image. The call centre industry is letting itself down by doing little to break outsiders' perceptions. For the person on the street, the image of the call centre remains that of the sweat shop. In reality, as Datapoint's research indicates, many call centres offer positive environments and career opportunities to rival most other industries. Technology such as call routing offers a way to improve the environment and offer further career development. I strongly urge call centres to continue this trend so that we can build an industry we are truly proud of, that will change the general public's perceptions.
This indicates that it is younger women, at the start of their careers, who tend to see call centre work as an attractive option. The research also reveals that it is older call centre agents who are more likely to stay in their jobs the longest. 50 per cent of 36-45 year olds and 83 per cent of 46+ year olds have been in their jobs for more than two years. This indicates that call centre work remains attractive and fulfilling for workers in the later stages of their career.
Environment and facilities
Bottom of the list are:
Encouragingly, call centre managers are hitting the nail on the head when it comes to providing the facilities that agents actually deem important. The agents select training rooms, chill out areas, parking and Internet access as their four most valued facilities, which matches what they are being provided with in most cases. By asking how the facilities actually make a difference to the agents, the research finds that the agents feel less stressed, can be more organised and productive and proud of their jobs. Interestingly when the research extended to the working environment outside of the call centre and the agents were asked whether they would find it useful to be able to work flexibly from home, or another location, nearly half the agents feel it would be quite or very useful. This option would be particularly attractive to the 36-45 year olds. However, despite this fairly high desire to work from home, only 18 per cent of the agents are presented with this option.
Support, training and development
When it comes to training, the research dispels the myth that call centre work is an unskilled option, and highlights call centre employers' commitment to training their agents. The results show that four out of ten agents receive more than one day of training per month. Compare this to the national percentage of only 14.3 per cent of workers who received any job-related training during the summer of 2003 and it's clear call centres are providing competitive development opportunities and an attractive career path.
In addition, only just over a third of agents are provided with all the information about the incoming caller. So, not only are calls not routed to the best agent to resolve the caller's enquiry but, when the caller does get through the agent is unlikely to have the correct information about them. This could have a severe impact on the level of service the caller receives. In summary, the research finds that whilst in some cases technical facilities could be improved, most of the call centres polled are providing excellent working conditions, with a strong commitment to support, training and development.
1 National statistics - Labour Market Trends, December 2003. This statistic of working-age employees receiving job-related training was taken over the summer of 2003.
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Published: Wednesday, June 23, 2004