When most people hear the word call centre it immediately conjures up the dreaded telemarketing calls that arrive in the middle of your dinner time when overseas call centre agents with bad lines and bad accents want to provide you with a free review of your energy usage, mobile phone plan and so on.
But what is less understood is that the call centre industry in Australia employs over 250,000 people working across a range of different industry verticals from Insurance, Retail, Banking, Government, Logistics and so on offering a range of services like customer service, sales, telephone account management, technical support and critical functions in society like Triple Zero (000), Lifeline, Kids Help Line and more.
But with the continuing rise of the digital economy, many have signaled the demise of the call centre as customers transition to digital with websites, live chat and automated ‘bots’ making call centre agents resigned to the history books.
Whilst it’s true there has been a reduction in call volumes globally, call centres (or contact centres which is the more modern term) are still not showing any signs of slowing down or reducing in headcount.
In a world where everything is becoming commoditized, companies are always looking for a competitive edge and customer experience is the now not-so-secret weapon that many businesses are looking towards as their key differentiator.
Whilst intrinsically it’s always made sense to look after your customers, the data science is now clear that it’s also good for your bottom line. Research has suggested 84% of organisations working to improve their Customer Experience report an increase in revenue due to increased customer retention, higher employee engagement and that 86% of customers are prepared to pay more for a better customer experience.
A definition between customer experience and customer service
To understand contact centres and where they fit in, we first need to clear something up.
Customer Experience is the end-to-end experience a customer has with your business. From your marketing, your website, the delivery driver, the bill or any communication they receive and so on – essentially any touchpoint a customer has with your product or service. Any and all of these touchpoints can, and do, influence how a customer perceives your brand and they are being used by the customer to determine whether they will either start, continue or cease doing business with you.
Customer Service is more specifically the point where the customer has a direct one-to-one interaction with your someone from your business. For most businesses its traditionally either the retail store front or the contact centre.
With the Retail sector under huge pressure and bricks and mortar stores closing, the contact centre is often the first point, or only point, customers interact with your brand so it stands to reason there is a lot riding on this interaction.
So, whilst traditionally the contact centre has been seen as a cost centre, smart companies are now investing in the contact centre channel, and more broadly their entire customer experience, for good reason – it’s critical for survival and good for your bottom line.
The top challenges for contact centres in Australia
At a local level, contact centre managers have a lot of competing demands. Managing staff, customers, budgets, technology, being the customer advocate for the entire business and so on there is a solid reason why many contact centre managers go onto to successful C-Level positions as their career progresses.
But the contact centre industry is also facing some significant challenges and I’ve listed below what I consider to be the current top issues:
Acquisition and retention
The contact centre industry has had an image issue for a long time. I mean let’s face it, how many children at school raise their hand and say ‘I want to work in a contact centre’ when I grow up? None would be a fair assumption.
Yet for many, it’s a great place to start your career where you learn a bunch of valuable skills including communication, problem solving, empathy, customer focus, the link between effort and reward, the importance of adherence to rosters and so on.
But retaining staff has, and still is, an issue with turnover in the contact centre industry in Australia in 2019 sitting at 45%.
Yet half of that attrition is actually internal. 23% of staff lost from the call centre are actually ‘pinched’ by other departments in the business! Why? Because they have a good understanding of the entire business, they have developed great customer skills, they are tech savvy and they are used to being managed and held accountable for their performance.
Smart contact centres and businesses plan for this and actively encourage internal promotion.
Onshore and offshore
With the high cost of labour in Australia, running a contact centre is a significant investment with the average base salary for a customer service agent $56,121 + super excluding bonuses (over 60% of contact centres in Australia pay their agents some form a performance bonus) and then add in your overheads for facilities, management, workers compensation, payroll tax and so on.
Compare this to approximately $6,000 AUD to $10,000 AUD for a fully outsourced contact centre agent in the Philippines and you can see why it’s enough for any CFO to be salivating.
But as I alluded to earlier, just focusing strictly on numbers can lead you down a slippery path as no business sends their contact centre overseas for a better customer experience as the primary driver – it’s to slash costs.
With the cost cutting there is a general acceptance that the customer experience will be lower, so which voice is going to the be the loudest in your business? Saving some money now, or paying the price later when customer satisfaction drops, and customers start leaving your business or when businesses with a stronger customer focus are attracting all the new customers while your growth stalls?
Some companies have ‘stayed the course’ and actively promote their Australian based call centre as a competitive advantage – Commonwealth Bank and Red Energy are two examples and it would seem the strategy is paying off.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-offshore. If executed correctly, either full or partial offshoring can and still is a viable option for many businesses. I’ve spent time working in the Philippines and the Filipinos are hard-working, career driven, very funny, and very customer focused.
Just be clear on your expectations and make sure you’ve got all the right people involved in making the right decisions and executing the right strategy.
Whilst it’s true that call volumes are declining across the globe, there has not been a direct correlation to a reduction in headcount in the contact centre.
Primarily it’s because of two reasons. Firstly, the customer enquiries are still there, they have just moved from the phone channel to digital e.g. live chat, email, Social Media etc.
And in many of those instances, it can be more labour intensive managing a live chat conversation than a quick phone call even when multiple live chats can be handled by the one operator.
Secondly, the complexity of the calls has increased significantly meaning each call takes longer.
Using a bank as an example, when is the last time you gave them a call to check your balance?
You don’t. You just check your app or login online.
Customers are increasingly looking to self-service and it’s good for the customer and your business if you can help them at that point. A well-designed app, FAQs on your website, how to videos on YouTube and so on.
But if the customer still can’t get an answer to their question or problem, what are they going to do? They call.
This places more and more load onto the contact centre and is driving a fundamental shift in the industry. The need for higher skilled employees (problem solvers instead of just reciting lines), different training, better information to support agents on the call and so on.
With businesses more and more reliant on the contact centre for their primary customer interaction, having a robust Business Continuity Plan should be a critical part of your thinking.
Whether it’s from natural disasters, power outages, industrial action or a virus like COVID-19, having the ability to service your customers in the middle of a crisis can literally be a matter of life and death for a business – both literally and figuratively.
Having multiple locations, work from home agents, cloud-based contact centre software and so on, there are now lots of options to build redundancy into your business but it certainly requires a different way of thinking.
Rather than just having to worry about phone calls, the contact centre is now managing multiple channels (e.g. email, live chat, video chat, SMS etc.) and requiring more and more information in order to service those customers.
Moving the contact centre to the cloud, Knowledge Management Tools, Automatic Call Back technology, Chatbots and automation, integration with CRM tools like Salesforce, SAP etc. and so on offer both tremendous opportunities to improve the customer experience and decrease risk and costs in the process.
With decades spent working in contact centres my advice is simple – talk to your contact centre manager, the Team Leaders and the frontline agents and ask them what your business needs to do to improve.
They’ll be across every single failure point in your business and have insight on a daily basis from the people that ultimately matter the most – your customers.