Save our call centres. Please.

It’s not just as consumers that we should be concerned about the state of the call centre industry. It is starting to borrow ideas pioneered by IT services and, by understanding why, we can help manoeuvre the service desk into a position of great strength in the future.

 

Why are call centres so poor?

You might have wondered at some point why most call centres are rubbish. You are right to ask this question – after all call centres are not a new phenomenon, so why do most of them still make the same mistakes they have been making for the last couple of decades?

The next question on your mind is probably why we are talking about customer service in an IT services newsletter. To understand the significance of the answer we need to delve into how call centres work and only then can we see the real relevance to both customer support and the IT services functions.

The overriding reason why call centres are rubbish is that there is no formal methodology to stop things escalating to the point where customers have to ring up to report a problem. Because of this fundamental error, the call centre is permanently on the back foot and this fire fighting breeds a negative culture. The attitude created leads to a siege mentality where dealing with the barrage of attacks from customers becomes a battle of attrition. In this climate, the people working on the phones are treated like infants because the managers are driven only by the numbers dictated by the senior managers. This makes the environment very impersonal for the staff, who must also act as an outlet for the frustration of customers and are powerless to fight back against the caller unleashing their venom, whether the verbal assault is justified or not.

All of these factors collide: the agents are squeezed equally vigorously by both customers and employers, and so fail to perform. Customer problems are therefore not addressed, which leads to repeat calls that in turn feed the mechanics which started the whole sorry mess in the first place.

This is of course a million miles from the stated aims of many call centres: to improve the customer experience and to help nurture brand value. But can a call centre entrenched with this working methodology change? Yes it can, but it must first devise a way to stem the backlog of customer problems, and then find time to pre-empt and address issues before they become new problems. This is not as hard as it sounds and does not always require additional resource. Call centres which have replaced calls per hour with quality as the main measurable target for agents find that the call queue gets even longer than usual for a short time. But as the problems are addressed fully, the repeat calls stop repeating, the queue drops off, the customers are less agitated making it easier for agents to deal with them, and suddenly the call centre has an ever-improving situation.

 

IT services can help

To take the next step on the road to improvement, call centres must apply thinking borrowed from the IT services market. By taking the logical, processes approach championed within IT services and most vividly illustrated by ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library), the improving call centre can begin to look at the issues that impact the service levels it can offer. At present, call centre agents have little more than access to the call centre customer databases to help guide them through the service process. This database holds notes that have been added by agents when answering calls in the past. There are three problems in relying on this information to address customer issues. Firstly, it may have no relevance to the current call. Secondly, its accuracy is reliant on the agent being given time to accurately update it and, as we have already discussed, time is a luxury too rich for most call centres. And finally, this customer ‘history” often does not include information held in other systems regarding key influencers such as deliveries and service contracts.

Therefore, most call centre agents enter into a dialogue with a customer virtually blind to the factors which will dictate whether the problems can be addressed or not. Think for a moment about the systems which impact service delivery. An order system might crash or an engineer’s van might break down. The customer asset register might not have been updated properly, meaning that the call centre has incorrect details relating to products. An amended third party contract might cause a service to suddenly stop without anyone in the call centre being aware of it. Customer service staff may have no clue about a new promotion because the internal product catalogue has not been updated.

To address these problems, the call centre must first identify which systems most impact the service it can offer, then find a way to integrate processes between these systems. Sunrise is addressing this issue with the release of Sostenuto CSM, a new version of its web-based software system which includes pre-built processes for managing key customer service functions. Of course, there are other systems which could do similar, but few are web-based so cannot offer the huge benefits when trying to create a single, company-wide product. Fewer still have made the connection between the problems faced in customer service and the benefits that ITIL and process management can bring as Sunrise has done with this release.

 

Marriage of convenience

This could be leading to a marriage of convenience between departments that have traditionally operated very separately from each other: the call centre and the service desk. Investigating the separation between these two functions is something that I am very familiar with from my days working on Customer Service News (CSN). In this magazine, we tried to tie the functions together buoyed by the belief that the common elements such as handling a call and managing the resolution made a neat fit. Even though it was a successful magazine for many years, its modus operandi was never fully accepted because, despite the commonality, both functions were managed very differently. The call centre was, broadly, a volume-driven cost savings exercise, while the IT helpdesk took a more process driven approach to incidents and attempted to track the issue through to conclusion.

For years, we argued within CSN that if the functions could learn from each other (the helpdesk should brush up on its people skills, while the call centre should become more proactive) then everyone would benefit. In the end, there was not enough support for this theory and the magazine was spilt in two to allow us to concentrate on each function in more detail.

Is the time now right for this theory to be given another airing? Just recently I have been speaking to a service desk manager at a major utility company and he described to me how, within his organisation, a single management centre is being built to centralise all internal processes. Two other local authority Sunrise clients, Bolton and Birmingham, are taking similar steps to centralise operations. The aim is to align the successful practices used by the IT service desk with the scalability and single point of contact that a large call centre offers.

From the call centre perspective, we are seeing common sense prevailing as the realisation that customer service costs can only be reduced so much before customers balk – a dynamic which has hopefully reached its zenith as consumers react badly to the ultimate penny-pinching practice: offshore outsourcing. Emerging in response to this are smaller call centres which are measuring effectiveness through a range of measures, such as up-selling and customer loyalty, and are automating many rudimentary transactions to give staff more time to work on the important interactions. Put another way, call centres are trying to become more like helpdesks and vice versa.

If the helpdesk is going to prosper within this new model of centralised processes, it needs to take a leading role and by helping the problematic call centre to improve would be a huge boost to its credibility. At this time it would be a stretch to envisage the total erosion of the barriers between the helpdesk and the call centre because there are fundamental differences between the work being carried out. Yet all IT services professionals must also face the possibility that they will be dragged closer to the centre of internal operations as centralisation of IT and all internal processes starts to pan out. It is already happening and, as with any great shakeout, some parties will benefit and some will lose control. The more that IT services can be seen as pioneers and champions of information sharing, whether it be to improve IT or something quite separate such as a call centre, the better chance it has of being a winner.

To see the Sunrise Sostenuto CSM brochure, and find out how you can benefit, please click here

James West

James West is a journalist specialising in IT services & support, & customer service.

Email: james@jwestassociates.co.uk

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