"I'm sorry but the computer's a bit slow today" - call centre angst in the 21st century

"Bear with me…"
Written by Tony Hallett, Contributor

"Bear with me…"

While the call centre boom may have peaked in Europe, by some estimates such operations will continue to employ one in 25 Europeans over the next five years, and new 'offshore' facilities in countries such as India are booming. But of the many obstacles to their success, Tony Hallett writes, IT performance and business processes stand out like sore thumbs… As much as we, as consumers, expect downward pressure on prices for services such as insurance and banking, we tend not to like dealing with the call centres that have often allowed falling premiums and zero-fee credit cards. That, of course, is something of a generalisation - every channel has its place, and there are good and bad experiences with face-to-face and web-based relationships too. But we do hear about a fair amount of 'call centre rage'. Why is it so many times you speak to a call centre agent you hear: "Bear with me while I wait for my computer" or "We're having a few problems with our systems today"? One theory has it that agents, often stressed from having to measure up to demanding call performance metrics (more on these later) are trying to get you on their side. After all, who hasn't been hampered as well as aided by IT at work? Consumers typically empathise and cut some proverbial slack. Or could it really be that many call centre IT systems just aren't up to the job, at least not in 'conversation time'? The technology that underpins many operations is good enough for the intended processes but a pause of even three to five seconds in a conversation can make for an awkward interaction. Steve Blood, senior research director at Gartner Group, said: "In recent years CTI [computer telephony integration] cut 20 seconds from call times. Now the browser is adding it back." Call centre agents usually depend on either bespoke applications or common packages from companies such as PeopleSoft, SAP or - the daddy of all the CRM players - Siebel. These companies know this market. Trouble is, in recent years they have moved flagship applications to being browser-based. That's a good thing for most user scenarios but add the pressure of a customer on the line wondering why they are being asked to bear with an agent and there's trouble. Gartner has calculated that of a sample of call centre sites that trialled browser-based Siebel 7.x, a year on 70 per cent hadn't upgraded because of performance issues. And besides the straightforward task of providing customer service, there is the issue of falling costs. Allan Trayes, strategic business consultant at management consultants Secor, reckons that in-house annual call centre costs per agent have fallen in two years in the UK from £5,400 to around £4,300. These can almost halve again if more companies start to use virtual call centres with agents working from home, connected via broadband and thin client systems such as those sold by Citrix. This too, however, depends on guaranteeing levels of performance beyond simple voice telephony systems. And any discussion of the call centre industry wouldn't be complete without talking about offshoring. Especially in the UK, in light of several high profile stories, such as BA or BT moving certain operations there, offshoring is talked about in terms of setting up or using outsourced facilities India. Many offshoring projects do go to that country - which guarantees, among other things, an educated and motivated workforce - but they are also about places such as Mexico, the Philippines and countries like Canada where 'nearshoring', for various reasons, has its benefits. Ian McNuff, managing director, UK and Ireland, Sitel, said: "I suspect there's not one boardroom in the UK that isn't discussing offshoring." Cost is at the heart of most offshoring moves, at least for many organisations. The more enlightened managers also know that cost isn't the only reason. But again, there are problems. Companies may want to move jobs overseas but they are adamant they want to keep data and most computer systems at home. Secor's Trayes said: "When the IP infrastructure is up to scratch in India - in three to four years - we will see a tipping point in jobs going." But is the move only about performance? Andy Crosby is product marketing director EMEA at Mercury Interactive, a Silicon Valley software company that makes most of its money by getting organisations' applications to run more efficiently. Increasing call centre performance could be a major market for MI. He said: "In research we had carried out, 55 per cent of respondents said they heard the phrase 'I'm sorry but the computer's a bit slow today' [when on the phone to a call centre]. We want to remove that from the agent's vocabulary." While agents typically feel pressure to get on to the next call - even if that next call ends up being someone calling back, dissatisfied because a first rushed call didn't do the trick - it is ironic user organisations haven't properly examined IT system performance optimisation in an industry that is known for its people metrics. Crosby added, referring to the American whose business ethic many consider lies at the heart of Japan's post-war business success: "Just as Deming added processes in Japan to manufacturing, we need to do the same now in call centres and IT." Roger Freeston, another strategic business consultant at Secor, said: "Agents are measured too often just on call time. The measurements must have meaning in terms of the whole business process." Most experts tend to think that, in terms of business processes, the call centre industry is at the stage manufacturing was at in the 1960s.The good news is that, as with manufacturing, where Japan excelled by implementing the best it observed elsewhere, many small improvements can be made - and they add up to a major step forward. Anyone looking at the big picture may also say such an analysis also favours India and other newer bases, rather than operations in countries where call centres are more established. Sitel's McNuff said: "As with Japan [and manufacturing after WWII], India has a fresh start. Offshore locations have the opportunity to take the best." The future could be theirs. But of course it will also depend on getting the IT right.
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