Maybe it was fate. Or perhaps, serendipity. Either way, as I prepared to write this story I had several very different encounters with contact centers. Trying to figure out why I couldn’t make a particular adjustment to my Panasonic projection TV as instructed in the year-old manual, I searched the booklet for a tech support phone number. There was none. Finally locating a general number (in tiny type), I called and got a recording informing me the number no longer worked. So I took the hint, looked Panasonic up online instead, found my product, and sent an e-mail using their problem submission form. Two days later, I got an e-mail back — with the number for their tech support hotline!
Then there was the extremely friendly and helpful tech support person at Dish Network. She did everything that phone agents aren’t supposed to do — at least, not if they’re being measured on the number of problems they resolve and/or number of calls they take. While looking into my problem, she established great rapport, chatted about the weather, and was just plain ol’ gosh-darn nice. Plus, she helped me solve my problem and, though unable to figure out what had caused it, gave me a simple fix I could use in the future if it happened again (which it did). But it was her closing words that got to me. Obviously referring to a prepared script, she suggested that I could solve a lot of problems in the future by visiting the self-help section of Dish Network’s Web site. Then she added, “Though I’d really prefer that you call me directly, since if everybody solved their own problems I’d be out of a job.”
So there we have the state of contact centers in 2004. I know what you’re thinking: “This clown just used up two paragraphs and gave me nothing but anecdotal evidence to describe the state of contact centers in 2004! What is he trying to pull?” Hey, have a little faith, OK? I did speak to some bona fide contact center experts; we’ll get to them in a moment.
But let’s first extrapolate some meaning from my personal vignettes. Clearly, this totally unscientific sampling shows that merchants are just as confused as customers about how to make contact. It also shows that despite the down economy — or possibly because of it — companies are trying to be as customer-friendly as possible. As it happens, the call center experts with whom I spoke support both of those conclusions — and various others.
Here are some trends our contact center experts see this year:
Hold the phones
Christine Kozlosky, vice president of The Ascent Group, a Kite, GA-based management consultancy that focuses on customer service and call centers, doesn’t think our Dish rep has anything to worry about. “Phone contact is a necessity,” she says. “Not everybody uses the Internet, many people are uncomfortable with chat, and e-mail still does not provide an immediate response.”
Gary Lemke, president of RealMarket, a Carmel, IN-based research firm specializing in customer management, agrees: “Any organization that’s trying to force customers to use something other than the call center is unrealistic.” So what is the answer? “Understanding the customer,” says Lemke. “This isn’t black and white; the same customer may want to use one contact method one time, another the next time — it ‘depends.’ Many companies, after trying to get people to do self-service for every transaction, have now matured enough to see that they need to give people a choice.”
Here, there, and everywhere
Gartner Research director Bern Elliot points to virtualization of the call center as an important trend. “The ability to leverage multiple sites gives more economies,” says Elliot. “Sites on two sides of the country working on the same set of callers allow you to better load-balance and handle peaks, because the centers are a couple of hours apart. You can also better support remote or work-at-home agents.” Another aspect to virtualization, Elliot adds, is offshore outsourcing, noting that there is some significant outsourcing to Latin America, although the focus is on the Far East. Kozlosky agrees that there is now a lot of interest in Latin America — particularly Mexico and Colombia — because of the growing Spanish-speaking population in the U.S.
Amit Shankardass, solution planning officer for business process outsourcer ClientLogic in Nashville, TN, confirms that Latin America is becoming a prime area for contact center outsourcing. He was recently involved in setting up a support center in Monterrey, Mexico. “With Hispanics now representing about 13% of the U.S. population, and their buying power growing three times as fast as that of non-Hispanic whites, marketing and serving their demographics allow us to provide support more cost-effectively,” says Shankardass. He explains that “outsourcing offshore means pretty darn far away; while nearshore means closer, though in a different country. But the trend isn’t off- or nearshore, it’s ‘rightshore’: finding the location with the right balance of factors that are important to each company.” This mix of factors includes availability of highly skilled labor, location, cost, proximity to the U.S. (so that operations can be monitored), and perceived socioeconomic, geographic, and political risks. But “rightshoring” is now a major trend, says Shankardass: “It’s not a fad, and it’s not going away.”
More than just talk?
Sheila McGee-Smith, president and principal analyst of Pittstown, NJ-based McGee-Smith Analytics, is not convinced. “People keep expecting outsourcing to Latin America to pick up, but it still hasn’t.”
What is about to explode, according to McGee-Smith, is voice recognition technology. Programmers at Microsoft Corp., she says, have been working on making speech recognition more accessible for ten years — and now they’re ready. “Microsoft Speech is poised to be big in 2004. They want to take speech mainstream; to open it up to the entire enterprise and small business market.” Acceptance of speech technology has been fairly high, McGee-Smith points out. “It’s the deployment that’s been limited, because very few people were qualified to do the programming.”
Microsoft’s goal, she says, is for anyone who can program XML to be able to program speech applications. What will this mean? McGee-Smith explains: “If an IVR is at one end of the spectrum, and live service is at the other end, speech recognition done well is somewhere in the middle. Can we capture a lot of people who are willing to play IVR menu games, as well as move a lot off live service? Let’s see what happens with the actual rollout.”
The mass retain
RealMarket’s Lemke says focusing on customer retention is critical, especially in slower economic times. “There are fewer new customers, so it’s more important to retain the ones you have. And of all the ways to grow, the easiest is to retain customers.” By the same token, says Ascent’s Kozlosky, “[we] don’t know that service is necessarily driven by economic conditions. We’ve heard a lot of talk about customer satisfaction and CRM. Some companies are farther down that road than others, but it’s starting to show up in the call center. It seems pretty intuitive, but in the past it hasn’t been — companies were more driven by internal standards. Now they’re actually asking customers what’s important to them.”
McGee-Smith notes an “interesting development” in late 2003: Dell announced it was bringing some outsourced tech support back in-house from India because of customer complaints. She believes the offshore trend is going to be looked at more closely, especially the possibility of using Far East countries other than India. “For instance, Singapore English is more American-like, their culture is more Americanized, and while the price may be a bit higher than India, you can’t go by cost alone — and it’s still cheaper than the U.S.”
“The real lesson here is that outsourcing — properly done — regardless of where you go — can be a benefit, but done improperly it can be a problem,” comments Bern Elliot. On the whole idea of cutting customer service in a down economy, Elliot becomes vehement: “It is not just about savings. You can save your way out of business! This isn’t just about saving money; it’s about allocating resources, which is done equally in lean years and other times. Of course, there are a lot of businesses that will overreact and will make decisions based on short-term gains, and there’s a tendency to view customer support as a soft area where cuts can be made. But rather than cutting back, see if there are ways to improve service by changing the way you operate. Look for opportunities. Remember: Bad management can screw up anything.”
Those sound like words to live by.
Jeff Morris is a freelance writer and contributing editor to O+F.
The Ascent Group