Ineffective and inefficient call centres

“Your call is important to us. We will attend to you as soon as we can”.

One wonders sometimes what is more important to call centres, the call or the customer. In most call centres, customers wait for a few minutes at the end of a telephone line for an answer from an individual who is governed by a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that has more to do with the efficiency of the call centre than satisfying the needs of the customer.

Call centres which fall into the trap of providing a cost focus on single calls tend to be driven by an operational focus over the strategic role in the business of the organisation. They tend to become a law unto themselves with few people in the leadership team taking an active and detailed interest in their role.

Call centres are put in place to improve customer experience and thereby develop increased repeat business for the organisation for which they are providing that service. Using technology to deliver better services at about one tenth the cost of delivering the same services across a counter means the case for developing a call centre in an organisation with a high level of transactions is usually very compelling.

Call centres therefore should have a strong strategic focus. Their focus should, in a commercial environment, be about customers, not calls. They should concern themselves with the retention, annual value, life time value, total numbers and profitability of customers.

In taking a customer view, organisations then would concern themselves in an operational sense with customer access, customer identification, customer issue identification, customer routing, consultant skills, data availability and escalation policy to ensure that customer’s issues are resolved first time.

The operational requirements of the number of calls, the average time for calls, consultant attendance, consultant turnover for example, need to be considered as part of the budgeting and reporting mechanism, not as the drivers of the call centres reason for being.

However, forgetting what they are there for, call centres can become mesmerised by the need for efficiency in dealing with a single call rather than effectively dealing with each customer. As a result, the overall efficiency in dealing with their entire customer base over a period such as a year is anything up to fifty percent less than it otherwise could be. Service levels, in the customer’s mind, are similarly anything up to eighty percent less than they could be.

An example of how concentration on call centre operational metrics increases costs and reduces customer service can be found in the number of repeat calls a call centre receives. From studies and personal experience, I know that most call centres that I consult with will have approximately thirty percent of calls being repeat calls. The reason for the majority of those repeat calls is that the customer did not have their issue resolved. The need that caused them to call in the first place was not satisfied.

Satisfying needs in the first place or in call centre jargon, achieving first time resolution, can reduce overall labour costs by thirty percent. From my experience achieving ten or twenty percent is quite achievable. The corollary is of course that users of the call centre’s services are more satisfied with the service provided thereby improving the perception of the organisation called. Happier customers and lower costs, which organisation would not want that?

One of the root causes for these repeat calls is when consultants feel so obliged to meet an average call handling time that has been set as a target. I once was calling my bank in Melbourne from London to enquire about why the bank had transferred money out of my account into the account of another person I did not know. After three minutes on the phone, not getting very far, I was told that I would have to hang up as the consultant had reached the limit of their time allotted to a phone call!

This was an extreme case. In my experience however, this pressure is felt at consultant level in most call centres, even as an unintended consequence of a well meant set of operational KPIs. The result is that customers do not get satisfaction and do make a repeat call, a more irate one!

With the growing presence of internal and external call centres in Fiji, an opportunity beckons to provide a better service and be more effective and efficient for it. To do so, call centres need to see themselves as being a strategic part of an organisation’s business, not just operational.

Call centres must not allow operational focus to obliterate strategic focus. Call centres must understand how they are the means to providing better value for an organisation’s customers, not just the end by which an organisation cuts costs.

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