Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Fear and loathing in the call centre

For the last three years I've been heading down to Melbourne for G-Force, which is billed as Asia Pacific's largest contact centre event. And with close to 900 (mostly) paying customers, they're probably right. G-Force also celebrated its 10th year, which is no easy feat, and the level of enthusiasm seems to grow each year -- something you don't always sense at most other events. So it's kind of ironic then that among the general public there is still widespread loathing of anything to do with call centers.

It's not that the industry isn't aware of the negative sentiment surrounding call centers: In his opening address, Genesys Australasia VP Jason Stirling pointed out that "call centre'' is still a dirty word for many customers, while many other speakers noted that the industry has a perception problem. This can partly be explained by the fact that customers tend to remember the exceptions, particularly the bad exceptions, and also because customer expectations are generally going up.

Whatever the reason, in an age where customer service is increasingly the main differentiator for companies, it's a problem that must be addressed. Thankfully, going on some of the positive case studies presented at the event, it's also a problem for which solutions, expertise and business models readily exist.

Take the example of Telecom New Zealand, which takes around 100 million calls from customers each year. Jared Mortlock, manager of the telco's speech implementation team, told the G-Force audience of his experience with a natural language IVR (interactive voice response) system, where the customer can respond via regular speech rather than the more cumbersome (and generally loathed) touchtone IVR systems.

According to Mortlock, customer satisfaction jumped from 16 percent for the touchtone IVR to 60 percent with the natural speech system, while customers opting to connect to the operator dropped from 30 percent to 3 percent. He pointed out that you're always going to get some customers that don't like IVR, but the more channels that are available to them the better. And in the case of Telecom New Zealand, it went from an organisation that had trouble with its customer experience before the IVR project, to "haven't looked back since'', in the words of Mortlock.

One company that is betting that speech technologies such as natural language IVR take-off is Genesys, the main backer of G-Force and whose CEO, Wes Hayden, I got to chat with at the event. He suggested that Voice XML was one of the most promising technologies for the industry, which was one reason Genesys acquired VoiceGenie last year.

"It was clear to us that Voice XML would be the platform to enable speech technology to become mainstream in every call centre in the world,'' he said, adding that about one-third of its R&D budget (18% of revenue), would be spent in the voice portal space. That's in part because companies are now shopping for such technologies. "There is a huge IVR replacement cycle taking place right now and many are thinking about speech technology,'' Hayden said.

Two areas where there is less certainty are in video and social networking. According to Hayden, video in the contact centre is not big in the United States yet and in fact it was Italian customers who pushed Genesys to support it in their platforms. Apparently the Italians think they look good enough to warrant video calls.

And I also asked Hayden about whether the whole social networking buzz will have an impact on contact centres. After all, you can do everything else from the likes of Facebook, so why not a link into the contact centre? "To be honest, I don't think we really know the implications [of social networking],'' he said, suggesting that Genesys was keeping a watching brief on the whole area.

Other companies are more bullish on the links between the whole Web 2.0 world and the contact centre, however. One that I've come across recently is Juice Media, a software company that provides CRM using the software as a service (SaaS) model. It claims that by combining and mashing together classic and emerging CRM platforms, products and processes with Web 2.0 technologies, businesses will be able to better engage their customers.

Whether that's the case or not, I've got a feeling it's all in the implementation. After all, you can have the best system in the world but it will be worse than useless if it's not set up right. Take the recent example of a customer to Britain's BT. The telco blamed a new customer care system for one poor woman's wait on the end of the line that totalled 20 hours. "I was so frustrated and angry I broke down in tears,'' she told The Times. "It is a helpline for goodness' sake, surely a company as big as BT can answer their phones.''

And that's precisely the sort of incident that explains the widespread loathing by the general public of anything to do with call centres.

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