21st century contact

A Customer Contact Association (CCA) survey of leading contact centre directors showed that three quarters think organisations are slow to update their technology and offer newer communication channels such as e-mail, co-browsing and mobile services to customers. Despite the success of NHS Direct in improving non face-to-face communication about health issues, the sector still has the opportunity to improve customer contact in phone, web, e-mail and mobile channels.
There are ten key drivers of change for the health sector that CCA believes will shape customer contact in the health sector going forward. Citizens drive the first five, while six to ten are organisational drivers.

The Citizen Researcher
It’s not widely understood that we are living in the age of the ‘research shopper’. Using the Internet intensively to choose between hundreds of competing products, organisations face greater scrutiny and demands from informed citizens.
In health, this translates into the ‘half-knowing’ patient, who has scoured the web for articles, blogs and communities that address issues of wellbeing. Armed with information, patients increasingly question health professionals and their services.
Not all the information available is sound, however. Therefore, the health sector faces the challenge of trying to compete with misinformation so that its service delivery and performance continues to improve.

Channel Choice
With over 60 per cent of the population online, over half of homes with multi-channel TV, there being more mobiles than people in the UK and many giving up their fixed line phones, citizens are more confident with new channels than ever before.
Being able to book appointments online or communicate using e-mail and web chat for sensitive subjects, citizens are increasingly demanding organisations update their channel offerings. E-mail has now overtaken the phone as the dominant communication media in everyday ‘white collar’ working life and organisations are seeing rising levels of e-mails from customers.

Convenience is King
The philosopher Julian Baggini wrote: “The value that seems to drive the majority of what we do is convenience. Quality, value, distinctiveness, originality, enjoyability and virtually every other positive attribute you would care to name are all frequently trumped by convenience.” We may argue that in serious health matters this generalisation would not apply, but for many routine issues, getting through on the phone and after hours service is vital for time pressured people working long hours. PM Gordon Brown has already acknowledged the need for more out of hours health services.

Privacy versus Personalisation
Academics, consultants and managers alike have long advocated the promise of customer and citizen personalisation through the use of powerful databases. But the recent loss of personal data by HMRC and on-going concerns about Internet security, mean that citizens are more cautious about the data they provide.
In organisations, efforts to personalise data is required. A strong trust quotient is needed between citizens and organisations to overcome this barrier and enable the latter to ‘remember things for customers, rather than just about them’.

Mobile Lives
With the launch of the Apple iPhone, over one billion texts sent a week and more widespread usage of mobile Internet services, more opportunities are present for all organisations. There is growth in physical mobility as rail, air and road journeys increase significantly, while people are re-locating more frequently.
Increasingly citizens will want to use their mobile phones to expedite contact, research health issues and potentially receive location-based services. On holiday and you have an accident? Location based services can guide you to the nearest A&E hospital.
Organisations delivering customer contact to today’s citizens have to work with these drivers, but also to respond to their own priorities. The next five drivers are increasingly important factors for those providing customer contact.

Increased Automation and Self-Service
With rising numbers of contacts from customers, organisations are using web self-service and voice recognition automation to reduce costs and streamline service delivery. National Rail Enquires has succeeded in significantly reducing live agent contact through these channels. Voice recognition, with promises of improving accuracy, seems set to have an on-going impact on the industry going forward. Selecting the right applications and reasons to deploy self-service, and then educating customers, is now well understood after years of customer frustration with poorly designed IVR systems.
Knowledge Systems for Knowledge Workers
With the deployment of automation and self-service, a greater proportion of calls are predicted to be complex or emotional in their nature. NHS Direct is an industry benchmark in terms of dealing with advice-based calls: rather than being known as “agents” they are called clinicians. A crucial technological building block is intelligent and learning knowledge management systems, which provides agents with advanced answers to a wide range of questions from customers.

Real-Time Working
The CCA’s survey of contact centre directors revealed that real time management information and improved workflow and workforce systems are seen as vital to efficiency gains. Not answering calls, or delayed responses to e-mails, remains a key challenge for most industries, despite periods of over-staffing at other times.
Integrating flows of communications – calls, e-mails, web-chat, and so on – is becoming necessary as multi-skilled agents handle a basket of communication from consumers who don’t use just one channel. These technologies help in matching demand and supply, although agents may complain of uncertain working hours.

Proactive Service
Although the NHS was one of the first to experiment with proactive service, other organisations are set to follow as they attempt to remember things for consumers. Whether using texts to remind of appointments, request activation of newly sent credit cards or advise of exact delivery times, outbound proactive services can reduce inbound contact. Driven by advances in outbound SMS, reminding citizens to take action can reduce the quantity of inbound contact at a latter date, therefore leading to cost saving. The question is, will proactive service be used in a way that doesn’t annoy consumers?

Consolidated, Standardised Delivery
The pressure from citizens for improved contact handling standards will be supplemented in the future by pressure from UK and European governments. Already in areas like airline compensation, minimum standards are set for customer service.
The Cabinet Office is rolling out new standards as a result of the Varney review. CCA is at the forefront of raising contact centre standards with its voluntary Global Standard©. This identifies over 60 criteria in categories like satisfaction, technology deployment, HR and organisational design, which contribute to improved delivery.
The health service in both public and private guises has delivered excellent care to UK citizens over many years. The provision of face-to-face advice and delivery of patient care will remain the central concern of the NHS. But increasingly, improving standards of customer contact will be a key strategic deliverable for the NHS. Responding to both citizen demand for enhanced service and the importance of improving cost control can lead to significant development in the health service.