Guiding the customer

The economic downturn, the increasing needs of patients, the emerging world of the ‘informed’ consumer, the ever-present tension between cost-cutting and the delivery of excellent service are some of today’s major challenges in health. Working in the midst of these challenges, and many more, are the managers and leaders who run contact centres. Whether they are in NHS Direct, an NHS Trust, government departments, the private sector or the new Healthspace service, they steer their way through a myriad of threats and opportunities. Their decisions impact thousands of people every day. So how do those who guide the industry think customer contact is moving forward, and in what ways is it being held back?
The Customer Contact Association is the largest independent professional body for customer contact in the UK. The results of our first CCA Membership Poll, sponsored by Teleperformance, have just been announced. Gathered from managers in over 200 private and public sector organisations (including those in health), reveal contact centre leaders operate in a world full of contradictions, where great hopes and harsh realities often collide. Fortunately, this challenge exists side by side with a commitment to improve contact centres.
In this article, some of the study’s key findings are outlined around the theme of the paradoxes of contact centre management today. The industry is searching for a new model of management, aware of impending changes, but has yet to clearly identify the way forward.

Is self-service the answer for the over-worked contact centre?
87 per cent agree: In the future, more basic customer contact will be handled by self-service leaving agents to take complex or emotional calls. Agents will become knowledge workers.
There is a common perception that the contact centre model will change based on a new era of increased self-service and increasingly skilled staff – the knowledge worker. Yet the CCA Membership Poll highlights the fact that live agent calls are not necessarily declining. In fact, 50 per cent agree with the statement: In my experience, the impact of internet self-service in reducing call numbers is overstated.
While the health service has been effective in enabling the public to access information and now to book appointments by e-mail, there is no question that people find the immediacy of the phone attractive. We must also remember that some 30 per cent of the population do not have access to the Internet.

Will e-mail help to reduce the load?
The CCA Membership Poll asked contact centre managers to predict the future usage of channels by consumers in the next five years. The phone still accounts for nearly 60 per cent of contact, with a significant proportion of that from mobiles (which don’t always benefit from low-call or free-call rates).
The expectation is that e-mail will account for just 13 per cent of all contact in five years. The paradox here is that we already know from consumer research by BT Global Services that e-mail is the preferred contact channel for the 70 per cent of UK online consumers. Are we therefore underestimating the demand for this channel from the public?

Contact centre technology: needed and trusted?
58 per cent agree: Our contact centre performance is hampered by older legacy systems, which need to be upgraded.
In the sphere of contact centre technology, management sees potential to aid them in their pursuit of excellent customer service. What this survey has revealed is that this is far from being realised with one of the barriers being that 53 per cent agree technology suppliers are always trying to sell us software, etc., which is unnecessary.

Human resources: ticking the boxes but losing the people
82 per cent agree: We make every attempt to manage our people so they feel they have a long-term career with our organisation.
Although less of a problem in the health sector, recruiting, training, motivating and retaining people to work in contact centres is a challenging task. Much is being done well in today’s contact centres: personal development plans are in place; effective training structures have been developed for agents, team leaders and managers alike; appraisal systems have been successful; employee satisfaction surveys are being conducted. The paradox is that in spite of these robust HR practices, attrition levels within the industry generally remain high – 36 per cent per annum for some types of agents within contact centres.

Team leaders: a good contact centre’s most valuable asset?
Many in the industry argue that team leaders are the most crucial element in ensuring the smooth running of contact centres. Ensuring agents arrive for work, providing coaching and advice, handling the most difficult queries of customers and monitoring vital management information their skills are valued across public and private sectors alike. But only 49 per cent of managers completing the CCA Membership Poll agree: “we appropriately reward the best team leaders”.

Is the media responsible for the contact centre industry image?
The contact centre industry continues to get media coverage that is not always complementary. Much of this has been blamed on unhelpful journalists but surprisingly only 38 per cent of contact centre managers blame the media for this coverage.
The industry takes responsibility for this perception and is working hard to improve standards. In fact 94 per cent agree that the industry as a whole needs to raise customer service standards. This means answering calls more quickly, resolving issues at the first attempt and deploying knowledgeable and friendly staff.

The economic downturn - more for less

Given the economic downturn, if contact centres need to reduce operating costs by 20 per cent, what action would you recommend they take?

  • Improve planning and forecasting: 97 per cent agree
  • Have a more flexible workforce: 94 per cent agree
  • Reduce calls by increasing customer self-service on the web: 88 per cent agree

Again the health sector may not be subject to the same budgetary constraints as an organisation whose sales have been decimated by recession. However, tight budgets are commonplace in the health sector and contact centre managers have the clear priorities of improving planning and forecasting, workforce flexibility and promote self-service as ways for dealing with the economic downturn.
For some sectors, an emerging paradox could be that more dramatic forms of cost cutting may be enforced on contact centre managers. Indeed some 24 per cent think that offshoring of contact centres will grow again and 42 per cent think that outsourcing can be beneficial in terms of reducing costs.

The contact centre challenges faced by the health sector are both similar and different to those in other sectors. The captive and over-flowing demand from patients is one difference. The need to plan effectively, create the right infrastructure for agents and health workers to flourish is a similarity. As is the need to meet tight budgets and constantly improve efficiency and service.
The CCA provides advice and networking to enable contact centre managers develop and change their organisations. The CCA Global Standard has been certified to nearly 300 contact centres and acts as a framework for managers to overcome the paradoxes and challenges set out in this article. The health sector has much to be proud of in customer contact together with challenges for the future.

For more information
E-mail: marcus.hickman@