Managing call centre information – giving agents the whole picture
CRM alone is not enough to run an efficient call centre. Technology such as Business Process Management (BPM) can provide the framework to integrate technology with the people element within an organisation. Article by Pete Dinham, global solutions director at BancTec.
Dissatisfaction with the quality of service from call centres is running at an all time high. Customer gripes range from not being able to get through to the right person, to the impaired efficiency of call centre agents. With stories raging about call centres in Bangalore and sky-high attrition rates, call centres have unfortunately developed the tag of un-inspirational places to work, providing flawed services to customers trying to change their details with their financial services provider or find the best insurance quote.
Media hype has only served to exacerbate the negativity surrounding the reputation of call centres. However, it must be said that there is no smoke without fire. Many consumers do have a bad story to tell about call centres. This is down to a number of factors – most customers prefer dealing with people face to face and are naturally averse to waiting on the end of a phone. It has been a painstaking cultural change for banks, energy suppliers, councils and telecommunications companies to switch their customer base to a call centre or internet model, but due to cost considerations, one that has to be made.
There is also truth in the fact that many call centres have an issue with staff retention. According to the UK Contact Centre Operational Review (CCOR), attrition rates in UK call centres run at between 15 – 20 per cent and that doubles when you look at call centres run by outsourcing service providers or at telemarketing companies. The average attrition rate at Indian call centres is even higher, estimated at 40 per cent.
One reason for this is that many staff fail to see longevity in a call centre career. Another reason is that many call centres (especially outsourced centres) are run with the intention of maximising profit margins – this can often mean low salaries and stringent working practices, which are not conducive to employee retention. It is often true that call centre staff can only do as good a job as the company lets them. The CCOR said that call centres report the biggest skills gap of any industry – 63 per cent of people reported problems with agents lacking product knowledge and the right customer information. When faced with an incoming query, agents need to have the right information at their fingertips to deal with it. If they don’t, they fail to meet the customer’s requirements, which results in the customer lambasting the agent’s inefficiency for reasons they cannot help.
This usually isn’t a staff quality issue – it’s a system and data quality issue. If the systems, on which they are working, don’t provide the right information to the right person at the right time, this can scupper the whole customer service process. If employees had all the necessary information, they could make the right decision the first time, answer queries quickly and simply and generally be far more effective and productive in their role. This can have massive implications for the company in terms of branding and levels of customer service – does any company want to be synonymous with surly customer service and inadequate responses to requests?
Many organisations will assume that customer relationship management (CRM) systems are the natural solution to these sorts of problems. However, this is rarely the case. CRM solutions often equip call centre staff with set information that will allow them to cross sell or up-sell services of the organisation that they are representing, but the information that they have access to is often limited. If a customer asks them to process a query, which over exceeds the information that they can access, the query will come to a grinding halt and agents will be unable to fulfil the request, causing consternation on all sides. Too many CRM systems are tailored for outbound queries where they have access to very specific information for a very particular reason. But when dealing with inbound queries a whole different set of complications arise and CRM systems alone can not tackle this.
A customer problem may come in a variety of guises and the agent needs to have the flexibility in their processes to be able to respond to these different lines of enquiry. It is one of the biggest call centre bugbears to be transferred to division after division speaking to hapless call centre staff that through no fault of their own are in no position to help. CRM can also struggle to deal with a variety channels and can leave customer relations disparate if they communicate in different ways. The aim of any customer-facing department has to be to achieve a fully integrated system.
CRM not the entire answer
If CRM isn’t the entire answer, then what is? The right combination of technology along with the softer elements, such as training, can really help to improve the process element at contact centres. Business Process Management (BPM) is one such technological enabler. But above and beyond simply technology, BPM is a business methodology that provides the framework to integrate technology with the people element within an organisation. All too often, technology will be based around a pure automation, straight through processing (STP) objective, with little thought given to the fact that the people element is rarely a dispensable one. This is especially true in a customer service environment.
BPM can analyse call centre organisations from an aerial perspective and identify areas where processes can be aligned, streamlined, adjusted and where resources to fulfil those processes can be decreased or increased. BPM gives managers and directors the process information they need to see how they can improve the efficiency of their call centre operations. BPM is also mindful of the fact that there are innumerable disciplines that make up processes, from the management of information and business intelligence reporting, to the softer elements such as change management, training, HR and communications, to address the people element in the process chain.
BPM’s strength in a call centre environment is in ensuring that the right call centre agents have access to the right systems and the right information at the time they need it. By providing a framework of interlinked process flows, it enables staff to deal with complex queries in a consistent, managed way. BPM can build access permission into the framework, meaning only certain or authorised agents can get into appropriate systems or access certain data. For example, if there are ten new recruits at a call centre that are only trained to a certain degree, the system would ensure that they are only allowed to access simple processes and low-level information. Their level of experience will determine their level of access and therefore the standard of query that they will be able to deal with. Customer enquiries are also never 100 per cent predictable – they will often go off on tangents. BPM can manage and track customer engagements that have multiple elements within them, some of which may span much longer periods of time than the initial call. Also customer actions which originate via one channel (such as mail or fax) will be managed in a way that call centre staff will be able to seamlessly pick up the issues and establish where in the organisation’s business processes a particular action is.
Equipped with this sort of information and being able to deal with more complex levels of queries, making less customers irate, means that job satisfaction levels within call centres will increase. It also means that staff feel more empowered to do a better job for the person on the other end of the phone. They have access to personal data, meaning that they can cross sell and up-sell products or offers, but are also able to deal with changing payment details or complaints, without having to put the person through to yet another department. This minimises discontent on behalf of the customer and on behalf of the agent.
Additionally BPM can help enforce security within call centres. A recent investigation commissioned by Intervoice found that call centre agents at 9 out of 20 of the financial institutions investigated could be persuaded to accept less stringent identity checks from callers claiming to have forgotten their personal passwords. With tight process mapping this would not be possible. Call center agents would not be able to progress to the next stage of the process without the correct information. Although giving agents access to a better range of information can increase the level of service they provide, it is of paramount importance that they only have access to the appropriate information. BPM can ensure that all processes must be followed so the best possible service can be provided. There is a balance to strike between flexibility to the customer and security and this happy medium needs to be defined by management. BPM can be used to enable these standards to be met.
Brand damage and reputation damage are very real threats when the standard and quality of service at call centres plummet. Providing an empowering and rewarding place to work for staff will also have an impact on the perception of the company as an employer. There is no panacea to customer management, but organisations have to draw back, think less about pushing profit margins through stringent working practices and more about achieving company objectives through an entire process methodology. BPM is just part of the answer, but it will help to kick start a mind shift in organisations as to how they approach call centre processes. If you can improve staff morale, drive down attrition rates and boost customer satisfaction into the bargain, it must be worth a shot.
Pete Dinham is Global Solutions Director at BancTec. For more information, please go to: www.BancTec.co.uk