Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Skype, Contact Centre & Banking

I've set myself the task of covering three big topics in a short post today.

At first glance, Skype may not seem very relevant to either banking or contact centre but let me explain.

Skype represents a new channel for customer interactions and one the most organisations cannot currently support. Now there are views that Skype will collapse because of its lack of revenue and because it has no network (as most recently argued in The Register). I accept the point made specifically to Skype, but even if Skype fails, VoIP arriving via the web channel is something organisations have to adapt to. Similar to my previous entries on e-mail as process driven or response driven, VoIP is a communication medium that some key demographics are adopting and organisations need to be able to support it.

This is where banks come in as some of the largest users of contact centres. One of the first to introduce Skype based contact management has been ABN Amro. The VoIP function is built in (with chat bots for IM and avatars) to a site targeted at a younger technically oriented user. This has been followed by Rabobank with a similar site, functionality and target market. Why the Dutch market should be so far ahead of (say) the UK I'm not sure, but it is interesting to see a trend being taken up.

Will Skype or VoIP replace traditional voice? Hardly yet, I suspect that the amount of VoIP voice traffic the banks are expecting is relatively low. The real significance (as discussed in my post on e-mail) is that we are moving to distinguishing communications not by the communication medium, but by whether they are synchronous or asynchronous. In this world the contact centre becomes an essential part of managing the increasingly interactive customer.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pour le weekend - un site tres interessant

You'll have spotted that, so far, the blog has been in English.

There's also a bit more spoken in Europe than English and as it's the weeked and I'm working in Paris on Monday, let me point you towards a very good French site. I admit it's not contact centre specific, but I still find it useful so I've added a button to it on the blog. If you need the web link then you can access Cisco diaLog here.

My view of the site?
Je l'aime beaucoup. C'est un site interessant et j'aime le podcast parce que c'est plus interactive. Jerome et Francois discute les actualite high tech avec un grand perspective.

That's probably enough of my French, but it will improve and when it does there may be more.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Speech Market Share

A few days ago I wrote a post entitled "Technology Firms, Europe and Speech Recognition" that was really rather well received. In it I made the rather obvious point (to me anyway) that if you don't offer speech recognition in local languages, you are going to stuggle to get it adopted.

One thing I should have mentioned (and didn't) was that despite their limited languages both IBM and Microsoft had gained significant market share in overall speech shipments, at least according to Gartner's figures for 2006. The highest growth was from Telisma with over 200% growth. Worldwide IBM was looking at around 50% growth and Microsoft had growth respectably in the teens.

Of course, worldwide is not so useful when no languages is truly worldwide. More relevant for this blog is EMEA, where Gartner see Nuance, Talisma and Locquendo as the big players. Interestingly, EMEA is the only region (out of North America and AP) where IBM was not one of the top three vendors. I think this still proves my original point that language support is critical to getting market share, but perhaps I'm underestimating the power of brand and salesforce.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Offshore - why I would go for South Africa over India

From previous posts you might have concluded that I'm against offshoring.

I'm not.

What I am very against is the offshoring school of thought that is 'your mess for less' or just aims to reduce all service levels to an absolute minimum. To me this misses the point that offshoring provides many opportunities to do far more than reduce cost.

My feeling (and it's only an impression) is that at least for the UK market, India sold itself very successfully on cost. That was a successful strategy to win business, but ignoring service quality (or being too low cost to deliver it) has been bad for keeping the business. A YouGov survey earlier this year found that over half of UK respondents' biggest gripe was dealing with overseas call centres. It wasn't just xenophobia or an objection to offshore, it was that only 4% of respondents reported getting good service.

UK companies have begun to realise that while contact centre operating cost can be cut dramatically by going to India, that cost saving is nothing compared to the news cost to your brand reputation and the cost of increased customer churn. It also can allow your competitors to gain market share at your expense (see Nat West bank's advertisements stressing their UK call centres) and the examples of companies like Powergen which last year closed its Indian operations and brought them back to the UK specifically because of customer service.

By contrast, South Africa (from what I have seen) has approached the market very differently. I was impressed with what I saw at the UK's Call Centre Expo a few weeks ago where the focus was on stressing South Africa's better service levels, native English, shared timezone to the UK and developed infrastructure. The infrastructure is an important point, particularly the IT infrastructure. Large South African firms like Old Mutual, Anglo-American and Telecom SA have all run sizeable IT operations and although skills are not in oversupply most technology skills are available. The local economy is also sufficiently advanced for there to be significant call centres serving the local market. Crucially this means that South Africa can look at providing more than just first line customer support and take on technical support, internal IT support and elements of back-office processes. Cost reduction is a key part of the value proposition to UK organisations (have a look at Cape Province's figures and references) but it is cost in relation to the higher value of the work that can be taken on. Similarly in Gauteng, IBM have grown substantially providing these type of service to European clients and Dimension Data also run substantial operations under the banner of their Merchants subsidiary.

Encouragingly, I don't think South Africa represents a large threat to UK call centre market and may well ending up complimenting it. I suspect we're likely to see processes split between countries with parts of work being handled onshore and parts going to South Africa.

Of course that requires companies to be able to manage data and voice traffic seemlessly across continents, and that's where Cisco has some very good technology. We have a number of customers using technology like our ICM product to deliver virtualised call centres across national borders and this seems to be a trend that is increasing. You can also get a good graphic of ICM in action here. There is a clear trend in multinational companies that if you are going to manage customer service properly, you should do it with all parts of your enterprise, regardless of where they are located and do it well. The capability exists to do it anywhere, but that decision should not be driven by cost alone.

Monday, October 22, 2007

e-mail in contact centres, process driven or response driven?

One of the interesting things I'm seeing around e-mail in the contact centre is debate on how to manage it.

With a phone call, things are relatively straight forward - you answer it. You might need to queue it, or gather some intelligence for routing but fundamentally you are talking about something that is real-time and a synchronous form of communication and contact centres handle that well.

By contrast, e-mail is not real-time and is an inherently asynchronous method of communication. It can be answered at an agent's convenience and an agent can handle multiple e-mail sessions concurrently. Furthermore, the agent can be given a lot of prompting and guidance (even scripting) from knowledge sources to help them respond. Furthermore, the text based nature of the medium makes it much easier to integrate content into other applications.

To date, most of the focus on e-mail management for the contact centre has come from specialist players like Kana and eGain. These applications provide the necessary functionality for e-mail, usually provide chat and often web co-browsing. My personal preference is for the eGain suite (and not just because Cisco OEM parts of it), but for Genesys users Kana has a number of attractions, not least that execs at one have often worked at the other. In my view the first phase of e-mail management is almost over and the niche vendors are starting to align with the CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) vendors. This may be quite a loose alignment (e.g e-Gain and Kana can be paired with a whole range of CTI applications), but none the less the debate is largely over as to whether e-mail should be managed as a stand alone application or integrated with the telephony control application.

The second phase that I suspect to be just beginning is the debate whether the CTI or CRM system manages e-mail. Most CRM systems today have an e-mail capability and try to integrate e-mail with the wider CRM process. By contrast the CTI systems focus on the process of finding the right person to answer the e-mail, getting it there and monitoring how long the agent takes to write the answer.

I suspect that both approaches will prove complimentary, but there is sufficient overlap to make it unclear as to which application will eventual dominate the e-mail space.

Ofcourse, there is a wildcard in the form of SOA. If it becomes more prevalent as an architectural approach in the contact cnetre, then talking about applications 'controlling' functionality will be redundant. But SOA would be a third phase and although I see signs of the foundations being laid now, it is not yet a reality.

Friday, October 19, 2007

For a Friday - why are contact centres so disliked?

I suspect that by the time you've read the title, you have already begun your list! You may also have decided that it's so obvious it's not worth writing about.

I'm sure you already have:

  • Being stuck in a queuing system
  • Not being able to speak to a human
  • Not getting any help when you do get a human being
  • Cold calling
  • Dealing with people who don't speak your language

...but I'm not actually that interested in a list of gripes, however long and valid. These are symptoms rather than causes. What I'm interested in is why do companies spend money on contact centres, if all the contact centre generates is dissatisfaction?

Now the cynics will cheerfully say that I've not understood what's going on, and that companies are only interested in having the appearance of customer service, and are not interested in the reality unless it is cheap. I would argue that customer service is seen to be failing because it has not managed to keep up with changing customer expectations or what the rest of the business expects contact centres to do. There is some truth that customer service is seen as a cost centre and a necessary evil in some organisations but I would argue these organisations are passing up on a lot of opportunity.

The first thing is that today's contact centre is a world away from the relatively simple functions that the first call centres were set up to do. For example, in banking the first call centres provided balance enquiry answers or specialised in an individual product. Today the simple functions (like balance enquiries) have moved to the web or the telephone self-service environment and everything that is left for the contact centre is complex. Many organisations have not appreciated that if their contact centre traffic is going to become increasingly complex, then agents need the systems that can handle them. Too often I see a very basic CRM system and some link to a legacy back office system as the agents' main tools. Knowledge databases, the ability to ask an expert, workflow and all sorts of other things that could help the agent are often not present.

Secondly, and a pet gripe of mine, is that a lot of telephone automation is done badly. Being presented with nine options to choose from at the first menu, and then many more as you work down a menu-tree hierarchy may help with call routing but it is an expensive way of irritating your customer. This is especially true if none of this information is then passed to the agent so that when you finally speak to a human, you have to start everything again. With the current voice portal technology being mature and stable, most organisations should at least look at moving away from the ugly aspects of the traditional IVR (Interactive Voice Response unit). Rather than working in the menu-tree world of IVR, a voice portal works like a portal (or web browser if we're not being too fussy) in terms of how it presents information. A voice portal uses Java and vXML, web technologies, to present information rather than the proprietary environments of IVRs. What this means is that even if you don't want to provide speech, a voice portal can still provide a far higher standard of customer service than the traditional IVR and generally do so at a lower cost.

Incidentally, if you are interested in speech automation for voice portals then I'd encourage you to look at the Dimension Data/ Cisco survey on CRMExchange. There are some very interesting points that highlight how users can be much more enthusiastic about speech self-service than most IT organisations appreciate. It also highlights how users' priorities and expectations can differ from those of the implementing organisation and how you can tackle some of these to have a higher level of customer acceptance. The more customer acceptance means not only a lower cost to serve but also the more usable information you can capture.

For many organisations the contact centre represents an opportunity to learn more about customers and better understand how they interact with the company. Relatively simple things, like marketing campaign response tracking can pay significant dividends as can analytics on the data the contact centre generates. Again, as an example, working out which is your most troublesome product for which demographic is information that can help improve both marketing spend and product design. These are areas of significant spend and the better the customer experience the more information you are likely to be able to gather.

In short, contact centres often aren't delivering a good user experience because their technology has prevented them adapting as fast as their customer's requirements have changed. In turn the business has often not understood the value of the call centre and so has not invested.

In short if you're on the receiving end of really bad service, remember "Never attribute to malice what can be adequately accounted for by stupidity", consult Dilbert, the ultimate authority on disfunctional organisations and take your business to an organisation that understands the value of customer service.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Call Centre to Contact Centre... or why worry about e-mail when the phone's ringing?

In terms of hype, the move from call centre (deals with telephony) to contact centre (deals with all remote contacts, telephony, e-mail, etc...) is probably one of the most hyped things in the industry.

Gartner's hype cycle research paper ("Hype Cycle for CRM Customer Service and Field Service, 2007") is one place where the tends are dissected, but I'm not sure I agree with all their conclusions. My main objection is that Gartner are looking at technologies like e-service suites and IP-based contact centres and pronouncing them 'in the trough of disillusionment and stating that it will be 2 -5 years before they mature. I think they are underestimating the pressure from consumers that will come onto organisations to adopt these technologies.

The two big factors I see driving this are the increasing sophistication and pervasiveness of mobile devices and the increasing speed of broadband into the home. Both of these things mean that consumers will find it increasingly easy to contact organisations by e-mail, SMS, instant messaging, etc... and will expect to be able to do so. You only need look at the demographics for things like Facebook and IM users to see that these are what today's youth and tomorrow's consumers are adopting rapidly.

That said, at the moment many of the organisations I work with want to improve their telephony service, and they view multi-media capability as something they need to build into their telephony improvement plan. The view I've often encountered is that while they only need to enable 10% of agents for e-mail now, they need to be able to change that fast and have built an environment that can support any change.

In this context the choice is to look at an IP based contact centre that integrates multi-media or to look at a hybrid integration option. There is a third possibility, but I'm not convinced anyone worried about multi-media would look at TDM for their telephony.

Obviously, as someone who works at Cisco, I believe that IP is the way forward. Putting as much of the intelligence at the network level as possible seems highly desirable in the call centre. The alternative architectural approaches (putting the intelligence at the application layer or splitting it between application and network layer) seem to me to add an unnecessarily level of complexity. Of course, complexity equals cost and when I worked on a couple of Genesys and Kana integrations, and it was the cost of doing all this at the application layer (especially the cost of professional services) that could cause problems. I don't pretend that the IP based approach removes the need for services, but it does reduce the complexity of some aspects of the project, and it can make future functionality extensions easier. As an illustration, it is worth looking at the capabilities of the Cisco ICM (Intelligent Contact Management) product to see just how much enterprise-wide routing can be done at the network level.

In this context, I think Gartner are underestimating how quickly organisations might move to IP and how much this is driven by a need to be ready for multi-media in the contact centre, even if all that functionality is not being implemented today.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

City Centre Call Centers - A European quirk?

The prevailing wisdom in the call centre industry is that you build your call centre somewhere with cheap land prices and somewhere with cheap labour. Compared to labour costs, telephony is not nearly as expensive, so remoteness of location is only restricted by the availability of the labour supply.
This then is the prevailing wisdom and is valid for a lot of the customers I work with.

Yet it is far from universal and a very significant minority go against this prevailing wisdom and locate in city centres and pay above market wages.

At first sight this might seem an indulgence or a sign of inefficiency such as owning rather than leasing office buildings that then means the buildings have to be filled to be justified. In fact it is actually a well thought out business strategy with some very powerful justifications and may point to the way parts of the contact centre industry are going to be in future.

The companies who mostly locate their call centres in the heart of cities are financial services sector. They have a need to provide 24 hour service and do with relatively highly skilled agents. These agents are expensive to train (4 weeks +), expensive to recruit (all the background checks for anti-fraud) and carry out high-value transactions (because so much in financial service is automated with IVR/ Voice Portal or has moved to the web). You have to pay above market rates for these people and you have to be in an area where you can recruit them. It sounds obvious, but this is not recruiting from the majority of unemployed and means financial services companies' call centres need to be in area where there is a critical mass of talent. The final key factor for the agents is that they need to be able to get to work. Again, it sounds obvious, but out of town sites don't necessarily have public transport 24hrs a day and even if paying above market wages, you start restricting your labour pool (and your shift flexibility) considerably if you require employees to have a car.

The result is that in Europe quite a number of higher end call centres can be found in city central areas. The most striking for me was an international bank that ran its call centre covering eleven countries from a square in one of Spain's most expensive cities. This was pure economic decision because what they lost in terms of (much) higher property rents, they gained by being able to tap the multi-lingual, highly flexible student population of the city.

Of course, as IP Contact Centres evolve, things like homeshoring and community call centres (as announced today for Nottingham) may will end the tradition of large sheds in remote areas but even without the technology there are sound business reasons for Europe having city centre call centres.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

How Call Centers vary across Europe

One of the things I find interesting about my work is seeing how call centres vary so much across Europe. The European call centre business is often simplified into a north vs. south situation but is actually it's much more complex than that.

It could as easily be seen as a west vs. east or even a split by language groups and the culture that each has. The simplified view is that the northern nations (the UK and Ireland, the Nordic countries and the Netherlands) were early adopters of call centre technology and the culture of the country is comfortable doing business on the telephone. The southern nations (especially Spain, Italy and Greece) are much slower adopters and have cultures that prefer doing business face to face.

As with all simplifications there is some truth in it, but it hides significant variations and the market has changed quite rapidly over the last few years. Within the northern nations, the Nordic countries are often much earlier adopters of technology than the UK. A smaller, more technically enabled population means that integrating the web and telephony channel is often higher on the agenda in the Nordics (where there is high penetration of broadband) than it would be for UK decision makers. Similarly, with a smaller, more homogenous population to serve, Nordic companies can implement newer technologies more easily. Also in northern Europe telephony has generally been cheaper for consumers, making the telephone a more attractive channel for business. For the UK, scale and cost are two major concerns. UK call centres are large (often only surpassed by those in the US) and the telephone represents a major customer facing channel for the financial services sector, telecoms and utilities. Although UK customers are less than happy about the levels of service at some companies the telephone is still used extensively for complex interactions, while simpler interactions have often moved to the web or e-mail channel.

In southern Europe, face to face still remains a cultural preference for many transactions, but the rise of the web channel is changing this. One of the things I'm seeing is that organisations in these countries are building call centres as a channel to support the web, rather than as an existing to channel to which the web was added. Perhaps unexpectedly, mobile telephony has also brought about a growth in call centres as it has made the telephone cheaper and more widely available than when it was the monopoly of the state owned Telco's. The mobile operators need call centres for their customers, but other organisations have then had to respond to the sudden increase in telephony traffic this has brought about.

The final significant variation is between west and east in Europe. Generally speaking (...and this is very 'generally'!) labour costs in eastern Europe are substantially less than those in western Europe. There is also no legacy of contact centre investments from before the 1990s. As a result, while in western Europe contact centre is a mature part of most organisations with an existing telephony infrastructure, in eastern Europe many contact centres are greenfield implementations but, with EU accession, greenfield in an advanced market. With no concerns about telephony migration and transitioning from TDM to IP Telephony, it's been very interesting to see how this market has adopted IP Contact Centres. Obviously, as I work for Cisco, it's something I've seen quite a bit of and am enthusiastic about, but for the contact centre operators it means they can approach the contact centre business in entirely new ways. As an example, many traditional management structure for contact centre have evolved because all agents need to be within (approx) 200yrds of the ACD. In an IP world that physical restriction does not exist and it then becomes a matter of choice as to whether concentrating all your agents in one place is a suitable business strategy.

The changes in the call centre industry is a subject I'm sure I'll be covering more of in the future, but that's probably enough for now on the high level trends across Europe.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Onshore still growing - Lloyds TSB

I'm determined to cover more than the onshore/ offshore argument, but I couldn't resist commenting on this story.

Lloyds TSB (one of the UK's big four banks) is looking today to hire 150 people for its Glasgow call centre. The Glasgow operation is already a 1,000 seat centre and even if these are seasonal hires, it's still a significant investment.

The financial services sector has been one of the big generators of off-shore stories (see regularly HSBC in the UK or ABN Amro for the Netherlands), so good to see the alternative being represented.

Technology firms, Europe and speech recognition

One of the fascinating things for me is the gap between the US and Europe.

I don't mean hostility, but rather the cultural gap relating to how business is done and what is required. Cultural issues, selling techniques and so on are probably for another post, as are labour laws, but this cultural difference tends to be most apparent in technology.

I've worked with a lot of technologies and in call centre it can be a major problem if it doesn't fit local requirements. Obvious examples are data privacy requirements, out oubound dialling and do not call lists and so on.

Yet what I find bizarre is that one of the most obvious areas (speech recognition technology) is one where there is often very little localisation from major vendors. Microsoft Speech Server is a good case in point - only available in US English. IBM similarly offer Websphere Voice Server in fourteen languages, five of them European . That's better, but most of the European languages are only on the older platform (v4.2 on AIX) and doesn't cover many common European situations (e.g. Belgium, where you need French and Dutch or ideally Flemish). It's no wonder then that Nuance have such a large market share by comparison when they offer 44 languages & dialects, and 24 of them are European. Even more importantly, localisation extends (for example) to three types of German and so cover Swiss and Austrian German as well as the accent of the Federal Republic.

Now I don't wish to suggest that Nuance are masters of this, in my work with them, I've found there are things they could improve, but they have got one simple idea built into their strategy. If you don't do customer service in the local language you haven't a hope of even attempting to solve the softer cultural issues.

Put it another way - would you try to sell to major US firms in any langauge other than US English and expect to be successful?

Friday, October 12, 2007

On-shore Call centres in decline.... is that the whole story?

It is very easy to think that call centres in high-cost Europe are an endangered species. Very easy, that is, if you read only the more sensational media.

A good example is this week's story 'Call Centre Jobs Under Threat' from the Sunderland Echo, Now this isn't to say that the prospect of 150 job losses isn't a very real threat for those on receiving end and it certainly isn't good news for a poorer region to loose jobs, but that isn't the whole story.

It's important to appreciate that this is 150 job out of 1,000 in the call centre. It's also that this is a home catalogue shopping business where the amount of business coming in from the telephone is static or reducing while the amount coming in from the web is generally increasing. The BBC has a decent overview of the challenges mail order companies have faced, and estimate that Littlewoods probbly now gets 33% of their traffic from the web rather than post or telephone.

These jobs aren't going offshore (at least as far as I can tell), instead they are probably going because of either better automation or because the company has got better at serving it's customers (that industry measure of 'first call resoloution'). This is partly because one agent can handle several e-mail concurrently, but that sort of multi-tasking is not such a good option for telephony. It's also important to bear in mind that Littlewoods is a company that has very tight margins in it's chosen market, the lower end of mail order. Crucially though, bad news makes headlines.

By comparison, 'beCogent wins House of Fraser Deal' may only mean 30 extra call centre jobs in Scotland, but it is a clear example of a retailer (as is Littlewoods) recognising the value of on-shore service. It's also not a bad news story, so gets much less coverage.

In the end, service will remain on-shore wherever there is a requirment for it to do so, and that includes language, value, branding and a whole range of other factors beyond cost.

An Introduction

Welcome to the European Call Centre blog.

It may not seem the most exciting (or even obvious!) subject to outsiders, but it's something that's worth commenting on for those of us who work in the industry. India and Asia Pacific have received a lot of coverage in the media and of course the US and Canada have a large visible web presence, but Europe (especially outside of the UK & Ireland) tends to be overlooked.

I hope in this blog to provide at least some insight into a very varied business and cultural environment and one where, despite press stories, call centres are actually doing very well. There is a lot of change underway in the call centre industry but that alone makes it well worth commenting on.