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.