Friday, December 19, 2008

Happy Christmas & New Year

Just a short post to all readers of the blog to wish them a Happy Christmas & New Year, and to suggest they spare a thought for all of those in contact centres who will be working over the festive period....

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

System Integrators write interesting things about contact centre for the downturn!

The title says it all, but I was pleasantly surprised in the past week to see that both Accenture and IBM had written some interesting white papers on contact centre. I'm often deluged by vendor whitepapers but these are usually from the smaller niche product vendors. It's quite nice instead to see something from the big boys.

I was sent the IBM whitepaper via the Call website. Call is an Australian and APAC focused site, but the content is good and often worth comparing with what we see in the European market. The site is run by Dr. Catriona Wallace, one of APAC's leading authorities on call centres and she has a very good blog that's well worth reading.

What I found interesting about the IBM whitepaper was that it focuses on the customer service process. You can download the whitepaper here , as I thought that a focus on the end to end processes was one of the things that too many contact centres don't worry about. To be sure there's always a focus on the applications, but less often is there a good understanding of how the customer process flows between those applications. This is important, as process is often a greater determinant of customer experience than the capabilities of any application. I appreciate that a system integrator with a portfolio of SOA offerings might be have a vested interest here, but it's still a good study and applicable outside of the sample of Australian contact centres it studied.

The Accenture study looks at the impact of poor customer service. The idea that poor customer service leads to loss of customers and loss of revenue makes sense but has been challenging to prove. Their findings are that,

...Service again ranked above price as a global driver of customer churn, according to Accenture’s fourth annual study on customer service satisfaction, titled “High Performance in the Age of Customer Centricity.”

The study is based on a survey of more than 4,100 consumers in eight countries across five continents. Through the survey, consumers provided feedback about customer service across the full range of customer service channels, including use of the telephone, e-mail, corporate websites, mail, online chat and on-premise services.

In total, two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents reported moving their business to other companies as a result of poor service in a variety of industry sectors, up from 59 percent of respondents in last year’s survey. Underscoring the sharp increase in consumers switching business providers is an overall erosion of customer loyalty. Half (50 percent) of respondents in this year’s survey reported that they switched providers in multiple industry sectors during the year, taking an average of $4,000 worth of business with them, by their own estimate, each time they took business elsewhere."

That service is more important than price for customer retention should come as no surprise, but it is nice to have experience supported by research.

The challenge is what this means for business. It seems to me that there is a strong case being made here that investing in customer service in the downturn is likely to be more profitable than an across the board cost cutting program. I found it interesting that outsourcing was (at least in the IBM study) only one way of fixing service issues and that approaching outsourcing from a purely cost reduction point of view was likely to fail. Outsourcing to fix process problems (either BPO or BTO) seemed more likely to succeed and the Accenture study provides the evidence for how that might show up on the balance sheet.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Finding good news in contact centres

I know it's boring if I begin every post with a regret that I haven't had much time to blog, but it's true and it's why the posting frequency has dropped so much.

The news these past few weeks has been particularly gloomy, so I thought I'd look for something more cheery than most of the economic reporting.

The first story that caught my eye was "Call centre leads to 500 new jobs" on the BBC. Amidst all the gloom (and persistent stories of offshoring), comes the news that an Indian telecommunications firm, Tech Mahindra, is opening a 500 seat call centre in the North East of England. Very good news for that part of England, as that is the region where the failed bank Northern Rock was located and so there are good contact centre staff to be had there. It's also an illustration that offshoring was only ever sensible when there was an effective labour arbitrage to make it worth while. I suspect also that it supports the views of Sramana Mitra and her controversial article "The Coming Death Of Indian Outsourcing" in Forbes (covered on this blog at: "Indian Outsourcing, is it in decline? "). In some ways a decline in outsourcing is probably a good thing for Indians as it means that the country is getting richer and adding more value than just competing on cost.

Another story I liked was in Finextra and was "Bank of Montreal plans move to green call centre". In its own quiet way it is a useful corrective to the popular/media view that all banks are in meltdown. I liked Bank of Montreal when I worked with them (as I also liked Scotiabank) and it's good to see that they're both being green and managing to keep their contact centre going.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Congratulations to Cisco's own contact centre team

I've been finding it really hard to get the time to blog lately. Some of this has just been the amount of travel. It's not been the sort of long-haul air travel that really makes things difficult, just the general travel you get when you have a customer facing job.

Fortunately, one of the reasons I don't have more travel is the role played by Cisco's contact centre (called the CIN - Customer Interaction Network). Although we're known for having a contact centre product, we're less well known for having a very capable multi-media, globally integrated contact centre for our own customer service and support operations.

It was therefore very good to see our contact centre team recognised at on the 18th and 19th November, at the UK's Customer Contact Association (CCA) annual convention in Edinburgh. Cisco was won the Best Organisational Influence category, which is aimed at recognising organisations that have demonstrated excellence in understanding and responding to customer needs through innovative measurement methods.

Obviously we're delighted with this recognition and it's very encouraging to see that how we use our won products is regarded as worth recognising within the industry.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Abbey National - did an IVR survey lead to a customer getting locked out their account?

This blog sometimes flirts with the idea of news, rather than just comment, and I couldn't resist this story. I saw it today in the Scotsman (though it's also more detail here in the Daily Mail).

In brief a Mr. George Bates, a 23 year old Abbey National customer, phoned his bank to arrange an overdraft. He claims to have found that the operator was rude, unhelpful and with a heavy Asian accent that was difficult to understand, so at the end of the call he used the automated post-call survey to register his displeasure. A lot of banks use IVRs (Interactive Voice Response Systems) for this as it suits the "push 1 for...., push 2 for...." type of menu that an IVR provides. Anyway, Mr. Bates pushed ones and twos for low scores and finished his call.

When he called back the next day his problems began. He couldn't access the phone bank with his password, the ATM swallowed his card and when he got into his branch he found his identity had been changed from the 23 year old Bristol carpenter he is, to that of a 33 year old Ugandan divorcee. His direct debits had also been cancelled and he was incurring bank charges for missed payments. Abbey have now apologised and offered £200 compensation, but Mr. Bates is still unhappy.

There are some lessons from this story worth pondering.

The first is what price does a bank place on its reputation? I've blogged on this before (see: "Are call centres so bad they hinder business?" or "Barclays, silent calling & we've been here before... "), but contact centres can damage an organisation's reputation very quickly. It seems a mystery that such an important part of a customer's experience of an organisation should be managed as a cost centre and yet other functions that drive reputation and brand (e.g. marketing or PR) should be seen as investments or necessary expense.

The second is that while it's admirable that agents should be given continuous feedback on their performance, they really should not be able to take revenge on customers who score them poorly. There's a whole set of issues here, from the granularity of the feedback given to agents to the level of access to customer data that agents have. Supervision, audit trails and analytics might also be points to think of here in terms of how organisations control agent behaviour.

The third and final point is that the public do not much like offshore contact centres. This is an image that the offshore industry has acquired and has not managed to shake off. I'm sure that had a British call centre worker done this the story would have been much less newsworthy, but as it's an Indian call centre (and Abbey have five UK call centres and only two Indian ones) this fits a lot of popular myths about the offshoring industry.

There may be a view that "all publicity is good publicity" (and you certainly couldn't buy the press coverage this story is getting), but I suspect that Abbey will want to change the way it runs its contact centres as they will not want their reputation damaged in a credit crunch that has hurt the reputation of UK banking so much.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Are call centres so bad they hinder business?

I was struck today by an advertisement for that I saw from the train. I know customers often don't like call centres (especially offshore ones), but this advertisement seemed to be targeted at those allergic to the whole idea of talking.

Now is part of Axa, so this is not an organization without call centre expertise. Nor is it strictly a web only player, as they have been very innovative about developing a mobile phone channel for insurance sales. Clearly there is a demographic out there who hate the idea of call centres so much that they'd rather use the web.
To a certain extent poor experiences from call centres are to blame, but that may not be the whole story. One big change in the retail insurance market is the rise of web aggregators, such as These players don't have contact centres either, but they do pull together large chunks of the insurance market in their comparison tables, and make it very hard for insurers to differentiate themselves by brand. I would suspect that although may be targeting a demographic less than keen on call centres, they are also trying to drive traffic direct to their website and not have a comparison site in the way.
Of course contact centres still have a major role to play, doing what they are good at. Web sites are ideal for simple or generic quotes. Complex matters, exceptions and assessments of options are still done better as a discussion with a person. For that the contact centre is ideal as it allows an insurance agent to cover business without geographic restriction. Using a human contact centre agent as a data entry mechanism into the quotes system (as some insurance contact centres have done) has never been a good use of resources. Skilled advice at the end of the telephone is extremely valuable and it is there that contact centres can help companies differentiate themselves and their brand in an increasingly competitive market.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Despite the credit crunch, still call centre growth at Barclays

An interesting story on Finextra that Barclays are to create over 200 new call centre jobs in Liverpool.

A lot of reasons why this is interesting. On is that with the credit crunch it's good to see that the world hasn't ended and that banks are still going about (some) of their usual business. The other aspect that I thought interesting is that these are primarily outbound agents.

The blog looked at the problems Barclays has been having with outbound in my last post (see "Barclays, silent calling & we've been here before... ") and I suspect that Barclays was determined to get this fixed. I know in my last post I was dubious about how important reputational risk was. I have revised that judgement, and I'd now say 'reputational risk is really important if you upset voters and there is a chance the government may become your largest shareholder'. I know Barclays has so far not needed any assistance from the UK government, but I can see that it would be tactful (as well as good business) not to fight with Ofcom or any other government body in the near future....

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Barclays, silent calling & we've been here before...

So Barclays, or at least Barclaycard, have just been fined the maximum Ofcom (the UK communications regulator) can manage for making silent outbound calls. The story is well covered here on Finextra.

What is perhaps more surprising is that the maximum fine is £50,000 and that even in a credit crunch this is not going to inconvenience Barclays hugely. There is the argument of reputational damage being a punishment and the media have done well highlighting the story (see "Regulators stuck in a fine mess" in the Times today, for example for really hostile coverage of Barclays) or BBC Business News leading with the story on the day the fine was announced.

Unfortunately I don't believe that reputational risk alone is enough. Finextra mentions that Abbey National, Complete Credit Management and Carphone Warehouse have all been fined for breaching the silent calls rule and that's just for starters. The frequency of these stories of outbound calling making life painful for consumers and damaging brand suggests that reputational risk isn't working.

In July I wrote about the BBC highlighting the use outbound calling by UK banks for debt recovery ("Banks criticised by BBC for automated calls "). It might be an effective way of collecting debt (I've got no evidence one way or the other) but even if it does little for your reputation, the impact of the fine seems low compared to the potential value of a recovered debt.

I've blogged a lot on outbound as it's the area that makes people most aware of and most dislike call centres. As a result, I suspect that outbound calling in the UK is an industry that will soon be dead. The details are in posts like: "Abbey National fined £30,000 by Ofcom & the future of Outbound in Financial Services" or "Outbound, an explanation of the technology" and "Outbound - industry reputation, branding and regulation", but from the feedback I've had, the irritation outbound causes is still not well understood in the industry and the industry is not adapting.

This may though be irrelevant as the number of consumers registering with the Telephone Preference Service suggests that consumers are making their views clear and are making themselves increasingly difficult to reach.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

UK Contact Centre Expo Day 2

It was a good day in Birmingham today at the UK Contact Centre Expo.

My impression was that this year's Contact Centre Expo was smaller than last year's, but it was still a good show. I got very positive feedback on the presentations at the Cisco stand.

We had some of our partners; JAMIP, British Telecom, Cable and Wireless and Dimension Data presenting on how they use the Cisco Contact Centre portfolio. These were short, punchy ten minute presentations and as I say, they seemed to be well received by the audience. It generated a decent number of leads, so that is always good news.

Otherwise, there were a few interesting things at the show. I was interested in the Teleopti stand. I've blogged on them before (see "Workforce Management - Part 2 Vendor Selection
"), as their one of the interesting European Workforce Optimisation vendors. One of the issues with workforce management tools is that one size (American) does not fit all and Teleopti were stressing that their solution had "change management with union involvement, full support for European labour laws, different types of employment and annual hours of work". I'm not sure what Teleopti is like to use, but it does seem to be addressing a significant area for European contact centres.

It's also interesting to see who are the offshore providers at the show. This year Bangladesh had a big stand as did Egypt. I was interested to learn more about Bangladesh as I've not seen them before. Egypt had a very good stand and seemed an interesting option. For the French market there has always been North Africa as a relatively near pool of lower cost language skills (see the post: "Offshoring and mainland Europe "), so it will be interesting to see if Egypt could fulfill that role for the English speaking market.

Otherwise I was interested to see the Contact Babel stand. I'm going to be interested to see their research as it looked like it had a lot of good detail on the state of the UK contact centre market.

All in all, a profitable day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

UK Call Centre Expo

Today the blog is going to be up to the minute and topical.

I know the blog normally comments on things at leisure, and quite a lot after the event sometimes, but today and tomorrow is the UK Contact Centre Expo in Birmingham.

I will be there tomorrow as I find it one of the most useful shows for the UK and Irish market. There's always a danger at these shows that it ends up with vendor talking to vendor with perhaps the odd consultant in the mix, rather than being relevant to the end users.

I tend to find that although there's a bit of that at the UK Contact Centre Expo, it's one of the better shows for providing some value. The Expo's program tomorrow, for example, has some good sessions on customer strategy and workplace culture. Most importantly, they have real contact centre managers presenting on their strategies and experiences. There will also be a chance to see some of the latest trends in offshoring, outsourcing and so on.

I'm very hopeful tomorrow will be a good day and looking forward to it.

Friday, September 05, 2008

CRM - a way of banks gaining business in a recession?

I'm always suspicious of vendor surveys but this survey from SAP, reported on Finextra, rather caught my eye. It's entitled "European and Middle Eastern banks look to invest in CRM" and focuses on how banks are focusing on CRM to differentiate themselves from the competition.

To a certain extent this is obvious. It's hard to compete on interest rates alone, and most banks don't want to be in the position where they do. Brand is another differentiator, but a great brand with lousy customer service is hardly a way of retaining customers. Given the cost of customer acquisition and the that banks know a lot about their existing customers, it makes sense to manage the relationship better to get more value from your existing customers.

Simply managing a customers relationship well has long been a selling point of banks like HSBC's First Direct operation (see post: "The contact centre agent experience - First Direct" and "HSBC creates 250 UK call centre jobs & offshore in decline"). What's always surprised me is that while bank's have talked a lot about the importance of the customer relationship, very few have really focused on it. The report does highlight some of the challenges but I suspect that these are going to get increasing focus.

One of the problems with CRM applications in banking historically has been that it has been seen as a call centre application (maybe rolled out to branch sometimes) and as a solution in its own right. Of course the reality is that the application is only one part of the solution and the processes that go round it and the quality of the agents that use it are perhaps more important. Perhaps even more important is what the CRM application is integrated to. For example, linking CRM with a marketing spend tracker can provide all sorts of insight as to how effective marketing is, but is rarely done.

I suspect that as the economic climate gets tougher, the banks that know their customers better will be able to make better lending decisions with what credit they have. They will also be able to target their most profitable customers most effectively. The call centre is key here as it is likely to be a strong determiner of the bank's brand perception, its ability to reach its customer base and its ability to take advantage of sales opportunities when they arrive.

Effectiveness of CRM as a measure of a bank's future success? Well, there are probably dafter metrics floating around at the moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see a strong correlation.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

I'm back.... and there's lots to post on but so little time!

I'm back & posting and apologies for the gap.

I did feel that if I was going to have a vacation it should be a proper one by European standards. I know my US colleagues get by on only a few days per year, but I do think a proper break is at least two weeks and that more is usually necessary to fully recharge batteries.

There is of a considerable irony here. I'm talking about extensive holidays, but most contact centres have to work at least shifts and many work 24x7 for nearly 52 weeks a year. For agents on predominately low wages, even in Europe, holidays are not particularly generous. I've touched on this a little before (in posts like "Is cost a contact centre issue or a symptom?"), but I do think there's a lot more to be said about service quality and the value placed on agents.

It's certainly a topic of CEO relevance (I had a brief post on "CEOs of BT, the Royal Mail and Corel discuss telephone customer service" back in June) and as business conditions get tougher I expect to see more focus on customer service as a differentiator. Hopefully we won't see pure cost cutting at the expense of the contact centre and future business, but I suspect it will depend on how competitive markets are.

I was also interested in a couple of stories from Australia. While obviously not a core focus of a European blog, the Australian market is useful as an indicator of some trends that might affect Europe. Call had a good story on "Staff stability lures centres into suburbs" describing how contact centres were moving out of the CBD in order to reduce rent and (more importantly) increase workforce stability. It's interesting that in Europe this is a trend I would not expect to see. Here I think we will either have the remote location (for very low cost) or the city centre location (for large pools of labour with public transport links). I discussed some of this in the post "City Centre Call Centers - A European quirk?" but I think it may be worth a revisit as I didn't really consider suburbs vs. city centre as an issue.

There's lots more to talk about, like the first customer shipment of Cisco's new Contact Centre Enterprise release 7.5, which has some interesting new capabilities for distributing call centre functionality around the enterprise. Calabrio also announced compliance with Avaya contact centre, again an interesting move. I will try to cover all these over the coming weeks.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The blog is on vacation for two weeks

I have to apologise about the frequency of posting over the last few weeks. Year end has left me very little time to blog and the posting has not been as often as I would like.

This is a European blog and this is August, so I'm off on vacation like most of the rest of Europe.

I will be back by late August and I expect posting to resume then at a much higher frequency.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It's time again for the Cisco/ Dimension Data Speech Survey

I thought last week that I'd get more time to blog this week. Looks like I was wrong. I'm still planning on writing this post on homeshoring, but it may be tomorrow while I'm waiting at the airport before I get the chance.

In the meantime, it's worth mentioning that it's time again for the Cisco/ Dimension Data Speech Survey. This got lots of interest last time round (see my past post: Dimension Data/ Cisco Speech survey ) and the results were widely viewed webinar on CRMxchange (still available for viewing when I checked today). The survey highlighted the difference between what vendors think and consumers think of speech automation. Vendors, for example, tend to underestimate why consumers will accept automation (such as to avoid offshore). They also overestimate things like the ability of speech automation to partially meet callers needs and underestimate its ability to meet all needs for some callers.

If you're interested in participating, please do, and you can take the survey here. Results will be made available to all those who participate.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Cisco on customer interaction - homeshoring post to follow

I was going to write an analytical and thoughtful post on homeshoring. This is the emerging trend of basing contact centre agents at home, rather than at an office or sending the work overseas. This has great attractions for employers who need contact centres working split shifts or need to access labour that can't necessarily commute to an office.

Unfortunately, I haven't really had time (hence the recent gap in posting). So this great piece on homeshoring may come tomorrow or even Thursday. In the meantime, Cisco has posted up a couple of videos on customer management on their 'Techwise TV' site and they're worth a look. I know 'Techwise TV' is more noted for it's offerings on switching, routing and networks but it's good to see the focus shifting onto the customer and business.

Customer Service:
From Calls to Contacts

Each video is about 60 mins long and you need to register to see them. The one I've highlighted will be shown on July 24th and there is also a customer experience webcast from 2006 that sets out some of the basics.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Channel in Financial Services

One blog I've been reading lately is Dr. Catriona Wallace's blog (Your Call) that covers the Asia-Pacific contact centre market.

She had a good post on 24th June looking at the consumer use of channels in Australian and New Zealand banking. Her research suggests that at least for Australia and New Zealand:

"... there are distinct differences between the BFI consumers and consumers from other industry verticals. For example, there is almost equal preference for BFI consumers to use the internet as first channel of preference as their level of preference to speak to a live attendant. In all other industry verticals the primary preference is to speak to a live attendant. About 9 in 10 BFI consumers are happy to use self service technology for simple transactions and even 4 in 10 are happy to use self-service technology for complex transactions. We just don't see this level of orientation around consumer self-service in other verticals."

She also highlights how demographics like gender and age also have a big impact on how consumers choose channels when dealing with their financial services provider.

I feel it is also well worth looking at is culture when looking at consumer's choice of channel. In Europe I believe channel preference is driven as much by culture as it is by vertical or by demographics. The last very detailed research I've seen on the subject was Forrester writing in 2004, but the differences are clear.

Asked which channel consumers would use to first contact their bank for a service issue, there were huge contrasts between countries. In the UK 72% of customers would use the telephone channel as their first option compared to only 26% of Italians picking up the phone. Branch showed a similar degree of huge variation, 91% of Spanish would go to a branch as their first action but only 59% of Dutch would go. However, 15% of Dutch would e-mail their bank as their first action (remember this was in 2004, today it's probably higher).

These cultural differences highlight how different the role of the contact centre can be. What in one country is a strategic channel for voice traffic in another is a minor channel for e-mail or remote support.

The acceptance of self-service in Financial Services is also interesting. I've posted previously on the Dimension Data/ Cisco Speech survey but this has focused only on speech acceptance for English speaking countries (including Australia and New Zealand). It might be interesting to extend that and see if consumer acceptance of self-service extends to other cultures. Alternatively, it may be that a lot of people phone up to check their bank balance and their priority is to get the answer quickly rather than from a human.

The one thing that I would stress is that despite cultural differences, is that as a vertical financial services has the most complex set of consumer channel usage however the consumers choose to use those channels.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Friday video - Cisco's call centre of the future

My previous videos have been well received (see "Embedded Call Centre Video" and "For a Friday - Contact Centre, video and the call centre movie") so I suspect that it's time for another one. It's also Friday and that's a good enough reason for a less serious post.

I was very interested to see that one of Cisco's promotional videos is up on YouTube. This is n illustration of Cisco's vision of what call centre could be: video enabled, integrated around the enterprise, seamless inbound and outbound and full multi-media.

In fact, the view from one of the experts in Cisco's product house is that almost all of this contact centre vision could be achieved today (though not all of it are yet products), give or take the robot dog.....

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

HSBC creates 250 UK call centre jobs & offshore in decline

After a week off sick there's been a lot to blog on.

I was interested in the Finextra story "HSBC creates 250 call centre jobs". The interesting thing for me is that these are onshore jobs. HSBC has always had onshore operations but has also been one of the firms that has pushed call centre jobs to India. The onshore operations have tended to focus on high quality customer service (see past posts like: "The contact centre agent experience - First Direct") whereas it's always been my suspicion that cost is the primary motivation for the Indian operation.

I'm not against either cost saving or offshore, I just have strong reservations that India for lowest possible cost is a sensible customer service strategy. If offshore is an appropriate option, I've tended to look at South Africa ("Offshore - why I would go for South Africa over India"). I know there are issues with South Africa as well (SA Telecom and crime being two of the big ones), but the cost savings and availability of English are strong factors in that locations favour.

HSBC is also just part of a larger trend back onshore. Earlier this month Orange announced that it was moving 500 call centre jobs back to the UK from India, but at the same time was shedding 450 onshore administrative jobs. This is very similar to what Lloyds TSB did last month, when it decided to offshore its IT rather than its customer facing operations (I covered the story here on the blog or here on Finextra).

In short, I think the trend for customer service to go offshore has almost come to an end but administration, back-office and IT might all go offshore to a much greater extent.

Friday, June 20, 2008

CEOs of BT, the Royal Mail and Corel discuss telephone customer service

I have tonsillitis this week and this is the first day I've really been able to get anything done. It also means that my post the week will be short.

What I have been doing while ill is listening to the radio. There was a very good discussion on customer service earlier this week on BBC Radio 4's business program "The Bottom Line".

What I found interesting was that it had the CEOs of two of the UK's biggest company's, British Telecom and Royal Mail (both of whom who have customer service issues). In the discussion both CEOs wanted to focus on concepts like 'customer lifecycle' and 'customer experience' (not that they used those terms), but they kept being brought back to the issue of how they provided basic telephone service.

Not rocket science, but further proof of the importance of doing the contact centre basics right and worth a listen. You can download the podcast here.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Aviva (Norwich Union) and the offshore market

The decision of Aviva (Norwich Union) to cut 1,800 jobs is a story making most of the national press and Finextra this morning.

This is on top of the restructuring announced in 2006, which would shed 4,000 UK jobs. Of these, 1,000 were call centre workers whose roles would be replaced by offshore call centres.

Interestingly, this time it is not the call centre that is being expressly targeted as a cost centre. For starters, 500 of the job losses announce this morning are in IT. This to me seems to be part of the trend that saw Lloyds TSB a few weeks ago offshore its IT rather than its customer facing operations (I covered the story here on the blog or here on Finextra).

My impression is that the need for high quality customer service is being recognised as a differentiator while the focus on cost is shifting to more back office areas. In UK insurance, I suspect also that the arrival of the web insurance aggregators ( , go, etc...) has really hit volumes and margins in the direct web channel. By contrast, the telephone channel is less affected by these new players and may be a way for insurers to preserve margin and brand.

It may also be the time that the contact centre gets recognition in the wider enterprise for its ability to deal direct with customers and stops being a cost centre.

Merchants Contact Centre Benchmarking study for 2008

One report that it always of interest to managers of customer facing operations is the annual Merchants/ Dimension Data contact centre benchmarking report.

This year's has just been released for download (link here) and the published version will be available at the end of June.

There are two big points of interest to me. The first is that now 31% of all inbound transactions are completed by self-service. This is primarily IVR (15.5% of the transactions), followed by web self service (13.7%) with speech self-service and web co-browsing with an agent making up the balance. Ten years ago, 90% of transactions required an agent to complete, so this represents a significant cost improvement.

The second is that CRM systems have not delivered some basic functions. Ten years ago the benchmarking study found that 39% of organisations had a single view of customer for the agent to work with, today the figure is 34%, despite massive subsequent investment in CRM. This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has dealt with a bank recently, but it is a damning statement on the performance of CRM.

The self-service metrics, though are a great cause of hope. Although IVR and its menus of "press 1 for...., press 2 for...." are widely hated if done badly, there are signs of it being done really well. I was in a presentation from Lloyds TSB a few weeks ago and they reported that their self-service channel regularly achieved very high customer satisfaction scores. The reasons for this is that it is well designed, does what it intends to do well and doesn't try to unduly force customers to use it for complex transactions. It can also be used for a simple post-call survey (the sort that takes 15 seconds so the survey doesn't cause customer dissatisfaction itself), which gives the bank a near real-time view of how customers feel about that interaction.

Interesting to see that despite the hype, it may be IVR and speech self-service that are bringing benefits while CRM is lagging.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Phone Banking vs Facebook banking

I was very interested to see two good stories on Finextra today.

The first was that around half of Facebook users want to be able to bank through Facebook. The second was that 91% of British adults had concerns about fraud on their phone accessible bank accounts.

It seems to me a pretty bizarre set of contradictions. Facebook is a very nice application, but I'm pretty dubious that banking through it is a good idea. There are issues over some of the Financial Services advertising (see the BBC "Facebook users warned about ads") and I'm not convinced that data privacy issues are fully resolved, or in line with the standards set by banks (again the BBC with "Facebook 'violates privacy laws'" and "Facebook faces privacy questions"). It may be that as Facebook matures these issues will be resolved to everyone's satisfaction, but I know many remain dubious about entrusting their details to an organisation that has already had to apologise for how it has used them.

By contrast voice technology is far more mature and security concerns should be on a different level. There are weaknesses but they are more to do with processes than the underlying technology. A good example was the case I covered at Barclays (see "Security, Call Centres and Fraud") where there was nothing wrong with the technology, but the processes were not as robust as needed to be against identity theft. At this point (although the research is funded by Nuance a speech technology vendor) I'm inclined to agree with the article that speech recognition and biometrics could make a difference where pass words have been stolen or an identity otherwise compromised. Certainly it had the potential to make a difference in the Barclays case.

The scary thing about Facebook is that if a Facebook banking application were to be compromised, the chances are that the fraudsters would have access to so much personal information that any future identity recovery could be very difficult. By contrast the telephone channel at least offers the prospect that even if your identity was stolen you would only be authenticated by who you are, not what you know.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Banks criticised by BBC for automated calls

I'm working in San Diego this week, but over the weekend I was sent an interesting story.

The BBC Radio Money Box program has been investigating the use of automated outbound calling by UK banks to chase bad debts.

Some consumers claim that this had led to them receiving up to eight calls a day and Privacy International is arguing that this potentially constitutes harrassment. I can see how this is especially frustrating if the calls are chasing a family member no longer resident at that address.

Lloyds TSB, Natwest/ Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland all use these systems to some degree but say they would not call that often. They say they follow the guidelines laid down by Ofcom, the UK communications regulator and (in the example of Lloyds TSB) they would not expect to call more than perhaps four times and not for more than four days in a row.

To me, this just seems another case of the bank's shooting themselves in the foot. I wrote about the ineffectiveness and decline of outbound calling last week ("Further thoughts on outbound in the UK.....") and while automating the calls might make it cheaper, it hardly makes it more popular. This only adds to thoughts I've had in posts like: "Abbey National fined £30,000 by Ofcom & the future of Outbound in Financial Services" that outbound calling is gets the industry a bad name.

I appreciate fully that banks need to chase bad debts (and some consumers appreciate reminders). However with Ofcom looking to release new, almost certainly tighter, regulations on these outbound systems in June, this may not be the best time for the banks to have poor public relations.

P.S. If any reader requires a guide to call centre outbound technology, this past post provides it: "Outbound, an explanation of the technology"


From feedback, I realise I probably didn't set out the two big problems with this form of outbound clearly enough.

The first problem was reasonably well stated, that multiple calls to an individual may construe harassment.

The second, slightly more subtle point, is that a phone number doesn't necessarily map to an individual. It's quite easy to think of scenario where two parents have children either living at home or using the home address while they are at university. In these circumstances, potentially informing whoever answers the phone that another family member has a credit problem strikes me as a significant breach of privacy.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Software archaeology, financial services and the contact centre

There's an interesting (and brief) post on Grady Booch's IBM blog that got me thinking. Grady Booch, for those unfamiliar with him, is an IBM's Chief Scientist for Software Research but perhaps more importantly developed UML (Unified Modelling Language) and was very influential in the development of Object Orientated programming. I've seen him through my time at IBM and through the BCS (British Computer Society) and I find he always has something interesting to say on IT.

His particular post this week was on the first signs that 'software archaeology' is emerging as a discipline. I think this is long overdue as alongside Enterprise Architecture, management of legacy software is one of the biggest challenges in modern IT.

I've met this challenge regularly when working with financial services customers and it's been well documented (see on the subject last year). The financial services industry was (and is) a sector that understands how IT can bring efficiency and so adopted automation early on. The problem is that today this can mean an environment of very mixed and some quite elderly systems. What makes this challenging is that as business requirements change, an elderly system than ran quietly on its own in a corner might now need to make it's data available to other systems. Even more challengingly, in an SOA type of architecture it may not be easy to predict which combinations of systems they might be.

It's at this point that the project team usually discover that the documentation for the legacy system is incomplete and that most of those in the organisation who could have helped fill in the gaps have taken early retirement. This means that ripping it out and replacing it is not possible. One option is to bring back these retirees as consultants but this expensive and often not practical. The other emerging option is to do some software archaeology to understand what processes and dependencies are actually in the legacy code.

This has been one of the major challenges I've found in the financial services contact centre. The agents, often young or from a non-IT background, expect either a Microsoft Windows type desktop or a shiny, new Facebook style web 2.0 interface. Instead, they find themselves learning from scratch how to deal with OS2 or 3270 terminals and green screens. This has big impacts on agent productivity and training costs. It's also a long way from the type of technology I was blogging on in: "The future of contact centre - Google, Salesforce, Skype & Microsoft".

Unfortunately, though, if the business logic for something like a life insurance policy is embedded in legacy code, and there is no documentation, then that system has to be kept running. As long as there are customers who could make claims (and that's potentially a 30+ year horizon for life insurance), then the organisation has to be able to manage them under the Ts&Cs of the policy and that means keeping the system as it is as there is no other truly reliable source of the information.

It may not be an expected outcome of software archaeology, but one of the big benefits it could bring is for the call centre agent in financial services. A more easily integrated desktop and presentation layer would help agents find the information they need far more easily. I've seen agents in one bank running three monitors each (and having to type out each piece of information the customer gave them three times to get it into into each system) because they couldn't integrate the various system interfaces.

Software archaeology may initially be focused on the back-end and legacy, but could become very important for the contact centre.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Further thoughts on outbound in the UK.....

I'm back from a week's holiday today and I'm catching up on all the news while I've been away.

On article that caught my attention was from the Times on 17th May. The business columnist Sathnam Sanghera had a rather good full page article on outbound call centres.

What I found interesting about it was that so much on call centres is written as the call centre industry talking to itself. There's nothing wrong with that (this blog does it quite a bit), but an outsiders perspective can be a necessary wake up call.

The article describes how he went to a training course for outbound telephone sales agents. A familiar enough idea for those in the call centre industry, but a strange world to outsiders. As a business person, (and one who has hated receiving cold calls) Sathnam was amazed that the industry was viable, writing:

"According to a survey published by the Direct Marketing Association last year, telemarketing accounted for just 5.5 per cent of all UK direct marketing - a decrease from 7.9 per cent in 2005.

Moreover, the hit rate for this ever-shrinking band of telemarketers is tiny. The survey reported that only 3.5 per cent of people have ever responded positively to a telemarketing call, while one Xerox salesman recently interviewed in a US newspaper said that he made 55 cold calls a day which resulted in one sale a week - a success rate of 0.36 per cent.

In other words, the industry is on the brink of dying, and is being kept alive only by the possibility of a rare positive response.... "

This confirms some of my suspicions, that badly done outbound calls have damaged the industry badly. I've written a little on this before in posts like: "Abbey National fined £30,000 by Ofcom & the future of Outbound in Financial Services" or "Outbound, an explanation of the technology" and "Outbound - industry reputation, branding and regulation". From the feedback I've had, the irritation outbound causes is still not well understood in the industry, though the number of consumers registering with the Telephone Preference Service suggests that consumers are making their views clear.

Of course for some industries, other issues will lead to the death of outbound cold calling. For example, in this age of identity theft it is unlikely that many consumers will want do business with a cold call that claims to be from their bank and wants to the consumer to provide information to verify their identity.

Outbound by consent (e.g. "let me call you back at a convenient time") may have a strong future, especially in Financial Services, but I suspect the Times is right and outbound as cold calling is dying.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Lloyds TSB offshores IT, not call centre

An interesting article on Finextra about Lloyds TSB offshoring 450 IT jobs.

What it makes it interesting is that Lloyds TSB has opted not just to keep its contact centres onshore, but create new contact centre jobs onshore.

I've covered this in past posts like "Onshore still growing - Lloyds TSB" but it makes clear that if customer service is important, then onshore has a lot of attractions. Interestingly, I was in a presentation from a senior Lloyds manager on Wednesday and he was explaining that the contact centre (especially the self-service part) is very well regarded by their customers.

The bigger issue here is whether you view contact centre as a cost or part of your brand. I've talked about this before (e.g. "Is cost a contact centre issue or a symptom?"), but it's an issue that still isn't well understood. My view is that if part of your organisation is going to interact with customers regularly and represent you to them, then managing that part as a cost centre is not sensible. If consumers form their impression of you from direct experience, then vast amounts of marketing spend will struggle to overcome that.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The British Gas, the utility industry, customer service and consultants

I've been really struggling to get time to blog this week, which is a pity when there has been so much to comment on.

The blog has looked at problems in the utility industry before (see posts like: "Are utility companies really the worst call centres?") , so I was most interested to read in the Times on Monday. There one of the lead business articles was that "British Gas fights Accenture over billing". British Gas has been notorious in the UK for it's customer service issues, (see for example: 'British Gas's 29th appearance on BBC Watchdog, October 2006'), so it is interesting to see that they regard Accenture as responsible.

The Times explains further that:

"Centrica [the parent company of British Gas] hired Accenture to provide the new billing system seven years ago.

It was to bring together the records of British Gas's 12.5million gas and electricity customers on to one platform capable of handling 250,000 meter readings and 200,000 bills a day.

The £317million fee would come from the £397million of savings that British Gas expected to obtain from the project.

Centrica claims that, after a number of glitches, in March 2006 Accenture guaranteed a software upgrade that would work. Centrica argues that, instead, the system continued to struggle and generated a high level of “exceptions” - billing issues that required manual intervention.

Centrica also claims that Accenture failed to provide adequate computer hardware and did not integrate the system properly. The energy supplier formally notified Accenture that it was in breach of contract in February 2007.

A British Gas spokesman said: “An independent analysis of the billing system has concluded that Accenture was responsible for fundamental errors in the design and implementation of the system. British Gas has been left with no option but to pursue legal redress against Accenture.”

In the past year, since British Gas fixed the system itself, complaints to Energywatch about the supplier have fallen 85 per cent, the spokesman said."

I should make clear that Accenture deny the allegations strongly, saying in the Times:

"Accenture vowed yesterday to fight its corner, stating: “We are confident, based on the facts of the situation, that this claim is baseless and without merit. Centrica is only trying to shift the blame for a situation it created.” "

It's obviously impossible for outsiders to know where the blame sits, but I think a few general conclusions can be drawn.

The first is that agents will not deliver good customer service without the right information. This may seem obvious, but the technical challenge of delivering information to the agent, and doing so in a usable form, should not be underestimated.This isn't just a user interface design (though that is critical) but it's also a data integration project and probably a process re-engineering project.

The second is that consultants have to be used with caution, and they in turn have to be prepared to have some tough conversations with the customer about what can realistically be delivered. I've covered this in more depth in the post, "Does lack of management experience cause most contact centre problems? The perspecitve of the "Puritan Gift"", but I think the criticism of management 'generalists' is usually a valid one. There is a clear role for the traditional definition of consultant, an individual hired at senior level to provide deep subject matter expertise in area such as IT or finance where managers may lack deep knowledge. I'm much more ambivalent about the idea of bringing in consultants to run things as running things (even complex change programs) should be a competence of the company's existing management. Where Accenture and British Gas sit in all of this is obviously for the lawyers to decide.

The final conclusion is that the contact centre really does matter. How British Gas is perceived by customers and the market will be partly determined by this case and partly by what customers now experience when they deal with the company.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A little more on Onstate and contact centre over the web...

I got quite a response to the article on Onstate.

One of the interesting things was a case study of Onstate being used at B4 Consulting. I found it quite interesting, as to me it illustrates the similarities with how organisations have bought Webex for web conferencing and in future they might buy contact centre.

B4 Consulting (an SAP implementation partner) used skype already for internal use and extending it to the support centre was a relatively logical next step. What I thought was very interesting was that the support users want is primarily chat with a voice capability and hence agents with both capabilities. The convergence is a natural one in a Voice over IP (VoIP) environment. Crucially for the call centre instant messaging is all about states (use ready/ user not ready) which is exactly what the call centre has long managed with the agent ready/ not ready state being a critical requirement for voice traffic.

Skype may or may not be the voice platform of the future as there are other options, for instance Yahoo's recent deal with JaJah for the voice element of instant messaging, and IBM's Sametime telephony announcment at VoiceCon present individual users and Enterprises with interesting options.

The one thing that is clear is that voice and instant messaging are going to get much, much closer together in the contact centre.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The next generation of contact centre?

I wrote a couple of posts ago about what might be the future of the call centre in "The future of contact centre - Google, Salesforce, Skype & Microsoft".

I was very interested to find from feedback that I had perhaps been too modest in my predictions. I'm grateful for feedback that introduced me to Onstate. Onstate describes itself as the "New generation of call centre" and "the call centre for skype".

The idea is that you buy Onstate (or start using it on a free trial basis) as completely web based call centre. There's no need for any on-premises hardware (at least that's the pitch) and users can be added and removed relatively easily. In short, it's a bit like Webex, a web conferencing solution that works on a similar basis. The strength of Webex is that it can be bought at a departmental or on-demand level without the need to go through central IT and this has made very easy for business users to bring it into their businesses. This business model is also why Webex was acquired by Cisco last year, as it complements very strongly the idea of the network as a business enabler.

I'm not sure yet that the Webex business model will work so well for contact centre. Some of my hesitation is that key requirements (like call recording) isn't available. This isn't to say that it won't be in future, but it's absence will put off some prospective customers. Onstate does offer some very good features; reporting looks very user friendly and I do like the integration of chat and voice.

In short, I suspect Onstate is perhaps showing the future well ahead of where Google has got to. In many ways Onstate is taking 'software as a service' (SaaS) and VoIP (Voice over IP) to the logical next level and integrating the two. Interestingly, the founders of the company are ex-Cisco and ex-Geotel, so have a lot of experience of being at the leading edge of the contact centre. Geotel, for those who don't recognise the name, was bought by Cisco in 1999 and created the product that is now known as the Cisco ICM (Intelligent Contact Management). The Cisco ICM was one of those products that changed the industry, as it was a way of distributing calls between call centres with no limitations of geography or region. It makes it no great surprise to see ex-Geotel people in another highly innovative project.

It may not be fully mature yet, but I think Onstate is a clear pointer towards the future of the contact centre.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Online banking and contact centre

An interesting article on Finextra today with statistics that one third of UK web users bank online. Apparently the most popular sites are Lloyds TSB and Royal Bank of Scotland.

What is interesting for me is that in the UK at least, the web channel and the phone channel are still some way off converging. You might argue that this is natural, as the web (used at home for transactions with lots of detail) and the phone (used anywhere for real time interaction) are different both by function and nature.

I think this rather misses the point. Imagine that one of these web users sees a serious error or a suspicious transaction. Is it likely that they will e-mail and wait for the bank to respond? Or will they pick up the phone to get an instant response?

By contrast, some of the European banks have experimented with web and contact centre integration. Rabobank's youth banking website offers instant messaging (via MSN) or e-mail with 'Yvette' their chatbot. They also offer a skype button on most pages for a free click to call and a link for skype downloads. I've talked about this a little before (in posts like "Skype, contact Centre and Banking") but I do see this as one of the likely trends of the future.

I've yet to see anything equivalent from UK banks, but I suspect that customers pressure will start to force them to offer these services.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The future of contact centre - Google, Salesforce, Skype & Microsoft

A lot of interesting announcements in the last two weeks.

Firstly, Google announced a link up with I can see the logic, as explained by both companies, that this way embedded google apps in would allow users to switch data between (say) a google spreadsheet and a salesforce customer application.

What I find interesting about this is if Google and Salesforce were to integrate Google's emerging communication offerings, as that would start to be a contact centre on a wholly SAAS basis.

Microsoft seemed to respond to this by announcing that Microsoft Dynamics CRM would be available in as an online offering. It is priced more aggressively than ($44 per user for Microsoft vs. $65 per user at but otherwise it seemed to me to have no clear advantages over and both were less functional than the offerings from Siebel and SAP.

All of which was very interesting and shows that where lead, the rest of the CRM industry is following rapidly.

I mentioned in the first paragraph that if Google and Salesforce were to integrate Google's emerging communication offerings, as that would start to be a contact centre on a wholly SAAS basis. The google communication applications are an interesting collection of functions, there's Google Talk for instant messging and voice, and
Google Mail for e-mail . Helpfully, if peer to peer voice isn't quite enough for you, then Google Pack for your computer includes the option to have Skype. In other words the raw functionality to build a web based contact centre is there in Google and if the idea's occurred to me, then you can bet it has occurred to Google.

It will be interesting to see when we start to see contact centre telephony as a SAAS offering, as this may be closer than many people assume.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Call centre worker gaoled for data theft

An interesting article on Finextra about the recent theft at a Royal Bank of Scotland call centre.

This isn't the first, and certainly won't be the last, example of security breaches from staff. There's been a lot of recent focus on the risks of external attack and how biometrics can help deal with this but the internal threat has been neglected. I've posted on the external attack on Barclays ("Security, Call Centres and Fraud"), when fraudsters stole the identity of their chairman for a credit card application, and there's been some good posts on Finextra (see "Biometrics - what's that all about then?" by Dave Griffiths and "Who's in your Wallet?" by Jarvis Kandik both last month).

In fact, inside threats are perhaps as serious as the risk of external attack. In 2006 HSBC lost £233,000 after it's Indian call centre suffered inside attack (here for the BBC report). Last year the BBC also reported how HSBC and HBoS had been targeted by an organised gang which both penetrated the banks and laundered the proceeds of their crimes.

An internal threat is nothing new - fraud from dishonest employees is something that banks have had to deal with almost from the start of banking. What is new is the level of the threat and its organisation. As an example, Strathclyde Police (who cover the west of Scotland where many call centres are located) believe that organised gangs have infiltrated perhaps one in ten of the call centres there (full report here).

In the end, as I've argued with biometrics, the criminals will be beaten by process, not technology point solutions. If the defences against external attack are strong, then criminals will seek to get on the inside. The correct response is not to strengthen the exterior with biometrics (though I'm not sure biometrics do strengthen it), but instead to make sure that staff are vetted, exceptions or unusual activity is identified and monitored and good management is in place.

Process is not terribly exciting, but it will be the element that determines whether technology defeats criminals or not.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Embedded Call Centre Video

I've been seeing quite a bit on video call centre lately, and most of the focus has been on video as an alternative to just voice communication. I've done quite a bit of posting on this lately in "Video and contact centre - some thoughts" and "For a Friday - Contact Centre, video and the call centre movie".

One area more neglected area of video where there's some interesting ideas is the agent desktop. The thoughts here are more around embedding video for the agent as either e-learning or brand awareness training. As an example, I've embedded the trailer for the call centre movie below.

The thinking is that this way agents could quickly learn about the latest TV advertising campaign, for example, that an organisation is using to generate inbound sales traffic. If this campaign were to be run only at peak times then there is a high probability that the agents on the shift that takes the calls will not have seen it.

Other uses potentially include adding dynamic content to portals and integrating it with mashups. Mashups with Video and VoIP enablement strike me as very interesting area for the desktop and is something I'll look at in more detail soon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Latest Gartner Magic Quadrant on IVR & Speech Self-Service

A good article on the Speech Technology Magasine Website setting out the details of the latest Gartner Magic Quadrant for IVR and Self-Service ( titled the "Magic Quadrant for Interactive Voice Response Systems and Enterprise Voice Portals, 2008." and available from Gartner here).

I was quite please to see that the Microsoft Speech Server was dropped from the Magic Quadrant as I've never found it a relevant offering for the European Contact Centre. I've gone into the details of this previously (in "Technology firms, Europe and speech recognition" and "Speech Market Share"), but the main reason is that if you don't offer speech in European languages, you will struggle to sell in the European market.

It was also good to see Holly Connect getting onto the magic quadrant. I've seen a bit of them in the European market and their network based IVR/ self-service solution looks interesting for those who would like their self-service hosted by a network carrier. They're an Australian company in origin, so I wouldn't be surprised to see them push further into Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Otherwise, the Magic Quadrant has the usual firms in the leader's segment, Genesys, Avaya, Cisco, Intervoice and Nortel. For the full details (I won't duplicate them here) best to look at
the Speech Technology Magasine Website or buy the report Gartner .

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Capital One cuts 750 UK jobs at Nottingham Call Centre

Not the best news from the Daily Telegraph and Finextra, but perhaps one of the first signs of the credit crunch hitting the call centres of UK financial services firms.

I'd wondered in January this year if trends the call centre job market were a warning sign that things were getting much tougher ("Are Onshore call centre jobs always good news?"). The post was triggered by news of increased hiring for onshore jobs in debt management call centres. Come the credit crunch, these firms look like some of the few potential winners.

I was also interested, though, by the Telegraph's comment that Capital One was suffering from increased competition and had reported a 72pc fall in net profit in the three months to December, down from $390.7m a year earlier to $226.6m. In addition, the bank took a $1.9bn charge for loan losses.

Low margins and lots of competition is not a good place to be in and is one of the few areas where offshoring might make sense (other than getting out of the market altogether). I've talked about this before ("
Is cost a contact centre issue or a symptom?"), but offshoring doesn't fix a broken business model.

My suspicion is that the credit crunch will mark a big decision for the remaining monoline credit card companies. They need to work out whether they fight for value (like Amex) and can afford a call centre or, if they targeted lower margin business, if they have to think about cost and start looking at self service to control costs.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The impact of mobile devices on call centres

Chris Skinner over at Finextra has a great article "Numbers, Part Eleven: Mobile and Cellphones". Chris writes mainly from a financial services perspective but has some really good statistics on how traffic from mobile devices has grown. Examples include:

  • there are three billion mobile telephone subscribers worldwide, 1.1 billion PC users and 1.8 billion credit card holders;
  • 1,000 new mobile telephone connections are added every minute;
  • 60% of subscribers are in developing countries, and 80% of new mobile telephone subscribers are from developing countries;
  • there has been a 10% increase in mobile usage in the last year, resulting in a 1.2% rise in GDP;
  • a 2.5% reduction in the cost of remittances results in a 60% rise in volume; and
    mobile payments users average 26% more transactions than card users (according to NTT DoCoMo's Edy studies in Japan).

The rise in mobile devices has had a huge impact on call centres because customers can call an organisation from anywhere. In the past you could assume that the phone channel meant a customer at home, while if the customer was out and about that meant they had to go to branch.

Now customers can call their bank from outside the branch to see if they can get a better deal in the call centre channel. Similarly, mobiles now allow voice and data to presented, rather blurring the distinction between internet and voice channels. I suspect video might well be the next thing for mobiles, from evidence for insurance claims to helping with complex transactions. I've written a bit on this last week (though not specific to financial services) at: Video and contact centre - some thoughts.

I suspect in the future we may not look at the distinction between channels, but the instead think of the distinctions between end-user devices and their capabilities.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Oracle Whitepaper on European Contact Centres

There's an interesting whitepaper from Oracle on European Contact Centres available for download, though you do need to register your details to get it.

It's good to see research focused specifically on the European market (as opposed to the US) as customer behaviour is significantly different. It's also a good sized survey of 1,500 consumers and 250 contact centres so I'd hope that interviews were weighted so as to be representative.

The key findings are mostly no great surprise:

· Despite almost unanimous acknowledgement of the importance of keeping customers happy, more than half of European consumers do not judge customer service operations to be effective.
· Consumers’ principle complaints include enduring long call queues, having to continually repeat their queries to different members of staff and receiving inconsistent answers.
· Contact centre managers view better quality of information and staff training as the two prime requirements for improving customer service.
· More than half of businesses have no plans to introduce a self-service portal - despite a clear preference among customers for using the internet to resolve queries.

I was interested in the last point, as voice portals, internet portals and the convergence between the two is something that I'm very interested in and am seeing a number of businesses exploring. Interestingly, the research shows that 71% of European consumers preferred the internet for interacting with a business and that email was identified as the second most popular
channel of interaction with a general preference of 60%.

The UK is probably the exception here, as I still see a preference for UK consumers to use the voice channel, but that ties in with what I've been seeing in mainland Europe. I've talked about it a bit in previous posts such as "Last week in Germany", but e-mail is a significant channel for mainland European contact centres. This is especially true as a channel for complex interactions and for initiating what will then become a multi-channel interaction. This an area where IP Convergence and Voice over IP for the contact centre is hugely important for bringing channels and communication mediums together for consistent customer service.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Abbey National fined £30,000 by Ofcom & the future of Outbound in Financial Services

Interesting news last week from Ofcom, the UK communications regulator.

Back in 2007, Ofcom began investigation into Abbey National making 'silent calls' to customers and issued a formal notification in November. Last week, Ofcom ruled that Abbey had breached the rules on outbound calls and fined them £30,000. The announcement is here.

For those not familiar with outbound calling (and Ofcom rules), it's probably best you have a look at a past post of mine like "Outbound, an explanation of the technology" or "Outbound - industry reputation, branding and regulation".

The Ofcom rules are relatively straightforward. If you are dialling more calls than you have agents to speak (as you assume that some of the dialled numbers will not be answered, be answered phones, etc...), then only 3% of those outbound calls can be silent in a 24 hour period. A silent call is where a customer answers the ringing phone but the call centre finds it has already allocated calls to all its agents. I'm not a fan of this use of predictive dialling as I feel it's an effective way of bringing a firm into disrepute. The cost of re-building a brand is huge in comparison to the sales that cold outbound calling could generate. Doing this to existing customers is just a fast way of irritating customers for whom the organisation has already paid an acquisition cost. It's also the case that while a fine of £30,000 is not a huge cost for a firm the size of Abbey, the cost of compliance going forward (running reports every 24hours for Ofcom, extra management costs, etc...) are quite significant.

The problem with incidents like Abbey's is that consumers will ask the TPS (Telephone Preference Service) to add them to a 'do not call' list. The pity of this is that legitimate and useful uses of outbound, such as companies may well be restricted calling to alert their customers of problems with (say) their bank account, or a new product that they legitimately feel will be of interest.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

VoiceCon 2008 - IBM, Microsoft & Aspect

I was interested to hear a number of the announcements at Voice Con 2008. I'm not in Orlando this year but a number of friends were at the announcement and I was interested to compare their comments with the press announcements.

The Microsoft and Aspect alliance announced yesterday is on, CCF magazine: "Microsoft Corp. and Aspect Software Inc. have announced a multi-year strategic alliance to help deliver unified communications to contact centres globally".

Of the press coverage, the most positive I've seen was, who described it as "Microsoft's One-two punch" and complimented Aspect on their marketing strategy. More typical was infoworld with "Microsoft buys its way into Call Centres".

In my view is that this is an announcement similar to the Microsoft and Nortel alliance. Anything that two major players do has to be of interest, but new entrants to a market don't mean that they are necessarily breaking new ground. My suspicion is that this is good for Microsoft as it gives them access to the Aspect install base and moderately good for Aspect as it lets them defend their install base with a strong partner. In terms of reaching contact centre functionality further into the enterprise, I'm not sure it delivers as much as Avaya, Cisco, Genesys and Nortel can already offer with the various forms of 'expert advisor'.

More interesting to me were the announcements from IBM. The first was the alliance announcements with ShoreTel, VBrick Systems, NEC and Ericsson. This completes IBM's alliances, as IBM Sametime already integrates with Cisco, Avaya, Nortel and Siemens and Sametime has long looked at Voice over IP capabilities. Compared to Microsoft, this makes IBM are much more open environment for Unified Communications than Microsoft. This was reinforced by the (expected) announcement of Sametime Unified Telephony, as a type of middleware for the Unified Communications telephone environment.

In short, I think Jan Dawson writing on his blog, twinloops , summed it up nicely:

"The IBM keynote was very dry, shorn of the visionary stuff from the Avaya and Microsoft keynotes from yesterday. It focused largely on new features and capabilities IBM is adding to its Sametime portfolio. And if anything, the key message was a slightly resentful, “we’ve been doing all this for 10 years, guys - how about giving us some credit?” The lack of vision stuff was probably helpful in reinforcing the perception that IBM is perhaps the most serious about UC, and just boring enough to pull it all off."

It will be very interesting to Microsoft and IBM once again competing head to head.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Video and contact centre - some thoughts

On Friday, I promised a more serious discussion about video and contact centre. The challenge is that video (especially over IP) is such a new technology that most statements will be predictions rather than facts.

I'll start with a general principle from Niels Bohr, who thought about time, technology and the future far more than this blog intends to,

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."

Therefore, rather than looking at what technology can or could do, I'd suggest thinking about video from the perspective of end-users. This is where video gets a lot more interesting. The first is understanding that the growth of 3G for mobiles and video calls on Skype is user driven. I believe video is an inherent part of the move to voice over IP. If you can send packets of voice across a network, then sending packets of video is a logical next step and restricted more by bandwidth limitations (which are ever reducing), than it is by technology capabilities.

When users define how they use video, all sorts of interesting (and unexpected) uses occur. A good example of this is 'Ambient Skype'. The term isn't mine, I've borrowed it from Roo Reynolds who has a good post on his blog from earlier this month. He describes well how he has been using Skype not just for conversations but for just staying in touch with home when on business trips. I used to work with Roo at IBM Hursley labs and he is always a good person for advice on where technology might be headed.

At the moment bandwidth restrictions prevent this sort of usage of video being widespread, but there are key groups for whom video is very important regardless of bandwidth constraints. One of these groups is sign language users who are unable to use the voice medium. The experiences of this group of users shows how video has been driven in the past and what needs these users (or government regulation) might expect commercial organisations to meet in future.

I touched on an example briefly back in November in the post "SOA - bringing CRM, telephony and business together? part 2, voice portals".

Significan't is a UK government initiative to allow sign language users to access local government services. The idea is very simple, the sign language user books a session at a video enabled end point, often in their local library. This then connects to a sign language interpreter and then to the local government service the sign language user wants to access. This makes a huge difference to the deaf and other groups who previously had to book a sign language interpreter, wait up to two weeks for an interpreter to become available, and only then be able to resolve their question or issue. You can imagine how unfortunate this delay could be if this was a housing or council tax payment issue.

The only way a video call centre like Significan't can work is if it has the right technology platform. Integrating TDM voice and video was historically challenging and the move to Internet Protocol (IP) removes many of the challenges. The network environment is only part of this. To run video contact centre, the contact centre technology itself needs also to support video. Significan't use the Cisco platform, and this is one of the strengths of an IP Contact Centre. For those interested, this whitepaper from the Cisco website sets out the Significan't technology in more detail. It is this sort of experience and market demand for video that has lead to the Cisco Voice Portal (CVP) 7.0 being built to support of video interactions as well as voice interactions with features such as video while on hold and video menus. Customers expect consistent levels of service regardless of both channel and the medium in which they are served.

What I find particularly interesting about this is the way the end-user device is potentially so limitless. The assumption historically has been that a voice self-service environment will be accessed by a telephone. In some ways, this is similar to the experience of internet portals, when web enabled devices like phones and PDAs arrived, it meant that a PC was no longer the only way of accessing a web site. Video makes things even more complicated. A video call might be made from a PC to a contact centre (with or without Skype), but it might also be made from a 3G phone, and the user may (or may not) have access to the web portal for simultaneous data presentation. Video calls might also be with a TV set top box (who said a video call had to have two way video?) or be on a more specialist device, perhaps for providing remote second line support to an on site technician.

The key to this is all those possible interaction types will succeed or fail based on user acceptance. It's the users not the technology that will probably determine how video is adopted in the contact centre. That's as close to prediction as I feel comfortable with, anyway!