Friday, February 29, 2008

Google - part 2, yesterdays UC developments

This blog can't claim to have an inside line on Google, but I was slightly startled to read Google's Unified Communications announcement on Thursday after my post on Wednesday.

It was the timing rather than the content that surprised me. Headlined "Google releases free UC for the masses", it was actually the rather less exciting news that Google had moved their GrandCentral acquisition into beta. GrandCentral has an interesting set of capabilities around click to call from web sites and click to call from contacts books, and provides a single number for users for life which is usable for all devices. Google is not unique with these capabilities, other providers include Ribbit with Amphibian open platform (whose relevance to banking and their contact centres is discussed on Chris Skinner's Finextra blog), but Google's reach and scale makes their developments always worth observing. Interestingly, GrandCentral has not been integrated with Google Talk, their VoIP offering, though there may be a 'yet' needed in that statement.

Like so many Google developments, the target market is initially the individual user not the enterprise but I would not be surprised if it started to evolve into a small business offering.

The interesting thing is how this is relevant to the contact centre. There has been interest in ensuring contact centers can handle Skype but handling Google Talk should perhaps be as important a consideration. Similarly, a single lifetime number for users offers some interesting ideas about how you could use outbound to a manage relationship for such a user who would be nearly always reachable. Finally it also highlights that the pace of voice and web integration seems to be accelerating and organisations need to be able to adapt to that what ever that might require in future.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Google - the next player in contact centre knowledge management?

I was looking through some material about Google Docs today as I'd been asked if any of it might be relevant to a customer I was working with.

The thing that stuck me was that while Google Docs probably weren't suitable (yet), the implications of the Google's search capability could be quite profound in the area of contact centre knowledge management. There's been speculation that Google could go in this direction for a while (see, for example, the UK technology site ZDNet writing in 2006) and obviously if knowledge management is seen as a search function then Google is an obvious answer.

Importantly, knowledge management in call centre is not just a search function. It can be about information categorisation, business processes and making available information other agents have learnt from experience. Yet none of these are things Google can't do or won't be able to do in the near future. Furthermore, the Kana and eGain type of application with a separate knowledge management database and proprietary approach to knowledge classification looks in danger of being made redundant but web 2.0 ideas like wikis and the ever increasing use of XML tags for data.

Despite this, I'd still recommend clients to look at knowledge management applications as a solution for specific issues. Where they white-label the contact centre for example (so agents handle many different processes depending on which brand they are representing) or where web-chat or e-mail is a consideration and knowledge management can provide an element of scripting and agent assistance. In these examples though, knowledge managment is providing more value than just a searchable repository.

Google isn't there yet, but I would not be surprised if knowledge management experienced the same trends as the rest of the application sector and a bout of consolidation.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

La perspective Francais et la performance au service du centre de contacts

Je lis mon blog ce matin et je découvre que le dernier post que j'ai ecrie sur la situtaion en France "Calabrio expanding in France" et mon dernier post en fracais "Pour le weekend - un site tres intéressant" n'étainent pas tres récent. C'est trop long et je suis désolé pour mes lecteurs francais que je n'écris pas en français. Le problème est maintenant que j'ai oublié beaucoup de mon vocabulaire français et maintenant je le trouve très difficile d’écrire en français.

Je a eu une discussion sur le sujet de reporting dans mes posts "Reporting - some thoughts" et "Reporting - Having your cake & eating it". Je voudrais introduire le travail de mon collègue Philippe, qui travaille pour Cisco France. Philippe a écrit une très bonne dissertation "La gestion de la performance au service du centre de contacts" dans l'édition du Ciscomag pour janvier. (Le Ciscomag est le bulletin de Cisco France, et il y a un lien ici).

Il donne beaucoup de détailsparce que les centres de contacts francophones ne sont pas seulement un sujet qui intéressera la France, mais aussi la Belgique, le Canada et l'Afrique du Nord.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Contact Centres, multi-media and the letter

The other day I received good customer service that helps illustrate an important dimension of contact centres.

I was travelling up to London by train and realised that I'd forgotten to put my parking ticket on my car and had instead put it in my wallet ( was a very early train).When the guard came round I explained what had happened and he could not have been more helpful. He phoned my station to say that he'd seen and verified my parking ticket and that my car didn't need to be clamped. The guard then provided me with his contact details, so if there was a problem on my return, I could point the station staff in his direction. For those who know UK railways, they might be surprised to learn that this was South West Trains who had impressed me (a quick google of "South West Trains complaints" might help explain the context).

I wanted to make sure the guard was recognised for his help but the only contact information the web site provided was a phone number and an address. It was an easy choice - I picked the option of the letter, as I was sure that way my 'thank you' comments would reach senior management. I sent it off and was then very please to receive an acknowledgement letter by return post.

This is something that many organisations need to understand when designing their customer contact strategies. Customers choose the medium based on both the ease of use and the nature of the interaction. If it's urgent or immediate customers will phone, but if it's really important (complaint or praise) then they will write a formal letter. It makes a lot of sense to have the postal response channel integrated with the contact centre as if it's a letter of complaint and the customer doesn't get a swift acknowledgement, they will phone to chase up their letter. Post and telephone are the more traditional ways of interacting, but the implications of e-mail and IM are the logical extensions of this.

There's a longer discussion to be had on the role of multi-media and how contact centres need to handle them but the point is pretty clear. Customers choose their media of communication in relation to the nature of their inquiry and will change medium as the inquiry progresses. Contact Centres need to be able to handle this.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Contact Centres, Process and Six Sigma

Last week was a very busy week and one where for the first time since the blog started that I've been so busy on customer sites I haven't had a chance to blog. It's hard to do this subject justice in one post but a big area I'm thinking about at the moment is business process in the contact centre and how it relates to IT. Part of this is that any SOA thinking about contact centre design (and I'm doing a lot at the moment) requires a good view of processes. This is more than just CRM it is the whole process of each customer interaction from the organisations viewpoint.

I find that many call centres do not have a good or accessible view of their processes. By this, I mean that processes exist as MS Word documents, or hard copy flow diagrams but version control, management and maintenance of these processes is very difficult. If you were to try to assess the impact of changing processes, then one (large) MS Word document is very difficult to relate to another. This is especially true when trying to understand how these business processes may impact one another.

It's in this context that I was asked what I thought of John Seddon (of Vanguard Consulting). Their big idea is that you can adopt Toyota's ideas about manufacturing for service organisations. I'm inherently dubious about this. As a Judo player I have acquired a little knowledge of Japanese culture and how subtle concepts can be. I'm very dubious that a concept as subtle and cultural as kaizen can be applied quickly to resolve service issues. It's not just that kaizen is about processes changes (though it is), but it is also cultural, management and risk changes - things organisations find very hard to do. That said, I'm not as dubious that kaizen could not be applied in some form, it's certainly a more useful idea than that of 'black belt' in six sigma.

John Seddon does have some interesting things to say about approaching customer service from a systems point of view. I do agree with him that six sigma is not a very meaningful methodology for customer service and that viewing the process and outcome as inherently connected to each other is very sensible. Similarly a highly iterative approach to change is the way I have tended to approach projects (especially around SOA) as way of driving incremental evolution. Still, being highly iterative and get workforce buy-in does not equal kaizen (or anything close to it) and could in fact just be a RAD type of development model.

I do feel though that much of this debate is missing the point. In many call centres, it's not that the processes are broken, but their complexity and lack of visibility makes them very difficult to mange. This perhaps is also why SOA has lagged in the contact centre, without clear processes, organising units of functionality if very difficult. My thoughts are that whether a systems approach or something else is used for customer service , clear, well managed processes are probably the pre-requisite for success.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Call Recording - both sides of the equation

A subject I've not written much on previously is call recording. I'm slightly surprised as it's a very significant part of contact centre operations and there are high profile vendors like Nice and Witness/Verint.

Most customers are familiar with the recorded announcement they get at the start of a call saying, "...please be aware that call may be recorded for monitoring or training purposes" and understand (especially in Financial Services) why call recording can be necessary. There's a lot more to be said about the financial services aspect of call recording in a future post but my interest today is in the use of call recording as a record of the transaction.

It might surprise readers, but many organisations do not record calls consistently, or use recording as a record of transactions. Instead they rely on the agent to enter the call content in a free text space in the CRM or call logging system. While cheap, this has big problems if there is at any point a dispute over what was said as opposed to what was written by the agent.

Traditionally, most organisations have relied on the fact that if they kept no record of the call, it was unlikely that the customer could prove that the agent had said anything different from what was written in the free text box. Yet this has often led to disputes where agents have over-promised and (obviously) not typed the details into the call record. One trend I have started to see is consumers making there own recording of calls. This is particularly the case in industries like travel and utilities where promises (or engineer's calling times) can be given out cheerfully by rogue agents who know that without call recording it is unlikely they will be held to account. What is interesting to see is that where the consumer has made a recording and kept details of the call, these organisations settle without question when challenged.

From my perspective this trend highlights two worrying comments on the state of the call centre industry. The first is that it highlights the poor customer service (or consumer expectation of poor service) from call centres. The second is that current performance metrics and agent management techniques may deliver short term business results, but clearly in many cases aren't working at delivering what organisations intended their customer service to.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Are utility companies really the worst call centres?

A decent article on the CCF website (i.e. it's not just a PR announcement disguised as news), which has research from the Citizens Advice Bureau and Ipsos Mori showing that in the UK utility call centres are some of the worst for customer service.

The Citizens Advice Bureau is a UK registered charity and Ipsos Mori is a respected polling organisation, so what they are saying has credibility. There main points are that:

• More than one in four customers who had contacted a utility company by telephone in the last 12 months were dissatisfied with their experience.
• A massive 89 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the way their last call to a landline provider had been handled.
• For those contacting a gas supplier, 81 per cent were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the most recent experience they had with their contact centre.
Citizens Advice chief executive David Harker said the report shows many companies have a long way to go before they respond to customer needs effectively.

What I thought was most interesting is that there is a common aspect to this and the known issue in agent metrics, known as the 'flaw of averages'. When agents are measured on an average (say average call handle time), the agents that meet the target might be getting all their calls resolved at roughly the average duration. Other agents may be overshooting badly on some calls and cutting short other calls, yet still achieving their average. This may or may not be a problem for the call centre, but at the very least means that the average is telling you little about the agent experience.

In the case of the Utility companies, I'd suggest that something similar is going on. There are many utility companies in the UK, but a few mostly ex-national monopolies, still have a very large customer base. These ex-monopolies tend also to have the oldest systems, the most complicated records and often have struggled to build a customer service culture.

So for example, I'm not surprised that 81% of callers have had problems with their gas company. British Gas has regularly been named Britain's worst utility for call centre service (see this for example: 'British Gas's 29th appearance on BBC Watchdog, October 2006') and yet it wasn't until January 2007 that British Gas's market share dipped below 50%. Similarly British Telecom is still the dominant provider of landlines and although it has not had quite the same reputation for customer service problems, it does have some. TalkTalk, the other major telephony provider has also had customer services issues, though these are more from trying to expand to quickly and the actions of some staff, rather than the issues the former state monopolies have faced.

The challenge for utility companies seems to be that the problems of a few large players (and their 'service cost only' focus) can distort the perception of the industry. It is perhaps no coincidence that smaller players who view cost in a wider context, like Powergen (see post "Happy New Year - 1,000 new UK call centre jobs"), have shown that it is possible to be a utility and deliver significant improvements in service. Powergen see that investing money in customer service (onshore) is an awful lot cheaper than investing money in marketing to rebuild a brand. The trouble is averages can hide the real variations when looking at industry performance.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Onshore, Offshore & Internet Resilliency

It's been a busy week for me. Mostly I've been working in the North of England and just haven't had time to blog. I've been with a range of customers, from some major banks and to some regional outsourcers and medium sized businesses. All very interesting to see and good to see that most of these onshore operations were doing well.

What made it even more interesting was that this week a ship's anchor severed one of the key undersea cables connecting Europe to the middle east and India. This lead to significant challenges for some offshore operators of contact centres. One of the interesting things that this highlighted is that while it is popularly assumed that the internet is resilient because of the way IP packets can be routed, parts of the internet are not that resilient (though the system as a whole is). It should also be understood (and usually isn't) that 'resilient' and 'latency free' are not quite the same thing. Data may cope well enough with high latency (applications, e-mail, etc... are just a bit slow), but voice and video do not not cope so well. If you have an hour and half to spare Vint Cerf, one of the designers of ARPANET and the internet has a good video on Youtube where he explains some of this in more detail in his lecture at Google's Zurich site.

This is blog has always held the view that while offshore is not intrinsically bad if done sensibly, there are usually better ways of tackling call centre challenges (see posts like: "Offshoring and mainland Europe"). I've also argued strongly for nearshoring or at least not to approach offshoring on a purely cost basis.

I hadn't actually considered weakness in internet cabling as a major reason for avoiding remote offshore, but clearly it's something to be factored in. The impact may not have been huge this time but blogs within the financial services community, such as Chris Skinner's, show that customers at even major UK banks were affected despite public statements to the contrary.

Clearly nearshore and onshore call centres have a strong card to play going forward as few organisations would consider a repeat of this week's service disruption a risk worth running.