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!

Friday, March 14, 2008

For a Friday - Contact Centre, video and the call centre movie

I feel there is the opportunity for a serious discussion about video in contact centre, but Friday is probably not the time to have it. The growth of 3G for mobiles and video calls on Skype make video very relevant for any discussion of the future of the contact centre. 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.

I've touched on video before in "SOA - bringing CRM, telephony and business together? part 2, voice portals", especially with reference to the Cisco Voice Portal but video deserves a deeper discussion than most people have time for at the end of the week.
I'll write more about managing video at the start of next week and instead introduce you to "Call Centre the Movie". It's a film with no intention of taking itself, outsourcing or call centres seriously, but it is important because it has shaped perceptions of the industry, it has won a number of awards (e.g. here at the 2005 Riverside International Film Festival) and it has a very significant internet presence as any Google search will show. You can see the trailer here on Youtube .
If that 30 seconds has whetted your appetite, then the full movie (all 12 minutes) is here.
What I find interesting about this movie is how well it shows that consumers understand offshore service as being driven by cost. Whether you like the movie or not, it does summarise very neatly a lot of public perceptions the call centre industry has to deal with.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Financial Services Call Centres still leave most cutomers unhappy

An interesting little article here on the CCF site summarising some findings from Maritz Research.

It seems that less than half (45 per cent) of Financial Services customers questioned in a recent survey felt that their concerns were being respectfully addressed by call centre agents, and only 31 per cent were satisfied with the way their queries are handled.

Other findings included:

• Less than every second customer (41 per cent) feels the adviser has given the customer the required time to address their queries.
• Only 44 per cent of those questioned felt they had been supplied with the appropriate information.

Maritz also has some interesting research on bank's cross-selling abilities. The research suggests that banks miss a lot of cross-selling opportunities, but I'm not sure that this is a bad thing. There is little point increasing the frequency of selling if the timing is wrong for customers and it just irritates them. Interestingly, banks (61 percent) tend to do a better job than credit card companies (49 percent) when it comes to customers satisfied with the call center experience. Perhaps that is also due to the nature of the transaction - few people phone their credit card companies for a happy discussion, while people do make balance enquiries and investment queries to their banks.

It's an interesting set of statistics, given that the Financial Services industry is one of the largest users of the contact centre. My suspicion is that while some of this may be agent attrition, more of this poor customer experience may be from the difficulties complex financial institutions have at presenting the contact centre agent with an overview of the customer. Perhaps simplier customer relationships would lead to higher satisfaction....

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Indian Outsourcing, is it in decline?

Following up Monday's post, can I recommend a good article challenging commonly held assumptions. It's by Sramana Mitra and is called the, "The Coming Death Of Indian Outsourcing" and is available either on Forbes or on her blog.

Very similarly to my post on Monday she looks at whether it is sustainable to compete on cost in the longer term. She makes the good point that if India continues to experience wage inflation for skilled labour at current rates, it won't be able to compete on cost and it is debatable if it can compete on value. She writes generally about the Indian IT industry, but I think her points apply equally to the Indian call centre industry. Her point on innovation (or the absence of it in many offshoring propositions) is particularly valid.

My view is that some of the larger Indian companies (Wipro, Tata, etc...) probably will adapt and remain competitive, as will the the wholly owned Indian subsidiaries of multi-nationals like IBM and Accenture. These firms, though, offer a much greater value proposition than just cost reduction.

In contact centres, I suspect there will be a similar trend. Indian wage inflation will push work back to Europe (especially Eastern Europe) and to newer destination like South Africa (see my post from last year "Offshore - why I would go for South Africa over India" and "Offshoring and mainland Europe").

Monday, March 10, 2008

Last week in Germany

I didn't have much of a chance to write last week as I was in Germany and very busy with meetings. I like Germany a lot and was very interested to be in Munich for the first time.

Germany is an interesting example of a country where most businesses understand that they cannot compete on cost internationally. Instead, they have to compete on the value and innovation of their products. I've written previously on how that weakening dollar is causing problems, (notably for the Canadian contact centre industry "Why Canada might illustrate some coming European Contact Centre trends"), but the impact on euro area businesses is also significant.

You might think that while Germany would be affected by lower manufacturing work moving to lower cost locations, service would not move as well. The German language is spoken primarily in high cost countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) and without high quality language skills telephone service is difficult.

The reality, though, is slightly different. Telephone service is important, but e-mail is also of importance. Internet and branch are major channels for German organisations to interact with customers and so the remote service route for these channels can be as much e-mail as traditional telephony traffic. Although Voice over IP and Skype have generated interest, most German organisations I've encountered are most interested in small to medium contact centres with significant e-mail capability. The important thing about e-mail is that as the interaction is not real time, and so it could potentially be off-shored to an agent with much more limited German than would be appropriate for a voice call.

In a market dynamic like this, the only way to compete is not on cost of agent but on value and draw on manufacturing for lessons. In manufacturing automation has been reducing the number of workers per task since the industrial revolution and service industries are heading that way. Automation and pre-scripting for e-mail responses makes an agent much more productive, as does blending voice and e-mail so agents can manage both. In the same way that production lines reduced the demand for craftsmen, so service management can be industrialised. At a more strategic level quality of service is a brand value, so competing on reputation means the quality of the agent can be important as a brand value for what it tells customers about your organisation.

I've written a little about the industrialisation of service previously in the "Contact Centres, Process and Six Sigma", and I suspect it's a subject I need to cover in more depth.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A good case study on Contact Centre World - Danish Rail

It was good to see that Danish Rail is one of the case studies newly available on Contact Centre World. The site does require registration, but the case study is well worth a look.

I'm recommending it partly because it's as an example of Cisco technology, and partly because it is a good example of how a number of contact centre business objectives can be enabled by technology. In the case of Danish Rail, it was the need to improve service while reducing cost and managing increased traffic.

Interesting points include how Danish Rail both consolidated their call centres (from eleven to three) and virtualised the remaining sites. Consolidation and virtualisation are not always seen as activities that can be run in parallel, but this is a good example of how it can be done and what the benefits are. Another interesting aspect of the case study is that Danish Rail are quite advanced with their management of e-mail and the case study discusses how they are looking at managing a growth in e-mail traffic from 15,000 e-mails to 65,000 e-mails per year.

More generally, as a comment on the European market (and at the risk of a sweeping generalisation), I've found that many of the leading technology adopters are based in the Nordic countries. I've mentioned this before ("How Call Centers vary across Europe"), but it's no surprise that the region that is home to Nokia, Ericcson and a host of other high-tech firms is a leader in technology adoption.