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.