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.