Tuesday, September 21, 2010

CC Expo 2010

It’s that time of year again and the UK Contact Centre industry is once again in Birmingham at the NEC for Call Centre Expo. This year feels a bit different from previous years (as covered by the blog at: "Contact Centre Expo 2009 - Day Two" and here for 2008), and I think there are signs both of economic recovery and a fundamental shift in the way customer service is provided.

The blog’s view of top trends this year:

Cloud is real & here to stay – Last year this was an emerging trend. This year the number of cloud based vendors had, if anything, increased. Interestingly, this was both the cloud based contact centre and the CRM vendors. I was particularly impressed by the Salesforce.com stand (and loved the squeezy cloud giveaways!). For me it was interesting to see how far ahead CRM is over voice and that where CRM leads, voice is likely to follow. For the moment there is still seems a customer preference for deployments of voice kit on premises (perhaps driven by some lingering concerns over QoS) whereas the same customer will happily consider cloud based CRM. Among the voice vendors, the most credible seemed to be New Voice Media, with a large stand next to Cisco by the entrance with a host of smaller vendors (such as Virtual-Call-Centre.eu ) further inside the show. The difference between Cloud and Hosted is perhaps worth a separate post, but the trend is clear.

Where were the traditional vendors? – For me this was one of the big surprises. Cisco had a brilliantly located stand right in front of the entrance. Genesys also had a good, well designed stand further in with some excellent hard copies of white papers & case studies (though I can't find them on their website). I found Aspect with a smaller stand in a quieter section (& no mention of all the Microsoft advertising they had last year), but where was Avaya/Nortel? There were signs of the odd Avaya partner, but this was a real surprise given that last year the show was plastered with Avaya/ BT partnership advertising. I was also surprised not to see any sign of Mitel, especially as NEC was present (and who are traditionally only a small player in the UK market).

Overseas destinations have really shifted – Over the last few years nearly every English speaking emerging market has taken a stand and pitched for offshore contact centre business. This year I was pleased to see that only the serious seemed to have stayed the course and Bangladesh were there with an impressive stand for the third year running. BACC (the Bangladesh Association of Call Centre & Outsourcing) has significant support from the Bangladesh government and I was impressed how well they understood that for outsourcing to work they had to provide more than just a proposition based on cheap labour.
More curious (and completely unexpected) was the French Pavilion. I have to admit that France with a 35hr working weak and strong unions has never struck me as a natural destination for outsouring work. Indeed, from my experience of working there, French companies have been very enthusiastic (if discrete) about building offshore contact centers in French speaking North Africa (see my blog post: "Offshoring and mainland Europe" for example). Still, there was a charming chap from Invest in Champagne-Ardenne and he stressed the benefits of Chalons-en-Champagne. things such as rents 25% cheaper than Greater Paris and a high quality working environment. All nice things to be sure, but I’m not sure that these would lead to much business at the UK Contact Centre Expo. I was even less convinced by Team Cote d’Azur, as while it’s a lovely place it’s not somewhere that I think of as low cost. I would agree with them that it is very high tech and multi-lingual, as Sophia Antipolis houses outposts many of the world’s top tech firms and I would agree that they have an existing contact centre base, with the very substantial American Express Travel contact centre operation base there, but I still struggle to see it as a destination for investment. More likely to be successful were the French IT firms on the stand. I was impressed with digitaleo (who offer a rather nice SMS application) and A2iA who already have a reference list of deployments at blue chip UK companies and some very interesting document recognition & processing applications.

CC Marketing seems to be having a “Life on Mars moment” – A real surprise was that as the economy has improved, some contact centre marketing seems to have regressed to the 1970s or some other pre-feminist “Mad Men” era. The RoCom stand with its pretty nurses was of debatable taste, but could perhaps claim some justification around a marketing message of “heal your contact centre”. The guiltier stands should perhaps remain nameless. I’m not sure the use of hotpants, models in very tight t-shirts or ‘ironic’ marketing messages/ innuendos across the models chests really deserves a link or much recognition. I do find it disappointing that marketers should be so unimaginative in a industry such as contact centre which has so many women in senior business positions.

Analytics, analytics, analytics – The final trend that I found very interesting was the focus on analytics. Some of this was from familiar vendors such as Nice, who have long done very interesting analysis on the data in voice and video recordings. The less expected was from IBM, who were back at the show sponsoring a series of seminars on analytics. To a certain extent this illustrates the transition IBM has made away from hardware (most contact centre vendors offer an IBM server on Unix or Linux somewhere in their product) and away from the applications like IBM Call Path and IBM Direct Talk (for those old enough) and the more recent IBM Websphere Voice applications. Here was IBM positioning innovative high-end, high value services rather than their traditional approach of pushing product. Equally interesting, but somewhat different, was Autonomy. This is the first time I’ve seen their focus on contact centre and it was impressive. Autonomy has always had enormous strength when it comes to analyzing unstructured data and contact centre looks a very suitable environment for them as contact centre generates structured and unstructured, multi-source, multi-channel data in a way that only the web channel can rival. I was impressed with the very chunky ‘Autonomy Promote’ brochure I was given (a mere 210 or so pages!) and felt that Autonomy could soon be a major challenger to the more traditional voice recoding analytics vendors and workforce management tools.

Social Media- Definitely one of the hot topics. Genesys had Social Media as a hot topic and did a very good presentation on it, as well as some good case studies and white papers on their stand. Cisco and a number of Cisco partners also had some very good things to say on the subject.

What was also interesting was what was absent. I saw very little of IVR or Speech Self-Service, and comfortably the best of what there was, was the pitch Mark Pritchard from JAMIP. I was very taken with the JAMIP approach to self-service, especially their flexibility around enterprise or cloud based delivery and their very innovative approach to win/win pricing. The pricing in particular struck me as something that made them stand out and was supported by the reference from their work with the NHS (UK National Health Service). Overall, I thought they provided one of the more innovative propositions on display. Another notable absence was that of Eastern European companies. Last year I was impressed by several of them, but this year there seemed to be hardly any.

That’s my take, I’d be delighted to hear what you think or of any trends that I may have missed.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The economy & mixed news for the UK Contact Centre Industry

It's a very strange contact centre & customer service industry in the UK at the moment.

On the one hand, there is real fear of a double dip recession and the impact of government cuts. You might not spot this immediately, as according to CCF magazine, HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs - the UK tax collection agency), is able to hire a massive number of new agents - despite the downturn and the state of the public finances. CCF reports that HMRC will be able to recruit up to 20% more agents to cope with the latest tax blunder. Now by my calculations, the HMRC agent numbers are in the region of 6,000 (or so), so this means perhaps 1,000+ temporary jobs. It also highlights the cost of poor CRM and contact centre technology. CCF cites a source as saying,

"A computer system, which the source said ‘still doesn’t work’ despite being on the fourth release, is also making it difficult for call centre workers to identify callers. “The initial identifier is in fact the employee number and not the National Insurance number, which causes all kinds of problems.”"

The caller identification problems are on top of being unable to answer calls, to the extent of not answering 40 million of them a year according to the BBC. This is partly from HMRC still being a user of TDM telephony in the call centres and so not having the call routing flexibility that IP and VoIP would bring.

Still despite HMRC being able to hire, the long term trend in government spending is clear. C&WW (Cable & Wireless Worldwide), one of the largest government telecoms suppliers issued a profit warning in July (reported by the Register here) based on the proposed cuts in public expenditure. The cuts are sufficient for the C&WW share price to have dropped by 20% as the market assessed how little government work there would be in the years ahead. Even if individual government agencies are temporarily allowed to increase their workforce, the long term direction of government spending seems clear.

Less clear, though, is the direction of consumer spending. Much better news than HMRC (though sadly on a smaller scale) is the news from the Aussie news site CallCentres.net that the Australian company Flight Centre is to open two new UK contact centres and recruit 16 agents. New jobs are always good news and this is particularly good news as it suggest that the private sector is seeing signs of growth and for a sector like travel that has a large element of discretionary spending, this suggests increased consumer confidence.

It may be grim in the public sector, but it is not all doom & gloom outside....