Results from Dimension Data's (news - alerts) recent Global Contact Center Benchmarking Report indicate that North American contact centers are lagging in several critical areas, including call response times, disaster recovery preparedness and security. This means that North American call centers ' and the businesses that depend on them ' may be at a greater risk for business disruption and customer defection. Why are North American call centers falling behind?
This is not a simple question to answer, and one that needs to be answered in two part ' because call centers here in North America are falling behind in two ways ' first in terms of the customer experience and second in their ability to plan adequately for the future. Each of these areas is detailed below, but here are some initial thoughts one should bear in mind when considering this issue.
North American call centers are falling behind for customers for two major reasons. The first is what some see as a disjointed deployment of technologies, some of which customers find frustrating to use; and the second reason is the impatience of North American customers who must contend with some of the longest wait times (34 seconds) anywhere in the world.
When it comes to planning for the unexpected ' an unfortunate reality in today's world ' North American call centers have not done as much as those in other regions. Less than one third of North American centers have developed and tested disaster recovery plans, and only 37 percent take any steps to authenticate callers ' a fact that opens the door to concerning security risks.
In isolation, any one of these factors would be worth noting; but the fact that call centers in North America have issues in each of these areas demonstrates that they are not keeping pace with those in other parts of the world. This article provides additional details on each of the issues in question, as well as suggestions for how companies might remedy the situation.
Rest assured that the picture is not all doom and gloom ' there are areas where North American call centers are providing global leadership, but those cases tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
In this age of ever-advancing technology, it is easy to place some blame on older, inferior telephony systems; after all, North America has one of the oldest telecommunications infrastructures in the world and, as a result, a significant amount of legacy equipment in operation. However, North American contact centers do have one of the highest adoption rates of Internet Protocol (IP) compared to the rest of the world. This rapid adoption is important to success given that, as a whole, today's global enterprises are working aggressively to adopt and deploy IP networks to speed up the transfer and storage of contact center calls and data.
Almost half of the contact centers that participated in the benchmarking survey indicated that they have hybrid or pure IP-PBX, a private branch exchange that switches calls between voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) users and a traditional telephone user. With a conventional PBX, separate networks are necessary for voice and data communications. With an IP-PBX, voice and data are able to travel over the same network, providing flexibility as an enterprise grows, and reducing long-term operation and maintenance costs.
Organizations also have automatic call distributor (ACD) switches. All the participants that indicated they were planning to install an ACD indicated that it would be a pure IP solution.
Looking deeper, support technologies in the contact center space, namely interactive voice response (IVR), outbound dialers and voice recording systems, show some lag in the migration to IP. Although these technologies are important in the contact center and are all available in pure (and in some cases hybrid) IP variants, they have slightly different technical requirements to consider when considering a move to IP.
' IVR is classically used for call steering and self-service applications. It is also used for queuing calls to agents, especially in hosted or network implementations. Rarely is an IP-based IVR deployed ahead of an IP-PBX or ACD (because of the way signaling takes place in a VoIP environment). However, this situation is expected to change over the coming year with the move towards Session Initiated Protocol (SIP) solutions from the currently dominant (H.323) VoIP standard.
' The migration to IP of outbound call dialers is increasing, but there has been some lag in transition to pure IP solutions. Dialers rely on a large amount of signaling information for call progress detection: to understand, for example, whether a call has been answered by a person, by a fax, by an answering machine, etc. In a traditional time division multiplexing (TDM) architecture, this signaling happens on the same line as the call and can be understood by dedicated hardware. An IP solution must either incorporate the same kind of call progress detection hardware or include the same logic in software, which is difficult to achieve with the same levels of accuracy.
' Call recording products are also going through a transformation to support VoIP. TDM products can continue to be used to support recording in an IP contact center (through the use of trunk side recording, where calls are recorded on the TDM side of the voice or media gateway). The downside to this kind of call recording is it can't record agent-to-agent calls, only the part of a call a customer hears. Recording an agent-to-agent call in an IP contact center requires an IP-based call recording solution.
The benchmarking report also evaluated other factors, such as average speed to answer (ASA), a function of the number of calls placed to the call center and the available resources (agents) to answer the calls.
In fact, the findings indicate that North American contact centers are slowest to answer customer calls once the call is in an agent's queue. American call center operators wait, on average, 34 seconds to pick up the call, while operators in Africa/Middle East on average wait 19 seconds, Europe/UK wait 22 seconds and Asia-Pacific averages 28 seconds speed-to-answer.
There is no disputing that technology can provide a more efficient and advanced means of distributing incoming calls to a greater number of resources, even resources in multiple locations, which could lower ASA. However, the issue with North America's higher ASA is more likely due to a lack of resources needed to meet increasing volumes of telephone calls ' which represent more than 70 percent of contact center interactions.
Even with the growing ' and successful ' use of alternative channels like e-mail or chat (one area where North American call centers lead the world) and interactive voice response (IVR), organizations still have not addressed the steady increase in call volume and the typical North American customer's desire to 'speak' directly with an agent.
Another important measure in determining contact center performance is the rate of call abandonment. Call abandon times and rates are more telling statistics because they relate to the customer's willingness to wait on the line, and studies show that North Americans are the most frustrated customers in the world, willing to wait an average of only 37 seconds for their calls to be answered. The rest of the world exhibits greater patience. Consumers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa are willing to wait 67 seconds before abandoning a call. People in Asia-Pacific are the most patient at 72 seconds. Cost-cutting measures meant to reduce numbers of agent staff that do not address growing call volumes can spur frustration for end users, resulting in call abandonment.
The good news is that increasing efficiencies and improving service are becoming more important to contact centers. After years of being viewed as a 'necessary evil' in the business world, contact centers are finally being recognized as a value-added resource for the enterprise. In the competitive global market, and specifically within industries where products are a commoditized service (telecom, financial services), effective contact centers distinguish one company from another.
Disaster Recovery And Security
Other factors contributing to North American call centers' poor performance include their minimal efforts around security and disaster recovery. While these issues remain a top issue for most organizations around the world, this year's benchmarking report shows that less than one-third of North American contact centers have tested disaster recovery plans, compared with 45 percent in Asia-Pacific and 49 percent in Africa/Middle East. Similarly, security concerns are highest in emerging markets, with approximately 50 percent of contact centers in Africa/Middle East and Asia-Pacific authenticating customers on some or all calls, compared to only 37 percent of respondents in North America. (European contact centers appear to share a similar disregard for security and disaster recovery as those in North America with 31 percent reporting tested disaster recovery plans and 39 percent authenticating callers' identities.)
To be fair, with an increase in multi-location call centers and access to the world's best carrier networks, North American contact centers have historically had less issues and concerns with regard to disaster recovery planning than those in other areas of the world. However, with the recent run of natural disasters and severe weather conditions, those same multi-location contact centers have been challenged to maintain 100 percent service capabilities.
In addition, the rash of corporate scandals, security breaches and subsequent legislation have forced several industries, specifically financial services and healthcare, to ensure that voice conversations, e-mail exchanges and IM interactions are securely recorded, stored and retrievable for as long as seven years, putting unprecedented pressure on networks to stay up and running at all costs. The adoption of disaster recovery systems will also almost certainly increase as the government keeps its spotlight on security breaches and system failures.
Where the cost-cutting consolidation of infrastructure and adoption of new technology have clearly provided benefits to organizations overall, the opposite is true when it comes to disaster recovery efforts. The high cost of real estate and the continued rationalization of operations have reduced the overall number of contact centers that organizations have at their disposal. The increasing number of communication channels also requires a different level of planning. The old days of simply switching a call from one location to another does not work as well for self-service platforms or e-commerce-driven IM capabilities, for example. These channels require the same attention as any other corporate backend system when planning for potential disasters.
To that end, these systems are often viewed as alternatives to speaking with live agents not only during the normal course of doing business but in the event of a disaster. It is commonplace for callers to be redirected to the Web or to an 'automated system' prior to reaching a live agent. These systems can be used to offer customer information or to off-load call volume by providing upfront messaging that a location is closed, or that waits are longer due to an emergency.
The Remedy: A Holistic Approach
With corporate emphasis shifting to customer satisfaction and the increased recognition that contact centers have more direct contact with the customer than any other department, organizations need to take a holistic view of the contact center, focusing on the customer, the employees and the technology that serves both groups.
The need for better customer service goes without saying. Polite, efficient agents who are willing to go the extra mile to help a caller go a long way toward establishing goodwill and customer loyalty. That said, there need to be changes in the way agents are motivated and their performance measured. Upselling, cross-selling and first-call resolution are all popular metrics for evaluating contact center agents.
Agents will perform based on their evaluation criteria, though more often than not, performance measurement and desired outcome are counter-intuitive and may even be contradictory. For example, it makes little sense to have an aggressive goal on first-call resolution where agents are measured on average handling time (AHT). These goals don't match up. The overall objectives of the contact center need to be clearly aligned right down to the agent performance criteria.
On the technology front, proper training for call/e-mail/IM handling and recording is imperative. Beyond that, North American organizations need to take a hard look at their disaster recovery systems to ensure 24/7 availability. The following four steps are critical in disaster- and recovery-planning:
' First, an organization needs to understand the business impact of a contact center that isn't operating, whether it's for hours, days or weeks. How long can you be down or have limited servicing capability? Knowing the cost to the business will drive the disaster recovery planning process.
' Organizations should then determine the areas in which they are vulnerable. Is it resources? Access control? Call routing? Platform redundancy? Go through the whole punch list to ensure there are no surprises waiting in the wings.
' The third step is to determine which option works best for the business. Is it a remote standby site, alternative channels (IVR and Web), an arrangement with offshore outsourcers or a load-sharing arrangement if the business has multiple sites? Considering the different types of outage ' and their potential duration ' will help determine which options should be considered.
' Finally, the plan needs to be reviewed and tested regularly. Businesses are constantly changing and technology is evolving in ways that require these plans to be reviewed and updated on an ongoing basis. Business impacts and opportunities as a result of technology also need to be reviewed and considered.
There are many factors that affect the performance of contact centers, with room for improvement in North America and beyond. The increased emphasis on customer service to achieve and maintain market share in a global economy will force organizations to invest significant time and money into security, technology and training. Thus, it is important that organizations step back and take a look at each contact center individually to design a holistic plan for improvement. CIS
Kurt Mey is Customer Interaction Solutions Specialist for Dimension Data North America, a member of Dimension Data Holdings, plc. The company is a specialist IT services and solution provider that helps clients plan, build and support their IT infrastructures. In his role, Kurt is responsible for supporting contact center clients and improving efficiencies and capabilities through the use of process methodologies and evolving technologies.
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