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October 2010 | Volume 28 / Number 5
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One Year After the Meltdown: Lessons Learned for Call Centers

By Keith Dawson (News - Alert)
Principal Analyst, Frost & Sullivan


A year ago, prospects for a bright 2009 in contact centers were looking pretty bleak, let alone a happy 2010. In retrospect, there were a lot of good reasons to be fearful, but it does look like the customer service industry has dodged a bullet. There were not mass layoff, centers closing and a retreat from the need to deliver consistent good quality service to customers.


Companies still answered the phones, and emails, chats and web contacts. They still hired CSRs, trained them and fought turnover. They did these things with leaner budgets, but they still invested in their people and their technologies, which is a heartening sign. Though things did not turn out to be a catastrophe for most contact centers, we still learned quite a bit about how to survive a retrenchment and prepare for leaner times.


One of the lessons learned from what we’ve gone through over the last year is that it makes sense to speak up for the value of the center. Many of the managers I’ve spoken too in recent months have cited strong pressure from their corporate execs to revert to a traditional cost-cutting mode. Pressures have been placed on budgets for headcount, recruitment and technology investment. It’s been hard for many long-time managers to revisit the days when contact centers were primarily seen as a necessary evil, a cost to be controlled.


But today’s corporate execs have been conditioned to understand that there is value in improving the customer experience – the trick is showing them where that value lies, and how to measure it effectively. So we’ve seen savvy contact center pros going along with the flow to reduce costs, but also presenting alternative scenarios that emphasize opportunities to grow revenue using those same resources. For example, using training to find agents who have sales skills, and then deploying them in cross-sell and up-sell opportunities. The key is to be able to quantify what the contact center does for the organization, and express it in dollars and cents.





The second thing that’s happened is that people who run centers are looking at their technology spending with a much more skeptical eye. Always a conservative group, they are now looking harder at how tools generate ROI, and where that return is going to be felt. We’re seeing, for example, continued growth in such tools as workforce management software. That’s understandable, when you consider that in a recession you need to make the most effective resource allocation decisions possible. Workforce management is truly one of those low-hanging-fruit systems that shows immediate gains, especially if you’re one of the many centers that are still using spreadsheets of other home-grown scheduling methods. The benefits from tracking adherence alone can often justify the switch.


Vendors have seen this trend, too. They are definitely aware that most typical contact centers are not in the mood to spend scarce funds on technology that’s designed to dazzle. Instead, the dominant trend in some sectors has been to refocus development efforts on boosting the effectiveness of existing classes of tools. Speech analytics is a good example – we’ve seen several major suppliers ratchet down the hype about how transformative that technology is going to be, and start offering more accessible, more cost-effective versions. And vendors are making the case for it using real (rather than hypothetical) use cases and metrics that are important to multiple constituents within an organization.


This is a very useful trend, one that hopefully will continue beyond the current downturn. Contact centers need to insist that vendors provide serious value for their technology spends; so far vendors appear to be hearing that message and responding positively.


Another lesson learned is that you should never waste a crisis. In other words, when bad times come, you are allowed (and sometimes even encouraged) to blow up existing processes. The downturn gave many innovative companies cover to make hard structural changes in processes, policies and workflows that would have been painful or culturally impossible other times. This is the time to itemize and attack the business practices that may once have made sense but don’t any longer.


One aspect of this is to engage customers much more forcefully with the argument that self-service works in their favor: it is convenient and it keeps costs down, allowing companies to offer really excellent personal service when it counts. We’ve seen significant efforts, for example, to turn customers towards less expensive and labor-intensive modes of communication, like email or chat. Or, to begin using proactive automated outbound notification calls – or SMS messages – to customers to head off informational inbound calls. This has had an effect on costs, without harming customer satisfaction. In some cases satisfaction actually improves.


It is always important to remember that economies move in cycles. The bottom of the cycle may be difficult and unpleasant, but it contains within it the seeds of the next upswing. And the primary lesson learned from this downturn is that you need to be able to communicate how valuable the center’s role is in ensuring company health. Those that honed that message during this downturn will be the ones roaring back fastest.


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