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October 2008 | Volume 27 / Number 5

Europe & America: Two Contact Center Managerial Cultures

By Keith Dawson (News - Alert)

Decentralization and innovation versus costcontrol and efficiency. But can’t you have both?

In researching the markets for agent-facing applications in the U.S. and Europe, I found that there is an interesting, quirky difference in the way contact centers are organized in those two regions. In general, centers in Europe tend to be smaller, and linked into networks of more decentralized multi-site centers, than their American counterparts.

This is not to say that it’s an ironclad rule, but it’s a trend. It emerges from the relative greenfield environment that you find in Europe and from the multilingual environment. It also stems from the time lag in technology adoption, giving the later adopters (Europe) the advantage of going in with more advanced iterations of what’s being used in the U.S.

Regardless of the cause, this slight difference in organization manifests itself in an interesting managerial phenomenon. Many of the vendors and contact center practitioners I spoke to in Europe suggested that the typical center in that region tends to be more innovative in its practices, more open to new technologies and operating techniques. The theory is that with managers running smaller, less centralized sites, they act like (and ultimately become) laboratories for trying out new technologies and ideas. They are less beholden to a single organizational view of how things should be done.

At the same time, there’s a counter-trend going the other way. In the U.S., remote and other types of dispersed workforces are on the rise. Europe isn’t quite as enamored of that model as the Americans are.

Remote agents are not the same as smaller, decentralized centers. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the American move to create a flexible workforce through remote reps is to provide them with technology that “virtualizes” them — that makes them utterly transparent to their managers, as if they are onsite. In effect, a remote workforce is part of a large, virtual center, with managers having as much control over the whole as they would if all the agents were in one room. And that’s the key, I think — that American managers want to manage the whole as if there were in one room. No matter how many centers or agents are part of the network, the key American mode of management has been to roll all the parts together into one coherent unit.

There are advantages and disadvantages to either style. Also, neither market is monolithically one type or another. So two questions emerge. One is about technology: How will the agent-facing applications (like quality monitoring, workforce management, analytics) support (or hinder) either type of management scenario?

And the other is about labor: Will the coming dispersal of agents into multisourced workforces globally have any impact on either style of management?

The technology question is the one with the easier answer. Agent-optimization tools of various kinds have been coalescing into very powerful suites that are capable of managing the entire lifecycle of an agent in his or her job, from onboarding through training into evaluation and scheduling. By putting all the tools that touch the agent into one overall structure, managers can make better decisions about how to allocate resources. They can shift emphasis from one contact mode to another, for example, or they can deliver on-the-spot coaching to fix an interaction problem. These optimization tools are widespread (but not ubiquitous) in the U.S., and less-well penetrated in Europe.

And they will affect the different managerial cultures in different ways. In the Americanstyle central model, they support the traditional cost-control imperative that continues to be the major factor in contact center planning. Tools that were traditionally used separately as single-purpose efficiency drivers — things like call recording and workforce management — are now able to work in concert. That means that instead of simple benefits (optimized schedules or adherence to scripts), managers can act to reap more subtle benefits. They can know who needs training in a particular type of call, for example, or who is best skilled to convert an upsell opportunity.

Even as agent optimization tools get more sophisticated, with the addition of scorecards and dashboards and integrated analytics capabilities, American contact center users mainly want to squeeze more efficiency out of their resources. They are less interested (perhaps less aware) of how to use these concentrated tools to make an impact at the enterprise level, by converting ordinary contact center behavior into metrics that are relevant to upper level execs.

In Europe there are more opportunities for experimentation in processes. Frost & Sullivan’s recent research detected an inclination among European contact center operations to explore some of the newer, more analytical applications in ways that drive enterprise growth, not just contact center efficiency. We are seeing more integrations between business intelligence tools and contact center agent optimization tools. And with so many more greenfield operations being created in areas like eastern and southern Europe, the opportunity to leap over legacy technologies is giving many operations a technical advantage as they go straight to advanced IP call handling infrastructures. Managers of those centers, who have less investment in old-style cost-control processes, can tinker with different styles of training, skills-development, customer handling. In many ways, it’s an enviable position to be in. Let it be noted, though, that many locations in Europe are still encumbered by old work rules that restrict that very flexibility, though this is changing quickly.

Multisourcing is a fancy way of getting your labor from a wide variety of places — some in-house, some remote, some outsourcers, some offshore. What I suspect the multisourcing and remote agent trends are going to do is smooth out some of the variability between the European and American models. We will see a melding of the process innovation that Europeans now exhibit, with the labor flexibility that the Americans have. And it will all be spread across a multinational, multi-modal customer landscape. Companies will be able to shade their operations toward whichever goal best fits their corporate culture: cost-optimized labor forces, enterprise-optimized metrics, or some combination of the two.

Keith Dawson is a Senior Analyst with Frost & Sullivan (News - Alert).

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