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Good Practice Guidelines for the Establishment of Contact Centres





  • Understanding current customer contact: access points, demand, volumes, types, etc. How do you go about it?
  • Confirming the role and function of the contact centre: what types of services will it support?
  • Developing a single customer view
  • The need for full commitment and ownership from a senior level
  • Positioning the contact centre as totally customer-focused across silos

The background: Market environment and trends

The UK call centre industry has grown rapidly over recent years. Growth peaked at 40% per annum in 1999 and now stands at around 10%. This growth has been driven by widely recognised factors:

  • Changing consumer expectations means that people are far more confident and willing to use the phone for a wider range of purposes than they previously would have. For example, to transact, seek specific information, complain and make general enquiries. Reducing social time to organise their lives combined with rising disposable incomes has also had an impact.
  • Reduction in the cost of technology and telecommunications to consumers and businesses.
  • Demonstrated successes and lifestyle advantages from organisations such as First Direct, Direct Line Insurance or BT ('It's Good to Talk').
  • Growth in access to government services built around contact centres - from 13 operations nationally in 1987 to over 130 in 2002.
  • Higher demand for 'consumer relationships' by business managers as a means of reducing business wastage and cost.

This growth has not been realised without creating accompanying challenges:

  • Staff recruitment and retention, especially in contact centre 'hot-spot' locations such as have been seen in Scotland. This is cited as the number one management issue by call centre management.
  • Consumer backlash against badly conceived initiatives (for example 'cold calling' and poorly constructed use of automated call handling technologies such as Interactive Voice Response systems) and poor service delivery (under-trained staff, inappropriate resourcing and staff scheduling, etc.).
  • Media focus on poor practice and criticism of call centre service and employment practices which are really management, and not call centre, issues.
  • Availability and affordability of middle managers who know how to manage, motivate and control process, measurement, quality systems, technology deployment, customer knowledge management, forecasting and scheduling. Investment to grow and develop this capability can show significant returns.

The growth of the outsourcing and partnering community and its plans to capitalise on expertise in this under-resourced environment:

  • The belief that Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is managed by 'having a call centre' and implementing technological solutions, rather than accepting it as a major organisational commitment to sit customer communication at the heart of the organisation.
  • Call centres have been created to deal with 'back office' administrative or processing work and developments in telemarketing or telebusiness (for example advertising response management). As a result, there has been an uncoordinated growth of functions. Disparate structures are inefficient and non-customer-friendly; they lack consistency and good value for the organisation and the consumer.

The priorities for effective management are to:

  • keep a core business focus. The critical question is 'are contact concerns and contact processes placed at the heart of the organisation?'
  • recognise the organisational needs for:
    • cost management
    • quality management
    • risk management

The factors that decide the right contact centre model are:

  • the stage in the organisation's overall development towards an electronic customer focus;
  • the senior level view on key issues of speed, investment, flexibility, risk and core business purpose;
  • attitudes to CRM and the structure of internal relationships; and
  • attitudes to partnering within the peer group or externally.

There is a balance (and tension) between logical, business model decision-making and emotional, intuitive, 'gut-feeling' attitudes to investment and 'make-or-buy' decisions on call centres.

The most innovative technological developments play into the hands of the vendors, creating for the business manager:

  • challenges of integrating new and existing technologies; and
  • high costs of deployment with a real chance of deployment failure (66%-75% of CRM projects 'fail').

A best practice call centre is about:

  • understanding the internal and external communications and business objectives;
  • ensuring consistency of customer experience and delivery of the best customer option across media chosen by the customer (for example call, letter, e-mail). Integration, or at least co-ordination, and the relationship between voice and other delivery channels is therefore essential;
  • processes to underpin this goal of consistency by ensuring efficiency through their initial design and implementation;
  • technology to support, not lead, processes, measurement and control;
  • standards and working frameworks to ensure ease of management and benchmarked best practice; and
  • local and supported initiatives to address specific issues (such as motivation, recruitment, attrition, management availability, call flow demands, etc.).

In summary:

  • Contact centres are a recognised and valued (by consumers) channel of access to an organisation. They continue to grow and evolve in line with the development of new channels of service delivery.
  • There are maturing supply options: do-it-yourself, outsourcing or various forms of hybrid partnering. The decision is as much intuitive and preference-based as rooted in logic and financial science.
  • A clear governing strategy is key and cultural, process and systems compliance with this strategy is best practice. It need not be based on CRM, but requires a practical, insightful approach to understanding customer needs and supporting these to achieve good value for the organisation and the taxpayer.
  • The integration or co-ordination of service delivery channels is vital in order to manage and measure value to the customer.

Establishing the strategy function and purpose

The key points in establishing the strategy for your organisation are:

  • Discuss and develop ideas and options for contact centre structure and purpose and improved customer management at the highest levels in your organisation.
  • Identify and evaluate any weaknesses in the way you manage your customer contacts.
  • Discuss, across your business, what improvements can be undertaken and agree what 'success' will look like. Build the vision and the pragmatic and achievable steps you need to get there.
  • Consider the financial and investment position both on evaluating and testing the ideas and on fully implementing them.
  • Timetables and project plans are critical to managing expectations and delivering the changes.
  • Good ongoing communication with managers so that they know how the strategy is developing. This will allow them to consult staff and identify any concerns they have about change, and with potential contact centre users, so that there are no surprises or disappointments for them.

There will be barriers and challenges, especially on such emotive issues as change seen as a threat. There will also be logical barriers. Can you afford the investment? Will there really be cost savings or service improvements? Can the technology do what you want? Will staff be able to cope with the changes and new ways of working? Will your structure and methods of operation allow the project to succeed?

Before deciding on the model to run your call centre, gather the evidence and data needed to make a robust decision:

  • The volume of customer contacts you receive and expect, broken down into the smallest units of time possible (for example by hour or day).
  • Have this profiled by times of day, days of week and weeks of year to see what the time and seasonal effects are. Knowing this will help to shape your overall resource requirement.
  • Look not only at volume of contact historically achieved, but also volume attempted. For example, on a phone system, your resource planning should aim to achieve the full number of 'attempts' (minus re-diallings) and information from your telecom supplier will be of help here. Economies should arise when aggregating call types across departments.
  • This process cannot be completed until you are informed, or can take a view, on these additional issues:
    • Types of activity to be managed, for example what customer contacts from what department? What is the nature and purpose of the enquiries? This applies to all media: phone calls, e-mails, letters, etc.
    • Average length of time to manage each type of activity.
    • What improvements can be made to this average with better processes, technology and grouping with other activities?
    • What combined skills are needed to manage these contacts? Where are specialisms or extra competencies and training required?
    • What hours of operation will you offer and what flexibility will there be in staffing rosters?
    • What are your targets or ideas for productivity or staff utilisation? Will you locate staff purely in a call management environment or have them working on administration and other duties as well?

Ownership and positioning within the organisation

Where the contact centre sits in the organisation is a major issue. It should not be an 'add-on' to current services, but fully integrated with clear points of contact with departments outside of the centre. For this reason, many organisations have their contact centres report into a corporate function. This corporate approach relies heavily on 'buy-in' from individual departments and services, so effective communication of the vision and benefits is imperative.

Business models for managing call centres are many and varied. There seems to be little market or data evidence to indicate that any particular model suits a specific situation. We are, however, able to draw some conclusions from such evidence as we have.

The key issues which decide investment, structure and ownership of a contact centre are these:

  • View of organisational core competence - can someone else manage it better, including operational management, technology deployment, cost structure and process efficiencies - thought leadership?
  • Perceived strategic or tactical value of the operation: the more strategic and core business integrated it is, the more challenging it is to deploy non-traditional methods.
  • Communications or call centre champions within the organisation, in other words individuals prepared to argue their case against accepted or common wisdom or prejudice.
  • Acceptable degree of risk. For example it is argued that outsourcing is a process of risk management. But there are risks of loss of control, of customer experience and of customer information, let alone the exiting risks from failed partner relationships.