Tweeting and texting your way to better customer service

Unified communications are transforming contact centres and improving customer experience as more and more are providing a multi-channel service


It’s been a busy morning for the EE team on Twitter. Inquiries from customers of the mobile network are pouring in. Aaron’s venting about his engineers being late, Mel D’s not sure why 4G exists and Anya’s asking if deleting Tinder from her mobile will keep her data usage down (yes, Anya, it will). Minute by minute the tweets stack up. And the contact centre team respond, coolly and with good cheer.

This is the new face of contact centres. Customers are tweeting, Facebooking, e-mailing, texting and chatting over instant messenger. It’s natural for them. For companies, it’s a new world.

Ten years ago there was no web chat, no social media and very little e-mail. Today, a third of contact centre activity is over new media. The 2015 Global Contact Centre Benchmark Report by Dimension Data forecasts voice will be overtaken within two years. Can the industry handle it?

Contact centres have never had so much choice in terms of hardware and software to bring about unified communications and integrate other vital services

Not yet. Up to 40 per cent of contact centres polled by Dimension Data say their IT doesn’t meet current needs and 80 per cent say their system won’t meet future needs. Six in ten contact centres have no social media capability despite it being a natural choice for anyone under the age of 30. Video chat is almost unheard of in contact centres right now. Some 75 per cent have no capability, although 15 per cent are working on installing it. Even something as basic as web chat is surprisingly rare, with only one in three contact centres using it.

Other surveys confirm the problems. A study by headset-maker Jabra revealed contact centre agents were the most dissatisfied of all groups in terms of the IT equipment provided to them to get the job done.

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That’s the bad news. Fortunately, there’s a lot to be cheerful about. Contact centres have never had so much choice in terms of hardware and software to bring about unified communications and integrate other vital services, such as customer relationship management. There is some great work being done to drag the industry out of the dark ages.

Outsourcer Arvato won the Partnership of the Year prize at the European Contact Centre and Customer Service Awards in June for its work with Renault UK. Debbie Nolan, business development director at Arvato, says: “Customers increasingly expect brands to be able to answer their queries at the first point of contact, regardless of the channel they use for their query and regardless of the customer journey stage they are in. At the same time, they expect a bigger choice of online customer service channels. Contact centre providers are having to rethink how they operate to meet this growing demand.

The right technology means agents can take each inquiry though the channel preferred by the customer and have the information the customer wants

“On top of the traditional contact methods of telephone, e-mail and letter, companies need to build contact centres around a multi-channel approach, focusing on providing customers with a seamless customer experience across channels.”

Arvato has introduced new streams of communication for its agents to handle Renault’s inquiries. There’s a new web chat service. New support for social media inquiries has been a hit with customers and contributed to annual cost-savings of 5 per cent.

Ms Nolan provides a pro-tip: “While operating a multi-channel approach is essential, providers also need to have a back-up plan in place to continue to deliver service through all channels should anything go wrong. Regardless of what the problem is, customers still expect their queries to be dealt with. In our work with Renault UK, we’ve addressed this issue by building a virtual contact centre, which enables us to continue service in the event of an emergency or severe weather which may result in office closure.”

The right technology means agents can take each inquiry though the channel preferred by the customer. It also means the agent will have the information the customer wants at their fingertips.

Healthcare insurer AXA PPP has taken big steps in giving its agents the ability to resolve problems at the first attempt. Sonia Wolsey-Cooper, AXA PPP’s membership and people director, says: “You want to make life as easy as possible for callers. We do this by each personal adviser or PA owning their interactions with their customers and they take responsibility for ensuring actions are done, taking the burden away from customers whenever possible. For example, where we would previously have asked the customer to provide further information from a GP, our PAs will now do that for them. It’s quicker, less stress for customers and overall a much better experience – and far more satisfying for our PAs.”

Ironing out glitches is compulsory. One sticking point is taking payments. Currently agents can’t talk to customers while they enter their debit or credit card number on a keypad as it’s a violation of industry regulations to record the process. There is a way around this. A system developed by Semafone disguises the keypad bleeps, so the agent is unaware of the numbers. This allows the agent to maintain voice contact throughout payment, something valued by 63 per cent of consumers. Customers include Sky and Yorkshire Water.

Of course, hardware isn’t enough if the staff can’t use it, which is why the best contact centres invest heavily in their workforce. The Contact Company handles inquiries for retailer Rakuten (formerly Play.com). Chief executive Asif Hamid invests 20 per cent of profits in training and more than 95 per cent of staff are studying NVQs, Institute of Leadership Management (ILM) courses or similar. There’s an internal Core Management Skills Programme which will be certified by the ILM. The investment to date totals £420,000.

Mr Hamid says: “Contact centres needed professionalising. If you invest in high-quality training opportunities and a genuine career path for your staff then they will want to invest in that career too. Contact centres used to be seen as places for students and the semi-retired to work.

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“By professionalising contact centres we have proven that we not only create jobs in the UK, but we can also create life-long career paths for our staff.”

Staff are the key to knowing how to improve the technology infrastructure they work with.
The British Gas contact centre in Cardiff employs 3,200 and they are encouraged to use a central feedback tool to come up with ideas, big and small. The company reports the scheme has resulted in 250 improvements being implemented, touching on things such as reduced call waiting times and simpler billing formats.

The industry needs to improve. Research by Avaya and BT shows only one in five customers gets their issue resolved first time by a contact centre agent. A whopping 85 per cent think it should be easier to contact organisations and 88 per cent say they’d be more loyal to companies that are easy to deal with. The incentive is there.

Some contact centres are providing a superlative service, making use of unified communications and the best of customer-support tools. Now it’s time for the laggards to catch up.