The Changing Face of Contact Center
Indian Telecom Operator’s Perspective
“The only permanent thing in this world is change”- the adage has stood the tests of time and couldn’t have stood truer for any other sector than telecom. Telecom industry in this country has undergone many tumultuous transitions and experienced rapid changes in the business practices. Analyzing the history of telecom operations in India one can easily conclude that the industry has been operating with infinite elasticity; metamorphosis of the competitive landscape, deep fluctuations in the rules of the game couldn’t dither the survival of the players. The pricing and profits have been spiraling southwards and the break out of the price war doesn’t seem to be ebbing in near future.
If Porter ever coined the term competitive advantage he always believed the same can be gained by adopting and embracing differentiators for the business. As in the case of all the nascent markets the differentiators for telecom operators were Price, Product and Place. The Price depicted usage charges, the Products included a variety of specially crafted recharges or the different values added services offered and the Place was meant for the network coverage and the availability of the products. But the rapid changes in market dynamics and the hyper-competition has changed the differentiators. Price, Product and Place are passé as differentiators and Service remains the only sustainable differentiator. Enough evidences are there that excellent service attracts and, most importantly, retains customers and also the touch points making the customer experience the levels of services offered by the operators have multiplied with the passage of time and changing levels of technology. Customer Service Excellence, cost reduction and the addition of revenue-generating services have become the top winning strategies.
The start and the progress
The most important and cost centric touch point for the telecom operators has been the Contact Centers. It all basically started with setting up of a small facility for receiving calls from customer with employees on rolls and space owned, but as the operations started getting wider and deeper the challenges to manage the inbound call flow became difficult. The easiest available option was to establish local level call centers with smaller volume of operations meant to cater the calls originating from the circle itself. Small time entrepreneurs were asked to commit and the operations were ghost managed by the operators themselves. But with passage of time and explosion in the subscriber base this model became inefficient due to lack of professional commitment, focus on costs alone, lack of scalability and poor quality of services. It forced telecom players to change their strategies and start innovating their business models. Strategic outsourcing and partnerships and alliances (with the customer being at the center) were established as the cornerstones of the new competitive theme. The focus on core competencies of the own organization and leveraging of others became top agenda for the telecom operators. Telcos realized that their core competencies were sales and marketing of the services and supervision of the service delivery rather than managing the trivial affairs like payroll and accounting or even the other areas of strategic importance like information technology, network management and maintenance, call center technology and contact center operations. The need to outsource was further fueled by desire to attain.
Scalability- Gearing up for growth
Increased Retention- Retaining customers is always cheaper than acquiring new ones
Predictability- Having predictable cost structures
Accountability- Defined SLAs and risk sharing with partners, vendors and alliances
The Indian BPOs were having advantages of learning curve from different world class operations supported and amalgamation of best practices from different global companies. This diffusion of knowledge and practices made the BPOs move closer to the much celebrated productivity frontier and become best in the class. Telcos started to leverage this core competency of the Indian BPOs by forming strategic partnerships. The salient factors which assisted the telecom operators in making the choice were
Management of heavy call volumes – The swelling call volumes at the contact centers, lack of competencies, limited manpower and scalability were hindering the service to the growing subscriber base. The BPOs with hiring & training facilities and deep pockets were more capable of providing desired scalability to telcos cocktailed with high class professional competencies and commitment.
Consolidate to leverage economies of scale – The scatter bed local contact centers with their own standalone and non-standard practices were posing hindrances in operations. The unification of the contact centers enabled the cutting of costs and benefits of economies of scale with one facility serving for 3-4 circles or more.
Leveraging the economies of scope – The BPOs also provided an opportunity to realize different revenue streams like upselling (generating revenue from the callers at inbound call center by selling VAS services etc).
Establishing command centers for optimizing resource utilization – The consolidation spree necessitated establishment of centralized command centers with aim of optimizing resource utilization at each of the contact centers. A specialized team, working round the clock, in a state of the art environment, delivers the following benefits
- Improved forecast accuracy
- Real time work load management
- Improvement in accessibility and service levels
- Business continuity and contingency management
- Optimized resource utilization
This optimization will always have to balance the strike of the double edged sword of decreasing the costs and maintaining the Customer Satisfaction.
Offering segmented service delivery – The hyper-competitive telecom market necessitates that the entire base of the customers be segmented into different buckets depending upon their AON (Age On Network), MoU (Minutes of Usage) and revenue contribution. For retention of the best customers the companies started the loyalty and the privileged customer programs which required better skilled contact center agents and superior management of processes. This could only be achieved by better systems for training and operations.
Gaining from the core competencies of the BPOs – The contact centers are meant for providing uniform services to all the callers by adhering to the processes. The BPOs have developed capabilities of managing the business processes of varied types and have competencies to handle complex operations with higher standards of service delivery.
Establishing multiple channels for service delivery – The outsourcing of contact centers freed the resources of telcos to focus more on development of channels through which the customers could be served without agents. The increased use of IVR (Interactive Voice Response), speech, web and other non-voice channels of customer contact through customer education and influence was targeted.
The telecom operators outsourced the entire contact center operations to 4-5 BPO corporations for managing the operations of the entire country. The operators took a two-pronged approach of limiting the no. of strategic partners they tied-up with and ensuring that the contact center sites got located conveniently at the non- metro locations with regional language preferences to cut costs and manage attrition.
This approach was followed by the below mentioned strategies
- Transforming multiple standalone operations, into a single virtual call center for maximum efficiency, consistency and control.
- Reducing the application integration backlog that slows down agents and makes them less productive.
- Providing unified, universal customer access via telephone, email and internet channels, to open less costly and more convenient interaction channels while preserving quality and consistency across all channels
- Developing and enabling a systematic process to make rapid adjustments to service delivery in order to ensure customer service excellence.
What the future has in store?
The contact centre is caught in the centre of the ‘Demand Delta’ the gap between customers’ increasing expectations and organization’s ability to deliver service. Voice Self-Service is a communication channel providing opportunities to balance cost control with customer service and to address the issue of demand delta.
Types of Voice Self-Service
The challenge would be effective implementation of the Voice Self Service because IVR should involve customer preferences without making the system too complex and slow to use while supporting the brand values of the organizations.
In terms of guidelines for the implementation of Voice Self-Service the telecom operators would need to:
1. Select situations where customers make repeat calls
2. Identify areas where call numbers are large and for a specific purpose
3. Pick applications where speed and convenience are particularly important
4. Offer customers the choice of application.
In terms of usability, some key considerations that will have to be kept in mind:
1. Speed of IVR – “Neither too slow and nor too fast”
2. Personality – “You’ve got to know it’s not a person”
3. Fall out – Provide the option to ‘escape’ to a live agent
4. Introduction by an education program
5. Test, test and re-test for usability with customers.
There are several compelling reasons for improving the customer experience:
1. Strategic: The burgeoning competition and heavy regulation has commoditized the telecom services. In rapidly commoditizing markets, customer experience may be the only way to differentiate the brand and create sustainable competitive advantage. Moreover, there are evidences galore that consumers are willing to pay a premium for a positive experience.
2. Marketing: If an organization can create ‘raving fans’ or ‘apostles’, it can actually buckle its expenditures on marketing. The word of mouth and referrals by the present customers cause a Snow-ball effect leading to an ever magnifying base of customers.
3. Customer retention: A customer receiving a better service and warm experience will always have a better retention probability, hence giving better revenues.
4. Reduce or eliminate ‘cost to failure’: The costs resulting from a poorly designed or implemented customer experience can be enormous. Even a trivial problem or issue can translate into multitude of calls in a contact centre.
5. New technologies: New technologies such as the Internet and CRM, are aiding in improved customer experiences.
From agent to expert
The agent is becoming increasingly central to the delivery of customer experience within the contact centre. However, with customers becoming more demanding and less satisfied with the contact centre experience, the agent often gets caught in the management of contradictions as they try to balance the demands of the organization (increase efficiency) with the needs of the customer (get service). As we move into the future the call centre agent needs to become more than a transaction processor, adding little value, and move into the role of an advisor and, ultimately, an expert.
The Demand Delta trade-off between cost, control and quality produces three general types of contact centre model and contact centre employees. One model has evolved over the other with the passage of time and dynamism of the industry dealing with complexity, delivering value and customer satisfaction.
These models are:
• Mass Production – The Agent.
It is based on centralized control, rigorous process definition and employee compliance. A mass production contact center’s goal is to maximize throughput, deliver uniformity and minimize costs. It is solely driven by productivity based KPIs for management of the operation and the goals of the business which often leads to behaviors that are detrimental to the customer experience (such as ‘call bouncing’)
• Mass Customization – The Advisor.
A ‘Mass Customization Model’ is characterized by high levels of employee autonomy and empowerment. Agents become advisors. Mass customized contact centers aim to deliver effective, high quality, personalized customer experiences using flexible processes, customer knowledge from the CRM and knowledge system. High levels of first time resolution and customer satisfaction are the norm. Costs in this model are not managed through simply counting transactions and volumes of calls but by measuring and eliminating waste (and cost) through the identification of ‘cost of failure’ demand (characterized by measures such as FCR (First Contact Resolution).
• Networked Expert – The Expert.
Unlike the previous two models, where work is monitored (to different extents) and knowledge is presented to agent at the appropriate moment in the workflow, experts themselves are responsible for maintaining and updating their working practices and knowledge. Experts could be anyone in the organization with a particular expertise in a customer, discipline, locale, interaction skill, product or service. These experts do not necessarily reside in a traditional centralized contact centre – but could comprise a mixture of office based, mobile and home based workers. They may work anywhere (and for anyone) but they will have customer queries routed to them intelligently, based on their expertise, appropriateness and availability.
The evolution of the contact center for telecom operators have been a painful exercise and has already crossed several stages discussed in the paper. The rest of journey is going to be more tumultuous and full of challenges. Right now most of the contact centers are following the mass production model of operation wherein the agents are having higher burnouts and organizations are facing acute attrition and performance problems. The concept of Hub and Spoke model of contact center operations is catching the fancy of operators due to scalability and flexibility involved. Another concept of virtualization is in nascent shape in the Indian context but with the passage of time the concept will be fully embraced by the industry and will gradually advance towards the mass customization model. Some telecom operators are pressing their BPO partners towards the concepts of FCR and analysis of nature of calls with the aid of CRM but this trend will take time to consolidate since the basic model being followed is still the mass production. The costs of serving customers through agents is turning out to be prohibitive in scenarios of falling overall revenues and declining margins, so the idea of utilizing the IVR and self-service is catching the attention and turning out to be a necessity. This journey of evolution is going to be further bolstered by advent of break-through technologies and management fundamentals.
Om works in the service delivery function of a leading telecom company in India. He has done PGDM in Operations Management from KJ Somaiya Institute of Management Studies and Research, Mumbai. He also holds a B.Tech in Metallurgy and Materials from National Institute of Foundry and Forge Technology, Ranchi and worked for Mahindra for a couple of years based at Pune.