Features: January 22nd, 2003

The Key To Successful Call Centres

By John Burton

Research has shown that the majority of citizens prefer to deal with their Local Authority by telephone as opposed to any other form of electronic communication. Writing and face-to-face contact is also a popular form of communication, often when satisfaction of resolving a query is not forthcoming over the telephone.

Yet a recent study* by the Government watchdog – the National Audit Office – paints an interesting picture of public sector call centres.

According to the report, Government departments spent just over £350 million answering 95 million calls in 2001-2002, through some 133 call centres, populated with over 15,000 staff, with 45 of these call centres outsourced to the private sector.

Even though these statistics are not representative of the corporate contact centres now being planned by Local Authorities with highly diversified services, they still make interesting reading.

Common Problems

Even though these Central Government call centres have achieved levels of customer satisfaction averaging around 89%, with 84% of those calls being answered within 20 seconds, these statistics mask the real story when it comes to customer service and customer care. For example, less than half the call centres surveyed measured customer satisfaction. Further, the statistics represent primarily Central Government departments and agencies, with just eight of the 133 call centres surveyed being in Local Authorities.

The National Audit Office suggests there are still a number of ways by which performance could be further improved. And, as every Local Authority understands, the role a call centre plays in proving a positive first impression is vitally important. That the citizen comes away from the encounter satisfied their query is resolved or being dealt with is critical.

The study found that inflexible rostering of staff and poor call management techniques meant that callers frequently failed to get through.

Furthermore a recent survey** by UNISON, the largest public sector trade union, found poorly managed call centres created stress, with staff feeling less like human beings and more like an extension of technology.

The result is quite simply poor customer service and low staff morale.

Getting It Right

The results promised by the Modernising Government Agenda mean citizen’s expectations are changing – simply answering a telephone before three rings is not enough. A successful modern contact centre must offer a ‘right first time’ approach that stops the caller being passed from department to department. It should include professional citizen contact points supported by efficient service delivery. One without the other will not satisfy and fulfil Local Authority’s Best Value promises or achieve a successful Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) rating.

There are a number of elements in creating a successful call centre to take in to account:

Local Authorities need to understand the importance of a contact centre and the role it plays in its citizens’ experience. An efficient “touch-point” for citizens must recognise the relationship between the front and back office as being a vital ingredient to its success.

There is a certain naivety within the public sector regarding the functioning of its call centres, in particular a lack of understanding of the differences between touch-points. Significance can be wrongly put on the dialogue between the citizen and the Authority (the front office), for example the superficial “have a nice day” approach. Instead emphasis should also be placed on actual service delivery (the back office) – mending the streetlight within two days or immediate resolution of a council tax payment query.

Local Authorities need to make fundamental changes to processes within their call centres, recognising that glossy front-ends, without the support of efficient back ends, are wrongly raising citizens expectations.

The key to creating the synergy between the front and back office is in the identification of which citizen services are front and which are back. The Authority should firstly identify where the back and front office divide needs to happen, which services need to be split and the processes necessary to make the services seamlessly operate together. A good starting point is by taking a case-by-case approach – looking at the straightforward services, for example library book renewals, moving on to more in-depth services over time. Information also needs to be collected about what citizens contact the call centre for. Once it is understood what citizens need from their call centre, the Authority can put together a more efficient back-office focusing on the high-demand services first.

The second element to consider when creating a successful call centre is the people, processes and the technology.

A contact centre does not just depend on being able to harness the right technology to meet the Local Authority’s objectives, it also needs to balance technology with two other fundamental issues of business: people and processes. The change associated with meeting the E-Government vision and improved citizen services, should provide a combination of technology, methodologies training, and process change consultancy. This includes the business and people processes as well as the underlying technology. In order for Local Authorities to deliver higher customer service levels, they must face up to these different challenges in a way that recognises the true importance of the role of the contact centre.

Of course, the total customer experience combines contacts with the Council in all forms with the resultant service delivery (i.e. front office and back office / DSO, Contractor, etc.). However, we know that the change necessary to convert an entire organisation to become genuinely customer centric is a massive undertaking – and one that doesn’t happen overnight. Nevertheless, getting the front office right is a vital early step in that it can help insulate customers from the turbulence of the fundamental changes to the back office. The important thing is to remember not to stop at the front office believing that it is “job done”. In practice, it has only just started.

It is worth mentioning here the System Thinking Approach to creating successful call centres. The approach follows the school of thought about understanding and managing organisations as systems as opposed to simply customer dialogue. It is believed the Systems Thinking Approach creates a transformation in services, reduced costs and huge uplift in morale. Certainly part of the role of a contact centre in the overall scheme of things is to act as both a focus and a catalyst. People are, of course, vital and must be of the right calibre and personality, well trained and empowered to act on the customer’s behalf – an agent of the customer in an assisted channel rather than simply an agent of the organisation. But it is the processes and systems that must be designed in support of the customer experience, optimised for each type of interaction and transaction ensuring workflow is directly commensurate with the need.

It is this holistic approach reflecting the desired customer experience that characterises successful contact centres in Local Authorities, typically differentiating them from their commercial cousins, generally driven by an ever lower cost to serve and little else.

Fundamental to any contact centre is Customer Relationship Management. CRM can instil fear and unease in any organisation, commercial or public sector. The methodology has often, and wrongly, been used to solely reduce costs, inevitably resulting in its failure. CRM can be used to drive costs down, but ultimately it must be seen as an approach that provides citizens with precisely what they need, no less no more. It is rooted in an understanding of a Local Authority, enabling it to interact with the right people, the right information, at the right time and through the right channels. Implemented correctly – in manageable bite sized chunks – and CRM will facilitate successful contact centres and customer services throughout a Local Authority, providing best value through highly cost effective targeting.

For example, as part of Epsom and Ewell Borough Council’s E-Government programme, it implemented a CRM contact centre in just ten weeks. Enabling 80% of telephone calls to be dealt with immediately by a call centre agent, (DTLR’s E-Gov@local consultation paper), this affordable system is not only providing significant improvements in customer service, but is also capable of supporting much more significant changes at the Council well beyond 2005.

Council members and Chief Executive Officers are nervous about public sector contact centres. This is mainly due to poorly managed, failing call centres being built for the wrong reasons.

Local Authorities need to view call centres and other touch points as ways of communicating with and providing excellence of service to their citizens. Rather than seeing them as a way of driving down costs, the successful call centre should be at the heart of the Local Authority, must be adopted and driven from the top down and must be taken as a serious means of delivering quality services to its citizens.

*Using Call Centres to Deliver Public Services, National Audit Office, December 2002

**Holding the line, UNISON’s Guide To Making Call Centres A Better Place To Work

John Burton is the call centre and communications solutions manager at ITNET