Features: May 7th, 2004

Role Of The Call Centre In The Countdown To 2005

The UK’s call centre industry is set to gain around 200,000 jobs in the next 3 years, according to an independent report commissioned by the DTI . ‘The UK Contact Centre Industry: A Study’ – the first comprehensive report on the industry in the UK – states that the sector is healthy, and is set to employ over 1 million people by 2007. The UK call centre industry has grown by almost 250% since 1995. Much of this growth has been fuelled by the public sector.

The term ‘call centre’ conjures up images of row upon row of anonymous agents in headsets, manning a vast customer service or sales operation. Yet often the reality couldn’t be more different. Steve Boon, Director of Public Sector at NTL Business, looks at the changing face of the public sector call centre and why improving service delivery has never been so important.

Any public sector organisation or department that handles incoming calls from the citizens that rely on its service is effectively a call centre – whether in a formal contact centre environment, such as a benefits office, or simply through the standard switchboard in an NHS Trust.

The Modernising Government Agenda and the push to meet the 2005 e-Government deadline are increasingly leading public sector organisations to exploit communications technology to deliver enhanced public services. Re-evaluating contact centre strategies is an integral part of this modernisation drive, and the public sector now accounting for 20% of the Call Centre Association members. Indeed most of NTL Business’ local government customers report that of all electronic service delivery channels the telephone is the access method preferred by around 80% of citizens.

Developing a call centre

Many public sector organisations have call centres that have evolved over time rather than being implemented as a holistic solution from day one. The result is often a disparate array of departments or individuals handling incoming calls on an ad hoc basis.

At best, calls are transferred manually from one recipient to the next, until the right person is found. At worst, they are lost altogether. Industry estimates suggest that as many as one incoming call in three is dropped in this way.

The beauty of today’s call centre solutions is that they can unite these disparate departments under one umbrella, without the need for complex organisational changes or physical relocation.

The public face of the public sector

The primary external face of a call centre is often a non-geographic number (NGN), such as 0800 or 0845. Whilst the private sector has made good use of NGNs for well over a decade, public sector organisations have been less keen to adopt them. However, as pressure to meet the 2005 deadline grows, many are now turning to NGNs to offer an easy, memorable number for local citizens, facilitate resilience and disaster recovery, and provide flexible call routing and enhanced management reporting. There’s no new infrastructure to install, and changes can be made quickly and painlessly.

Boosting service delivery

One of the most important steps to developing an effective call centre environment is to ensure efficient call handling and routing. Quality customer service is reliant on dealing with enquiries quickly and in an appropriate manner, and for the call centre agent this means less irate callers and a far less stressful working environment.

For organisations looking to improve response rates and efficiency, today’s Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology can help agents meet caller demands in two ways.

Firstly, IVR can be used to give the caller the information needed automatically (e.g. opening hours, your address, the deadline for filling in tax returns etc), reducing the number of calls that need to be forwarded to an agent.

Secondly, it can be used to find out information about the caller (e.g. is it a housing office enquiry or litter collection query) so that the call can be routed to the best qualified agent. Ideal for public sector organisations with multiple departments, this feature can dramatically reduce the number of misrouted calls and time wasted transferring calls from one area to another.

Once routed, today’s technology means that relevant caller information and, where appropriate, citizens details can pop up on the agents’ computer screens to help them deal with the enquiry swiftly.

An additional benefit of IVR is that advanced solutions enable organisations to re-record existing announcements quickly and easily. For example, allowing a further education college to announce timetabling changes. Being able to reflect real time changes within an organisation in a telephone announcement in this way is vital to ensure consistent, high-quality service delivery.

Rapid reaction

Just as organisations need to keep callers updated as a situation changes, so they also need to be ready to adapt internally to ensure operations continue to run as smoothly as possible. A comprehensive call centre solution will enable users to alter call routing to reflect constantly changing call centre conditions – for example an unexpected peak in incoming traffic, or a drop in capacity caused by agent illness. Or calls may need re-routing to a back-up centre in emergencies.

In order to implement such changes successfully and optimise the efficiency of a call centre, organisations require access to comprehensive, up-to-the-minute information. To maximise technology investment, it is therefore important to opt for a solution that offers an advanced reporting tool and can produce detailed management reports.

Flexibility and control

There is one final consideration for organisations looking to improve and upgrade their call centre infrastructure: the advent of flexible working practices. The Employment Act, which came into force in April of this year, affords parents the right to request flexible working conditions – a development that could wreak havoc in a shift-based call centre environment.

The application of flexible working within the call centre industry is reliant on the technical infrastructure that supports it. A network-based call centre solution enables agents working in any number of sites – from an organisation’s headquarters to the privacy of their own living room – to work together as if at a single location.

The impact of this kind of ‘virtual’ call centre cannot be underestimated. A CCA and IRS study[1] revealed that in organisations with work-life benefits staff retention was improved by 70%. Other employers claimed that providing flexible working helped control absenteeism and stress.

Countdown to 2005…

Modernisation of the public sector calls for greater accountability to its public, and increased flexibility for its staff. As organisations move to implement more efficient working practices and achieve greater cost-efficiency, technology has a vital role to play.

The government’s agenda for transforming the delivery of public sector services is ambitious. If organisations are to meet the 2005 deadline for e-Government, it is crucial that they begin to invest now in the correct infrastructure. Today’s contact centre technology can help maximise existing resources and optimise efficiency, and looking at NTL Business’ own offerings the potential to integrate our call centre solutions with portal products, interactive digital TV and broadband solutions represents an exciting opportunity for forward thinking public sector organisations.

The simple but important point to bear in mind is that opening up new channels of communication will help the public sector become more accessible and responsive to the needs of UK citizens.

The DTI report ‘The UK Contact Centre Industry: A Study’ is available at http://www.dti.gov.uk .

[1] IRS and CCA report: “Call Centres 2002: Reward & Work-Life Strategies”