Features: March 11th, 2005

Who You Gonna Call?

The race is on for local councils to meet the December 2005 deadline for e-government, designed to give customers greater choice over the way they interact with local councils to access services and information.

However, while implementing this online initiative local government must be prepared and equipped to deal with potential crisis situations, such as system failures and other unforeseen circumstances that would contrive to create overwhelming call and email volumes – threatening public confidence and staff meltdown.

SITEL Direct, part of the leading global outsourced contact centre company has proven experience in providing crisis management solutions for commercial organisations. Managing Director of SITEL Direct, Kevin Cordray, discusses how public bodies need to keep one eye on how they will cope with the potential pitfalls of the new e-government world, and how to regain the confidence of customers in the event of systems and process failure. He further explains that a well-handled crisis can leave a lasting and positive impression, eventually adding to and even enhancing customers’ perceptions of a brand or business.

Managing the transition

Success of the e-government initiative will rely on persuading a large proportion of customers to adopt the new communication channels on offer. However, according to the Office of National Statistics, although 52% of households in the UK (12.9 million) had internet access in the third quarter of 2004, 34% of adults in Great Britain had never used the Internet. In light of these findings, it is imperative that the support framework around the e-government initiative be prepared to accommodate citizens at both ends of the technology spectrum. For the 34% of adults who have never used the internet, local councils must manage their customers’ transitional period through easily accessible support systems. The support on offer needs to educate people about the web based services, whilst communicating a positive and reassuring message quickly and effectively so that confidence in the e-government programme is established. This support and positive messaging also needs to be made available to the 61% of the UK population that is well versed in the internet, as even the technologically-savvy may encounter situations in which they require assistance when using the e-government online system.

In fact there appears to be a paradox in that in order to move away from traditional methods of communication, there will be an increase in the volume of telephone calls for a transitionary period as the usual calls about council services are augmented by calls about how to access the new communications channels. However the existing customer service teams are unlikely to be able to deal successful with either the increased call volume or call content so additional resources may be needed. One way of providing the extra capacity and skill sets required to answer queries specific to the new communications channels is to utilise an outsource call centre.

Assessing the case for outsourcing

Pre-planning will determine whether an in-house or outsource solution would be the best option, depending on the nature and extent of the crisis. In making this decision, considerations should include the availability of the skill sets required across all levels, the current culture and the capacity of the call centre to maintain normal business operations during the crisis period. Could the in-house call centre cope with a variety of communication channels, including email? An outsource solution delivered and managed through an experienced provider with a dedicated crisis team may prove the best option. Immediately the company will have access to the entire range of facilities and resources required to support crisis management procedures effectively. Furthermore, through experience of other crisis situations, the call centre provider should be able to input to the preparation of crisis management plans.

A prime example of being well-prepared for a crisis situation is SITEL’s work with a major utilities client. The client holds 500 customers on its books signed up on an ‘interruptible supply’, whereby they agree to turn off their supply in a crisis in return for discounts on standard tariffs. There have been two occasions that a crisis arose in which all 500 prospects had to turn off their fuel within four hours; the process was 100% successful on both occasions. Such a volatile and responsive contract requires exceptional planning and training, and staff had been trained to have the call centre running within 30 minutes. This campaign demonstrates how flexible, immediate and effective a medium the telephone can be in conjunction with the right team. Major businesses can confidently rely on this medium in crisis preparedness and crisis handling, thus pre-empting problems and minimising disruption.

Other circumstances may arise in which the local government cannot be prepared. Unforeseen system failures may result in the inaccessibility of certain components on e-government websites and customers could be faced with a complete internet crash. In crises such as these, local government will need to quickly inform customers of the problem, whether by running an advertisement in print and broadcast media, calling customers or distributing announcements via the post. In addition to notifying people, an educated and knowledgeable team that is trained to manage enquiries needs to be on hand to deal with the anticipated increase in customer contact.

SITEL has experience in preparing a crisis management contact centre operation with just over a day to prepare. The client was carrying out a product recall campaign in which the team discovered that the recall potentially covered not just the affected 10% – 15% of the released stock items, but the entire 1.5 million units. This was due to a tactical marketing decision by the client to ensure that its quality reputation was preserved intact, right across its range of products. In light of this information, two call centres facilities were brought in with the front-end of all calls answered by an automated Interactive Voice Response system, seamlessly transferring them to the next free live operator. In total 70,135 calls were handled, most in the 24 hours following each of the client’s press runs. Gradually, as the air began to clear from the initial rush, calls rates sank to below 100 per day. This made it possible to put a call divert on the emergency number, allowing the client to deal with the drastically reduced number of enquiries in-house, getting business back to normal once again in a remarkably short space of time.

Therefore outsourcing the call centre operation in a crisis allows for fast mobilisation by experienced companies that have the proper technology, facilities and staff capacity to handle large quantities of calls. Government, councils and departments can thus focus on fixing the problem, whilst simultaneously having the time and internal workforce to focus on their core organisational operations.

Preparing to manage the risk

Due to the fact that the e-government transition will have such a dramatic effect on how people interact with their local government, it is essential that authorities are proactive from the beginning, by providing the public with a telephone number for all enquiries and pre-empting increased customer calls and emails. Additionally, government departments should realise that a crisis situation can be outsourced to a contact centre should this customer contact volumes exceed internal capacity. A professional call centre will work with the local government to build a lasting partnership by enhancing the value of each and every customer interaction and relationship.

By being proactive instead of merely reactive, local councils will establish a precedent of effective customer care whereby customers are confident in the e-government initiative from the outset, never once questioning who they’re gonna call.

For more information please contact:

Jo Emmerson at Emmett & Smith on 020 7819 4800 or via email Jo.Emmerson@emmettandsmith.com