Call Centre Management

It is easy to assume that any role in today's competitive environment is the toughest there is, and I would not want to be accused of claiming the unclaimable, but without a doubt, Call Centre management is one of the most challenging roles in business today.

Call Centre Management

Let's take a moment to look into that dim and distant past of just over 10 years ago when call centres started to emerge. Is this really such a recent phenomenon? It was in 1988 that First Direct opened its doors. Direct Line started insuring only just before. The mail-order companies had been in this field for some time but were seen as 'mail' orders, not 'telephone' orders. Many said that Call Centres would never work and that people (consumers) would hate them. Yet, here we are at the close of a decade and Call Centres represent the fastest-growing employment sector in the UK - employing more people than the coal mining, steel and motor manufacturing industries combined. So, the whole skill area has had to develop rapidly in an environment with no formal training courses, and where many of the rules of traditional operations simply do not work.

Call Centre Management

Of course, the term 'call centres' is really a misnomer. They are much more than that. They are Contact centres. Service centres. Customer centres. Hotdesks. Helplines. Technical support centres. Reservations operations. Sales centres. Cyber stores. E-commerce centres. The list goes on and on. They operate in an environment of rapidly developing technology, staffing pressures and demands and expectations of consumers that are evolving and developing as service standards improve globally.

There can be very few roles where the manager of a business unit does not have total control of either supply or demand. Supply or staffing levels are subject to traffic jams, weather and 'flu. Demand or traffic volumes are controlled by the whim of that unpredictable beast, the consumer or customer. Or worse, by the marketing department that buys advertising without any reference to operations.

Where the original investment in call centres was on the promise of cost savings, call centres themselves are now under cost pressures, being asked to trim in any area they can. So call centres are in reality becoming conflict environments.

Before we examine the role of the call centre manager in detail, just think about this:

  • You must cut the average call duration to save on staff costs
  • You must increase the call duration to cross-sell
  • You are entrepreneurial, but it takes three months to grow and find staff
  • You know you need more staff, but no one wants to work the hours that calls come in
  • You would like to incentivise performance but the same people always win. What started as a meritocracy is now a bunch of winners and losers
  • You know you must train people, but that takes people off the telephone
  • Taking people off the telephone means you have to cut the call duration
  • Marketing wants you to gather lots of data, but that puts up the call duration
  • Gathering data would help you sell more, but you don't have the people to do it
  • You have service standards to deliver against, but selling impacts upon those standards.
  • Every week. Every day. Every hour. Tough, sure. Impossible, no. Demanding, definitely.

If that sets the scene and demonstrates the challenges faced by call centre managers, let's take a look at:

  • the role itself
  • finding people
  • keeping and developing people
  • motivating people
  • environment
  • performance and measurement
  • the future

The role of the Call Centre and its Manager

In a recent conversation with a leading academic from one of the UK's top business schools, he put forward the two conflicting views of call centres that his fellow academics held.

One group was firm in its view that call centres were "a cynical move by businesses to control costs and disempower a workforce."  The other group believed that call centres were "the attempt by business to respond to consumer demands for improved service and customer access."

The reality is that the function of Call Centres must be to satisfy customer demand. It is simply inconceivable that the growth in employment and the upward curve of telephone traffic volumes are a result of no demand. If it were not, this growth in activity would not be sustainable.

In the early 1990s the first major piece of research into this field conducted by The Henley Centre unearthed what it called the three C's. Convenience, Consistency and Cordiality2. These were the three key characteristics that consumers sought from the organisations with which they had contact.

Yet, at the same time, the requirement to contain or even reduce costs has never been stronger. Businesses have recognised that by concentrating this activity into larger centres, costs are reduced through economies of scale and service is improved through concentration of training and development and the large-scale investment in technology in a single site.

So, both opposing views have some validity, although the cynicism is not deliberate and most organisations are trying to keep pace with the service expectations of consumer, where meeting such expectations is affordable.

Whilst we would all agree that the core function of a call centre is the provision of customer access and resolution of customer issues - whatever they might be, it is useful to look at an 'operational model' of a call centre. Such models aid understanding. So, here is my model of a call centre.

Drilling down into the Role

Today people issues still dominate Call Centres. Finding people. Developing people. Keeping people. Motivating people.

People issues dominate Call Centres because we are still in an age (and this is changing) when human, rather than automated communications are the norm. This being the case, "our people are our company". Their voice becomes the 'personality' of the brand. Their actions (of course, supported by systems and process) and the consistency with which they are delivered may well be the most influential aspect in customer retention today, after price.

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