April 12, 2012

Everyone Talks Too Much: The Reality of Increasing Customer Communications

Somewhere around the year 2000, we started noting that some call centers were experiencing dysfunctions caused by growth. Centers in certain metropolitan areas showed higher turnover rates and wage pressures that were not shared by all geographies. 

A few years later, we did a landmark study with CB Richard Ellis, in which we overlaid our performance metrics database with the CBRE geographic/demographic database and discovered some very interesting things. 

In effect, we noted that North Americans love to communicate with companies, and the desire to do so was only increasing over time. Even at that time, this growth was straining the ability of America to come up with enough call center agents to satisfy the voracious demand for information from consumers. Already somewhere between 3 and 4% of the working population in the U.S. and Canada was employed in contact centers, up from a fraction of that twenty years before. Our study showed that in certain employment regions (e.g., Phoenix, Tampa, Charlotte), the high demand for call center agents was causing dysfunctions such as high turnover and wage pressures. 

With no weakening of growth in demand for access and information in sight, we saw that there would not be enough American workers to meet the demand. Instead, three "safety valves" have served to relieve the pressure on brick-and-mortar centers tied to specific employment "basins": 

- Outsourcing. Both onshore and off-shore outsourcing have helped to spread out the geography over which brick-and-mortar agents can be found to answer calls. In many cases companies outsourced a portion of their calls while maintaining a sustainable workforce in-house. In other cases they have moved their entire operation to outsourcers, causing considerable pain to those affected. 

- At-home Agents. Technology introduced over the past decade has rendered at-home agents a reality. Here, as well, the operation is freed from a specific geographic locale, and a greater element of flexibility is introduced. Paying on-shore at-home agents on a per minute basis can be financially competitive with offshore outsourcing. Apple and others have been very successful with the at-home model, which has also been a blessing for people trying to piece family life together with work life, or people trying to reconcile physical limitations with career desires. 

- Self-Service (voice, Web, social media). Making it easy for customers to find the answers they need by interacting with technology is the key to self-service - and self-service has increased customer contact capacity hugely over the past ten years. Self-service through the IVR and through the Internet has made a major dent in agent-assisted calls, especially in certain vertical markets such as financial institutions. Most customer contact functions are still trying to understand how to harness social media 

- and we see exciting things happening. 

The key is to anticipate demand for information and to provide seamless quality of service that makes it a pleasure to deal with your customer contact function, whether that be through IVR self-service, chat, telephone agent or other. Remember, there are not enough workers in North America to handle every inquiry by phone the way it was done at the turn of the millennium. If everyone were to talk to a living North American every time they had a question, the volume and cost would simply be unsustainable. You need to determine how to optimize your operations by using all of the technology and personnel options available to you. 

If you would like to talk about ways to optimize your contact center operations or discuss how social media can be your friend, please contact us at Info@BenchmarkPortal.com or at http://www.BenchmarkPortal.com

Bruce Belfiore
CEO & Senior Research Executive

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