What price good service?

More than a decade ago, outsourcers sold themselves as technology partners, able to offer voice platforms that significantly reduced the cost of voice services.  Then came the age of ’employee investment’, and those that could demonstrate the ability to attract and retain the highest calibre advisors won through.  Now of course, having the best technologies and the best people are just hygiene factors, and negotiations focused heavily on the ‘cost’ of service provision, with little or no consideration of the value that that service creates for the relevant brand.

Of course, to be a viable partner to any business/brand, we must be able to do it better and cheaper than those brands can do it themselves.  This is the baseline and any business buying contact centre services have come to expect this, and quite right too.  So the question outsourcers have been faced with is “what value will you add”.  Defining ‘value’ has been a challenge.  In some cases ‘value’ equals ‘cost reduction’; in others, it genuinely equals ‘how will you create more value for my brand and my business’.

Significant transformation requires significant investment and a dedicated focus at senior levels across both organisations.  It is neither cheap, nor easy, but it is achievable and outsourcers are in the best place to provide it if they don’t promise the earth for a shilling at the point of engagement.  Buyer beware here, and the old adage “if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is” is worth keeping in the forefront of the mind.  You don’t get anything for nothing, and organisations who genuinely want transformation, or value add, should engage in discussions around the base price for the base service, and then agree budgets and budget phasing to achieve longer-term goals, which may ultimately reduce cost of ownership through cost reductions and/or significant increase in revenue generation, customer acquisition, or both.

We sell people’s time, it is our most precious asset.  The ‘value’ that that time brings however positively correlates with the price paid for it.  The higher the salary the greater the experience.  The greater the experience, the higher the expertise.  The higher the expertise, the greater the level of satisfaction.  So, when a contract for contact centre services is negotiated, give consideration to the likely impact of driving down the price.  There should be a level of honesty about margins required to enable the right level of investment in the service.  A higher price in our business enables greater investment in expertise i.e. It is passed through.

This is of course no real surprise, but many don’t want to consider the consequences of driving a hard bargain and hope that it will be ok.  This has driven the need to buy services in lower cost locations, and take advantage of development grants.  All this to drive down the cost whilst  endeavouring to improve the level of quality.

All markets are now relatively mature however, and there isn’t a significant cost advantage to doing business in any one city in the UK over and above another.  With this in mind, and with outsourcing costs as low as they can probably go, the debates will hopefully turn to the real value that outsourcers can bring as a business partner.

With the millions of contacts we handle every year, and the in-depth knowledge we have of what drives customer behaviour, we really are in the best place to influence customer strategies.

Many organisations are now saying they don’t want to talk about AHT, and other traditional contact measures.  They also want ideas about what this should be replaced with.  These messages have not ‘landed’ all the way through all organisations though, and the desires to change the approach at a senior level is often ignored by those managing the outsourcers on the ground.  This disconnect can cause frustrations on both sides and more importantly, delays in driving the improvements in customer experience that will add real value to their brand.

The difference in approach in some sectors in their strategy for managing non face-to-face contacts versus their customer-facing services is stark.  For example, I don’t ever remember walking into a retail store and being asked my name and identification details before I’ve even explained what my query is.  Or having to go through an awkward process to identify how the shop assistant should refer to me, ‘Jackie’, Mrs Lowe, or do I have any other preferences?  “Mrs I’m in a hurry” might be my answer.  And, as far as I can recall, I can never remember anyone coming up to a shop assistant serving me and telling them they’ve been talking to me for too long, so please hurry up and get me on my way!  Instead, shop assistants are employed to represent a brand, portray the brand image, engage with customers in a non intrusive way, all with the objective to sell more goods.  Why are these basic principles forgotten when negotiating contact centre services?  The answer is simple, handling customer enquiries by any method other than face-to-face is seen as a cost.  We need to keep it simple, remember what we are endeavouring to deliver, and measure delivery in terms of affordability AND brand development.

Rather than seeing customer service centres as a cost that we need to continually drive down, see them in terms of the business they can drive when aligned with the overall business goals and reduce the cost of the service overall through proper alignment of the relevant functions across the wider business.  If the marketing team are driving contacts in to the centre because of a bug on the website, reduce costs by fixing the bugs quickly, not by reducing the time it takes an advisor to support the customer in need.  For those contacts you can’t avoid, make them count and use the opportunity to leave the customer with a great brand impression.

I’m looking forward to more discussions with our clients on the topics that will enhance their business.  Why are their customers getting in contact?  Is this a good or a bad thing?  For those that do have to make contact, how can we make that contact really count for their brand?  What processes should they change to enable them to sell more to their customers?  What practices should they change to enhance their brand image?  What should they pay to deliver the level of service that is right for their brand and their customers?

All other metrics are interesting and of course provide a benchmark for continuous improvement.  All of those metrics have an ‘optimum’ level though.  A long call isn’t necessarily a good call, but the average length of the calls handled by the advisors who achieve the highest sales or customer satisfaction scores is usually the best benchmark for the right target.  I’ve rarely been asked what this is.

This is a brave discussion for the wo(man) on the ground who is usually tasked with reducing the costs of the service.  Reductions at what real cost to brand and business?  Some measures of success are one-dimensional and entirely damaging over time.  There is a balance to be had but it is shifting the paradigm and engaging in debate that is truly enlightening and can, in its own right, be transformational.

What’s your view? Leave a comment here or get in touch via my LinkedIn.

Call centre worker


Photo by Alan Clark licensed under Creative Commons

About Jackie Lowe

HR Director, Teleperformance UK and South Africa
This entry was posted in Contact Centres, Current Affairs, Customer Service, Strategy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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