Overcoming Call Center Hurdles

A version of this article first appeared in Customer strategy, a magazine published 10 times a year in London by TBC Research. Through its comprehensive portfolio of magazines, events and research, TBC Research is dedicated to helping senior business professionals make more informed technology decisions.

You phone an insurance company to make a claim, or a utility company to report a fault. The call is put in a queue, leaving you hanging on the end of the phone. After a long wait, the line goes dead without warning. Sounds familiar? From a customer management perspective, the only thing worse than this is to actually log your complaint only to find it is not acted on.

With many of today's service centres overstretched and poorly managed, such a scenario is all too prevalent and although it sometimes stems from poor service agents, all too often low-quality service is due to systems which constrain rather than facilitate problem resolution. In fact, for business-to-consumer (B2C) giants like Shell and Telewest, the sheer complexity of managing millions of calls made to thousands of call centre agents can in itself represent a serious obstacle to good support.

Our panelists, therefore, are attempting to use technology to take away some of the volume of support calls by centralising and standardising their support operations, thus freeing up agents to concentrate on solving problems. Both insist the barriers to change within their companies were far greater than any technology issues and offer practical tips of how to overcome them.

Shell Oil Products
Shell Oil Products' implementation of a Vantive Enterprise CRM system is part of a massive project to centralise its many local service operations into one centre for each country it operates in. Begun in 1997, the project is now rolling out to South America and Asia, following an implementation for 1,000 customer service agents in 16 countries across Europe.

From the outset, Shell Europe's customer service programme director Toby Detter is keen to point out that implementing software is only a small part of a bigger and potentially more traumatic process: "Technology is an important piece. But just because you have it, it will not make you deal with the customer better. To introduce a system is not an upheaval; to change a service culture is. A lot of people can manage the change but some can't."

So traumatic have the changes been that in some countries, half of the call centre agents have been moved elsewhere in the business, as the need to take charge of a problem and the introduction of sales elements into the agent's job description proved too much. However, Detter stresses that there were no direct redundancies as a result of the changes. "There has been a massive reskilling of the agents and not everybody was able or willing to take it on. It varies from country to country, but we've been able to place people who couldn't take on the challenge elsewhere in the business."

Whatever the ultimate cost, it will have been worth it, because the situation the company was in before the changes was nearing crisis point. "Before we started, we didn't have a consistent approach to customers. There were multiple phone numbers to call depending on whether it was a query about price, an invoice or an order quantity, and we could not tell them which number they needed. People were not trained to sort out a problem - they left the customer to sort it out themselves." With millions of both B2B and B2C customers, ranging from retailers who stock the service stations to people who buy fuel for domestic heating, and most importantly big corporates like British steel and Thames Water, problems could not be left to stagnate. "Our intention is to give gold service to our most valuable customers and segment that down, but we don't intend to give poor service to anyone. I suspect that was the way it was going with Shell."

The $100 billion division had begun its own in-house CRM development in 1995, but this was abandoned and by the end of 1997 it had purchased the Vantive Enterprise product, which is now part of PeopleSoft. "We aren't really an IT company. We decided it was not a core business concern for us."

The secret to Shell's success so far, according to Detter, has been its ability to pass on the lessons from the early implementations as the projects extended to further countries. "We decided on a harmonised approach and formed a model. This was cascaded down as we went from two implementations to four and so on. It proved a very successful build up." The lessons were mostly what Detter calls "traditional project management issues" like having high-level endorsement and communicating with the business. But another important requirement it discovered was to have a mix between the central team of 10 to 15 full-time project staff and the local staff. So successful was the momentum the team built up as it travelled round Europe that it halved the implementation time from an initial four months to less than two.

One of the biggest challenges for the team was building the integration between Vantive and the company's back-end SAP ERP (enterprise resource planning) system. Only five countries have implemented both fully. Without this, details such as inventory and order progress cannot be made available to customer service agents in real time. The system also needs to talk to distribution, fuel-card and management information systems. Detter says: "That's quite an interesting story because a lot of vendors led us to believe it was easy to get that off the shelf. We wanted more sophisticated integration, and that was not easy to find off the shelf."

With phase one complete, the next challenge for Detter and his team is to extend the use of the system to marketing and supply chain, doubling the user community next year to 2,000. "We can already have sales and marketing on the system, but it's a long process to train them, and we don't envisage a large number of users in the near future."

With an investment of significantly less than Gartner Group's projected average $45,000 per seat, Detter claims to be able to identify at least 25 percent of costs taken out of the support function. This figure, which Detter says he can "stand up and defend", comes only from cutting out the duplicated effort of sending a customer round the system when trying to resolve a problem. Reducing dissatisfaction and introducing selling elements into the support brings much broader benefits.

A move to the Web is already under way in the UK and Germany, but this is currently just for the larger customers and is "not as fast as we would like it to be. The plan is to extend it to everybody, but we'll maintain different approaches for the mass market and B2B."

If you think your central support desk can be managed by the technical consultants who work on it, Helen Rostron, head of IT service management at Telewest has a message for you. "Service management is a professional qualification just like being a Unix specialist," she says--and she speaks from experience.

Rostron was drafted in to the cable and telecoms giant to centralise its internal IT support operations in a project which began a little over three years ago and which also supports external customer queries. She found a young company which was growing extremely fast, and whose success was heavily dependent on top-notch support, yet its service operation had little visibility, accountability or reporting capability.

"There were lots of regional support teams, each doing their own things, and either recording the results or not. Support staff were contacted in the corridors or at their own desks. There were no records, no service levels, and everybody had their own way of working."

By the time she arrived from her previous role at BT to work on the project, it had already been decided that a centralised helpdesk and standard problem management needed to be set up for its 5,000 employees, feeding into the same support teams which covered its 25,000 Cable and Internet customers. "When you've been through the pain of implementing a strategic solution externally, it can also be used internally," says Rostron. "Internal IT problem management is no different from external and it's quite clearly the same support groups. The lines of demarcation are also becoming unclear in that levels of external Internet usage affect internal IT capability."

Rostron insists that getting buy-in from existing support teams is essential, and adds that selling the benefits to them has been easy. Used to being the first point of contact, they became third line in the new set-up, so were freed up to concentrate on fixing problems.

Meanwhile, a servicedesk, powered by Remedy's Action Request System has been set-up to deal with the main volume of calls, and this was later supplemented by a second-line technical support team with greater access, and expertise to fix problems remotely. In June, this seven-person team fixed 1500 problems each, compared to an average for the regional teams of 100-150 per month. "This just shows what you can achieve when you centralise support, and concentrate on quick fixes and cheaper and more efficient service."

The Remedy implementation, completed last year, was initially focused on service management and escalation procedures, before moving on to problem management, and change management. The deeper problem management, looking at trend analysis and root cause analysis, and change management, adapting processes for the rapidly evolving technology environment, are essential features of the system. But Rostron believes with such a major project, things have to proceed at a gentle pace. "We've been slowly evolving it. If you try to put it all in at the same time, you will fail because you'll not get the buy-in. It's a question of how much change people can cope with and it's only human nature to be suspicious of change."

The system has been heavily customised, because although it is compliant with the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency's ITIL standard out of the box, Rostron had very clear ideas about what she wanted it to do. "My advice to anybody who does not have the processes in place is to buy a system that's ITIL compliant and then you know it's based on best practices. But if you have processes that work already, why change those and go to something else. For me personally, I had a very clear view about what I wanted the system to deliver. The technology is easy to customise and configure. So for any company that's susceptible to change or needs to react quickly, the sensible thing is to retain the internal skills to [customise the system]."

An e-mail logging facility for external customers has recently been added and a Website now allows them to track their own complaints over the Net.

The implementation began in the Midlands and North Western region's Knowsley office where the company's data centre is also located, and was then rolled out region by region to over 300 users. Within six months, customers saw the benefits of the new system, with a single number to call and a clearly defined escalation process for problems. But Rostron has gone a step further, implementing an annual customer satisfaction survey which last year interviewed some 3,600 users.

The survey, instigated 18 months ago and feeding off the Remedy system, rates the company's service out of ten on a number of criteria such as problem resolution, before arriving at a net satisfaction index. It is currently hitting its target of 7.5.

Rostron admits customer satisfaction in service is difficult to measure objectively. An initial complaint is always that agents don't answer the phone; after putting in standard processes and targets, Telewest answers 80 per cent of calls in ten seconds, but that means expectations are greater. "Customer satisfaction deals with people's perceptions. You could have been really dreadful, and just deal with one fault immaculately."

Previous surveys of feelings following a fault would tend only to get a response if the user had something to complain about, but this survey uses a random sample of 30 a day to achieve a broader cross-sectional viewpoint.

Despite the difficulties, she feels it's essential to have an on-the-ground view. "We need to talk to users to find out what they want, so we can get things pitched at the right level. When we survey them, we talk to the people who matter, the people who use our services."

She adds: "In some ways we've been a victim of our own success, but we have to seek improvements. There's always more you can do to improve service to customers."

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