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SA contact centres are delivering increasingly poor service

Call Centres and Telemarketing

If we are really honest with ourselves, the level of service that we experience from the vast majority of South African call Centres is disgustingly poor. And it just keeps getting worse! Granted; there are exceptions. But these exceptions are precious few and far between.

In my opinion we have now run out of excuses. It's high time that we looked for the real reasons why year-on-year, the industry's overall performance levels are dropping, operating costs are increasing significantly and productivity plummeting.

And all happening this within the framework of significant investments in technologies, manpower developments and training. These realities are glaringly obvious.

The big question is: How many call centre or contact centre operators (at executive level) will actually take heed and do anything about this abysmal situation? Or will corporate apathy prevail as the majority of our industry operators slide unchecked from mediocrity into toxicity?

There are excuses. There are realities. And there are some really practical solutions.

Let’s get the excuses over and done with first. Forget about blaming “the former immoral regime.” Yes. There are certainly some legacy issues such as the appalling state of education and we need to work with that reality. Forget about blaming Telkom.

Today we have a myriad of connectivity options to choose from and we have the power to negotiate rates, terms and SLA's as never before. And as for blaming the technologies, forget about that too. Today's contact centre platforms are literally plug 'n play; they are robust and infinitely more affordable than they have ever been in the past. And Integration issues are no longer the nightmare of time and cost that they used to be.

What's more, we have a plethora of well proven hosted or 'cloud' options at our fingertips. It's no longer a risky, 'bleeding edge' option. Hosted is practical. It works. And it's affordable. 

OK. No more excuses. Let's look at the real problems and how to fix them.

Having assessed and audited literally hundreds of call Centres and contact centres during the past two decades I am exceptionally fortunate to have witnessed operations showing everything from the exceptional or 'World Class' to the good, the bad and the ugly.

And there's one common denominator that drives operations either onwards and upwards towards excellence and true "world class" status or takes them down the slippery slope to toxicity and failure. The key is, quite simply, quality management. Or the lack thereof.

The appalling reality is that very, very few operations are taking QA seriously. The first reality is that few contact centre managers truly understand what QA in the content of a contact centre really is. For most, QA is simply listening to a few call recordings every now and then merely to assess if agents are "being nice to customers" or meeting the most basic compliance requirements. But is even that being adequately done? 

Based on feedback that I constantly get from call centre managers, supervisors and team leaders attending my CRM and Contact Centre MasterClass seminars, the actual number of call assessments taking place falls far, far short of the SABS Contact Centre operational standard (SANS990/1/2/3) that call for a minimum of eight call assessments per agent, per month. The excuse is generally given that supervisors and team leaders seldom have the time to do call assessments. That's a scandalous situation, to say the least. But it gets worse!

I believe that based largely on tradition rather than logic, the majority of call centres or contact centres practicing even the most basic QA processes relay heavily on the random monitoring of agent calls. Analysing the numbers associated with this practice reveals some frightening realities. 

According to Cape Town-based contact centre quality assurance consultant and subject matter expert Jackie Naughton of BYC Solution Delivery, the average South African contact centre agent handles approximately 23,000 calls a year. And each of these contacts is the organisation’s "moments of truth;" the interactions with the organisation's most important assets, their customers.

Using the SABS contact centre standards recommendations, the operation (at best!) will monitor and analyse a mere eight of this example agent’s calls each month.

That’s already a surprisingly low figure, a mere 0.4% of the agent's total annual interactions. The law of averages also tells us that statistically of those eight calls being analysed, five will be pretty average; neither good nor bad. 

Only one call will be exceptional with high customer satisfaction ratings and meeting most of the organisation's QA criteria. Another two calls will probably be categorised as representing poor or really bad agent-customer interactions. Here we will find overall customer dissatisfaction, customer-on-hold, inappropriate use of language by the agent, extended call handling times and low levels of compliance with the operation's customer handling requirements and severe deviation from training. 

Here’s the stunning reality: It’s only that one good or great call and the two poorly handed calls that have any significant business impact whatsoever. Average calls have little or no business impact. The numbers therefore tell us that quite apart from wasting massive resources assessing largely average calls, at best, many a contact centre manager is making massive decisions, often with significant and far-reaching implications on critical issues including discipline, motivation, incentives and rewards, agent development, training, process development and improvement, product development and assessment of marketing activities.

And many of these boardroom-backed decisions are being made on a statistical sample of less than 0.15%. Does that make any sense whatsoever? Small wonder contact centre service is deteriorating. We are just not listening enough and how we are listening makes even less sense.

For starters, according to Naughton: “Conducting QA internally is the same as marking your own homework. It doesn’t allow objectivity and often companies have financial impact relating to QA results at agent/team leader levels and yet see it appropriate to allow team leaders or supervisors to score their own peer’s QA. And this is being done without any proper QA training, external audits or effective calibrations.” 

She continues: “That’s predominantly why QA doesn’t serve the board room discussions with any true value.  The entire point of QA is not to ensure that we do the same as every other contact centre but to ensure that we understand in our businesses, what’s working, what isn’t and allow internal processes to fix any risk to customer delivery vs. brand alignment.

There should be no surprises if QA is done correctly. With the current status quo in the average contact centre, having internal QA scores of around 90% with lapse rates increasing, complaints increasing and customer spend or collections payments dropping tells us that the internal QA model just isn’t working. Why then do so many contact centres continue to do more of the same? “

A further issue that’s certainly exacerbating the entire matter of QA is that when we look at the demographics of our customers and then at who is actually doing the quality assessments we immediately see another problem. How few vernacular language calls are actually being assessed? How many calls are simply being skipped over because the assessor lacks the proficiency in that particular language?

It also begs the question: Can an assessor actually be objective when scoring a call in a language other than his or her mother tongue? And while we are about it, let’s consider the implications of The Consumer Protection Act in this context. The Act dictates that every customer has the right to a quality and understandable interaction. 

We simply cannot comply with this requirement when we have incapable, poorly trained (if at all) team leaders or supervisors who simply half-heartedly squeeze in a few QA tasks in-between all their other roles and responsibilities.

Now let's ask the embarrassing question about one-on-one agent coaching. That's when team leaders and supervisors want to run a mile. If the number of call assessments is falling way short of minimum 'best practice' requirements, then the lack of all-important agent coaching is another serious travesty. Bottom line: Very few call centres or contact centres are actually doing adequate agent coaching. But what aggravates the problem is that not one in ten of the average South African contact centre supervisor or team leader has had any formal training in the all-important 'art' of constructive coaching. 

Vast numbers of team leaders, supervisors and quality assessors have been promoted to these roles from agent level and often without the appropriate aptitude, competencies, skills or the necessary training for these critical operational functions.

All this adds up to a very, very serious situation indeed. Our industry is already the bane of the average customer’s life and the source of immense frustration and consequently, the cause of seriously negative brand perceptions. The call centre has the reputation of being the very last place where one can expect great customer service.

Because in most instances customers encounter poorly trained agents with precious little supervisory support, no appropriate career pathing and consequently, the kind of negative attitudes that one can expect from any 'neglected' Y-gen employee. For most they are just doing the call centre job until they get a 'real' job. Are we really surprised that our average South African call centre has an attrition rate up close to the 20% mark, or higher?

All this takes us back to the realities of Quality Assurance in the context of the call centre or contact centre. It's high time that as an industry we took a serious re-look at ourselves and our operations.

It's time to reinvent QA and its myriad dimensions and time not only to think out-of-the-box but to implement dramatically new policies, processes and procedures to turn rapidly declining levels of customer service into tens of thousands of enthralling "wow moments"; making every customer interaction a positive brand-building 'moment of truth'.

The starting point has to be a strategic directive from the highest possible executive level. The organisation, and specifically, the call centre or contact centre, has to be directed, instructed, mandated  and funded to design and implement those 'best practice' quality management and quality assurance processes, methods and interventions that will rapidly turn  the declining service spiral around. 

And the solutions are no longer rocket science. What’s more, if QA is designed and implemented correctly, the organisation will not only experience a dramatic upturn in customer service metrics but very soon the numbers will start coming in; good quality management and quality assurance saves huge amounts of money. Great customer service literally guarantees customer loyalty and increased spend. And what the boardroom wants to hear,increased bottom-line profits.

Jackie Naughton puts it well: “Organisations who truly want to understand their realities without using QA as ‘Big Brother’s Big Stick’  but rather, to protect their entire business interests, are outsourcing some or all of their QA functions. Not only is outsourcing more cost effective, it is infinitely more objective and allows for fast, independent and unbiased guidance on how to fix operational and process problems. 

Another true benefit of outsourcing is that QA is not purely an internal contact centre process; it should be a value add to the entire organisation and it absolutely has to fulfil its primary goals.“

Perhaps one of the reasons why contemporary QA is so misunderstood and why it is being so poorly under-resourced is that the term itself is misleading in the current realities. Perhaps it will be taken more seriously when we re-name the QA function as “Customer Experience Management”. 

Think about it. Many organisations will spend millions on having external customer research and surveys conducted to produce typical annual ‘Customer Satisfaction Index’ reports. But with appropriate resourcing, training and internal systems the contact centre can be constantly feeding a stream of vital business intelligence directly into the boardroom and often in near real-time so that problems and issues can be resolved immediately.

Now that’s managing the internal and external customer experience. That’s managing the business.

Granted, transition will not be easy and it will require absolute commitment and support from the highest echelons of the organization. The strategic and operational direction is readily available from many of our industry's true Thought Leaders and operators of several of South Africa's recognized "World Class" contact centres. 

Many of these 'Strategic Pioneers' willingly share their service delivery strategies and methods at conference presentations, in white papers, in media interviews and at industry executive and management development forums. They are certainly well worth listening to.

A few years ago the mere concept of outsourcing the QA function to an independent specialist organisation was anathema to many contact centre managers. However, the reality is that throughout the world outsourcing of QA is showing that not only does it have  a significant short-term cost saving but the value of the true business intelligence that is the core deliverable of the outsource service provider is immense.

It’s just the stuff that the boardroom wants to hear. And the turnaround in actual service to customers is quite dramatic. Examples of superior South African contact centre operations passionate about their service quality that are using specialist outsourced QA services include Virgin Mobile, Old Mutual, RCS, Media24,, Metropolitan, Momentum and FNB
So, here are a few pointers how to get your contact centre’s real customer service back on track…

One: Re-look at random call monitoring. Interaction analytics and other technology-aided QA solutions can be of massive benefit. Also, relook at the entire QA process in your operation; from how calls are selected to how they are actually being assessed, and by whom. 

Two: Take a broader view of QA. It’s no longer merely the telephone calls that need to be assessed, it’s all customer interactions; it’s the working environment; it’s the organisation’s relationship with its people; both internal and external. These factors all have a bearing on customer service. 

Three: Seriously consider calling in an external QA specialist to at least re-engineer your quality processes but quite possibly to take over all or some of the day-to-day QA functions. You will never regret it.

Rod Jones.  Lonehill.
+27 (0)82-5658-9976

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