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by Jed Hewson

The effects of the global recession was keenly felt in call centres, with managers and IT under increasing pressure to lower costs, but some of the tactics may be doing more harm than good.

Staff costs are, of course, the most significant expenditure in any call centre and in an effort to reduce these costs, the market has seen an uptake in companies that choose to use low-cost, self-service channels to complete simple transactions and queries. These might include interactive voice response (IVR), whereby users select menu options, SMSes, social media and web portals. Others increasingly turn to multimedia options in an effort to decrease the workforce.

Although this does drive call volumes down, call centers shouldn’t be quick to dismiss the importance of the role of voice in customer service.  A survey conducted by Interactive Intelligence in May this year found that 59% of respondents still preferred to communicate with agents “live” via the telephone, as opposed to only 1% who preferred social media and the 4% who preferred a self-service option via the Web.

We can deduce that whilst multimedia and self-service options can greatly enhance any call center voice offering, it can’t replace voice in its entirety. Distance learning organisation UNISA discovered this when, in 2011, in an effort to drive down costs, they decided to close down the voice element of their call center, preferring to communicate with students via SMS, e-mail and Web tools. Disgruntled students immediately took to the web to complain, even launching a petition urging the institution to bring back the call centre.

My guess would be that UNISA had underestimated the power of human interaction as a form of brand-building, or that they had simply not evaluated the types of queries they were likely to receive. One of the most significant complaints students had was that character limits on SMSes and tweets made it difficult to relate complex information via the channel, and volumes of texts and emails went unanswered. It may have been better for them to slightly reduce their workforce, and to divert simple queries (such as basic student or course information) to a self-service channel, with the option to speak to an agent if the need should arise.

Of course, none of this means that multi-channel call centers or self-service tools are ineffective or unwanted. After all, they were developed to improve customer satisfaction – not necessarily to replace agents – and with the right provider they can certainly do so. In fact, many of the gripes that customers have about self-service options in particular has less to do with the tools themselves, and more to do with poor implementation or a lack of understanding about how individuals prefer interacting with companies.

There are numerous ways of cutting costs in your call center, but a company should never lose sight of the customer. Speak to your technology provider about finding a happy medium. Partner with them to find out how new tools can enhance your voice offering.  The business case for social media and multi-channel call centers was based on the fact that companies should speak to their customers using the tools their customers prefer to use. At the moment, that preference is for a mixture of voice and other channels – which, if balanced and managed correctly – can not only cut costs but improve customer service.

And whilst that may still change, it may be a while before the first “voiceless” call center becomes a success.

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