Don’t Leave Me Hanging On The Telephone

Recent reports on charges levied by a range of service providers, especially banks, provide some interesting food for thought.

Telephone Dog

The Which! Survey suggested that some providers are making money from customer contact centres, leaving customers waiting for several minutes in a queue, with little transparency as to whether callers are ringing a free number or “premium rate” lines.

A recent Times article on UK banking charges also found that customers find these ‘hidden’ or unfair fees unacceptable.

Regardless of motive, one thing is for sure; that feeling of dread when we need to make contact with the bank, electricity or gas provider or even the local council.

The anticipation is that we will have to go through a call handling system that asks us to punch in or shout out numbers, that we invariably get wrong first time, only to be asked to repeat them when we finally get to talk to a live agent; we wonder if it’s worth making contact at all!

For those that do persevere and get through, tempers can often be frayed. Customer services agents can deal with many angry callers per day – perhaps this is why some sectors see staff attrition rates of 25%.

The Implications

So who wins in this system? Certainly not the caller or the agent. Now that it is so much easier to switch service providers, they will lose out too, unless they overhaul their customer service and contact strategies. According to Which! utilities companies had the best call answer times, I wonder if this has anything to do with the frequent advertising from these companies prompting us to “switch and save”?

The Need

To address this need for improved customer service many organisations, in private and public sector alike, are beginning to use multiple channels as part of their contact strategy, making use of each medium for customer interaction, including the web.

According to analyst firm, Contact Babel, a face-to-face interaction costs a provider 15p, a phone call 4.82p and a web interaction as as a penny. The reason for this huge saving, is that according to Contact Babel, 45% of calls or visits to a service provider, whether it’s a bank, airline or council, are for information purposes; information that can be displayed and accessed multiple times, with little maintenance, on a website. The second most popular reason for contact, 41% of interactions, is to complete a simple transaction like paying a bill, a fare or parking fine or transferring funds between accounts.

The Options

Many providers, especially those such as councils who are looking to drive efficiency savings have seen the cost savings and service benefits of moving routine payment systems online. There are many more services that could follow suit. For commercial businesses, the benefits relate not only to cost but to competitive advantage. If customers increasingly want to make contact via alternative media such as a mobile device or online chat then they will tend to choose a provider that meets these needs.

However, providing multi-channel service delivery is not just about making other channels available as alternatives. Key to the success of a multi-channel strategy is channel shifting – the art of educating and persuading customers to use service options that are more convenient for them and more cost effective for the service provider.

Many councils have spent time profiling their citizens to gain an understanding of which groups are likely to require which services through particular channels. This allows authorities to target the provision of alternative delivery channels to those who will benefit most. For example, whilst the elderly may well be able to benefit from web access, they are far less likely to make use of mobile apps. Equally queries relating to, for example, leisure activities are likely to be made by younger citizens for whom a mobile app may well be appropriate.

The Debate

But do people really want to make contact via the web? Aren’t we happier if we can just call and talk to a customer service representative? Well possibly, but that may be changing.

With 71% of UK households and 87% of UK businesses now having broadband access the UK has wholeheartedly adopted the internet with much of the population now experienced users of online services (and with the U35 “generation y” being digital natives). Online users are used to accessing services anytime and anywhere yet many call centres operate only during office hours – alarmingly frustrating for many.

Perhaps the answer is a blend of two access channels. Last month I got the opportunity to try out my bank’s click to chat service. When I tried to register my new credit card online I found I couldn’t. I noticed a click to chat window and thought I would give it a try. An agent responded instantly and resolved my query expertly and without fuss – the whole interaction took less than a minute. A great experience for me and good news for the bank – excellent customer service level at lower cost.

The Flip Side

So for people like me this is great. I own a computer, have access to the internet, I’m IT savvy and feel I don’t have time to make the call. For other customers this may not be the case and accessing online services may not be a preferred option or even an appropriate one. But providing services online shouldn’t mean the end of direct, personal, contact. In fact it should mean that, with more people using an online service, those that need to make a call can get through quicker and experience a better quality of service. Of course this will only happen if a call centre’s objectives are set so that quality of customer service is rewarded.

Providers that invest in quality, training their agents to fact find and understand more about their customers, will be the winners. When you understand your customers better, you are then able to provide them with more, and better, services.


It looks like online services provision, as part of a blended set of contact options, rather than a wholesale replacement of the call centre is the way forward. Online services should complement the call centre, allowing agents to focus on helping those most in need..

About the Author

Helen Rutherford is director of 2e2, an agile, customer-focused provider of IT services that support the goals of the way organisations work today.

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