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Customer service 2023: The view from the frontline

Nerys Corfield works closely with contact centres, acting as an advisor and consultant, particularly as they navigate the selection and implementation of new technology. We interviewed her about what she is currently seeing on the ground in UK contact centres.

How is the current economic environment impacting customer service teams?

I can see three different impacts on the contact centre in general, and advisors in particular.

Firstly, consumers are much less patient and tolerant when talking to customer service staff. During the pandemic and its immediate aftermath there was much more of a feeling that everyone was in it together. This sentiment no longer exists and as consumers find themselves under greater financial burdens their tolerance and patience has diminished.  This shift is particularly true for sectors such as energy companies, financial services (especially mortgages) or in discretionary spend categories such as entertainment/TV. Unfortunately, agents are very much acting as a sponge. They have to soak up the concerns, frustrations and even anger of the people they deal with. This has a big impact on their own mental wellbeing which their employers need to recognise and deal with, particularly as advisors are subject to the same economic worries as everyone else. For example. figures from Katy Forsyth at Red Recruitment show that advisors earning a salary of £23,000 find themselves £220 in debt at the end of the month after all their essential bills have been paid.

Secondly, as in any downturn all budgets are being scrutinised, especially in areas that are seen as cost centres such as customer service. This is driving innovation ambition with a focus on shifting interactions to cheaper, digital channels that, in theory, offer a lower cost to serve and don’t compromise on the customer experience. Digital, and particularly self-service, does help companies who face growing advisor costs and higher overall business expenses. However, the focus on cost-cutting could also lead to potential job losses in many contact centres.

Finally, and more positively, many contact centres are using this opportunity to reassess their vision of what the customer experience should be, and how it is delivered. How does customer service reflect their brand and its values? These discussions demonstrate the growing importance of CX to organisations and their success. I’m seeing a greater alignment between CTOs, COOs and CMOs, ensuring they put the right structure and technology in place moving forward. This is a good sign for the future.

Are contact centres shifting to the cloud?

When it comes to deployment, cloud shift is happening, and is being accelerated by the attractiveness that a subscription/OPEX model brings along with the benefits that cloud contact centres provide in terms of next generation interaction and workforce engagement management functionality. Currently from what I understand, and from my experience, less than half of contact centres have rolled out public cloud deployments. However, this is changing quite rapidly as first mover advantages are being understood more broadly across the market and the barriers to change are becoming easier to break down. However, many contact centres are still thinking in an on-premise way, even when moving to the cloud. That means they aren’t getting the complete benefits. They need to change their mindsets to take full advantage of what cloud offers. Additionally, moving to the cloud impacts operational management and budgeting as it makes your cost per advisor/ FTE and interaction a lot more transparent.  This creates a greater level of granularity to understand the business case for continued investment and puts a much greater level of expectation on each contact centre solution.

What is happening with hybrid working?

Contact centres recognise that hybrid working is now an expectation for many in the industry. However, there’s a generational split in attitudes. Those with families, who have to commute long distances or who have accessibility issues, welcome the chance to work from home. However, younger advisors miss the camaraderie, table football and social side of being in an office.

Many contact centres are using hybrid working as an incentive, allowing it when advisors successfully complete their training and achieve high quality scores. Some businesses in particular are benefiting too. For example, I know of an energy company based in London that has actively recruited agents in Scotland, with all their onboarding, training and shifts carried out remotely. This provides cost-effective access to a more diverse and experienced pool of advisors where geography is not an inhibitor to recruitment.

With hybrid working, technology is the vital fabric to provide support and try to emulate the camaraderie a bricks and mortar contact centre offers. Otherwise, it can be very lonely to be sitting at home, dealing with 40-70 interactions a day, day after day, without any sense of belonging or connection to colleagues. Remote working has also exposed gaps in many contact centre operations around knowledge management, governance and support for mindfulness/mental health.

Are contact centres adopting AI?

I’m seeing interest across the board in adopting AI, with a real range of use cases across the tech stack, especially in support functions. For example, contact centres are using it for:

  • Intelligent routing to get interactions to the right agent, faster
  • Better forecasting of resource needs within workforce management
  • More in-depth quality assurance through AI analysis and interactive analytics to understand customer sentiment and customer journey friction points

The rise of generative AI (such as ChatGPT) will make it easier for organisations to create a much more personalised digital experience at scale, but big steps have been made in voice AI too. However, many early consumer-facing deployments of AI didn’t deliver a great experience for customers, meaning a lot of people are not confident in its ability to service their needs effectively. Focusing on use cases that deliver tangible benefits will overcome these concerns over time.

As with any economic downturn, the current situation will have positive and negative impacts on how organisations manage and deliver customer service. Taking a step back and looking at overall operations – and how technology supports them – is therefore vital for making the right decisions moving forward.

About Nerys Corfield

Before setting up her consultancy in 2015, Nerys spent 18 years in some of the UK’s most responsive outsourcers, managing contact centre services for clients like Volkswagen, Vodafone, British Gas, the National Apprenticeship Service and Sky.

Since setting up Injection Consulting, Nerys has immersed herself into the contact centre technology space and is an advisor, a consultant for, and an assessor of vendor technologies. Her time is also spent reviewing contact centre operations, ensuring that before or during technology implementation the Customer and Operational vision are front and centre. Connect with her on Linkedin.