• Raising the game in call centers

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    MIKE WOOTTON

    MIKE WOOTTON

    Interesting that a recent survey by Which magazine in the UK discovered that the one thing that consumers disliked the most across all aspects of consumerism was dealing with call centers and automated telephone systems. Fifty-three percent of consumers put these twin issues at the top of their list of pet hates. “Call centers and telephone systems are the biggest customer service gripes by far. Firms need to up their game—those that don’t give customers the care and attention they deserve risk losing out to their competitors.”

    Well, I have to say I’m not surprised. Most calls around here, looking for some form of “service,” go through automated telephone systems or to call centers, or both. If after trying all other avenues for resolution the only possible option left is to make a call to “customer service” at say Sky or PLDT, SMART, Globe or worse a bank, then be prepared to spend anything up to an hour and make sure you have all the necessary reference numbers with you to type in at the auto-voice prompt. It’s a real pain. In the Philippines, of course, communications firms do not really need to “up their game to avoid losing out to competitors” as there aren’t any true competitors!

    The power of competition in the UK is such that the article claims that inadequate service is costing companies £7.7bn (P539 billion) a year in lost business. Banks, broadband, energy and mobile phone service providers are all losing out by failing to reach acceptable standards—with banks missing out on £2.3bn (P160 billion) as savers switch accounts because of negative experiences.

    But this is not a whine about call centers and the modern-day necessity to deal with them. It’s about the dislike by UK consumers of their function and the publication of this dislike in an influential journal such as Which. So far, where consumers are concerned, call centers are a turn-off, which just may persuade the retailers to try to find other ways of handling customer service—bad news for the Philippines’ call-center business and some of its one million or so employees.

    The call-center business is based on the use of cheaper labor made available through communications technology. This model is not new as it has been in use for years with engineers doing design work in, say, the Philippines at cheaper labor costs for projects being developed in the advanced economies. It’s not ideal but it does work in that context and of course the generic term “call center” or “business process outsourcing” covers many tasks that are not connected with consumer-retailer interfacing. There is no doubting the capability of Filipinos to serve the advanced economies’ needs for professional support despite the complaints in Which and the current criticisms of job loss in the United States, for example, to outsource service providers.

    Booking air tickets, answering queries for telephone numbers and those incessant and really annoying credit control calls are fairly low-end services requiring minimal skills. Medical transcription and payroll administration require more knowledge and skill and engineering design work needs considerable knowledge and skill and can provide real added value.

    Ireland established an industrial model, which fostered the development of higher skill levels along with a policy to strongly encourage foreign direct investment, an initiative in which it has been highly successful through the effort of the Ireland Investment Promotion Agency, the IDA. As a spin-off from this initiative, knowledge-based industries and services were fostered and grew accordingly. Admittedly, the Philippines is not very foreign direct-investment-focused and consequently cannot expect its labor force in the knowledge-based industries to be propelled fast forward by foreign investor training and development as was the case in Ireland. “Raising the game” in the Philippines’ BPO area is something that should be done for the country to be able to look at the quality of skill that is needed to foster BPO growth in a world in which simple low-level telephone answering services may just have a shorter life than was at first anticipated.

    There are many skills in the Philippines that can be exported as services but far better value and satisfaction could be gained by concentrating on further development of knowledge-based call center services rather than just talking about achieving the employment of one million people in the sector.

    Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com.

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