Last month Noble Systems came out with a survey that it had commissioned which revealed that 97 percent of respondents expect their businesses to grow or remain stable in 2010, a sign, it says "of strong confidence in the industry." According to the survey, 48 percent expected that their business would grow in 2010 while 49 percent believed it would remain consistent. Only three percent anticipated a revenue reduction for the year.
"The survey confirms something we've known for years: the contact center industry is one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy," said James K. Noble, President and CEO of Noble Systems. "The overwhelmingly positive response reflects the strong diversity and innovation in the field today. Contact centers are an integral part of customer relationship management in an increasingly global and virtual marketplace."
This is great news. Yet is it time to finally fire up the bulldozers on that new center?
The hard reality is that the U.S. is still in the economic doldrums, with high unemployment and underemployment and long-term indebtedness that has squished consumers' pocketbooks. Bottom line: less spending resulting in fewer calls to contact centers for orders and service.
A USA Today story written by the Associated Press reported that consumer borrowing had fallen in February by $11.5 billion according to the Federal Reserve. This marks the 12th decrease in the past 13 months "as consumers slash borrowing in the face of a deep economic recession and high unemployment."
"It marks a setback to hopes that U.S. consumers are beginning to feel more confident and will start spending more," says the story.
Just as consumers struggle to pay expenses, credit card debts, auto loans and mortgages comes another kick in the pants: soaring property taxes despite the collapse in property values as reported in stories like this one also from USA Today.
One can partially blame local governments for this one. Yes they got stuck with maintaining roads, schools, sewers, transit and other infrastructure and services to accommodate massive sprawl thanks to the look-the-other-way of-Washington at the Ponzi scheme hatched by Wall Street over the past two decades to mask the risk of extending credit and making loans and granting mortgages to those who could not afford them.
On the other hand, lured by the contractor/developer-financed (via campaign contributions) myth that all development is good these governments eagerly paved the way, ignoring that the infrastructure and properties have to be serviced--greenfield sprawl costs far more than that for brownfield compact neighborhoods.
Couple that with banks credit tightening and other nickel-and-diming and the result is fewer nickels and dimes for goods and services, and for the jobs that their spending generates.
Yet would a return of good times of just a few years ago mean likewise for North American contact centers? Well...not exactly.
Yes, companies have finally realized that customers prefer to speak to high quality agents and will switch, depending on the ease of it for that product or service if the service stinks.
On the other hand a rising economy, assuming it is coupled with more jobs means higher contact center turnover and costs and ultimately fewer centers, and jobs. Why? Because with web and IVR/speech self-service taking the more of the basic calls, agents get the difficult and unhappy ones.
At the same time too many contact centers still haven't gotten the message that it pays to recruit and train qualified supervisors: these outfits still lazily promote the best agents to those jobs even though they do not have the talents to manage people.
Working eight hours being screamed at by customers...while being yelled at by those who should never should have been promoted to those role in the first place...is it any wonder why turnover is high?
This is far from a North American phenomenon. The realities of contact center work, coupled with unsociable hours to serve the North American market have hiked turnover offshore in countries like India, with the arrival of higher-value BPO and IT work, resulting in higher costs. In India, like in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere, as soon as better quality employment openings appear, many agents are "outta here".
At the same time new media like the social channel requires agents with better comprehension and communications skills. It isn't enough to have a nice voice anymore. Yet the agents too often do not have them, reports experts I've interviewed, thanks to the once-great American educational system having been turned into a glorified babysitting service.
Is there a way to better times, and growth for contact centers? Yes and the steps are these:
* Accept that customers generally go Web first, IVR/speech rec second and live agent as a last resort. Focus on making web and voice self-service great experiences, coupled them where needed to outbound notifications link them with live agents and customers' experiences (and attitudes) will be greatly improved
* Move to more flexible home-based agents that enable higher quality service and productivity at lower costs from employer-subsidized premises, such as what companies like Telus in Canada is gradually doing and what JetBlue has long operated with. Going home means less money handed over by rents in local taxes.
Bottom line: home agents puts money back in organizations's pockets. And with today's advanced (thanks to companies like Noble) switching/routing, monitoring, scheduling, and screening training technologies and methods there is no reason whatsoever to have these costly facilities anymore
* Hire smart, pay more and provide stable hours. Don't rely on diplomas and degrees. They're the crutches of hopeless HR departments. Screen and test applicants to get whom you need. And don't jerk your staff around on hours and shifts. Find out which ones work best for them attitude/performance/lifewise and you will benefit in spades
* Get smart on supervision. Please. I've lost track how many times I and others have beseeched contact centers and they keep making the same mistakes. Contact center agents, like most workers will tolerate high stresses caused by the nature of the work but they have little patience for arrogant, incompetent, inconsiderate supervisors and managers
Together these methods cut costs, improve productivity and lead to better, more profitable service--benefits if achieved by every organization in all departments--- will help create a solid, sustainable and job-wealth-creating economic recovery.