Customer focus: making contact centres work in the Middle East

The contact centre business within the Middle East is about to boom as local companies seek to build and strengthen relationships with their customers and drive efficiency through technology. The first of the region's multi-million dollar implementations have already taken place and order books are filling fast.
Key to this rapid market growth is the increasing realisation that contact centres play a major part in building future business.

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By  Patrick Phelvin Published  November 23, 2003

Introduction|~||~||~|The contact centre business within the Middle East is about to boom as local companies seek to build and strengthen relationships with their customers and drive efficiency through technology. The first of the region’s multi-million dollar implementations, such as those at Etisalat and Gulf Air, have already taken place and order books are filling fast.

Key to this rapid market growth is the increasing realisation that contact centres, which deal with customers through mediums such as e-mail, fax, live internet interaction, integrated voice recognition (IVR) and one-to-one voice calls, play a major part in building future business.

Furthermore, recent developments such as internet protocol (IP) telephony and a dramatic increase in internet penetration have allowed companies to realise the true value of multi-media contact centres in terms of cost savings and added efficiency.
The rewards for businesses that create customer contact centres can be great, including increased customer loyalty, higher unit spend rates, reduced operating costs and heightened efficiency. Also, the latest software solutions promise to deliver a greater understanding of customers through a raft of data reporting tools.

Underscoring the importance of building customer loyalty through the contact centre is the fact that customers calling into centres are more likely to do repeat business by more than 18%, according to the Society for Consumer Affairs (SOCAP).
Mounir Ariss, managing director of Peppers & Rogers Group Middle East, argues that these figures can be improved upon yet further through the intelligent use of the latest technology.

“When someone calls a contact centre they call for different reasons, sometimes to complain, sometimes to ask about products, sometimes to ask for a credit card application. Customers have various different needs. Understanding those needs and predicting those needs when a call comes in will help the contact centre agent serve the customer in a more customer-friendly way.... and make them more reluctant to take their business elsewhere in the future,” he explains.

On paper, the benefits of implementing the latest contact centre technologies are huge. Vendors such as Avaya, Aspect and Nortel can build systems that allow companies with large numbers of customers to offer bespoke services and differentiate between customer needs based on their value to a business.

Firms can also use data gathering to build a picture of a customer’s potential value and establish a learning relationship with a customer based on their history with the company. This method enables companies to tailor services to specific customer groups. When used effectively, IVR can satisfy customers quickly and free up operators to concentrate on sales calls. Furthermore, IP telephony can save international operators millions of dollars on telephone calls.

Although the local market is still some way behind early adopters in the US and Europe, firms in the Middle East are catching up fast and realising customer contact centres can deliver. In addition, customers are getting used to the idea of dealing with companies over the phone or via the internet rather than face to face.||**||Gulf Air goes for top-end solution|~||~||~|
Major regional players like Gulf Air, the Dubai Government and Abu Dhabi International Bank have been confident enough to invest heavily in state-of-the-art contact centre technology and are evangelising its cost and time-saving benefits. Furthermore, big names in contact centre solutions — like HP, Cisco, Aspect and 3Com — have set themselves ambitious sales targets for the region and CRM firms such as Altitude Software and US consultants Peppers & Rogers are setting up new Middle East offices to tap into the region’s enthusiasm.

At the top end of the market, Gulf Air is already reaping the benefits of the latest technology from its new US$39 million contact centre at Knowledge Oasis Muscat (KOM) in Oman. The carrier transformed its customer contact centre operation in three months by outsourcing its requirement to KOM contact centre operator InfoLine.
The centre utilises Cisco technology that was implemented and customised for the airline by HP. The solution includes IP telephony, intelligent call managing systems, an internet service mode, network interactive response and e-mail integration. The centre is governed by Cisco 5400 gatekeepers, which manage bandwidth and act as a point of control for user authentication, call authorisation and accounting.

The centre is designed to give customers a seamless experience. As such, it uses intelligent call managing software to recognise customers by their telephone number. Automatic call dispatching then patches the user through to a specialist operator team. Historic data, which was transferred to the new system from Gulf Air’s legacy apps in Bahrain, tells the operator the customer’s preferred seat, class, food and route. Faxes are recognised by headers and e-mails by address. Both are dispatched in a similar way to calls.

Furthermore, if a customer logs onto gulfairco.com and starts to work out a route, the contact centre is automatically informed and an agent calls the customer. The agent can then create a pop-up window on the customer’s screen to demonstrate other cheaper or quicker routes.
Gulf Air is already seeing cost savings through the IP technology that replaced its PABX system. The operator used to foot the bill for international freephone calls from 60 sales centres around the region. These are now routed through lines using IP telephony on bandwidth leased on scaleable rates.

Since the centre went live, HP has provided an on site staff of three engineers who deliver round-the clock support. They are backed up by HP’s Observatory unit, which is based in Brussels and uses predictive monitoring to pre-empt any hardware or software failure.
“The reservations function is essentially the nerve centre of an airline and the introduction of this world class facility will guarantee an unprecedented level of consistent and professional service delivery, as well as the convenience of 24-hour, 7 days a week access for our customers throughout the entire Middle East region,” says James Hogan, president & chief executive, Gulf Air. ||**||DHL happy with cost-effective system|~||~||~|
“This centre is very advanced and its features definitely deliver customer satisfaction and loyalty,” adds Alaa Al Shimy, group manager of network solutions at HP in the Middle East.
While Gulf Air has invested heavily in contact centre technology, significant benefits can be realised by companies with less capital outlay through careful planning and implementation.

A year ago, DHL UAE invested US$49,000 in a new call management system (CMS) from Avaya through the firm’s local distributor Future Technology. DHL has used many of the system’s 100 reporting features, coupled with inhouse developed Genysys-based package tracking software and a QMAX workforce management tool, to deliver better than average results. The UAE country office answers 90% of the 4000 calls it receives each day within 15 seconds, a 5% improvement on DHL’s global standard and a vast improvement of the international average of 80% of calls within 20 seconds. The contact centre has a hang up rate of 0.2% when the DHL target rate is anything below 1%.

The Unix-based CMS, which runs on Sun hardware, took just two days to install. It can report down to 15 minute intervals and the company, which operates the centre around the clock, has yet to resort to its manual back-up plans which are in place should the system fail.
The CMS can report on each of DHL’s 40 operators’ productivity, wrap up time, and how much time they have taken away from their terminal. It can also highlight particular problem areas. For example, if an operator spends longer than average handling complaints it will earmark them for extra training in this area.

DHL’s IVR system allows customers to find out the status of their delivery without using an operator, freeing up operator time to deal with sales calls, which now account for 10% of the company’s revenue. The rostering features of QMAX, which takes data direct from the CMS, means the centre can be run on tight margins because managers can get staffing levels right based on historic data, a tool that is particularly useful in the Middle East due to demand level changes throughout the different religious holidays.

“The CMS made a huge difference to our operation. It is very user friendly, which is a major benefit when it comes to training new staff. It only requires more training in terms of customising reports. And what we want to customise is very minimal because it gives us 100 reports of which we use around 60%,” says Lynda Fernandes, DHL customer interface manager. “We have developed systems that work well for us. Long term support works better for us inhouse because it works out cheaper.”

The firm has yet to utilise IP telephony but is shifting an increasing amount of its customer interface onto the internet through its Web Shipping service. A dedicated member of staff deals with faxes and e-mails at the centre. DHL plans to instigate some changes over the coming months as the company seeks to standardise its non-core applications worldwide by the end of 2005, but until then the company remains more than satisfied with its CMS application. ||**||Contact centres into the future|~||~||~|
Such satisfaction, and an increasing number of contact centre success stories around the region, is causing businesses to wake up to the potential financial benefits of transforming call centres into the primary point of contact for clients. As such, the sector looks set for significant growth in the region.

“There is a lot of potential for growth in the Middle East. I have read a lot of market research papers, some of them predicting that the UAE CRM market alone will be worth US$100 million within five or six years,” says Ariss. “It has always been beneficial to strengthen and deepen customer relations no matter what kind of company you have and companies here are getting more focussed on that through contact centres,” he adds.

Fernandes agrees. “The future is contact centres. Last year there was something like 110,000 people working in contact centres [around the world]. In the UAE [contact centres] have a bright future because of the language options and the outsourcing options available. I think the future is contact centres supported by CRM solutions,” she says.
HP, which claims its partnership with Cisco is responsible for 40% of all contact centre implementations in the Middle East, is equally bullish about the prospects here. “In Europe and the US, for business reasons, technology tends to have early adoption with this region following through as an early majority,” says HP’s marketing manager, Ian Jagger.

“However, we find that once that majority starts to pick up, regional take up from enterprising organisations is very rapid indeed. They [companies here] will more than catch up,” he predicts.
Despite the enthusiasm of vendors, the full potential of contact centres cannot be realised unless the technology is implemented with a clear set of goals in mind. Strategy and vision are the starting points for successful implementation.

Once these have been defined, companies need to design business processes and decide which kind of functions the centre is going to serve, whether it be complaint handling, order tracking or telemarketing. Then a company can decide what kind of information it wants to gather about its customers and what it is going to do with that information to leverage increased customer loyalty. Finally, the technology to achieve that vision must be sourced.

The vice president of Altitude Middle East, Africa & South Asia, Riadh Boukhris, says too many contact centre implementations fail to achieve return on investment [ROI] because of inadequate planning. "Poor ROI is just another name for project failure. In reality, enterprises have been experiencing two classical scenarios of CRM projects failure. One is when the project is too ambitious, which means it takes too long and loses momentum, and the second is when the project is too scattered. Here, the lack of coherence leads to failure," he explains.

Ariss agrees, and says successful contact centre implementation is only achieved when a company does the requisite amount of groundwork. “You hear a lot of CRM horror stories about companies investing millions of dollars and then scrapping that investment because they could not get anywhere. In a lot of cases this is because they did not have a clear plan or implementation roadmap. Technology is an enabler for strategies and processes. It has driven all the developments in this field for the last decade, but should not be implemented without proper planning,” he advises.
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