Calling the shots

Customer service has long been neglected by the region’s businesses. Now the drive for customers and competitive advantage is pushing the initial wave of customer call centres. But do these expensive and complex solutions provide a real return on investment?

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By  Mark Sutton Published  December 23, 2000

Customer service has long been neglected by the region's businesses. Now the drive for customers and competitive advantage is pushing the initial wave of customer call centres. But do these expensive and complex solutions provide a real return on investment?

Despite all the advances made toward e-business and e-commerce in the region, it seems that one part of the equation is hopelessly lacking – customer service. Sometimes customer service can seem like a dirty word in the Middle East.

A colleague recently attempted to buy a PC from a major computer reseller in Dubai. He was confronted by staff with inaccurate stock availability information, conflicting information between website and showroom, a lack of product information, no attempt to assess his requirements, inability to process credit card payments, poor availability of credit facilities, showrooms that would rather close for lunch than complete a sale, and no attempt at value-add sales of extended warranties or complementary products.

His final comment on the experience was that these companies just didn’t seem to want his $1000, and he hoped that he never had to take his purchase back to get it serviced.

The story may be anecdotal, but it is typical of the obstacles encountered by consumers in the region, and it extends from retail to services to B2B to government bodies. It is not a question of whether staff are polite or not, it is down to whether businesses can identify what their customers want, cater to those needs and learn how to add value to their transactions. Very simple business logic seems to be confounded by overwhelming indifference in even the most progressive of organisations.

The problem seems to have a number of causes. Too many companies haven’t had to deal with competition for too long, and so haven’t had to think too hard about keeping their customers. Agency agreements, telecom and utilities monopolies have meant have created an air of unaccountability . A lack of competition has meant that there has been no value in investing in the customer relationship. Generally companies have looked at every way of maximising their investment without any regard to the ultimate consumer.

Thankfully this blinkered approach is being challenged. Multinational companies, fighting for market share on a global scale, are introducing more progressive customer-orientated thinking to the region, the Internet is opening up markets and giving consumers greater choice, and the World Trade Organisation is looking to come down hard on restrictive monopolies. The wake-up call for companies that don’t serve their customers has been sounded.

One sure sign that customer service is undergoing a revolution in the region is the launch of the call centre, the initial step in CRM. A number of businesses, mainly IT companies and banks, announced the opening of help desks and telephone based services over the past year. These call centres perform numerous different roles and are given different titles across various organisations, but they all form a part of the businesses’ customer relationship management (CRM) initiatives.

“You will see call centre, customer care, customer support, customer relationship, customer contact point — the meaning of all of these is how can I consolidate all the customer contact points and make sure that I understand what my customer needs,” explained Sammer Karawi, alliance & global services marketing manager for Compaq MEMA. “Rather than focusing on what you want to sell to your customer, you must focus on what your customer needs and how you can help him. The call centre is just one component of CRM.”

Listening to the customer was one of the main drivers behind Compaq establishing a call centre at its regional headquarters in Jebel Ali, UAE. The company opened the centre at the start of June 2000. It has multiple roles, providing pre- and post-sales support, technical support and marketing for Compaq.

Karen Bell-Wright, marketing manager for eCommerce and CRM for Compaq MEMA, and one of the initiators of the call centre, said it provides them with a rare commodity in this region — market intelligence. “It is really difficult for companies, particularly here where the [sales] structure is based on us selling to a distributor, to a reseller and then to a customer, to get a better idea of what our customers needed,” she said. “Our call centre agents are really the earpiece for the market, and it is amazing the amount of information we have found out about our market and our customers.”

Bell-Wright said that at the start of the project, Compaq had no idea of what sort of call volumes it could expect for customer support. A rough estimate settled on the figure of around 40 calls per week. The centre actually receives at least 1,000 inbound calls per week, handling calls for the UAE in Arabic and English. Compaq now plans to make the centre regional, with a separate facility to cater for Saudi Arabia.

As well as end users, the service is utilised by resellers for sales support, plus Compaq agents make over 600 outbound calls a week for marketing campaigns. The marketing function has been so successful that Compaq reports generating $1.5 million in sales since its launch. “It is a lot of different things,” said Bell-Wright. “It is a sales exercise, it’s a marketing exercise — we have found it to be phenomenally successful. A lot of our products are becoming something of a commodity, so you have to differentiate yourselves in the market. If somebody wants to buy Compaq versus another brand, it makes a difference if they know they can call our call centre or log onto our website and we will respond to them. It is a differentiator.”

Differentiation is a primary driver behind the adoption of call centres in another market sector — banking. Telebanking services are rapidly gaining popularity in a region where financial services have previously been somewhat lacking. In the UAE Mashreq Bank and HSBC are both running large call centres for customer enquiries, and several more banks are interested in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. A crowded local banking market, and pressure from international and virtual competition is forcing banks to examine CRM strategies.

“Banks are seeing competition come in from the Internet, any bank can sell anything across the world,” said Karawi. “Well-established banks recognise that they are losing the personalised touch, that they used to have when the customer would walk into the bank branch. They are losing touch with the customer so they are trying to recapture the customer with CRM projects.”

The most obvious move towards improved telephone-based CRM is the Integrated Voice Response (IVR) systems deployed by many banks. IVRs provide account details and other basic information to customers without the need to use a human operator. HSBC Bank has just over 80,000 clients registered for its telephone banking services out of a customer base of 150,000.

Those 80,000 customers made 133,000 calls to HSBC during November 2000 — 108,000 of those calls were handled by the bank’s IVR. “We use the telephone as a way of freeing the customer from having to go through a long and tortuous process to gain simple information, such as account balances and statements, leaving more time for the operatives to talk to the clients about their real problems,” said Bernard Payne, senior manager of personal banking at HSBC. “By far and away the vast majority of our calls are handled quite competently by IVR.”

HSBC follows up its IVR with two separate call centres with some 75 operators. However, not all banks have really got their eye on customer service, according to Paul Dossor, partner with Bahrain-based call centre solution provider Call Centre Middle East (CCME). “In Australia, they have one of the highest concentrations of ATMs — the reason the bank put them in wasn’t because they were doing the customer any service, it was to drive the cost of the transaction down,” he said. “In some cases the IVR system is brilliant — from a business perspective it gives economies of scale. But from a customer perspective they like to hear a human voice.”

Dossor believes that the resistance to CRM is partly because companies cannot see the return on investment. He cites several cases of companies, including airlines and banks, that ignored call centre projects, because they saw CRM as a ‘soft issue’, with no direct relation to the bottom line.

“The only time people will wake up to [retaining customers] is when they don’t see their customers coming through the door anymore,’ he said. “In Bahrain we have seventeen banks — that’s twelve too many. If three or four banks amalgamate you will see a better grade of service, but often the customer base is too small to justify putting in a contact centre. But then you go back to the argument of ‘if we put this call centre in, will we increase our market share?’ well, the answer is ‘no’ but you will retain customers, and if you don’t do it now, six to twelve months from now, someone else will.”

The other main driver behind the growth of call centres is the advent of the Internet. Companies are finding that having a Web site is not enough — they need to have a support structure behind it. Answered e-mails to webmasters are no longer acceptable. “If you have a web operation then it goes hand-in-hand with a call centre,” Bell-Wright commented. “People need to be able to pick up the phone and have support, to get a response if they ask something of the Web site.”

IT companies are certainly aware of the issue. Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Acer all have online help systems backed up by support centres or help desks. Unfortunately it is not a lesson that has been learnt by many e-businesses in the Middle East. Nick Dutt is sales and marketing director for Cupola Teleservices (CTS), a call centre outsourcer that provides facilities to a number of businesses in the UAE, including Hewlett-Packard, Manasek Travel Agents and Omo washing powder.

He says that companies here don’t seem to realise the negative impact an unsupported Web site can have: “Virtually every company in this region has got a Web site — virtually none have got the support behind it,” said Dutt. “65% of all shopping carts are abandoned. If you have a call centre you can save 20-30% of those carts — that’s straight, bottom-line revenue.”

“If you look at Amazon.com, it has been very successful as a model,” he said. “If you send an e-mail to them you get an immediate response — a lot of that is automated, but there are a lot of people behind it. That needs to be emulated elsewhere by people like Tejari.com and Commerce One Middle East if they are going to be successful in the region.”

Most operators say that the way forward is to offer more channels between the customer and the company, either telephone, e-mail, Web, fax, or whatever the customer chooses. The volumes of enquiries that can be handled by an IVR or an e-mail response system make them a much more cost effective method, and the operators recognise that not every customer actually wants to talk to an operator.

Choice is the driver. However, it is once you begin to integrate the customer channels that CRM technology begins to get complicated. The challenge is to have one view of the customer, whether they contact you by phone, or email or in person, and to be able to combine multiple channels in your response to provide the most effective service. But it is not easy: “Businesses are providing service over multiple channels, and trying to do more with those channels, but you really need an integrated customer service strategy,” said Colleen Amuso, research director with Gartner Group.

“Organisations are making baby steps towards that goal, realising that all customer interaction needs to be centralised in some way, but what is missing is, that if I send an e-mail to my bank, or my VCR manufacturer or to any service provider, it is very unlikely that if I called, or wanted to do a web chat ten minutes later about the e-mail, that they would have access to that e-mail.”

It is not the CRM packages that are lacking says Amuso. “There is certainly the capability within these packages to [integrate channels],” she said. “But the solution is not contained within the package. It needs to be integrated to many different databases, to the communications channels — you can’t just buy Siebel or Oracle and have integrated multi-channel management. You need to customise it and integrate it — basically it is a monumental project.”

Amuso says integration may well require the use of third party expertise, middleware, and a close examination of business processes to fit the system. Staff also need to be integrated with the system: “Integrating these channels is great, but if you don’t train people then you are up a creek,” she said.

The solutions certainly enable much greater depth of interaction for customer handling. HP is able to call up the complete product information and service history for each customer that rings into its UAE call centre. Telephone systems can identify the caller and make sure that their call is routed to the same operator every time, no matter the size of the organisation, or that calls are always answered in the right language.

The customer data that is generated by the call centre can be of great value as well, if it is collected. “The key is keeping the customers data. Any interaction should be recorded,” said Bell-Wright. “If you don’t have a repository for the information to gather the information then you can’t move it forward, you can’t adapt products and you can’t gauge campaigns.”

Productive CRM not only requires data warehousing, but it can fuel it too, according to Sammer Karawi. “If you have all this information coming in from multiple departments — from your sales, marketing, support, whatever, then the kind of analysis you can do is much more accurate. Before you can get the benefits you need to collect all this information and store it in a data repository. Unfortunately most businesses procrastinate [over data warehousing] until they reach a point where they cannot do without.”

The other big technological hurdle to multi-channel call centres and more proactive CRM is the telecoms infrastructure. HP houses its main database in Europe, so its call centre has to access the system remotely. Wissam Kamal-Eddine, the customer care manager in charge of the project says this can cause problems: “We had a few issues with reliability in the first month of operations, but we have since sorted those out.

Performance could be improved and we are working on that right now. But it is still fine for the volumes we are handling. We use Citrix MetaFrame for the connection between Europe and the call centre, which boosts performance. Originally it was implemented in Asia Pacific where it increased our performance from Singapore to India by 300%.

The figures here are a little bit more conservative, but they are not that bad. We record customer information, so customers don’t know we have had a systems outage, and 99% of the time it is happening because of local network issues, not because of our technology.”

Bandwidth will become an issue with the next wave of CRM technology is. “Obviously there is value in getting more bandwidth, because you would be able to give multimedia support to your clients,” said Fawaz Khalil. “In terms of web collaboration, web chat, text chat, the present infrastructure will not be too overburdened by these, but if you go to multimedia, IP telephony, then obviously higher bandwidth will be required. With web-enablement the operator can take over the clients screen, can push web pages to the user, and can guide them through screens like a shop assistant. Being web-enabled will not mean that people will switch away from telephones, the service will still be there, it is just giving you customers additional channels and allowing them to choose.”

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