Customer Centric

Faced with greater competitive pressue, monolithic PTTs and nimble GSM operators are sharpening their customer skills. At the core of the region’s subscriber orientated thinking is the call center.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  March 9, 2003

|~||~||~|Call centres aren’t a luxury in the telecoms business — they’re a necessity. Competitive pressure has put call centres at the front line in the battle for subscribers, made them a vital building block of any customer relationship management (CRM) strategy and created a vital conduit for market research, without which telecom operators would struggle to develop products & services.

The gradual introduction of competition in the local telecoms indsutry has resulted in an inevitable explosion in the number of call centre projects in the last two years. Whether it is a newly formed GSM operator in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon or Kuwait, or one of the region’s monolithic PTT operators, all telecoms players are seizing on the opportunities offered by call centres to change the business processes and provide a competitive edge.
“Call centres owned by operators to service their own clients are a business prerequisite,” says Jawad Abbassi, president, Arab Advisors Group.

“All the local telecoms markets are moving towards duopolies or full competition. That places a lot of value on retaining customers. The best way to retain customers is to study their usage patterns and tailor packages for them that deliver the best value for money depending on their usage patterns,” he explains.

Saudi Telecommunications (STC) recently illustrated the critical nature of call centres when it started a call centre consolidation programme for its rapidly growing Aljawal mobile business unit. The project, which is scheduled to run throughout 2003, will create a virtual call centre that will reduce operating costs, improve customer service and increase capacity. The project will “position the mobile SBU to meet competition in the mobile sector with a mature customer care operation,” says Shukr Al Shiekh, general manager, sales & customer service, Aljawal business unit, STC. “The call centre will provide better [personalised] service to our rapidly expanding customer base and collect data on each customer for future analysis and campaign targeting,” he adds.

With competition provisionally due to arrive in Saudi's mobile market in 2004, “the call centre project is key for STC,” believes Phillippe Rixhon, partner, Accenture Middle East. “With low internet penetration, the call centre will be the main interface between the client and STC. It is crucial,” he adds.

The last 18 months in particular have seen more organisations aggressively overhaul their existing call centre infrastructure, in favour of IP-enabled contact centres that are capable of managing customer interaction across a number of channels. Although the majority of traffic to call centres is voice, local operators are deploying solutions to give customers the choice of which channel they use to communicate with the operator. “We are consolidating our call centres into a corporate call centre,” says Ian Dench, general manager, marketing, Batelco.

“Ultimately, we want a multimedia contact centre. This will let our customers do business with us in the way that they choose, whether that is self service, through the internet, e-mail, fax or phone,” he adds.

A number of vendors, such as Cisco Systems, Avaya and Nortel Networks have all come to market with IP-enabled, multi-channel contact centre solutions. However, the number of operators on a global level that have managed to develop and operate true multi-channel call centres remains minimal. “The amount of contact centres that are truly multi-channel is very low,” says Tim Stone, marketing manger, voice technologies, Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA), Cisco Systems. “Most contact centres treat the different channels separately,” he adds.

Increasingly, local operators are making use of other channels, such as SMS, e-mail and the internet, which offer them more cost effective communication channels. But take up remains slow.

“Everybody is looking at the single customer touch point that combines these channels and where you can provide a customer care manager. These channels will be more cost effective for operators, but the voice option will continue to dominate,” comments Abbassi.

Expanding and integrating customer service channels around the call centre is an important aspect of CRM. Currently, few local service providers have been able to evolve their customer strategy beyond collaborative CRM — or the management of different customer channels. The final goal of analytical CRM — where operators are able to analyse clean customer data, develop product packages and target services at subscribers — remains a pipedream for most operators.

At the international level, CRM strategies have been hamstrung by the industry downturn that has forced a narrow focus on rapid return on investment (ROI). In an effort to revive flagging call centre and PABX spending in the US and Europe, the large vendors have begun offering pre-integrated CRM applications, through partnerships with the likes of Siebel, Epiphany and some of the large ERP players.

“More applications are being pre-integrated with off-the-shelf drivers, so customers don’t have to spend a fortune on CTI [computer telephony integration] to get this stuff working. It is much more cost effective,” says Stone.

According to Avaya, operators would achieve more satisfactory ROI by devoting more time and resources to customer interaction management (CIM), which focuses on routing and call history management. “In the past, CRM has had 80% of the budget and 90% of the attention,” says Paul Buchanan, director of CRM solutions, Avaya EMEA.

“But the market is waking up and realising that customer interaction management is more important. [CIM] gives them control of [an agent’s] calls, intelligent routing across all media and customer history. Ask what else [they] want [their] CRM application to do beyond that, and six times out of ten operators will tell me they don’t know,” he explains.
Regardless of the large investment and slow return associated with CRM, some of the local operators have embarked on data cleansing and warehousing initiatives, with the goal of building a 360-degree view of the customer. Etisalat, which has been working on its data warehousing project for the last two years, is pulling customer data from its backend warehouse for its marketing campaigns. “There is a [data warehousing] project going on, where we are trying to link all the customer databases together,” says
Mohammed Bamakhrama, general manager, the Etisalat’s Contact Centre business unit. “The project started two years back, but it takes time. We have started using some of this information,” he adds. Work is still ongoing on Etisalat’s data warehouse solution.
Batelco, working with NCR, completed its data warehouse infrastructure in November. The warehouse provides Batelco’s staff with a comprehensive view of the client across its business units, enabling customer segmentation, the identification of trends and the targeting of services at clients.

“The CRM strategy is an evolutionary process, the whole system needs to be real time with information on the latest interaction combined with commercial ‘lifestyle’ data,” says Dench.
“The initial stage of the CRM strategy was improving the data quality and building the data warehouse. With the enterprise data warehouse, subsequent developments will be made to get to that high level of customer intimacy. We are currnetly assessing CRM applications,” he adds.

However, more comprehensive CRM investment is unlikely without intensified competition. According to Abbassi, as most operators only face one competitor they are in a comfortable position.
“Operators in the Arab world are either in a monopoly or a duopoly market. That doesn’t really create the pressure that operators in the UK have, where they are competing against five or six [organisations]. The choice for consumers is so high, that they [the operators] have to invest in CRM or die,” he explains.

Due to the growing realisation of the strategic importance of call centres, the local telecoms industry is beginning to take the skills it has learnt to the mass market. In recent months, the large PTT players have been preparing their call centre infrastructure to offer outsourced call centre services.
For example, Etisalat opened its Contact Centre operation at the start of last year, with the express remit of providing a range of call centre services to local companies. Telecom Egypt is rumoured to be planning a similar venture and most recently Jordan Telecom (JT) announced its plans to follow suit at the start of April when it opens the doors to the JT Contact Centre.

“Our IP call centre will offer a range of outsourced call centre services, such as first level customer support, telemarketing and telesales,” explains Ziad Hamzeh, operational marketing manager, project manager for JT Contact Centre. “We will offer regional services. We’re going to be offering special call packages from the centre [that] will have reduced tariffs on international calls,” he adds.

But initial evidence indicates that the outsourced call centre market will prove tough going. In 18 months of operation, Etisalat’s Contact Centre has won 14 customers, which accounts for 5% of the centre’s total capacity. “We’re planning to reach 30% capacity by the end of the year,” says Bamakhrama.
There are several local hurdles holding back the development of the local outsourced call centre market — primarily the cost of international calls. In an attempt to resolve the issue JT and Etisalat are willing to renegotiate call rates for long term deals. “[Tariffs] are something we can negotiate. If a long term service is needed we can always go to Etisalat and they in turn negotiate for us with other [agencies]. We are ready to give a better rate to the client,” says Bamakhrama.

However, price renegotiation isn’t enough to fire demand for a regional outsourced call centre market — regulation enabling voice over IP (VoIP) services is critical because it will enable local players to compete for business on a global level.
The difficulty of establishing a regional or international call centre in the Middle East is compounded by the relatively high staff costs, when compared with the call centre market in India. “I don’t see the huge outsource call centre market that a lot of other people seem to see for international traffic in the Middle East,” says Buchanan. “Interestingly enough, we do see that in North Africa, where you see a lot of French call centres outsourced to Morocco and Tunisia,” he adds.

A final hurdle facing the region’s fledgling outsourced call centre market is the traditional market nervousness over handing business processes to a third party. Until recently, companies in the region have shown a distain for the outsourcing model, preferring instead to keep processes in-house. The trust issue is “the biggest issue that an outsourced sales team has to overcome,” comments Buchanan.

Just whether organisations, such as banks, tourism companies or airlines, are willing to outsource core customer interaction to operators remains to be seen. Outsourced call centre services are commonplace in more mature markets, but locally, “the jury is still out on the outsourced call centre model… There is definitely a latent demand but it has to be stirred up,” says Abbassi. “[Companies] aren’t flocking to use outsource call centres because it is not on their option cards yet. The operators that are offering these services need to [educate the market] that it is a cost effective option,” he adds.

If the region will see a flood of low cost call centre solutions depends largely when and how the large fixed line operators come to grips with voice over IP services. The speed at which call centre projects evolve through 2003 and 2005 will provide an indication as to whether the local operators have been able to make the necessary business process changes that will enable them survive and strive in open, competitive telecoms market.
“Competition is the mother of innovation,” says Abbassi. “As competition diversify we will see operators investing in CRM and other solutions,” he adds.

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