Are you being served?

In such a competitive marketplace, customer service can be a key differentiator. Andrew White reports on the efforts of one firm to bring first-class service to the Gulf.

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By  Andrew White Published  September 24, 2006

|~|53165232-200.jpg|~|Picking up: A quick response prompts increased customer satisfaction and loyalty.|~|In such a competitive marketplace, customer service can be a key differentiator. Andrew White reports on the efforts of one firm to bring first-class service to the Gulf. “In the Middle East, we’re in decline,” says Ahmed Refky, with a shrug. “Everything else is growing, but that growth has meant that customer service has been left behind.” Whilst it might seem strange that a part of the world obsessed with seven-star luxury might be failing to meet the expectations of its customers, Refky has a point. Consumers in the Middle East are indeed facing a crisis of customer service. “If you look at the banks, one used to have 10,000 customers, now it has 600,000,” continues Refky, managing director of Xceed Professional Services (Xceed). “That speedy growth, the organisations have not really coped with.” Times, though, are about to change. Xceed, which launched last week, is offering firms the opportunity to overhaul their customer service credentials, and is the first such consultant in the Middle East to partner with COPC-2000 – a global customer service industry standard. “The concept is still based around customer service, and the idea is to have someone who is providing these kind of services as a core business – we’re not into financial services or anything like that, it’s all around customer care and customer services,” says Refky. “We chose Dubai of course as it is the new hub of the whole Middle East, and we chose COPC as it really is the international standard for customer service and customer care,” he continues. “We approached COPC, and COPC were very willing to come here to the Middle East region, as there’s huge opportunity here in the Middle East.” “There is a huge opportunity because companies here have the chance to adopt standards that are not only for the region, but global standards. This is a standard set for customer service on a global level,” he adds. Global consultancy and certification body COPC – Global Contact Centre Excellence, to give its full title – was formed in 1995 by a group of buyers of call centre services that were dissatisfied with the level of service they were getting from their providers. These firms included Microsoft, Dell, and American Express. “Ours is the only standard in the world that really focuses exclusively on customer service, and since its founding COPC’s grown to be used by over 200 companies in 300 different locations,” explains Clifford D Moore III, chairman and co-founder of the group. “We cover all continents, with the exception of Antarctica, and have a global footprint. We’re in every major market, both from a sourcing point of view, and a delivery point of view.” COPC have their own offices in the US, Singapore and the UK, as well as partnerships with firms in China, India, Japan and Latin America. Their arrival in the Middle East, Moore explains, comes as a result of the region’s increasing activity on the COPC website. The standard, he insists, sets COPC firms apart from the rest. “Ours is a family of standards that firms can get certified to. It defines a set of metrics that a company needs to track, and certain levels that a company needs to achieve in order to become certified,” he explains. “As a global standard, and given the growth you’ve got in this region, it seemed like a natural to put those two together and have the Gulf area achieve the same levels of performance as companies in other regions have. “We’re managing by metrics, rather than by opinion,” he continues. “The whole philosophy of COPC is very metric-based: show me a number. It really forces a discipline into the organisation that many companies don’t have. It’s not to get it mechanistic at all, but just to make it management by fact rather than by opinion. “This gives you a lot of benefits: it enables you to compare your performance and gives you great scaleability,” adds Moore. “This region’s growing so fast that this scaleabilty is crucial. You may start with five people in a little office, before long you’ve got 50, and that’s a little different. You get to 500, and things start to implode if you don’t have good, well-designed processes and a philosophy that you’re managing the place by. That’s the big challenge firms in this region face, so far as I see it.” The partnership is a vital one for both organisations, and COPC took their time before selecting Xceed as an entry point into the Middle East. There was, Moore insists, no point in rushing into such a key market. “We are approached all the time by firms looking to do something, and we look for firms with business acumen, with a willingness to make the commitment, straightforwardness, and a sufficient understanding of the market and the industry to be successful,” he explains. “There’s no benefit for anybody getting into a relationship that doesn’t work, and so we have stringent standards ourselves that we apply before we take on a partner.” Once the partnership was agreed, however, the two organizations began to undertake a number of different projects together. “It’s not an immediate process. To develop the expertise in the region here takes some time to get people up to full auditor status, so they are able to go in and audit and certify an organisation in the region,” continues Moore. “We’ve been doing a lot of partnering - where we would send some of our folks in together with Xceed Professional Services folks, to jointly deliver services - and over time you will see less of us, and more of them.” As part of this new relationship, Xceed staff members have carried out implementation and certification with COPC in the UK, and training in Amsterdam and the US. Moore claims that Xceed’s experience outside the region is vital. It would be a mistake, he insists, for the firm to be too “region-centric”. “If you’ve got experience from North America, or experience from Europe or experience from Asia-Pacific, you can bring that knowledge and experience into the region,” he says. “That’s one of the things we’re doing now when we come in, but that’s also something that we wanted to broaden for the Xceed staff as well. Plus it’s great to have them bring some of that Gulf experience – in dealing with fast growth - to other regions of the world.” Yet despite Xceed’s experience, Moore remains largely unimpressed with the region’s attempts – so far – to offer strong customer services. “The level of customer service here is not up to the level of everything else here,” he states matter-of-factly. “It’s a beautiful place, it’s incredibly well-developed, and it has an awesome infrastructure - but from what I’m hearing, nobody’s really excelling in customer services, and we should be able to deliver more consistent and higher levels of customer service. “It’s really hard to say how far this part of the world is behind in terms of the services it offers to customers,” he continues. “I’m staying in nice hotels and going to nice buildings, so things seem to be great, but what I hear from folks is that there’s substantial opportunity for improvement." “Imagine if some bank were to start performing at that much of a higher level? They would do great business,” he smiles. “However, I think about some of the processes we talk about, and some of the metrics, and I just haven’t seen those in the organisations I’ve been to.” For those organizations, the incentives to improve their customer care operations are growing. For many, the prospect of differentiating themselves from a raft of similar competitors, is a deal-maker. “Competition is really high, and if you look at the different products there has to be a differentiator. One differentiator could definitely be customer service,” insists Refky. “If you are buying a car, for example, you are clearly looking at whether you can get good customer service and after-sales service or not. Otherwise you won’t get the car. The product is often the same, and all the features are the same, so you think ‘What am I going to get out of this?’ ‘Am I going to get good service or not?’ There’s definitely an opportunity here because customer service is a crucial differentiator in such a competitive market.” For Refky, improving customer services offers a tangible bottom line benefit for firms. “Our customers typically register a boost in profits, and a decrease in costs,” he says. “Customer satisfaction and customer loyalty go up. Last week, with one of our prospects here, the savings in only one parameter – lost calls [people who don’t get through; they hang up before the phone is answered] – is going to save them AED2m a year.” Moore, too, is conscious of the very real benefits of good customer service, and claims that there is an increasing awareness amongst firms in the region. “Are people beating on the table at all the companies, yelling ‘We’ve got to get better’? No. But I think some of the bigger firms are becoming increasingly concerned or excited about the opportunity to differentiate themselves through customer services,” he says. “It’s not unusual for companies to achieve a 25% savings in costs in the first 12 months of implementation,” Moore claims. “Average handle time is often a big saver – less time means a happier customer. First-time resolution is another biggie, and your call volume goes down. Customer satisfaction goes up, because from their perspective, they’d rather have ‘one and done’ than have to call back again. “It’s also important to reduce your ‘churn’,” he continues. “In a number of industries – banking is one – you don’t run towards somebody, you run away from somebody. There’s a churn going on in the industry, and if you can just hold on to more customers than the other guys, you’ll do well. At the end of the day, customer loyalty is vital because the acquisition costs of customers are so high. It typically costs so much to get a customer, so losing one will end up costing you a fortune.” Such performance-enhancing steps are the result of a detailed assessment process that each client must go through in order to achieve COPC certification. “When we start with an organisation, the first thing we do is to carry out what we call a baseline assessment – that’s going in and saying, ‘Here’s the standard – where are your gaps? Where are you strong and where are you weak?’” explains Moore. “It’s like an MRI – it just goes in and looks at pretty much every aspect of your operation to see where you’re strong, and where you have opportunities relative to high-performing organisations around the world. Following that, the firm in question will over a period of time close those gaps with some support, and once all the gaps are closed, become certified.” Refky further details the operation’s four key facets: Planning, People, Process, and finally, Performance. Whilst the first three encompass customer service organisation, a statement of direction, skills set development, and operational procedures, it is the performance measures that ultimately reflect the success or failure of such a reshuffle. “It’s a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) that we measure to really gauge the output of the organisation – things such as customer satisfaction, average handling time, and so on,” explains Refky. “It’s a good set of KPIs, and they are not just measured to see whether they are improving or not, they are measured against global benchmarks. This is really important. You can say ‘this company is good’, but how good is ‘good’? You really have to benchmark against a global scale.” The process typically takes 12 to 18 months (one firm made it in eight, but that remains “a land speed record”, according to Moore), and is ruthlessly geared towards the attainment of high customer satisfaction. From Dubai, Xceed will look to service the entire region, promoting awareness and prompting firms to change their approach to the customer. “The standard’s based on the concept of service quality and cost,” explains Moore. “Service is speed, so it’s how fast they answer the phones, how fast they turn around your email or something like that. Quality is accuracy – did the customer get a complete and accurate answer? And cost is how much it cost the company delivering the service – handle time, how long the call took, cost per transaction, and so on. “The idea is that you need high levels of service, high levels of quality, and low levels of cost,” he smiles. “That will give you high levels of customer satisfaction, and high profits. It’s a pretty simple model, and the metrics follow along those lines.” The region’s consumers - for one - will be hoping that Xceed’s “simple model” transfers to this most complicated of emerging markets.||**||

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