Last week, the CEO of Australian telco, Telstra sparked controversy by stating his opinion that call centres won't exist in 5 years' time. This article examines whether this opinion is valid.
Firstly, David Thodey made this suggestion when under pressure. Telstra have rapidly grown their offshore call centres especially in The Philippines at the expense of jobs in Australia. When it was suggested that the loss of these jobs was bad for Australian communities where these jobs were disappearing. We must therefore take this statement about the demise of call centres in the context in which it was said. However, Thodey is not alone in suggesting that call centres as we know it will eventually be faded out.
To cut a very long story short, the call centre industry we all know (and in many cases love) will actually look very similar in 5 years' time to the industry we have today. There is of course much talk about the rise in self-service and there is no doubt that this will change the industry but I believe that it will not be by the extent suggested in the media. Technology companies have used their extensive marketing budgets to present a picture of customer service in the future where customers are predominantly serviced through automation (either by interactive phone systems or the internet) & that those customers who require human interaction will be relatively small in number and predominantly serviced through non-voice interaction channels such as social media & webchat. I personally believe that this is wrong.
Of course, self-service is on the rise but its uses are far more limited that the over-optimistic PR gurus at the technology companies will have us believe. Self-service has its uses for basic, transactional call types but to be implemented properly (and it rarely is) involves high levels of investment and on-going maintenance is also very expensive. It is for this reason that self-service is likely to be restricted to larger, global organisations. This will give smaller organisations the opportunity to differentiate themselves based on higher levels of human customer services. Quite simply, consumers don't like automated customers. In a survey I ran in 2011, self-service came out as being far more unpopular even than offshore call centres. Those companies who are 'over-automated' their customer services processes now find that their levels of customer satisfaction are unbelievably low. We are now in a position where most consumers are now more than willing to use automated systems but when they have a problem, they want a human being. Even with the levels of automation which exists today, this is becoming an increasing problem and with plans by many companies to increase their levels of customer service automation, we will find an increasingly disgruntled public.
In terms of the rise of non-voice interactions, it's hard to see this ever being a significant reality. In the vast majority of industries, the phone is still king. Those of us who have tried to receive customer service through social media will realise that it simply isn't practical to resolve most customer service issues. It's a bit of a gimmick and mainly being done by companies because they think they need to in order to protect their brand. Social media will simply be a tool for those at the extreme; extremely happy customer and more likely for extremely unhappy customers who believe that they can shame companies into offering better service. We will see an increasing number of companies adopt more innovative ways of servicing their customers in this way but they will generally spend a lot of money with very limited returns. In terms of voice calls being replaced by email and webchat, then if this has the potential to happen, why isn't it happening already considering the amount of time the technology has been in use. Companies like webchat because it's cheaper to service but for many the overall customer experience is far inferior to a voice call. In certain industries and in certain companies, webchat is the optimal interaction channel but the experience for the customer must be good otherwise, customers will simply return to the default option of the phone.
Call centres will change over the next 5 years but not in the way, The Telstra CEO suggests. Self-service will increase but it's difficult to see any major increase in its use without a dramatic reduction in customer satisfaction. At the low end of the call centre market, you will see automation increase but at the higher end, we will see an increasingly skilled call centre workforce meet the ever-expanding demands of customers. This is likely to mean growth in the onshore sector outstrip that offshore but this certainly doesn't mean that there isn't a place for offshore call centres.
This isn't the first time the death of call centres has been predicted. I was once in a meeting at a major outsourcer when the subject was how we were going to restructure the business when IVR removes the need for live agents. That was in 1995. Since then, we've heard how offshore would destroy the domestic market and how the internet would eliminate call centres. This is just another example of an incorrect prediction. What is certain is that good call centres will continue to prosper and as we have seen in the past, the way to address external challenges is to raise the game.