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The impact the Call Centre Revolution will have on Asian Service Standards

From London to Asia was the first step in my three year plan and after 6 months into the setting up of KrisTEL's Asian office I can say that I have been put to the test on more than one occasion. Kuala Lumpur has always appealed to me as a market on the move and the potential for KrisTEL to capitalise on its European call centre expertise was just too alluring. A single woman taking offices in the Petronas Towers (the world's tallest building) and sorting out the paper work in a male dominated society was almost as tall an order as the building itself.

Once the nameplate was on the door in our current offices and my first cup of coffee had been poured I did what every good call/contact Specialist should do.

I got on the phone and did lots of Mystery Shopping and service level standards research. To my surprise, for such a technology driven and amenable country the service levels within Call/Contact Centres were far below my required standards as a consumer. After hours and days on the telephone I concluded that there was and still is a desperate need for effective design and measurable strategic approaches and the need to define quality and service standards in this part of the world. The Asian market is growing and senior decision makers are finally realising that to compete in international markets they are going to have to get their act together. However, mixed with the need for call centres to be more widely respected in

the business community, here hides the challenges of changing deep-rooted cultural attitudes and beliefs.

It is without question that the interactive age is here and businesses are developing at a phenomenal pace. However, in such an increasingly competitive market, what gives an organisation the edge over its competitors? In Asia, price and product excellence has been high on the list of priorities for many years. However, in the new emerging Asian marketplace the question on senior executives' minds is: how to convey these important properties to the customer? This is not to say that the thought process is any different in the UK, nevertheless it is the stage of business development that sets them apart.

Being able to draw on KrisTEL's experienced team we began looking at the market, the people and the product and the answer was

clear but the road to achieve the desired approach has not been as straight and narrow as expected. Let us take a look behind the scene "call and contact centres are a fabulous idea...". So why are organisations facing so many problems with the call or contact centre concept?

For anyone who is involved with call/contact centre operations, the benefit that this service offers to the overall brand image and customer management of the company is obvious. However, without question it is a misunderstood entity by many Asian executives who only see them as a glorified receptionist desk. If ever questioned on the amount of money and resources that travel through the centre on a daily basis the answer would be unclear. For those in the know it is imperative that we capsulate our knowledge in a manner that can be understood by the entire company.

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I was very quick to learn that the Asian market is on the cusp of exposition. Once this market takes something on board they take it very seriously.

Back in the UK I had perfected my pitch of KrisTEL by sitting timelessly with Call Centre Managers and Business Development Directors. Setting out progress reports and training schedules; showing companies how to put the call centre at the heartbeat of the organisation. (Just a little line I like to use every chance I get.) Once in KL it was an entirely new ball game, suddenly the time line had slipped and I was back to the point where the call centre concept was being sold at board level.

I found myself in executive lounges making million pound (or ringgits) changes to their company structure. I was not only having to introduce a new way of doing business to some of the most powerful in KL but I was having to dig deep into the core of my belief that the good call centre agent is invaluable to a company's success.

To gain recognition, the centre has to be seen as an active member of the infrastructure of the organisation. Too often the call/contact centre is seen as an extension - or worse - a completely different mind set of the company. Through a pro-active internal communication strategy the centre can be seen as an invaluable part of the corporate team and hence

better understood by those you are trying to build a relationship with.

In one meeting with a major Malaysian bank I found myself having to sell their people back to them. I went on to explain that "your people must be given the three R's: Reward, Respect and Recognition"; they were three new R's which made them a bit hard for them to swallow, but I got their attention. To me, one of the secrets of good customer relations is empowerment in the people working the relationship. If the philosophy of the company is to set guide lines that entice the staff to make empowered decisions, then the staff will begin to feel part of the decision making process. It must be taken into account that these are the real people who are talking to customers. Europe or Asia - contact centre agents are more intelligent than some companies give them credit for and it is imperative to utilise this knowledge. I gave them a challenge: to ask their

people how they would improve the process and how the customer reacts to the technology they have been presented with. I am still awaiting the results but the CEO has told me that before they invest in further technology they "will be investigating this angle" and went on further to say that "they now appreciate that they need to place more emphasis on improving the lives of those people who make the call centre function".

So, what impact will call centres have on the Asian service standards?

Much like the UK in the early 90's the traditional call centre used to be focused on handling telephone interactions only. However, today no market stands alone and the South East Asian Authorities and people see this as a root to greater economic stability. The concept of just a call centre will work fine - if neither the agents nor customers were people and

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had expectations that required care management.

Also, if management wanted to undertake a short-term view and maintain the call centre as a cost centre, then this too can be easily accomplished. I believe we would all agree that running and managing a call centre takes a greater duty of care than many corporates give us credit for. Most businesses today know the value of a loyal customer base and appreciate that exceptional customer service can result in a decreased churn rate. However these casual attitudes, lack of expertise and the fact that the rapidly growing market in South East Asia is still in its infancy, are creating severe challenges.

Not to sound negative, because I am not by any means. I am very passionate about the Asian Market and have a true desire to take the strengths and challenges and combine them to make a real future for Asian call centres. Let us take a look at the call centre's role in today's interactive world and the staff & training that is required to maintain a high performance organisation. The interaction today can be in any form; via an email message, a phone call, help request from the web page, a chat session, a voice over Internet Protocol to name but a few. Something that KL and its technology driven society does better than most. Customers are very aware of their options, yet are still increasingly

wanting to choose the one that most suits them. The availability of e-commerce, m-commerce and the new multi-media contact centre supported by state-of-the-art technologies can result in a power that organisations have never fathomed before.

Step two is to combine the best with the best. Technology is a great enabler, however live interaction is still required in situations where technology is not sophisticated enough to deal with it. It is also required when the response needs careful judgment or a specific skill to be applied to the situation. We can be smart about the way we use technology or we can just implement it without consideration for our customers. It always leaves me wondering that in a world obsessed by technology, will the tools that develop mean we become surplus to our own existence? We strive so far in business that the need for an element of human touch is no longer required.

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In some industries we are already seeing effective use of B2C shopping web sites and trading on line. Even in these glorified cases, what happens when it does not all go according to plan and the customer needs to deal with returns, complaints, wrong orders, warranty claims etc? Can we live in a world without a living, breathing call centre agent? The answer is clear - NO! This is why I find the Asian market so fascinating. It is very much like the chicken and the egg scenario and which came first. In the UK the introduction and love/hate affair with the call centre seemed like a very natural progression. As the customers drove the market, the market drove the technology. For those that have been in this industry as long as I have it may have seemed like the pace was faster than the speed of light. However, in hindsight it was more natural than scary. The technology race is happening all around us and with the digital

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revolution making more noise than sense, Asia is at a stage of massive convergence.

In KL, customer expectations are at an all time high, technology (that makes my head spin) and a customer base that requires service standards over night that have taken years to reach in the Europe. In a recent meeting, I was asked by a predominate KL business man if I thought that all this call centre technology would replace the live agent. My reply was that "no one knows what the long-term future holds but in my opinion not tomorrow and not likely in the next 20 to 50 years". It has taken us thousands of years to learn how to interact and communicate with each other

and this new technology is just forcing us to rethink how we interact with it. People buy from people and the real value to customers is in the one to one personal contact. This is nothing new; we have seen resistance to new technologies including voice mail and IVR in the past. Therefore, I don't think the Internet or advanced technology will replace live agents; this technology will simply help agents to do a much better job and to improve their quality of life. For example, agents can improve their skills and build better relationships with customers by becoming more sophisticated in their approach to understanding what customers want. Agents can also make reference to larger amounts of information

over the web hence even reducing some call times.

It is at this stage that I enter the Malaysian Market. It is changing rapidly and for the better. The market is learning to live in harmony with its call centre agents and the power of the tools that they have been given. By defining a strategy, business processes, operations management, core competencies, key performance indicators and ensuring that marketing and communications are in place, the Malaysian business community will gain consolidated control of its enterprises. As I have said over and over again in the past six months the setting up, implementing and growing of a successful operation needs to take into account the successful integration of people, process and technology. Call centres will always present challenges due to the dynamic nature of the business and within the next year I predict that we will start to see some real changes and advancements in

the call centre services standards in Asia. The technology and its impressive and committed people are making possible all sorts of processes, which in turn are bringing new pressures to bear on the senior executives within organisations. With these enhanced avenues the need for greater training and quality control has never been more prevalent.

With the South East Asia market growing at a rapid pace, more corporates are setting up call centres to enhance their competitive edge. The deregulation of the telecommunications marketplace, banking and insurance and other service-orientated companies have to address customer service issues. The new millennium is here and it really is survival of the fittest. It may all come down to money and profit and all too often, call centre advisors are still given too little responsibility or no opportunity for flexibility in their roles.

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However, as I said, it is changing and this system of agent respect will have positive effects on the bottom line and encourage a forward thinking workforce. From the research that I have done into the market I believe that 40% of the calls received in Asian customer service call centres are created through companies not dealing with the issue during the first call. This has got to change...

Coming back to the time line slip that I mentioned earlier, CRM is the buzzword in Malaysia. Most Malaysians love abbreviation, hence CRM is an aspiration for many of the corporations, even though there is a lack of real understanding of what it is. But then again, I can say that for the UK as well.

Having spoken at various CRM and Knowledge economy conferences over the last few months, the market is in desperate need of clear direction and education. I find myself back on my CRM soap box preaching to organisations that they need to adopt a more strategic approach in understanding what they want to achieve from their desire to work with a CRM process and not take on unrealistic expectations. Before this magic approach is put to the test - in layman terms - put in the hands of the users, you must gain their support and belief in the new way of doing the day-to-day tasks.If you force employees to change the way they work, you will create a great deal of resentment and resistance within the call/contact centre.

I am not saying that you have only one chance, however, if every call counts and costs then it is better to get it right the first time. In recent months I have been involved in a recovery for a project here in KL that did not focus on winning the support of real users at every stage in the process and without KrisTEL’s intervention would have ended up taking more steps backwards than forwards.

Without question, excellent customer service will improve customer retention, sales and induce added value support from your customer. It will even increase the level of satisfaction amongst your call/contact centre team as dealing with calm and collected customers who have not been bounced from one end of the company to the other is productive. Before organisations invest millions in large CRM systems, they should ask themselves honestly, do I really need all these features, services and options?

If not, maybe they should consider the more cost-effective alternatives and build it in line with their business and their business objectives. It really appears to me that the industry in South East Asia is where the UK was 8/9 years ago. The attitude that we have to have a call centre for the sake of having one is still very prevalent here in Asia. The lack of understanding in translating the ideas from the US/UK into realities and profitable business cases is one of the biggest challenges facing South East Asia.

In the last six months I may have questioned the challenges that I have taken on by opening KrisTEL’s Malaysian office, but I have never looked back. If I wanted an easy life then I would never have become such an activist for ensuring that the call centre should be part of an overall business strategy, improved working conditions in call centres, greater agent respect in their roles and the

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need for a global perspective on customer satisfaction standards. If you are ever in KL and need help with the local Bahasa Melayu IVR don’t call me as I am still trying to work that one out for myself. Seriously, come visit us at: KrisTEL
Level 22 Mini Twin Towers
+6 03 2169 6480
or contact me at

Copyright Author:
Amita Krishna
Director of KrisTEL