Impact of a recession on Contact Centers

Given the recent events on Wall Street and in Congress this article is likely more applicable today than when it was originally written last fall.

The US economy is generally thought to be in a recession today the Canadian economy is slowing and many fear is heading towards a recession as well. In the face of declining consumer confidence and spending many companies and organizations are looking to reduce expenses and improve efficiencies to help them weather the upcoming economic storm. What are the prospects for those of us employed in the contact center industry given the uncertain economic times? In this article we will examine the prospects for call and contact centers in the coming uncertain economic and potentially recessionary times.

Call and contact center were born from efficiency initiative: by gathering all of the staff that dealt with customers in one place a company was able to provide centralized management of staff, gained the ability to employ premise based technology such as Automatic Call Distributors (ACD’s) and provide more consistent responses to customer and prospect inquiries. All of these elements drove improved staff effectiveness and operational efficiency.

As companies realized the value of call centers as a lower cost method of providing customer service and support many of the traditional channels for customer service were scaled back or eliminated…when was the last time you went to your cable company’s office to speak to someone about your bill? The consolidation of service delivery channels spurred even more growth in call and contact centers.

In the past ten years an increased focus on efficiency has led to organizations working diligently to try to further reduce expenses in their contact centers and/or generate revenues to help offset or defray these expenses. The drive for ever increasing efficiency has led to a dramatic increase in outsourcing and offshoring of customer service and technical support activities, an increase in technologies to support self service and service automation within contact centers.

What is the prognosis today for contact centers in recessionary times? They say that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it and in this case the past presents strong themes which will govern the call/contact centers in the near term. The recurring themes have been: efficiency, technology and outsourcing, all three of these themes will continue to govern the landscape as we move forward into an economic slowdown or recession.

All three of the themes (efficiency, technology and outsourcing) will continue to combine and drive changes in contact centers. Companies faced with uncertain economic prospects will tighten their belts and look for ways to reduce costs. This cost reduction exercise will lead to increased examination of outsourcing as a potential solution. Outsourcing can, when it is well researched and executed can reduce operational costs and at the same time maintain or even improve service quality. Offshoring the call or contact center activities can further reduce the costs, but carry a significantly increased risk of service and quality erosion. Outsourcing can reduce costs through three primary organizational traits: labor arbitrage (they operate in lower cost environments and pay less than in-house centers), technology (they employ state of the art technologies that in-house centers may find difficult to fund) and process management (outsource agencies only provide outsource services and as such they have developed very robust operational
model and highly efficient processes that are often absent form in-house centers).

They primary reason for an organization elected not to outsource their call or contact center activities is political, they have determined that they must serve their customers directly. Such organizations will look to technology as a driver for increased efficiency. Where once technology and the desire for efficiency motivated companies to create call centers to centralize and simplify service management, today technology and the desire for increased efficiency now leads companies to promote teleworking and home based agents. Home agents can access all of the tools that are generally available in a contact center and are delivered via the internet, often through a secured VPN. The voice can be delivered through the internet and/or through assuming the agents home phone line. Home or virtual agents reduce or eliminate the need for ‘bricks and mortar’ contact center saving the company on real estate and operating costs and further since the most common model is to employ home agents as ‘independent contractors’ the company eliminates their benefit and burden costs associated with employees, finally home agents have reduced
expenses versus agents who work in a contact center: no transportation costs, reduced meal and wardrobe expenses and this often leads to lower labor related costs. Technology also can play a role in improving efficiency and reducing costs through the increased use of self-service options and non telephone contact channels. We are all familiar with the dreaded Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, that prompts us to enter one for this and two for that yet never somehow actually seems to have the
information we seek nor any easy or logical way of getting to a live agent. IVR’s are ubiquitous today and are increasingly being replaced by voice enabled systems and systems such as Bells’ Emily that mimic a live agent interaction. More and more companies will direct inquiries to the web and reduce or eliminate access to live agents. Alternate communication technologies will also see increased use in poor economic times as they offer lower costs while still providing a level of service. These technologies include email integrated into the contact center, web chat and even SMS messaging.

Companies and centers’ under economic pressure may intentionally degrade the quality of service they provide: increasing the average speed of answer, the abandon rate or the resolution rate and laying off staff. These tactics can reduce costs, but it is a dangerous strategy to risk customers’ ire in this way.

Some companies will degrade service and, many companies will adopt or pursue Outsourcing, home agents, and technology enhancements and a few organizations may seize upon service as a key differentiating factor separating their contact center from those of their competitors. We have seen this happen already in the UK where a major bank in their television ads focuses on the fact that their contact centers are in the UK and not offshore. In the ‘Book of Five Rings’ it states “in chaos there is opportunity” and economic slowdowns and recessions can create chaos in contact center and service focused organizations. With most of the companies scaling back, degrading service, increasing automation there is likely a great opportunity for other firms to increase and improve service quality, and promote this as a key element of their value proposition. These same companies can employ outbound tele-sales and direct marketing to target competitors’ customers and increase share while the competitors have ‘hunkered down’ to ride out the storm.

Regardless of the tact your company elects to pursue in recessionary times, your contact will likely change and continue to evolve and each company must determine their own equation to calculate the impact on their company and brand of reduced service, increased automation on their customers’ loyalty. Regardless of the strategy employed we will be experiencing the Chinese blessing or curse of “living in interesting times”.

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