Magazine article Marketing

A Line on Quality

Magazine article Marketing

A Line on Quality

Article excerpt

The UK may have morre call centres than the rest of Europe, but are standards as high as they ought to be?

The UK leads Europe in the telephone revolution. Neil Taylor, head of marketing for BT's CiB call centres, calculates that across Europe there are 600,000 call-centre seats, of which 250,000 are British-based.

But are we talking quantity rather than quality? Have companies grasped the idea that the telephone enables them to give a better service and not just a cheaper one?

Teleperformance, the French-based bureau network with 70 call centres in 26 countries, hands out annual awards based on an international mystery shopping survey it conducts into call-handling standards. The UK, it claims, performs little better than average in the international rankings. It trails well behind the US and Canada and a number of continental countries, including Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Norway.

Global reach

The survey is a major undertaking, although Teleperformance is the first to admit its limitations. Twenty mystery-shopper calls are made to each of at least 100 companies in 21 countries worldwide. Results are assessed according to ten criteria, including speed of response, warmth of the greeting, product knowledge and overall efficiency. This year, 54,000 calls were made to more than 2000 firms.

"We don't try to pretend it is totally scientific," says Neil Petting, joint managing director of BPS Teleperformance, the group's UK arm. "As the basis for the awards, it's intended to have significance, but also to be a bit of fun. Because of the cost, it's just not possible to include everyone. On the other hand, having 100 call centres as our UK sample takes in all the really significant ones."

The UK results show financial services performing best. Richard Branson's PEPs-to-pensions operation, Virgin Direct, was the UK winner, followed by telephone bank First Direct and car brand Audi. Travel and consumer goods - two sectors where a quarter of all calls went unanswered-performed worst and pulled down the UK average (see table, page 36).

It is widely acknowledged that international comparisons are tricky. Some experts suggest that you would expect the smaller continental countries with high living standards and smaller call centres to provide a better service than the UK.

James Wilkinson, vice-president of telemarketing consultancy TSC Europe, has an intriguing alternative suggestion: the UK led the way with telemarketing in Europe and has now entered a more mature second phase ahead of other countries.

"Everyone starts off with very good standards, but then they have to justify the cost of maintaining that level, and you find that standards slip slightly," he says. "However, you have to balance that against customer perceptions. People quickly notice if it takes longer to pick up calls and if the operators don't seem to be as well trained and informed as they were previously."

Across frontiers

Controlling standards is difficult enough at the best of times, but how do you manage it when you run call centres in several different countries?

American Express took the international prize in this year's Teleperformance awards. Jim Hobby is head of the company's European customer service centres, including its ten call centres. He answers this question by pointing to Amex's mission statement: to be the world's most respected service brand. That aim is carried through to every level of the organisation, Hobby claims. The company believes that satisfied staff mean satisfied customers, and ultimately satisfied shareholders.

Satisfaction scores are regularly monitored, as are service levels. "We use a balanced score-card approach, covering both productivity and quality," says Hobby. "For the call centres specifically, that means traditional measures such as answering within 20 seconds and reducing the numbers of lost calls. But all my call centres are set the same service targets; I see no reason to differentiate between them. …

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