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Tue 2 Oct 2007 04:00 AM

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Financial institutions need to strike a balance between people, processes and technology to give a successful call centre experience.

Research by Datamonitor, an IT consultancy practice, suggests that Western businesses typically save between 25% and 35% per transaction by using a call centre in an offshore location like India. However, a call serviced through speech automation costs approximately 15% to 25% of the cost of a call handled by an agent in India. Contact centre managers have to weigh up whether the personal touch adds its own value - and indeed whether outsourcing is appropriate in the banking and finance sector, where the person at the end of the phone may need skills and knowledge specific to the industry.

AXA Insurance Gulf receives around 10-11,000 calls per month to its sales call centre, which is staffed by between eight and 10 people.

It annoys me when people talk about customer satisfaction – and don’t measure it.

"We believe we are one of the best call centres in the insurance industry, if not the best one," says Julien Audrerie, head of operations, personal lines, Axa Gulf. He says there are three concepts underpinning the success of a contact centre: maintaining an appropriate number of people to answer calls, ensuring they are well-trained and friendly, and making sure that processes are well-designed. Axa uses a customer relationship management (CRM) system developed in-house, which is designed to be quick and accurate.

"The CRM system very quickly gives you all the information you need, and almost immediately you'll be able to send an email and to do all the operations on the phone," says Audrerie. "Now, if the system is not well-designed and it takes 10 minutes... the agent can be nice, but she will still take 10 minutes and that could cause problems. How much time are you ready to spend on a quotation?"

Axa is also careful to keep the right number of call centre agents available: too few, and customers will have to wait on the line; too many, and overheads will be too high. Efficiency is behind the insurer's decision to open with an automated menu, rather than a human directing calls to different departments. "We would like the human touch, but it would need four people just to transfer the calls instead of the automated menu," Audrerie points out, adding that it would also be a fairly unsatisfying job. "Everything that's really boring, we try to outsource to the customer," he says.

The menu has also been restricted to English-only to keep things simple and efficient. "We could add Arabic but it adds another layer of menus," says Audrerie. "It was getting too long for customers. 80% of our clients speak English, so it's better for the 80%."

Mohamed Foad is COPC (Customer Operation Performance Centre) services manager at Xceed, a consultancy which runs courses showing ways to offer a better call centre experience.

Foad says there are three ways to measure first call resolution: by identifying which telephone numbers have dialled into the contact centre more than once within a specified time period; checking the CRM system to see whether a call has been resolved or whether the issue is still pending; and, more directly, to ask the customer next time they call.

However, there can still be miscommunication. "The most common reason is the agent thinking the problem is resolved, when the customer thinks it isn't," says Foad. "This could mean they deferred something, or they resolved it according to their process but it isn't really resolved."

He also says it is important to strike a difference between first call resolution and customer satisfaction, which may not be the same thing. For instance, a customer may be happy with the friendly contact centre agent they spoke to, but they may not be happy with the processes behind the scenes which caused their problems in the first place.

"It annoys me when people talk about customer satisfaction - and don't measure it," says Foad.

He points out that service levels and waiting times are fairly noticeable in a contact centre environment, but customer satisfaction levels can be overlooked if they are not actively measured.

RAKBANK, which regularly tops customer satisfaction surveys, has appointed systems integrator Al-Futtaim Technologies to implement an advanced contact centre solution and maintain customer satisfaction levels.

The 50 agent inbound Genesys solution will be installed at four state-of-the-art contact centres across the UAE; the main RAKBANK head office in Ras Al Khaimah, the Dubai main branch office in Ramool and two support sites.

Harvey Klyce, managing director, Al-Futtaim Technologies, says: "The integrated contact centre solution from Genesys has the ability to create value by building brand awareness, enhancing customer loyalty and generating increased revenues. High value customers will benefit from the delivery of specialised services and up-selling and cross-selling promotions can be tailored according to individual customer profiles."

The Genesys Customer Interaction Management Suite captures, routes, reports and analyses voice, email and other communications to ensure that RAKBANK customers are quickly connected to the best available resource. The solution from Al-Futtaim Technologies will improve response times and reduce the amount of time spent resolving customer inquiries by delivering customer information synchronised with each phone call.

Klyce adds: "RAKBANK is very focused on customer service. They wanted something that is seamlessly consistent and will enable them to better serve their customers." For instance, the suite has a ‘virtual hold' capability, allowing customers to opt for a scheduled callback rather than having to wait on the line, but still keep their place in the queue. At times when call volumes are unexpectedly high, calls can even be diverted to agents at home or to the company's back office.
Communication solutions provider Avaya has seen firms like Dlala Brokerage in Qatar and Shuaa Capital implement its products in their contact centres. Customer Interaction Express (CIE) is a multi-channel communications suite designed to give mid-size businesses the ability to integrate voice, email, fax and SMS communication channels into a single contact centre solution.

"There is a lot of interest in the product because it is delivering enterprise sophistication for midsize to small call centres," says Roger El-Tawil, channel and marketing director, Avaya MENA.

Egypt is a good outsourcing destination, but their dialect can be hard to understand.

"Banks and brokers are popping up all over the place. They have to have a consistent strategy that gives a consistent customer experience."

Avaya's One-X solution means that callers will get through to their broker on one number whether he is in or out of the office. It intelligently connects to either a landline or mobile line, but even calls that are taken on a mobile can be recorded through the system, essential for brokerage firms that need to keep records of transactions with their customers.

Technology may be one important choice for companies looking to set up a call centre, but so is location. India and the Philippines may lead the way when organisations are considering locations to host their English language call centres, but Middle East financial institutions may need to offer support in both English and Arabic. Egypt has been a popular location, but there is growing competition from other countries in the region.

Jordan's first independent, multilingual call centre, operated by CrysTelCall, hopes to attract business from other Arab countries. Rami Sweis, CEO, CrysTelCall, says: "Outsourcing lets companies put an emphasis on the core business to ensure they can compete. We are talking about starting off with a relationship that can build as you grow."

By leaving staffing and communication infrastructure issues to an outsourced contact centre provider, financial institutions can easily cater for future customer volumes as their client base grows. This is particularly valuable to rapidly-growing Middle East firms, which can find it hard to recruit, train and provide IT systems for staff at a fast enough pace to keep up.

Sweis says that Jordan's liberalised telecoms sector is the main reason CrysTelCall decided to base its operations there. With more than 30 companies offering voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services, the call centre operator can keep line rental costs low and pass the savings on to its customers. "For America and Europe we can give them a local number that is routed to Europe," says Sweis.

Additionally, Sweis believes that Jordan has a strong supply of suitably skilled workers, including a growing pool of graduates, ready to take on contact centre tasks. This is helped by Jordan's high literacy rate, which at around 90% is one of the highest in the Middle East.

Jordan also has another natural advantage over some other countries in the region. "The Arabic dialect in Jordan is easy to understand," says Sweis. "Egypt is a good outsourcing destination, but their dialect can be hard to understand."

CrysTelCall currently has 50 seats in its call centre, but expects to increase this figure to 200 within 12 months. "We will be running a 24/7 operation based on three shifts," explains Sweis.

The company also plans to build an office in Canada, enabling it to offer a ‘blended solution' where clients can choose to have calls answered by either location, and will utilise the time difference to offer a round-the-clock service.

Dubai is also trying to attract the region's call centres to Dubai Outsource Zone, a business hub with infrastructure and buildings that are particularly suited to contact centre operations. Mashreq and Arab Bank have already based some of their operations there, with a major US contact centre service provider expected to set up a regional base there soon.Although Dubai may be a more expensive location for a call centre than other countries with a lower cost of living, there may be other business drivers.

Hesham Amiri, director of sales, Dubai Outsource Zone, says: "We realise we cannot compete head-to-head because of the price factor, but we can target the higher end call centre activities where you've got more training."

He adds: "The model that's becoming the norm in DOZ is setting up shop for training, but the actual call centre agents might be based in India or the Philippines. It's a good idea for them to set up here if they want to penetrate the surrounding countries."

Amiri points out that there is a wealth of multi-lingual, multi-national staff available in the UAE, although he admits there are currently some barriers to organisations wishing to set up call centre operations there.

"The major barrier for industry is that there is no availability of voice over IP (VoIP) yet - although we're already seeing light at the end of the tunnel - and leasing dedicated lines is still quite expensive in the UAE," he says. However, the infrastructure, provided by telco du, is extremely sophisticated, offering high bandwidth and good availability.

With so many choices available when it comes to technology, location, and processes, financial services firms need to make sure they get things right. For many customers, first impressions will be very important in deciding whether they become lifelong clients.

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