A report from Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories Inc. suggests that consumers are gravitating towards self-service applications for the convenience factor, but there will still be plenty of work available for live agents working

in call centres.

The report, issued Wednesday, is based on survey results from 200 North American customer service executives and 300 consumers. According to the survey, 73 per cent of respondents rated self-service a high or very high priority. The same number of people said they are planning to invest more in self-service technology and operations.

A major reason for implementing those technologies is that they reduce the average transaction costs for customer queries, said Joseph Heinen, vice-president of corporate marketing for San Francisco, Calif.-based Genesys.

If companies and organizations can move the number of self-service transactions from 30 per cent to 50 or 60 per cent, they can more readily compete with call centre facilities that operate overseas in countries like India, he said.

By shifting more customer queries towards self-service, “they can afford to keep agents sitting in their call centres because they can still operate at a lower transaction cost.”

Consumers often use self-service for items like checking a bank account balance or paying bills – they’re easily accomplished without the support of a call centre operator and people would rather handle private or personal information themselves.

There are limits, though. Essential services like 911 or suicide hotlines require live operators, said Elizabeth Winter, president of the Toronto-based Contact Professionals Alliance, an industry group for call centre managers.

Consumers “prefer self service for the simple things,” she said. “Eighty per cent of the stuff that goes into call centres can probably be handled by self service. It’s the other 20 per cent that’s the problem.”

Some call centres may route incoming queries based on the status of the customer that is calling in, she said. Top customers would be handled be a live person to ensure consistency and quality of service; casual customers can likely help themselves through self-service.

In some cases, companies that had outsourced call centre operations to providers overseas are bringing them back to North America, said Heinen. Overall customer service quality may have suffered by turning those services over to a third party and those relationships are too important to put in jeopardy.

The Internet is the still dominant form of self-service, he added, but interactive voice response (IVR) technologies are growing in sophistication.

“One of the reasons that people are moving to speech-enabled apps, is that they’re taking transaction capability that they built for the Internet and expose it with some new standards like Voice Extensible Mark-up Language (VXML). The transaction capability that was built for the Web can be accessed by phone,” said Heinen.

The City of Montreal, for example, began offering a VXML-based interactive service to its residents in 2003. The service, called 87-ACCES, allows users to check city services like garbage pick-up or pay parking tickets over the phone.

Increasing investment in self-service technologies could have an impact on the number of operator jobs and budget devoted to their training, but the industry is growing at such a pace it’s offsetting any detrimental effect on the number of call centre jobs, said Winter.

Companies are definitely increasing their investment in self-service technologies, said Winter, but the call centre industry is growing at such a pace that it’s offsetting any detrimental effect that could have on the number of available operator jobs, said Winter.

If self-service technology is not implemented correctly, that could actually increase the volume of live calls to a the call centre. Also, said Winter, there will always be some questions that can be best handled by a live operator.

According to the CPA, there are more than 13,000 call centres operating in Canada.

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