Reaching a call centre in some far away land after hanging on hold for the better part of half an hour is a day ruined.
It’s frustrating and a complete time-suck.
But the jobs call centres provide are an important, albeit small, part of the economy. They provide employment, which pays a salary, which has a multiplier effect on the economy.
So offshoring or cutting these types of jobs (and manufacturing can also be thrown in here) materially impacts a subset of the Australian population because these entry level or lower skilled roles play an important part in the employment mix.
Earlier this year, Telstra CEO David Thodey said call centre jobs would cease to exist in five years, with the internet to blame for their disappearance.
He’s since scaled back those comments, saying the time frame may have been a little over-enthusiastic but that he stood by the idea.
“Interestingly, when we get criticism about so-called foreign contact centres, 50 per cent of the time the people are in Perth, because we’re a multicultural society and often the criticism is around language or communications skills,” he said.
“And I say, I don’t care where these contact centres are, we must have a high standard. Good communications, good English and [they must] know the company.
“I do fundamentally see that contact centres will decline in the future.
“More people are going online and they prefer it as a better experience.”
But Macquarie Telecom CEO David Tudehope says call centres have an important role to play in the modern telco and offshoring this function isn’t always the right call.
“We’ve onshored rather than offshoring, so basically going against the trend,” he said, adding the company originally had every expectation about four years ago that its Australian call centres would be set up overseas.
“Our expectations of the tender is that at the end of the tender we would offshore and outsource like everyone else,” Tudehope said.
However, to ensure they weren’t being ripped off, Macquarie Telecom also ran an internal bid for a call centre at the time, setting a price benchmark.
“It was not for the purposes of being a real option but for the purposes of being a price comparison,” he said.
However, Tudehope said he “fell in love” with the internal bid. Yep – it was true love. The company used the internal bid to set up its own contact centres which it now sees as a key business differentiator.
“We thought that contact centres were noncore but when we thought about it, if we believed customer service was the key to our business, how can we not do contact centres ourselves? It’s a very important part of how we touch our customers. Outsourcing it just didn’t make sense,” Tudehope said.
In terms of cost, Tudehope admits “offshoring is definitely cheaper” and establishing call centres in Australia, he estimates, adds at least another 50% on top of what it would cost to offshore.
The biggest benefit Macquarie has anecdotally seen from taking control of its customer service centres is not just an improvement in customer service, but also increased customer retention.
“It makes sense that if you’re a happy customer you tend to stay. Customers that are happy – they tend to buy more,” Tudehope said.
Average hold times is what outsourced call centre operators monitor and manage but to keep those wait times down means dealing with phone calls as quickly as possible – something Tudehope says “stuffs up customer service”.
“We decided that we would not measure that at all,” he said, adding what the company does measure is the satisfaction score a customer provides at the end of a call.
And as for staffing the Australian centres, Tudehope said: “It’s a great place for graduates to go.”
“Joining a contact centre is not where they see themselves being even in the medium term. So what we’ve done is put a two-year term to their role and we’ve said we expect over the two years you will learn these things and there’s a technical stream and a non-technical stream,” he said.
“You’ll be more employable at the end of it… and the idea of a hard two-year end date we find far more motivating.”
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The fundamentals of the sector “aren’t changing,” Tudehope said, adding business customers still need calls and data solutions.
“Customers in the b2b market still value customer service,” he said.
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