Increasingly, support is being provided by call centres. It is cheaper and easier to talk users through most problems than to send an engineer - and just as effective. It is estimated that 95% of problems dealt with in the support process are the same, enabling call centre staff to respond quickly and efficiently based on previous experience.
Home user support
The need for call centre support becomes even more important as the hi-tech market moves towards home users who do not have an in-house IT department or maintenance contract to rely on and who may need help outside the normal weekday nine to five working hours.
Home users normally have more questions than a business user trained in a product who has a more experienced colleague to refer to in the next room; but as customer service becomes the key differentiator in the home market, answering those questions successfully is a pre-requisite of obtaining and keeping market share.
The key to successful support for the hi-tech manufacturer is to provide that service without incurring massive costs, which could run away if the manufacturer deals with every call itself. This is one reason why so many companies are beginning to outsource their customer support service.
A move towards outsourcing
Duncan Brown, a senior analyst at IT market research firm Ovum, points to a trend towards outsourcing call centres, despite a backlash caused by bad experience or a failure to understand what to expect from an outsource contract and the need to manage it. It is, he believes, often more efficient to outsource at least the first-line level of support and often the second line.
Outsource service providers can recruit and train the right call centre staff without draining internal resources, as providing that support is their core business. They can also obtain - and pass on - economies of scale by using the same staff to support different manufacturers with similar products. The call staff then gain further knowledge and experience which helps them improve quality of response further.
In addition, an outsourced call centre can support customers in several countries, in their own language, from one or two sites. Sitel, for example, provides support for The Microsoft Network (MSN) for customers throughout Western Europe and Japan.
It also supports Olivetti Personal Computer (OPC) customers in 12 languages - handling up to 40,000 calls per month. This has reduced OPC's service engineer costs tremendously: when using separate service organisations in each country, at least half of all problems were dealt with on site by an engineer; now less than 15% of problems require a call out with the balance being dealt with over the phone by skilled operators.
Call centre staff tend to be recruited for their "people" skills rather than technical knowledge. They need to be able to interact with customers in a positive manner, soothe angry or frustrated callers, and guide the caller through the actions which will most likely - and most quickly - get the system up and running again. They need an affinity for technology, and an understanding of it, but do not need to be computer buffs.
Comprehensive training could entail three weeks of technical support and one week for customer support, and would ensure the call centre staff know the products they are supporting inside out. They know the major issues surrounding the products and problems most likely to occur. Since a lot of computer "problems" are really caused by the user not understanding technology as a whole, it often needs only a gentle push in the right direction to end the down time.
If the first line of call centre support staff cannot help, the caller is referred to a second line of support, more technically skilled staff, who may be employed by the call centre company or the manufacturer. A third line of support, which accounts for less than 0.5% of calls in the case of OPC, requires a highly-qualified technical team who can, if necessary, investigate any new or highly complex issues that arise.
Call handlers can usually identify the need for an engineer - and what parts may be needed - almost immediately, based on their experience and knowledge of the products. The screen prompts help to ensure all lines of enquiry regarding the user's problem are completed. Most customers with a technical query hang up are satisfied within eight minutes; those with a commercial problem - a lost password or billing query - are dealt with in three to four minutes.
Short calls keep costs down
Reputable call centre companies train their staff to keep calls short, even though they may be paid by the minute instead of by the call. They want to keep their customers happy so they will renew contracts; for that they also have to keep their customers' customers - the users - happy, since any complaints on support will cause the manufacturer to re-think the entire support product.
If the call centre charges the manufacturer, for example, 80p per minute for a five minute call but 85p per minute for a four minute call, it pays to keep calls to four minutes. The outsourced service provider earns less but can increase the margin, and the manufacturers are happy because they pay less overall.
In addition, where contracts are on a per-minute basis, if calls stretch to unacceptable lengths, they cost much more and the manufacturer could go to a more competitive rival when the contract comes up for renewal.
If contracts are on a per-call basis, the call centre company earns more by keeping calls shorter as it should be able to handle more calls per day.
It is hard to determine what a call centre will actually cost over any given period. It is equally difficult to compare support costs with profit margins for the manufacturer. In some cases, manufacturers offer free support, which means that all costs eat into profits. This is becoming more and more prevalent as competition in certain sectors increases; Microsoft, for example, offers users of The Microsoft Network free help lines.
Call centres help manage costs
Duncan Brown of Ovum believes most companies that outsource call centre support do so in order to manage costs, and to provide a measurable return on investment. A manufacturer can get a better idea of support costs using an outsourced call centre than by using in-house resources, where a proportion of overheads, salary, etc has to be allocated to each job. Certainly, call centres are cheaper than maintaining on-site engineers to sort out every problem. A third-party call centre company can also manage its own costs per customer better than the manufacturer since it is managing its core business.
Call centres can also be extremely flexible in the way they deal with enquiries. They can, for example, handle electronic mail, developing standard Email response formats to queries. Email support is growing - which should please manufacturers, as it is a cheaper service to provide than telephone support.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR) is also becoming more popular - and represents huge cost savings for an organisation, since callers are automatically filtered through to the right department without having to spend a minute explaining their problem to one or more support staff. The call centre can even program a list of most frequently asked questions with standard responses. A call routed via IVR may cost 14p per minute to handle, compared with 80p for an operator-answered call.
Faxed queries or a fax-back reply to telephone queries, offer another option. As with IVR, the major issues brought up by users of a particular product could be identified and a list of responses drawn up which can be returned almost instantly.
Customer care versus cost
Call centre support is definitely on the increase. As Duncan Brown emphasises, while call centres may not reduce costs, they do improve customer care - and a customer who has had a complaint resolved satisfactorily is more likely to repurchase goods from that manufacturer than one who did not have a complaint in the first place.
A survey carried out by TARP last year showed that 91% of satisfied complainants said they would repurchase goods from the same manufacturer, compared to 87% of those who experienced no problems. Only 23% of dissatisfied complainants said they would return to the same manufacturer.
Organisations starting up call centres are willing to put a lot of money into them: it can cost anything from #50,000 to #500,000 to establish an efficient call centre, plus #20,000 to #20 million per year to manage it. A medium sized call centre can hit the #3 million mark in annual running costs.
The clever manufacturer will let a third-party company, which has extensive experience of call centres, their staff requirements and technical needs, invest that money instead, freeing the computer company to get on with what it does best - developing hardware and software.
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