Contact centres dialing dollars

Contact_ArtNew.jpgThere are more than 14,000 contact centres in Canada, employing over half a million people.

By James Bowen
From SCAN's Print Edition

They use advanced IT and telecommunications, they are growing steadily and stealthily, and they are a major part of the economy. Call centres are here, and they are dialling up revenue.
We know them as call centres but in the industry they are also called contact centres because they are one of several ways that a customer can contact a company. Twenty-five years ago the contact centre industry barely existed in Ottawa, or even in Canada. Statistics don’t always tell the whole story, but the contact centre industry numbers are surprising.
The Contact Centre Canada (CCC) board of directors, in collaboration with Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), commissioned a study entitled Canadian Contact Centre Industry: Strategy, Work Organization and Human Resource Management Report. The report notes there are more than 14,000 contact centres in Canada, employing over half a million permanent and part-time staff. This means that almost one in every 25 employed Canadians works in a contact centre, which are ringing in between $36 billion and $38 billion annually.

The number of call centres and related jobs are projected to increase by 7% a year in Canada. Why such remarkable growth? In part it’s because our rate of employee turn- over is lower than in the US, making Canada a more attractive place to set up shop. The CCC/HRDC study estimates turnover rates here are approximately 17%, while the US rate has been reported in excess of 50%. Typically we think of low-paying jobs in developing Asia-Pacific countries when we think of call centres, but Canada is second only to India in attracting new centres. And salaries vary widely, depending on the region, type of work, level of responsibility, training, and which industry the centre serves. While an entry-level agent takes home around $24,000 a year; a mid-level agent can make $31,000 and a senior agent may pocket upwards of $40,000. Scheduling and help desk people can earn more still.

The Ottawa Regional Contact Centre Association (ORCCA) advocates on behalf of more than 250 members. It represents call centres and their workers in all manner of industry, from finance/banking to high tech and telecom; from the public sector to not-for-profit organizations, transportation and utilities, wholesale/retail, health care, travel and hospitality. The preponderance of its members, though, is in financial services and tech support. The industry association has partnered with Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation’s, which recognizes Ottawa’s contact centres as a distinct cluster. Kelly Daize, OCRI’s manager of cluster support, says, “What we are seeing is that these jobs require considerable knowledge and skill. Developing sales and marketing skills is so necessary to be competitive. Ottawa has the cream-of-the-crop among call centres, including Adobe, Dell, Bank of America (MBNA Canada Bank), Canada Post, ING Direct, and Cognos. We are seeing a shift back to North America for the enterprise clients.”

According to Sandy Freeman, chair of ORCCA, “Companies such as Dell and MBNA place significant importance on the corporate culture and training because the work environment is extremely important. Ottawa is on the leading edge of furthering this work environment.” She says that because of the complexity of business processes in the larger centres, there is an increasing need for a more highly qualified workforce. Staff must be familiar with technology ranging from web tools to interactive voice response to voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP); from customer relationship management (CRM) software to speech recognition solutions. Oddly, the adaptation of technology seems to move west like the sun. In eastern Canada, centres use more advanced technology than their western counterparts. For instance, around 9.7% of centres in the east use voice recognition software, while only the 6% do so in the west, according to the CCC/HRDC report.

Steve Menon, VP, customer service site lead, MBNA Canada on James Naismith Dr., says that while they get most of their technology from their parent company, Bank of America, they also buy some locally, like their interactive voice response system According to Mr. Menon, call centres often serve as gates to the larger corporate enterprise for technology providers. He confidentially identifies two Ottawa companies making inroads with MBNA through its local contact centre.

Technology drives change throughout the call centre industry. Five years ago, online support using instant messaging did not exist. And 10-15 years ago it wasn’t technically feasible for agents to work from home. Now, with web based CRM and VOIP, it’s not only feasible but readily managed with commercial off the shelf software. But there are concerns preventing more agents from working from home, such as the need to maintain the security of customer data. It wouldn’t do to have one’s nosy neighbour peaking at the computer screen while coming over to borrow a cup of sugar. The erosion of corporate culture is another concern. A certain esprit de corps develops among agents working in close proximity, points out Cathy Velazquez, senior vice president of MBNA, who sees a direct correlation between corporate culture, agent enthusiasm, quality of service and customer satisfaction. “Customers can sense across the telephone line when an agent is smiling and that results in a more satisfied customer,” she says.

While the majority of MNBA’s 1.3 million calls a year are readily handled by automation, more “delicate” calls are better left to agents, according to Ms. Velazquez. She notes, for example, that a frustrated customer calling to complain about a credit card that has been refused for wrongly showing insufficient funds doesn’t want to talk to an automated agent. Left to technology alone he/she might likely only get more upset, whereas a sympathetic agent might be able to put him/her at ease, resulting in a more satisfying customer service call. Furthermore, says Ms Velazquez, while the majority of customers prefer the convenience and ease of using self-serve tools, a population still exists that simply wants the human interaction that is only possible with an agent.

The balance between agent service and automated service is constantly fluctuating in the contact centre industry, trying to meet customer needs and changing demographics. With a younger generation more comfortable with online help/interaction and call centre automation, will computers replace the agent or even the centre itself? Both Mr. Menon and Ms. Velazquez think not, even though automation is handling more and more calls, at increasing levels of sophistication. They agree that this means that call centre agents must also “ratchet up their level of capability to deal with more difficult interactions.” Fortunately for contact centres in North America and here in Ottawa, there is a large pool of workers with the kind of technical skills and people skills that the industry is looking for. Perhaps this is why Canadian companies and corporate America are recalling their centres from abroad.

James Bowen, PhD, PMP, CMC is an Ottawa technology entrepreneur and adjunct professor at uOttawa’s Telfer School of Management

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