What has 2016 taught us about the contact centre industry?

By Patrick Nash

The last two years have certainly been challenging for the contact centre industry, and particularly for those working within the charity and voluntary sector. While 2015 taught us some difficult lessons about the use of fundraising methods in some call centres, 2016 has seen a string of data failures and cases of poor conduct by agents and call handlers.

But it’s not all bad, 2016 was also the year of new interactive technology and saw developments in the way organisations can connect and engage with service users.

So what are the key learnings we can take away from the last year, and what can we expect in 2017?

The importance of staff training and retention

The call centre industry traditionally has a higher staff turnover rate than other roles in the customer service and charity sector.

This demonstrates the need for more focus on improving job satisfaction and support for agents. Those who work with vulnerable service users and manage difficult calls on a daily basis may need specific support and training.

To attract and retain the best people, the best workplace practices must be delivered. Regularly reviewing and improving upon existing practices will help ensure the quality of calls and agent performance is always high.

There are several examples of charity leaders who have started going the extra mile to make their employees feel valued. Will Jones, the new chief executive officer of Braintrust, believes travelling around the country to meet with each of the charity’s teams is key.

He said: “As a result, I hope that people feel more autonomous and more purposeful, and they will have the training in place to become masters at what they are doing”.

Earlier in 2016, Admiral’s then chief executive officer Henry Engelhardt and his wife Diane gave a £7m cash thank you to the company’s global workforce before standing down in May. The gift, from the couple’s own pockets, went to all full-time staff, each receiving £1,000 or £500 based on their length of service.
Of course, giving all staff a cash bonus might not be an option for all organisations and particularly those in the charity sector. However there are a range of ideas that could be introduced to boost morale, such as incentive schemes, surprise rewards, flexible working, and sharing examples of best practice. 

Data security is paramount

According to the ICO, 2016 saw a 46 per cent increase in cyber security incidents in Q2 alone, with a 21 per cent increase in the charity sector.

Data security is a huge issue for all types of organisations, but for those working in the third sector and public sector, a leak or malicious hack can be catastrophic.

Scandals surrounding the mishandling of sensitive information could ultimately result in the breakdown and closure of vital services. To prevent this from happening, charities must ensure that proper procedures are in place and staff are fully trained in data protection before handling any sensitive information.

Emerging new technologies and trends

Back in April, Facebook announced it would be launching new technology to allow organisations to deliver customer support services through automated chatbots.

The appeal of chatbots in providing a necessary service while saving on vital resources and money is clear. It allows charities to provide a response and potentially keep service users and donors engaged on an immediate basis, rather than making them wait for an agent to respond manually.

Some charities have utilised chatbots as a creative way of engaging with a wider audience. Mencap’s Understand Me campaign, for example, uses an automated messenger bot of a real person and a set of multiple choice questions to help educate users about learning disabilities. The campaign has received a very positive response from the third sector.

For vulnerable service users who rely on certain charities or organisations for regular support however, the use of chatbots in place of human agents arguably runs the risk of causing people to feel isolated.

Contact centre advisers with the very specific skills to manage vulnerable people in need are already hard to come by, but a focus on automated customer services could mean the value of these skills are undermined. As far as chatbots are concerned, the jury is certainly still out. 

What can we expect from 2017? 

Likely trends for the contact centre this year are largely centred around the use of data and the development of certain intelligent technologies.

Consumers and service users will expect faster response times and instant, multi-channel support in a greater way than ever before.

The use of alternative channels of communications, such as via social media and mobile apps, will continue to rise and service user feedback will become more important than ever as a way of measuring the success of a helpline.

It looks like 2017 is going to be another year of change for contact centres working in the third sector and public sector. But while new challenges might arise, as long as the industry continues to focus on maintaining high workforce standards, the emergence of new technologies can only be a positive thing.

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Case Study

Helplines Association

The Challenge was to modernise the labour-intensive, paper-based evidence-gathering process for THA’s Helplines Standard accreditation scheme.

Services used: Digital Service Delivery


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