In recent months I have been exploring the world of call centres, or “contact” centres as it seems they like to be called these days. This is like design groups wanting to be called “brand consultancies” or advertising agencies who fancy they are “integrated marketing agencies”.
The thing is, with the ever-widening range of contact routes available at the “sharp end” of marketing communications who can blame the phone jockeys for getting a little ahead of themselves. But while you can fax, SMS, e-mail, mail, carrier pigeon or whatever your customers, calling yourself a “contact centre” doesn’t change the fact that nine out of ten of these places still only use a telephone to call you in the middle of dinner to sell you broadband; just like most advertising agencies are still selling advertising and very few design groups at all would recognise brand strategy if it bit them on the arse! Anyway, that isn’t what I want to talk about.
What I have found particularly interesting about the phone world has been the culture – its like a village, everyone knows each other and they all seem to have been each other’s boss at some time in the past. Its also a sector where managers often arrive at positions of authority via the phone rather than the management college. Nothing wrong in that of course, but if all your managers have this kind of pedigree it does sort of limit your potential.
This leads me to my first question, which is “Is it this cultrure of organically grown managers, or something to do with the fact that call-centre life is lived exclusively on the front line that produces businesses that are purely tactically focused with no strategy whatsoever?” Raise the matter with a call centre hard-liner and they will probably tell you, as I was told a number of times “… that’s how it is in call centres”.
This short-termism is most noticeable when you take a look at the marcoms in the sector. I’m sorry, but the evidence clearly suggests that whatever their delusions, call or contact centres are still a long way from being marcoms professionals – in fact I took the top ten UK-owned concerns and checked out their web pages and there wasn’t a single proposition there – no, honest, I mean it! At least there’s no danger of them failing to deliver their promises, they aren’t making any!
The thing is, as a basis for an integrated offering, a call centre has a lot going for it. Not just the incoming and outgoing option or choices in media routes – SMS, e-mail, web, chat, telephone, etc. there’s the data – just think what an analyst could do with that! And then there’s print and direct mail (OK so call me a Luddite!) and the many revenue-generating areas that emerge when you deliver great customer service – strategy and script writing, and of course there’s plenty of scope for internationalisation.
I’ve heard a lot recently from call centre operators who think the sector has laid its last golden egg. This may be so, but there’s still plenty of scope for serious business in the real world of marketing – and as long as nobody out there really looks like they are trying there isn’t a whole lot of competition. I guess the obstacle has to be management.