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Contact Centre Considerations – For Retail


What Contact Centres working in the Retail sector need to know for 2019.

By Phil Kitchen, Director, the Contact Centre Panel

As Christmas 2018 approaches, Retail in the UK is going through a very challenging time. The inexorable march of progress means that many established retailers are suffering as their business models struggle to adapt to changes in buying behaviour, coupled to a challenging economy.

In 2018 we’ve seen the loss of some major brands from our High Streets and retail parks. Toys R Us, Poundworld, Maplin, Mothercare and Carpetright have all undergone major store closure programmes or gone into administration this year. Debenhams and Kendals, among others, are also experiencing well publicised financial pressures.

How Does The Contact Centre Panel Fit In?

Here at CCP we’ve worked with some of the UK’s biggest retailers to find Contact Centre answers to their customer service and sales questions. Our network of over 80 outsourcers includes onshore, nearshore and offshore teams with a vast range of specialisms and capabilities.

Trish Freeborn, EMEA Head of Customer Service for New Era Cap, sums up our involvement like this:

“At a time of business growth, and a plan to support us with this, we approached numerous companies to help us find the right partner. Quite a challenge it seems! But not with CCP. We felt helped and fully supported throughout the whole process, from laying out our business plan request, to finding the right outsourcing company to suit our needs. The service from CCP really exceeded our expectations, and we are really happy and convinced that we have the right outsourcing partner to match our business! This would not have been possible without them. The road to success is as it stands quite a long one, but with CCP, we were supported all the way!”

Another major UK-based retail business with primarily voice-based enquiries is working with CCP who have identified 6 potential providers, each with multi-channel capabilities to give flexibility and growth in the Client’s needs in the future. We’ll work with this Client and their selected outsourcers to ensure that onboarding is smooth, and we’ll continue to monitor performance and cultural fit throughout their relationship.

So, What Does This Mean For Contact Centres?

In such a competitive, ruthless marketplace it’s vital that Contact Centres perform to the highest levels. Whether in-house as part of the retailer or as an outsourced solution, Contact Centres carry the responsibility of handling essential customer touch points throughout the purchasing and customer service cycle.

We asked a small selection of our contacts in the industry for their insights into this sector for this article. With over 80 Contact Centre businesses in our network, plus our retail clients and independent experts we were spoiled for choice, so we’re grateful for the help of the few people quoted below.

  1. Flexibility

The ability to deal with peaks and troughs in demand is a major influence on overall Contact Centre performance, and retailers deal with more seasonal variations in demand than most business sectors. For example, it is not unusual to see volumes increase by 6 times or more during the months October to December as the Christmas holiday approaches, with even higher spikes in those important last couple of weeks before those beautifully-wrapped presents are finally exchanged.

In her article “Surviving and Winning During Peak Times” published in Modern Retail, Siobhain Goodall of Mpl Contact says:

“The challenge facing retailers… is the expectation a customer has in getting their call or email responded to immediately, irrespective of the time of year, time of day or day of the week. They don’t know that there is huge call demand because of a particularly successful insert, or that the Contact Centre has been hit by high absence or that the sun is out and it’s a Bank Holiday approaching and everyone is ordering garden furniture.”

Steven Dole of Ventrica, an outsourced Contact Centre with strong links to the retail sector, points out that the biggest issue affecting retailers’ Contact Centre choices is how peak activity is managed:

“Customer Experience is an important issue… But with massive volume increases in peak shopping periods it is even more critical and risky. It’s not just an issue for the retailer though: it’s a big deal for advisors who might be looking for work again when the peak period is over. There’s an imperative to make the recruitment and training process very efficient: shorter, more specific programmes to enable great advisors to start work quickly and effectively.

“At our biggest site in Southend we recruit around 250 people to service retail clients during the crucial autumn-winter period – that’s a 50% increase on our usual headcount. This is something that in-house Contact Centres simply can’t do in most cases. Failures in the Customer Experience can have drastic consequences, so outsourcers need to work closely with retailers on contact volume projections and ensuring that the right advisors are placed with the right brands, with the best training available.”

This illustrates the main challenge faced by retail Contact Centres perfectly: how does a retailer ensure that they can meet huge variations in demand seamlessly while maintaining excellent levels of customer service? The answer includes having enough trained, skilled and knowledgeable agents (advisors, Steven refers to them) ready and waiting to deal with the orders, calls and enquiries when they arrive. This requires a flexible resource, with all the consequential pressures on capacity and costs.

Outsourcing provides the answer for many retailers, especially during seasonal peak periods. Finding the right partner to satisfy the demands of a retail business is a challenge, but making the right decision can deliver consistent, excellent customer experiences whilst managing costs without setting up capacity issues in the core of the retail business.

The issue of flexibility is worthy of an article in its own right, so at Contact Centre Panel we have done exactly that – see our News pages for an in-depth look at how Contact Centres are dealing with the need to respond to massively variable traffic demands.

  1. Supply Chain Pressures

One of the main differences between the rapidly growing online retail sector and the beleaguered bricks-and-mortar retailers is the transparency of their supply chains. Some of the UK’s most successful retailers are those who have tight control of their product range from end to end. Newer, online-led brands tend to have ownership of large parts of their supply estate, which enables them to understand their own business intimately. This leads to simpler decision-making.

What does this mean for Contact Centres? When traditional retailers have tried to respond to economic and competitive pressures by pressurising overseas suppliers into cost-cutting, the consequences have all-too-often been felt in the customer services area. Contact Centres are forced to deal with increasing volumes of product quality issues as the cost-cutting efforts take their toll on the standard of products sold. This pushes up the costs of customer service and risks lowering satisfaction measures too.

It’s not enough to just have great agents dealing effectively with product quality issues. In-house and outsourced Contact Centres alike can make a huge difference implementing good information systems and reporting, which can speed up the identification of root causes quickly and enable the retailer to prioritise and attack supply chain issues at source. This minimises the overall negative effect on retail performance.

In our opinion here at CCP, reductions in product quality caused by cost pressures put on second-to-fourth tier suppliers affect unregulated markets like Retail more than those sectors which are regulated. This is because unregulated businesses often don’t have the experience of what happens when suppliers, especially overseas, are squeezed to produce goods at lower prices. For Contact Centres to add maximum value, it is essential to be placed close to the heart of decisions about risk, not just customer service. By identifying trends, recognising and escalating issues, your Contact Centre can work with your Head of Risk to improve things before they get out of hand.

  1. Consistency of Customer Experience

Many retail businesses have a Head of eCommerce, Head of Customer Service and a Head of Distribution at senior management or Board level. Whilst this seems to make sense, it can create conflicting pressures on the Contact Centre agenda. With each role commonly using different measures to determine success or failure, the Contact Centre can be driven by the agenda of their controlling manager at the expense of overall customer satisfaction.

To make your Contact Centre work most effectively for your retail organisation, the best way is to integrate these three roles under one Board member. This enables a more rounded view of performance and for your Contact Centre to help drive real improvements in your operations. For example, it’s still common in some retail sectors like cosmetics for customer information to be collected using paper forms which slow down the process of responding to customer views terribly: by adopting some simple technologies, and the information warehousing which can be used alongside them, this data can be quickly converted into real customer insights to improve the business almost in real time. By moving from manufacturing-led to customer-led, good retailers are able to steal a march on their slower-moving competitors.

  1. Omni-Channel Contact Challenges

It’s all too easy to focus on telephone traffic in conversations about customer service, but the truth is that retail brands deal with more non-call contacts than telephony. Live chat, email and social media now represent the majority of incoming traffic to your Retail Contact Centres. Successful brands have not only embraced the increased freedom that this enables for their agents, they have designed contact strategies which drive customers to these channels.

The diagram below shows the typical behaviour of customers using the most common ways to get in touch with your Contact Centre. Every customer experience is vital of course, but the channel selected usually reflects the importance and the urgency of the enquiry. Telephone calls, for example, demand an immediate response so time to answer and First Call Resolution (FCR) are essential indicators of your team’s success.

Importance and Urgency in Contact Centre Interactions

Web chat, from desktop or mobile devices, also requires real-time response but this can be slower than telephony without giving the customer a poor experience. Agents are also more able to seek advice in real time to maximise FCR metrics. Chat is also much speedier to monitor, enabling your Contact Centre to identify common queries which can be converted into online FAQs and further reduce contact volumes.

Social Media contacts tend to be the least urgent and important to the customer. Contacts via this channel can usually be handled by the same team which handles Web Chat enquiries, utilising agents during off-peak times to satisfy the customers’ lower response time expectations.

Finally, email tends to be used for more complex queries, with a customer expectation that the enquiry may not be dealt with straight away, but will be looked into fully. Emails enable easier escalation of serious issues to team leaders or indeed the retailer’s own team. If these enquiries are collected using an online form, data collection can be automated for subsequent follow-up to identify satisfaction levels and convert customers into advocates for the brand.

So, How Can Outsourced Contact Centres Help?

Steven Dole offers up some important facts about the Contact Centre industry:

“There are over 6,000 Contact Centres in the UK, representing around 5% of the entire workforce. It’s a huge industry and needs to be taken very seriously. To employees, it offers a flexible and attractive working environment with opportunities for some of the best customer service training available.

“To brands and retailers, the sector offers access to specialist systems, specialist skills which are constantly honed and the flexibility to deal with enormous spikes in demand without damaging the customers’ experience.

“The best Contact Centres are capable of adopting a brand’s values and culture, working in partnership to deliver unrivalled results. THAT’s where the magic happens, and it’s why making the right choice is so important.”

At The Contact Centre Panel, it’s our job to make sure that Retailers and other businesses find the best Contact Centre answers to their business questions. An in-depth knowledge of the sectors we work with, coupled with our rigorous selection process and network of over 80 outsourced Contact Centre providers, enables us to work with major brands and growing businesses alike to find the right partners. We offer a free, no-obligation assessment of your current Sales and Customer Service Contact provision, so just contact us by email, use the WebChat on our website or call 0114 3030 393 to talk about your needs. We won’t push: we will only help if you need it.

Keep In Touch

Follow CCP on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook for regular industry news and updates. It’s not all about us! Just look at our website’s News & Publications page for many more helpful articles.

To find out more about working with the perfect partner for your business, give us a call here at Contact Centre Panel on 0114 3030 393 or contact us using the form on our website.

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