HR, not technology, is the weak point in most outsourced customer support operations

By Jagvinder Kang
22 Nov 2011 View Comments
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Now more than ever it is essential that businesses provide an optimum customer experience. Unfortunately, corporate lawyers, IT directors and business leaders often neglect this essential truth, and I am not talking about small companies here, but large corporates.

In my personal experience, the issue is particularly evident in relation to after-sales support issues. There has been over the years an increased use of offshore resource, to provide longer opening hours or quicker response times. However, this does not necessarily mean that the service which is provided as a result is a quality service.

The problem is that offshore support, particularly in the context of after-sales telephone support, can provide a very negative association with a product or brand, when the support is heavily script focused or provided by staff who have limited experience - then add into the mix the language factor (particularly when dealing with support staff based in jurisdictions such as India or the Far East) and it adds a further barrier to resolution of issues.  

Businesses may therefore offer email support, as a partial solution to mitigate against language issues or scope issues, which arise in telephone calls. However, email support is clearly not ideal when someone is suffering from a technical issue which they are desperate to resolve, only to be aware that they will need to wait for the reply email in about 24 hours' time, before the outcome can start to be resolved (as in my personal experience, I have rarely found that the first email response resolves an issue !).

In fact, I have recently submitted a technical mobile broadband enquiry to one of the large mobile phone operators by email, and I received the following automated email response, “Thank you for your email. We wanted to let you know that we've received your query and we will get back to you as quickly as possible. This will be within 7 working days” – In nobody’s books is ‘7 working days’ a satisfactory time period to wait for a simple response to a technical question, and in any event, I am currently on day 6, and still awaiting a reply!

I then had another issue with a faulty SIM card with the same mobile phone operator, which had been purchased within the last 2 weeks for my son. I decided to use their telephone support.

The call was answered by a foreign contact centre (sounded like the USA), and I was informed that I could request a replacement SIM card but I would be charged for the privilege! I therefore asked to be re-directed to the UK contact centre, as the representative was not providing the correct resolution to a faulty product. I was informed by the customer representative, that she was unable to redirect me to a UK centre and she was adamant that a free replacement could not be provided. It was only after I explained that they were not permitted to charge me, and I knew that as I was a lawyer, and their actions were seeking to remove my consumer statutory rights, which would constitute a criminal offence, did the representative go off to check with her manager and return to offer me a ‘goodwill gesture’ of a replacement SIM card without charge – what type of customer experience does this example provide ? It also begs the question, as to what is the point in spending millions on branding and technology, if the same quality is not apparent in the HR element ?

So we have touched on examples of issues with telephone and email support, and one may think that perhaps online technical chat support solves the problem of both, as it deals with the language accent issue, whilst offering the immediacy of communication which email clearly does not – unfortunately, I personally, have yet to use a chat-support system which has offered any positive user experience whatsoever.

The problem with online chat support, is that sometimes support staff are required to deal with multiple chat sessions at the same time, hence the delay one often experiences between typing a message and getting a response. Then, when the response is provided, it does not necessarily resolve the particular problem (imagine the difficulty of having a simultaneous 2 way conversation with 2 separate individuals on 2 separate topics, and now think about the added layer of distraction when one has to ensure that those conversations are in text format rather than orally).

Again, by way of example, I recently had a technical issue with one of the large telecom infrastructure provider companies. I visited their website, and selected their prominent option to “Chat online to an expert” as a ‘Contact Us’ option. I had a relatively simple question, which was to talk to someone about an issue with their online platform and I just needed the phone number, as the previous number which I had, was no longer working, and their website number was going through to a department which did not deal with that particular platform. I was then provided with three different numbers during the chat session (as I called the numbers whilst the chat session was live, to avoid having to go through the whole process again) and each time the number was incorrect. When I relayed this back through the chat session on the third occasion, I had a message back from the so-called ‘expert,’ saying “I work in the marketing department and I don’t have any other numbers.” 

However, it is not just customer experience issues, as there can be legal implications associated with such ‘support,’ such as Data Protection compliance issues. By way of example, I have recently filed a support request by telephone to a globally known technology company, which has had quite a lot of press coverage about Data Protection issues. The support call was routed to the company’s Egyptian call centre. I then had phone calls back over a 2 week period, from 3 different individuals from the Egyptian call centre, all of whom apologised for the previous person not addressing the issue, but they assured me that they would. The issue still remains unresolved and I have therefore asked for a copy of their telephone logs associated with my file (and therefore consisting of ‘personal data’ under the Data Protection Act).

I made a formal data subject access request pursuant to the Data Protection Act, by email – I received a prompt automated response saying that they had received my email…however, the ‘promptness’ stopped there, as I still have not received the personal data requested, and they have failed to comply with the timeline pursuant to the Data Protection Act for providing such information – this does not reflect positively on a global brand.

The above just illustrates how a poor customer support experience can result in brand damage in a customer’s eyes, and inevitably cost the business sales, whilst also possibly giving rise to legal ramifications for the business.

Businesses and IT directors therefore need to have on their ‘radar’:

•    which type of support are they going to provide and during which hours and days;
•    which medium are they going to use to deliver it;
•    how are they going to resource it and from which locations;
•    the training and quality assurance which they are going to invest in their support team; and
•    the escalation mechanisms which they are going to include within the support arrangements, to avoid incorrect responses being provided, and to mitigate against a poor customer experience – for example, through use of supervisory staff (or UK senior staff where there is an offshore dimension to the support), who can get involved, if a support representative feels that it is prudent to involve them, or if a customer requests to speak with them.

The IT delivery aspect is therefore only part of the customer support experience, with the other key part being the HR aspect. It is therefore vital, that the training, supervision and quality safeguards with regard to HR are not overlooked. The two disciplines cannot therefore be divorced from each other, if one is going to truly achieve value from an IT or technology outsourcing arrangement.

Jagvinder Kang, Technology Law Alliance

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