Few brands can boast the long-term customer satisfaction ratings of First Direct. Fewer still can say that the vast majority of their customers actively recommend them.
The major reason for the financial-services brand's success in these areas is its sharp focus on ensuring that its contact centre operations are able to deal with its customers' requirements effectively.
This sounds simple, but an astonishing proportion of brands get it wrong, leaving their customers to talk to badly trained, poorly paid, unhelpful agents, who are judged on the quantity, rather than the quality, of their responses.
'The key to a good customer experience is meeting their needs,' says First Direct's head of sales and service, Jason Sharpe. 'When a customer rings us, that comes first.' Providing this positive experience is a major challenge for marketers, and one that is bound up with other key issues.
In March this year, a survey by business consultancy Panviva revealed that first call resolution is the top priority for customers. It also revealed, however, that contact centres tend to rate internal measures such as call-abandonment rates and average handling time ahead of customer service. Clearly there is some disparity between what consumers want and the priorities contact centres set for themselves.
Getting it right is not easy. For example, there is the issue of exactly how to communicate with customers. Today's consumer uses a variety of ways to communicate with friends and family, including email, webchat, SMS and social media, and they want the same choice when communicating with brands.
While this presents a great opportunity for marketers to communicate cost-effectively with different customer segments, it also presents a challenge in terms of knowing which channels to implement and how best to use them.
'There can be a temptation to choose the latest technology, which might not be what your customers are asking for,' says Chris Hancock, managing director of customer contact agency GasboxDMG. 'It's also important to be clear on how channels integrate - they need to link into the same system the call centre works on or you get a fragmented conversation.'
Implementing additional channels can also be costly as well as time-consuming, which ties in with the familiar issue for brand marketers of whether to keep operations in-house, or to outsource.
A major benefit of outsourcing, particularly with post-recessionary budgets remaining tight, is that the contractor makes all the upfront investment in technology. So, if a brand wants to trial or introduce a new channel, they can do so without suffering the associated set-up costs and risks.
Whether either approach is superior, however, is a moot point. Those with in-house contact centres, such as First Direct, argue that it gives them more control, and makes it easier to keep up with customers' changing needs. Nonetheless, Hancock says that the right company can deliver these benefits more cost-effectively. 'Leading outsourcers can replicate all those benefits, and deliver them in a way that doesn't take up your time and energy,' he adds.
Outsourcing can be particularly useful when dealing with staffing requirements.
A contact centre provider generally has several clients and a bank of staff, so it can scale activity up or down as demand necessitates without lengthy recruitment processes or hiring expensive temporary staff.
This was of particular benefit this winter to Sainsbury's, which outsources to contact centre company Teleperformance. When heavy snowfall meant that deliveries in some areas struggled to get through, call volumes increased.
'Our contact centre was able to bring in additional staff to protect our service levels and key metrics, working long shifts to answer calls and providing real-time anecdotal feedback every couple of hours,' explains Sainsbury's contact centre manager Natalie Molina.
Staffing remains a significant challenge for contact centres, which traditionally have high staff turnover and face difficulties in attracting strong candidates for jobs that can be demanding and difficult.
While outsourcing dilutes this problem somewhat for brands, the fact that the contact centre agent represents the brand, means marketers need to stay involved in staff recruitment and training. According to Sharpe, the key to recruiting the right kind of person is to do so 'on their personality. Hire the smile, and train the skill - that's the easy bit'.
This is echoed by Matthias Mierisch, chief executive of Arvato Services UK.
'A good customer experience begins with someone who can listen well,' he says. 'When contact centre staff are quick to listen, empathise and offer clear, sensible advice and information, people's loyalty to a brand can soar.'
It is also important for the agent to care about the brand, which can be a lot to ask. This can be aided by helping them to understand what the job entails by introducing them to other agents, giving them a tour of the contact centre, as well as decent pay, incentives and good communication.
It is also vital to give agents a degree of autonomy and control, according to Paul Kennedy, head of consulting at Callcredit Information Group. 'The key to good customer service is empowering agents,' he says. 'If a customer rings in to cancel, then the contact agent can be as skilled and nice as possible but if they don't have something to offer, it's no good.'
At Sainsbury's, Molina also believes in empowering agents and is heavily involved in how they are trained to communicate with customers. 'I don't provide scripts in a service environment, as it is not a robotic process,' she says. 'We talk to people about tone of voice, and with emails, while there might be five points to cover, it's up to them how they do it.'
However, the work of the contact centre does not end there. Since the recession, brands have been seeking better value from all their service providers; contact centres are no exception and are being asked to deliver more.
'Many marketers are looking to reduce or control costs with a total customer contact-package that includes more than just traditional call centre services,' says Chris Tillin, marketing manager at EC Group. 'They want a contact centre to provide a full range of integrated back- end services instead of spreading these functions across different providers.'
Some brands have also realised that contact centres can provide great customer data - information they would struggle to get hold of elsewhere.
'Providing insight into a customer's desires is now required by brand marketers,' explains Rachel Robinson, divisional managing director of Teleperformance UK. 'Technology has raised its game to allow contact centres to provide tools such as audio analytics that report back what customers are really saying.'
Brand marketers are now realising the true scope and value of the contact centre, although some key issues remain - not least the question of how to improve the customer experience.
As Robinson says: 'Brands understand that to boost their brand and their bottom line, they have to value every single customer transaction - it's no longer enough just to answer the phone.'
HOW THE LEAGUES WORK
Information was collated by Marketing by sending a survey to outsourced contact centre providers?
Respondents have been ranked according to their 2009 turnover? If no figures for 2009 were available, we have accepted 2008 data. These agencies have been placed in the table but not ranked.
Marketing takes care to publish accurate company data. However, it cannot be held responsible for any errors or omissions in these leagues.
CASE STUDY - HITACHI CAPITAL
Consumer finance brand Hitachi Capital wanted to increase sales of its unsecured personal loans and measure how its contact centre provider, GasboxDMG, could improve customer advocacy and satisfaction over a six-month period.
To improve targeting, GasboxDMG analysed the demographics of Hitachi's customers and developed questions for agents to ask. This meant that calls moved toward a dialogue to capture further customer data and generate sales leads.
It discovered that customers calling to close an account, or with borrowings elsewhere, were most likely to be interested in the product.
The approach achieved five times as many leads via half the number of customers, and improved brand perception with a 20% rise in overall satisfaction rates. Of those who declined the product, 60% gave permission for Hitachi Capital to contact them in future with relevant offers.
'It was all down to the human element: an agent striking up a conversation and finding out more about a customer, and not about selling a product,' says Chris Hancock, managing director of GasboxDMG.