African customer service: growth and understanding

ATIO, Andre, le, Roux, Interactive Intelligence, Dave, Paulding, Africa, ICT, growth, contact, centre, operations

ATIO’s Andre le Roux and Interactive Intelligence's Dave Paulding discuss Africa's rapid ICT growth and its impact on contact centre operations on the continent

The cost of Internet access is dropping fast in Africa. The West Africa Cable System – four times the size of the recently launched Seacom cable – is set to come online in 2012, with another similar sized cable due to come online in 2013. This new ICT infrastructure is accelerating what Naspers, one of the continent’s biggest corporate entities, referred to in its latest annual report as the African Internet Revolution. And this revolution is changing African consumer and business behaviour, fast.

New fibre optic cables mean that evolving communications technologies are now within reach of more and more African companies. And ICT investments on the continent are certainly not only restricted to fibre optic cables.

Business Week reported in 2010, for example, that France Telecom SA may invest as much as 7 billion Euros in deals focused on Africa and the Middle East in the next five years, as part of its plan to double revenue from emerging markets. Clearly, opportunities to utilise leading edge business technologies are becoming a reality for African companies that, a few years ago, were out of the technology loop.

 

The changing business of customer service

African consumers' basic behaviour patterns are also morphing, fuelled by dramatically enhanced Internet access via computers and mobile phones. The upshot is that more and more Africans are using Facebook, Mxit and Twitter in their daily lives, which means that, as in the West, African businesses are facing a new set of customer service challenges involving new and different communications channels. For the many African brands still reliant on manual customer service methods, this challenge will have a profound impact on business.

“The core challenge many businesses face on the continent is developing the understanding that strong customer service is a significant company asset able to generate company value and profit, rather than a reactive necessity,” says Andre le Roux, Managing Director at specialist ICT integration company ATIO. “Many companies still take the phone on a desk approach to customer service – which can actually hurt a business rather than help it.” In a recessionary context, great customer service can be particularly valuable, creating opportunities to not only address operational coasts but also to reduce churn – the loss of existing customers. “Cost cutting is only one element of business strength,” says le Roux.

“The other is maintaining strong relationships and using the existing client base to cross sell and up sell new products. Of course this can only be achieved if the business has healthy relationships in place, which is why contact centres are so important to modern organisations.” With the dynamics of African consumer behaviour changing so fast, African businesses seeking to deliver strong service levels need to ensure that they have the technological systems in place to interact with consumers.

“People aren't shopping or interacting with companies in the traditional sense any more,” says Dave Paulding, Interactive Intelligence Regional Sales Manager for the UK, Africa and the Middle East.

“Your customer could be shopping in a store, but they could also be shopping from their couch. They might want to complain about service on the phone, or via Twitter. To ensure great service across all channels you need the right technology in place.” Interactive Intelligence is one of the world's leading contact centre technologies, and is used by global corporations and brands in a very wide variety of contexts.

As Paulding makes clear, there are many options available when it comes to setting up a good customer service portal, and each system should be developed and implemented according to a specific strategic outlook. A basic call centre, for example, allows the company to deal with customers primarily over the phone. The more recent evolution of the call centre is the contact centre, which caters to multiple communication mediums such as fax, email and telephone.

Paulding cautions, however, against jumping the gun – especially when companies are only just broaching the idea of proactive customer service. “There are a lot of options out there, and it's crucial to do your homework and to partner with a proven provider who can help your company develop a system that meets budget goals, immediate operational imperatives and long term strategic objectives,” he says.

“A contact centre should be operating at the core of the business, not as a bolt-on element. Moving too fast and choosing the wrong provider, according to the wrong criteria, can be very costly and counter-productive over the long term.”

 

Cutting costs and driving growth

One of the primary attractions of a contact centre is a reduction in the costs of doing business. While cost cutting is by no means the only benefit of a call centre, it is a crucial starting point for many companies. The first cost saving area enabled by a contact centre is a reduction of customer churn rates. A second important area is the ability to improve operational efficiency and performance management within the organisation.

“Churn is crucial for any company,” says Andre le Roux, Managing Director of ATIO interactive division. “There is a major expense incurred in signing up a customer in the first place, so losing that customer due to bad service is very costly and can undermine an entire business. A contact centre allows companies to deliver on their brand promise and ensure that once a customer has signed up the relationship delivers value over sustained period.”

Performance optimisation is a less recognised but equally important cost saving aspect of a contact centre. In a manually driven company, aspects such as sales and customer service cannot be monitored or tightly controlled, which leaves a great deal of room for human error and costly inefficiency.

Conversely, contact centre technology allows managers and decision managers to align staff targets with actual workplace performance.

“A good example is a bank where there are a lot of manual processes that involve loan approvals, the opening of accounts and so forth. Significant savings can be achieved by automating these processes and making them faster,” says le Roux. “A bank is also likely to have a service charter in place that demands a two day process turnaround, for instance, but the demands of manual processes can mean staff is unable to reach these Key Performance Indicators. This has a major impact on the bottom line.”

In addition, once customer-facing business processes are automated via the contact centre, strong performance management mechanisms are enabled, which further reduce costs. The system allows the company to examine in detail which staff member is doing what within the company, and over what time frame. Managers can ensure that existing KPI targets are not only realistic, but are being achieved on a day to day basis – a vital part of any organisation's cost management strategy. But cutting costs is only one half of the contact centre equation.

The other half is using new technologies to achieve strategic business growth – an especially important imperative in a recessionary market context, where growth levels can dictate whether a business survives or not. The strategic bottom line, according Interactive Intelligence's Africa, Europe and Middle East Regional Sales Manager, Dave Paulding, is for businesses to learn to move beyond treating customers with a reactive mind-set and to view them instead as a valuable company asset – one that can be grown and nurtured.

“Customers and business partners respond extremely well to great service,” he says. “Customers are far likely to explore your brand's additional products and services if they have had a positive service experience, while business partners will do more business with you if you have a strong brand reputation in the market – and that reputation is defined by your service levels.”

 

Strength of service

Illustrating Paulding's point is Google's recent announcement that it is set to start scaling advertiser's search engine positioning according to their customer service track record, with stronger performers coming out closer to the top of search results.

“That's just one very literal example,” says Paulding.

“There are many more in the market. Strategically the emphasis is clear – strong service is the foundation for business growth.”

Once strong service levels are in place, contact centre technologies allow the brand to leverage the growth potential of its customer database with outbound sales and communications campaigns.

Understanding that contact centres are powerful outbound sales and growth tools is a key point for most businesses, says Paulding.

“You can do a lot of proactive work with contact centre technology, and businesses need to understand this, the fact that customer service is about offering new products and services to clients as well as responding to their existing needs.

Once you know you are servicing clients well, your database becomes an asset that can be grown and developed very effectively without outbound tools. But your customers must want to hear from you and engage with you if you're going to use the tools at hand to achieve sustainable growth.”

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