We asked Phil Stewart, customer service director at Virgin Media Business, about meeting increasing customer demands, customer service professionalism, retaining staff and off-shoring.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges that contact centres face as customers' demands and expectations increase around service?

Contact centres will always find building relationships with customers remotely a challenge. As an industry I think we're getting a lot better at this, but there's still a long way to go. We need to make sure that we're managing enquires from all customers individually. Essentially it's about having a personal touch. Without this, contact centres will struggle to foster really meaningful relationships with customers.

The sheer volume of enquires can be a big challenge too. Obviously the best way to deal with this is to try and resolve as many problems as you can the first time round, as this will reduce the volume of calls that you receive. But clearly this won't always be possible. I've found that offering customers a wider range of ways to get in touch with you can help, as this will take a lot of pressure off the guys on the phones.

What are your views on off-shoring?

Off-shoring is always going to be a prickly subject. From experience, I've found that it's not a particularly effective way for B2B companies to manage customer calls, as enquiries from businesses tend to be too complex. So it's not something that Virgin Media Business does.

But that's not to say that companies should avoid off-shoring like the plague. It depends on what's being outsourced. I think having offshore call centres is OK if they're being used to provide consumer customers with round-the-clock service. Equally I think off-shoring your back office processes and technical analysis is perfectly fine, as these activities can be carried out well anywhere.

Contact Centres carry a stigma because of scripting, queuing and language barriers. How can UK call centres change these perceptions?

It's going to take a lot of hard work to change that perception, but I think as an industry we're making great progress. The introduction of more personal channels through unified communications means that we can provide customers with a much more personalised service. I think that's what it all boils down to really. Customers just want to feel valued.

Little things like offering customers a PIN number so that they can speak to the same person each time they get in touch can really help to strengthen relationships. Regular training is really important too. Workers must know how to manage customers. I've found that taking a friendly and conversational approach can work wonders, even with the most difficult customers.

To really change perceptions you've got to make sure that the little things aren't letting you down. As a minimum I'd always advise putting Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in place to measure metrics such as the average waiting time and call length. Without this you'll struggle to assess how well your teams are doing and find out where you can do better.

At Virgin Media Business we've introduced a policy for queuing calls. It's our aim to answer all calls within 40 seconds. We're currently answering around 96 per cent of calls in 20 seconds, but as with everything there's always room for improvement.

Often contact centre roles are not seen as a long term profession. How can organisations change this perception and how do you get the best out of a contact centre employee?

You've got to make the job enjoyable. If agents don't like what they're doing, you can't expect them to want to carry on doing it long term. Like any business, the best way to motivate your workforce is through job enrichment. I've found that offering people the chance to vary what they're doing by occasionally working on different teams can work really well, as it ensures that workers feel fresh, whilst developing a wider range of skills.

A clear development ladder for all employees is extremely important too. Your workers want to know if there is room for them to move up within the organisation. If they feel that they're stuck in a dead-end job, chances are they'll start looking to move elsewhere.

These tactics for motivating people seem to be working quite well for us. Our annual attrition rate is now less than 10 per cent and the average employee has been with us for at least three years.

What should be the key measures within a contact centre?

Success in the contact centre lies in keeping the customer happy. The obvious way to do this is to answer calls fast and resolve problems quickly. But it's not just about speed. Think about the experience that you have in a restaurant compared with a fast food chain. You may get something to eat a lot faster in a fast food place, but you'll almost certainly have a better experience in a restaurant. It's all about providing an excellent customer experience.

To measure success, you need to look beyond call length and call pickup times. While this will give you a good idea of how well you're doing, it won't give you the full picture. You need to gain feedback from your customers too. Find out what your customers think you're doing well and where you could improve. This insight will allow you to make tweaks to your service, and ultimately help you to make your contact centre more successful.

What are your aspirations for your contact centre?

My main goal is to strengthen the customer focus that we've built up in our call centres. I hope to do this by fostering a culture where going the extra mile becomes the norm. I want my agents to put themselves in the customer's shoes, and automatically think about what they could do to really make that customer's day. Equally, I'm just as keen to make sure that we continue to do the basics well, and of course keep hitting our targets!

British Gas said that they now only measure their team on NPS. What does Virgin Media Business do to drive the right behaviours?

We use Net Promoter Score (NPS) too! But that's not all we use. We complement this by looking at a few other measures and objectives as well. This gives us a far reaching overview of the customer's experience. Not just what the average call answer time is.

I'm adamant that measuring contact centres on customer feedback is where the industry is headed. At the end of the day, our job is to keep the customer happy, so it makes sense that we consider customer satisfaction when measuring our performance.

What makes Virgin different?

Virgin companies are renowned for providing great customer service, quality, innovation and value for money. We're genuinely on the side of the customer. And unlike other companies we want to be thought of as more than just a supplier. I think that's what really marks us out against our competitors.

Richard Branson's philosophy is important too. He believes that if you look after your people, rather than focusing solely on your shareholders, the rest will all fall into place. I couldn't agree with that more!

Phil Stewart is customer service director at Virgin Media Business.

Have a view on off-shoring in contact centres? Customer service professionalism? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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