Apr 07 - 13, 2008

If you have ever been tempted by an attractive newspaper advertisement to call the 111-xxx-yyy number, only to be disappointed by getting an unsatisfactory answer then you are not alone. Pakistan's nascent call center industry is largely efficiency focused and barely effectiveness driven. In the ever increasing call center moots, the presentations generally focus on increasing service levels (SL) but skim through the challenging part of improving customer satisfaction indicators such as first call resolution (FCR) and customer loyalty parameters.

The reason is obvious, quantitative measures such as service levels (percentage of calls answered within a certain time limit) and abandon ratio (percentage of calls dropped while waiting for an agent) are automatically calculated and reports generated by call center software. It is also faster to improve these quantitative measures by adding more agents on the floor. However, this is only one side of the equation as these indicators reflect efficiency. A call center may be answering customer calls very fast but not satisfying them. Anyone who had to argue for a wrongly charged late payment fee on a credit card bill knows how many times one has to call the bank's call center.

On the other hand, the effectiveness of a call center is measured through difficult to design and implement measures. These include designing after call work (ACW) parameters to capture FCR. In addition, an analysis of incoming calls over a time period can indicate repeat callers, an imperfect but useful proxy for FCR. Another mechanism is to call customers soon after their query to assess their satisfaction level. Measuring these indicators over time indicates the trend in meeting the customer's expectations.

Let us go back to the opening line of this article. The disappointment experienced by not getting your query resolved quickly creates an impression in your mind that you associate with the product or service advertised. This impression carries far greater weight in purchase decisions than the recall value built through advertising exposures. This is no surprise as one of the best definitions of brand is "the promise of an experience". The experience of using the product/service and contact with company's sales and service staff is what shapes the brand in the minds of the customer. For new customers call center is likely to be the first experience with the company.

Call centers offer great business opportunity. Like the internet they have created a level playing field between small and large organizations. By providing effective and efficient service through a call center, new entrants can match and even beat large incumbents. For example, Air Blue started booking customers from cities where it had no booking offices thanks to its call center. Similarly, in industries where barriers to exit are low such as mobile phone users, a well executed sales campaign could lead to churn from competitors and consistent service quality could reduce churn.

Call centers have also raised the bar for companies in unique ways. Call center customer experience cuts though segments and industries. For example, in the automotive industry the luxury car segment of Mercedes and BMW is clearly distinguished from economy segment of Suzuki and Hyundai. While customers" expectations of product performance between the two segments are wide apart, their expectations from their call centers are not that far apart. Similarly, while the brand image of a multinational bank and a nationalized bank are very different in Pakistan, their customers" expectations of first call resolution are much closer. A middle class Pakistani customer experiences various call center including those of his/her bank, airline, mobile phone company, fast food delivery service, courier company, etc. The expectation of speed of answer, early resolution of query, etc cut across industries. The challenge for businesses is to bench mark their call center's performance indicators against the best their customers experience regardless of industry.

Call centers in organizations usually go through three stages in their lifecycle. The first stage is that of a cost center that is more efficient in delivering customer service 24 x 7. In the second stage, call centers are viewed as a profit and loss (P&L) center within the company. At this stage, telemarketing activities are added to offset the operation costs with sales revenue. The third stage is when a business views its call center as a strategic tool for competitive advantage.

Being at the first stage, plainly having a call center no longer matters. It is what you do with it matters. Most Pakistani call centers are somewhere between first and second stage of call center life cycle. It is the third stage which is the domain of the industry leaders. This is the stage where call center is more than one tool for competitive advantage; rather it is at the heart of every thing a company does like leadership. Beyond the rhetoric, if you really want to know if your organization has reached the third stage then ask the CEO - What is the FCR of your company's call center? You will be surprised how many employees know the annual turn over e.g. we are a $2.0 Billion company and we have 10,000 employees but how few know how well we are serving the customers (FCR) who literally pay the $2.0 Billion and keep the 10,000 employed.

I would advocate that companies achieve the twin objectives of effectiveness and efficiency of a call center; unfortunately, instead of a balance between the two it is tilted in favor of efficiency today. The large investments in brand building and positioning are negated by unsatisfactory call center experience. Customers climb the ladder of loyalty one step at a time from trial user to regular user to satisfied customer to an advocate for the brand who is willing to recommend (or what Tom Peters calls raving fans). At each step the product/service experience and contact with company staff (such as contact center) provides the magnetic force in both directions.


Ahson Rabbani is an electrical engineer by profession with a doctorate in Business Administration from USA. His work and research interests include contact center management, customer relationship management, loyalty programs, capacity building and social marketing. He is currently responsible for customer care function at a leading telecommunications company in Pakistan. He can be reached at