Bringing Customer Service Back To The UK

UK companies that have reshored their call centres are adding value by raising standards of customer service with a British workforce.


by Simon Brooke
first published in The Sunday Times and Raconteur 

It’s part of outsourcing legend. Overseas call centre staff were, it was said, given briefings on EastEnders and British football, as well as adopting English names, so they could lessen cultural barriers with their UK customers.

Not surprisingly this bit of supposed subterfuge failed. Either way, around seven or eight years ago, companies such as Santander were stung by criticism of their offshore customer support centres with low-quality phone lines and staff reading from scripts in poor English. So they began to reshore, bringing their operations back to the UK.

The increased cost of running customer contact centres back in Britain was originally accepted as a necessary economic evil, but now companies are realising they can and must add value to their UK-based call-handling operations. Justifying the additional cost requires them to rethink the role of these essential customer touchpoints.

“Many companies have shifted their idea of what good customer service is,” says Christine Stubbs, contact centre and workforce optimisation consultant at Maintel, a managed service provider. “Now customers are empowered by the choices offered to them via the web. This also means that fewer contact centre staff are needed. This leaves more budget to be able to reshore call centres back to the UK, which brings a direct benefit of empathy to many companies’ customer care.”

Earlier this year, EE started to return all its customer service roles to the UK and Ireland. The company now receives fewer than six complaints per 100,000 customers, well below the industry average.

“We’ve had fantastic feedback from our customers about all of the changes we’ve made and the number of complaints has plummeted, but we’re not stopping there,” says EE’s chief executive Marc Allera. “We’re creating 550 additional service jobs here in the UK to answer all EE customer service calls in the UK and Ireland by the end of 2016.”

While UK call centre agents may or may not be any better at resolving issues than their offshore counterparts, at least they are able to empathise with infuriated customers, by talking about the weather, politics, topical current affairs, or even delivery or non-delivery of services and products. “Empathy is something that can’t be bought or taught,” says Ms Stubbs.

Cultural understanding

Lee Durham, co-founder of durhamlane, a telesales consultancy and training company, says: “Fundamentally, people want to discuss their problems with native speakers. It’s not only a language barrier, but a cultural barrier. It’s difficult to create cultural understanding, which is important in communication.”

Clients are increasingly interested in UK-based call centres not just because of the benefits of a familiar accent and cultural connections, according to John Devlin managing director of Ascensos, a multichannel customer contact centre based in Scotland, which was launched in 2014 and whose clients include B&Q and Karen Millen.

“It’s more complex than that,” he says. “These days the experience is more conversational than simply transactional. This is partly because social media has become more important. With social media you actually have to have a closer connection than the people you’re talking to in order to understand the nuances and the famous British sense of irony and humour. What we provide isn’t just a contact centre, it’s part of a client’s digital marketing operation creating content and engaging in conversation.”

New technology is both bringing down the costs for customer service centres based in the UK and allowing them to add value to the traditional model, according to James Hall, chief executive at artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics company Genfour.

“In transitioning back to the UK, many companies are capitalising on the momentum and they’re implementing intelligent automation such as robots, cognitive systems and AI in order to become more productive, using local talent to manage this automation,” he says. “It’s not about cutting staff, it’s about focusing your people on creating value-adding tasks rather than the mundane, repetitive jobs. Beyond productivity, the benefit is a new level of customer service and the human element that local users feel comfortable with.”

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