WORDS ON WEALTH: Customer-centric start-ups spell the demise of call centres
Columnists / 16 October 2018, 2:55pm / Martin Hesse
There’s a lovely quote by the illustrious jazz musician and record producer, Quincy Jones. In a no-holds-barred interview for New York Magazine earlier this year, which is both shocking and highly entertaining, Jones said: “I have never in my life made music for money or fame. Not even Thriller (Michael Jackson’s iconic album – one of the highest grossing albums ever made). No way. God walks out of the room when you’re thinking about money.”
That last sentence is worth repeating: God walks out of the room when you’re thinking about money.
I firmly believe that to be true, and it applies to whatever you do. Successful, happy, fulfilled people are primarily motivated by acts of creation or service. If money is your raison d’être, you will be unhappy or unsuccessful or probably both.
A central dilemma of business is balancing the profit-driven demands of shareholders and the service/product-driven demands of customers. You can cut costs to boost profits, but cutting costs means you will probably have to compromise on quality, so it’s likely that you will lose customers. Fewer customers mean lower profits, which, in turn, will force you to cut costs some more. A vicious spiral.
Of course, it doesn’t work if all the businesses in a particular sector do the same thing. Then a customer has no choice but to go with the flow, however unpleasant that flow may be. Take the banks as an example, and my pet hate (and I am sure yours): their call centres.
It was not that long ago – although today’s millennials may not have been around to experience it – that each branch had a fully-fledged bank manager. This person was a respected (and feared) figure in the community who had the power, among other things, to grant or refuse loans to individuals and businesses. He (or she) got to know his customers intimately, and could quickly figure out who was deserving of a loan and who wasn’t. If he saw Joe Bloggs driving down the road in a new Mercedes, but knew that Joe’s plumbing business was battling to break even, he would think twice about dishing out more credit to Joe when he next asked for it. After all, the risk was on his head.
Then the banks did something that smacks of collusion, but was probably coincidence because of advances in technology and because other institutions were following the same route.
They embarked on a grand cost-cutting exercise by reducing the number of branches they had, and not only reducing the number of staff in the remaining branches, but reducing their responsibilities and levels of seniority. At the same time all customer queries were redirected to a single national telephone number that took you to an anonymous call centre. In these call centres, the employees don’t work for the bank; they follow a script and are paid a pittance, so they have no real interest in you or seeing to it that your needs are met. Another reason they don’t take responsibility for their actions is that they never get to talk to you again. Each time you phone, a different operator picks up the call.
Here’s a recent personal example of call centre frustration (and I am sure you, dear reader, can supply a whole lot more): I phone my bank’s all-encompassing national number, wanting to be put through to a specific branch. The call centre operator connects me with the branch, but the number rings and rings. Eventually I hang up. Phone call centre again. Different operator. Again put through to branch. Again ringing and no-one answering. Okay, so maybe they’re very busy at the branch. Try again, several times that day, and the next. Same result every time. I even convince the operator to stay on the line, and when there is no answer, the operator says it’s the only number they have.
It turned out, after accessing sources that we in the media are privy to, that the branch’s number had changed, but the call centre had not been notified of the change.
Surely the banks realise the frustrations for their customers? Even their top executives must have had a frustrating call centre experience at some point? Who hasn’t?
I can only conclude that they are putting profits before the needs of their customers, despite the lip service they give to customer service. Well, they are in for a rude shock in the way of disruption from start-ups that are genuinely customer-centric.
I chatted recently to the amiable Ernest North, chief executive of short-term insurance start-up Naked, whose passion for his work is compelling. He says technology is reaching a point where it will make call centres redundant. His company doesn’t use a call centre, he says; it uses a “chat bot”, which, for the mundane queries, provides text answers to questions texted to it. If you have a more specialised query, you are put through to a staffer with the necessary expertise.
Years ago, the traditional banks were disrupted by upstart Capitec with its simple, easy-to-understand, low-cost offering. They’re still battling to catch up and reclaim market share.
A new wave of disruption in financial services will soon be hitting the banking industry. Watch this space – you’re bound to benefit.