Almost imperceptibly, customer contact centres have infiltrated the consciousness of practically every household. When a person contacts an insurance company for a quote, a utility about a bill, or buys goods over the phone or online, it is likely that an agent at a contact centre will handle the transaction.

With the expected boom in internet use, further boosted by the introduction of digital television, this trend is bound to continue. The question is, can contact centres cope with the challenge posed by the new channels? Reports of low morale and complaints of levels of service suggest that the industry is already in crisis. How, then, can customer expectations be met and satisfactory service levels provided? Unless the contact centre industry puts its house in order, the growth in home shopping will be killed in its infancy.

The demand for service is being driven from several quarters. The government has already promised that every home will have access to the internet by 2005, by which time it also aims to make all government services available online. Cabinet office minister Ian McCartney claims: “There is a clear demand for making some key services available outside standard working hours,” as shown by research carried out by the New People's Panel.

The government estrategy, launched in April, aims to introduce ebusiness methods throughout the public sector. It sets out how new technologies such as digital TV, call centres, the internet and mobile phones will be used to improve public services – making them accessible at the click of a button.

The rapid uptake of digital TV in the past year is likely to drive the demand for effective online services. There are now more than three million homes in Britain with digital TV and in-home internet PC access: one in five digital TV subscribers use the service for online shopping; half of Sky digital homes use the shopping service every week, and one in ten use it every day; and 28% use the internet just for shopping.

By the time all terrestrial analogue television has been switched off around 2010, the extra services that digital TV already offers will be the norm. Stuart Prebble, Ondigital chief executive, says: “The fact of analogue switch-off means that digital terrestrial television is going to be in nearly every home in Britain, and the barriers to persuading people to take multi-channel television are going to be so much smaller in our business than they are in satellite and cable.”

Boxing clever

Digital TV has already changed the way we view television. No longer just the box in the corner of the sitting room – the television has become the gateway to a whole new world of services. Ondigital is now offering full internet access through television with its On Net for £5 a month. Prebble comments: “Why spend hundreds of pounds on a computer when you can access the internet on the TV that already sits in your living room?”

With the other channels, digital TV will provide new routes to customer contact centres and demand different types of interaction and new levels of response. Agents will need additional communications skills to deal with email requests as well as speaking to customers over the telephone.

Unfortunately, many products and services do not lend themselves to self-service channels such as the internet. Financial service products are such a case: the customer will still need to be talked through the options to find a product to suit their circumstances. Therefore, if financial services are to be sold successfully online, skilled agents must be available to advise the customer, or products will have to be adapted to fit the new channels.

Gerry Moxham, business development manager at Henley-based TC Group, a business and technology consultancy, says: “There are two issues here: contact centres must get their act together to meet the requirements of the new channels to satisfy customer demand. There is an additional challenge for providers of services to ensure that they are ‘fit for purpose'. If they are to be accessible and saleable then they will have to be modified to fit the channels. What will be required is a more commoditised product.”

Moxham adds: “The contact centre must be integrated into other channels, but this cannot be done in isolation. Companies will have to examine their products very carefully, identify which will work on interactive media, and those that require a contact centre agent to guide the customer through the process. Without appropriate products, or the contact centre's full integration into what is being offered, customer expectations will not be met, and opportunities wasted.”

The potential pitfall to companies offering financial products is when advice is given to buyers. With most products, financial service regulations give some protection if a person is negligently or fraudulently advised to take out a product that turns out to be unsuitable. A person buying such products online who has been guided through the process by a contact centre agent falls within this category. He could have redress against the company some years down the line if the product proves to be unsuitable or does not perform as expected.

If a person decides to buy without taking any advice, however, he is responsible for that choice and will not benefit from some of the regulatory protections available when taking authorised investment advice specific for his circumstances.

Lost in space

The evidence suggests that contact centres are not yet geared up to provide the levels of response demanded by users of the new channels. Recent research commissioned by Onyx into the reaction times of financial services organisations showed that 23% of web-generated enquiries failed to receive a response. For a further 23% the response took six days or more.

Tania Holmes, Onyx UK managing director, says: “If you do not have web responsiveness, your call centre faces a new opportunity to lose customers.” Stephen McBride, CRM industry marketing manager for Microsoft UK, says: “It is customer service that is the only real differentiator in the modern financial marketplace.”

Price alone is no longer enough. Computer Weekly reported that: “Some 66% of online customers abandon items they place in their web shopping baskets because web shopping processes are too difficult, nearly 35% would buy more if they could interact in real time with a salesperson, and 89% of people who shop on the web actually buy over the phone.” Anne-Marie Forsyth, executive director of the Call Centre Association, comments that: “Companies must pay as much attention to call centre-enabling their websites, as to web-enabling their call centres.”

Dataquest has estimated that two-thirds of call centres will be internet-enabled by the end of the year. Customers can easily contact other firms offering similar services if they are not satisfied. That is where contact with an agent by clicking on the website through voiceover internet protocol becomes so important. However, it is essential that the agent is able to deal with the enquiry.

With more services available and competing online, customers will want added value to distinguish themselves from others. They will not tolerate channels that time out before they have finished entering their requests, that are difficult to navigate or lack choice. Customer contact centres will enable companies to offer this additional layer of service.

Moxham believes that contact centres need to get to grips with the problems that are bedevilling the industry if the new opportunities are to be seized. “The rapid diversification of communication channels, compounded by the increasing shortage of skilled call centre agents, will throw the industry into chaos if the problems are not tackled now,” he says. “Businesses have to realise the worth of developing employees' careers and skills to reduce staff turnover and ensure survival in the long term.”

Click fix

Digital TV offers a wealth of opportunities for customer contact centres, but they need to sort themselves out now to meet the challenge. As the public becomes more familiar with browsing and shopping online, they will be less tolerant of second-rate services.

On the web, reputations can be made and broken with the forwarding of an email and the touch of a button. If people do not find what they want the first time, they will quickly look elsewhere, and they are likely to let others know. Herein lies the challenge.