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Government contact centres: Please hold

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Please hold

Government contact centres are a sensitive subject in South Africa, with a lack of caller satisfaction and ineffective strategy behind its processes. KARL REED of Elingo takes a look at the light at the end of the tunnel and highlights a few factors that hinder the success of Government contact centres.

There’s good news and bad news for citizens frustrated by their interactions with government call centres: major change is happening, but it will take time.

Government-run contact centres get a lot of bad publicity. Some of it is deserved, but some of the bad press is purely because bad news sells.

In my capacity as a consultant and business partner for the public sector, I have encountered and partnered with many government contact centres. The good news for citizens is that after a lull of several years, we are now seeing a growing interest from government departments in creating and running contact centres that will meet world standards.

Elingo has worked with departments, which already have in place gold standard contact centres that serve as a benchmark for the private sector. Admittedly, these are few and far between at the moment. Many departments are still beginning their contact centre journey.

We feel there is reason for optimism about South Africa’s contact centre future. Plans are afoot to implement top class contact centres, which will mean government efficiencies will improve, and much-needed jobs will be created.

Moving forward, we will see a great deal of spend from government on new or upgraded contact centres. Currently, we are seeing a gradual increase in this spend compared to a year ago. But while the willingness is there, there are major stumbling blocks to be overcome first. Seeing results will take time.

Changing mind-sets

The key to improving government contact centres is, firstly, changing mind-sets. Until very recently, many government departments had the misconception that implementing a contact centre simply involved placing phones on desks.

There was little understanding of the supporting high-level systems needed to run the backend, or the fact that staff costs and training constitutes a major proportion of the cost of a contact centre. Many were not aware that up to 60% and could be more of the total cost of a contact centre is due to the human element salaries and training of agents, supervisors and managers. When you roll out a contact centre, you’re in effect creating a new company. This requires proper investment and planning.

We are now seeing government organisations beginning to understand that they need to spend money on getting their contact centres both on suppliers, and internally, training staff and getting the right systems in place.

Union hurdles

Along with staffing as a major factor to consider in contact centre planning and management: government contact centres also face a significant hurdle in the form of workers’ unions. The impact of union action on the running of a contact centre can be significant and sometimes detrimental.

It would not be unheard of for a contact centre to be forced to promote all of its agents in order to secure them salary increases: only to find itself facing a union’s insistence that the agents should no longer have to answer calls because they are now all designated supervisors, leaving the contact centre unable to function at all.

Navigating the union minefield can significantly impact on the running of government contact centres. Negotiations over salaries and promotions can take months and becomes a problem that impacts on both costs and operations. So the process of managing government contact centre staff needs to be carefully planned, possibly with solutions in place such as a call escalation path and a pool of skilled or specialist agents.

Tied up in red tape

Another factor hampering rapid change is the fact that government departments have to follow numerous protocols and guidelines. Unlike the private sector, government departments cannot simply allocate budget and start implementing a new project.

Budget approval can take years. Once the budget has been applied for and approved, the process of selecting a supplier is also a complex one. There are requests for proposals to be issued and a lengthy tender process to be followed.

Promising future

In its favour, the government has access to some of the important basics needed for efficient contact centres. It can requisition all the telecommunications infrastructure, facilities and land it requires.

The necessary budget is also available albeit slow to approve.

The same departments that once showed little understanding of the importance of an effective contact centre or what was needed to implement one are now making a concerted effort to put in place the plans to make it happen. They have more realistic expectations now, and are planning ahead for projects that will be implemented 18 months or two years down the line. Those departments that have had their fingers burnt by suppliers who just ‚’drop and run’ are now turning to consultants like Elingo for advice on preparing to implement change. Already, there are showcase installations that are shining examples of what a contact centre should be.

This is good news for people who have called emergency services and received no answers. Change is coming. But it cannot happen overnight.

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