Canada to gain from U.S. call centre loss

Call centre numbers and agent positions in the United States will plunge over the next four years and Canada will benefit from some of that loss, according to a research report by market analysis firm Datamonitor.

According to the report, entitled The Vertical Guide to Contact Centres in North America to 2008, the U.S. will have 3,000 fewer call centres in 2008 than it does today.

Mark Best, Datamonitor call centre analyst and author of the report, said there are 2.86 million agent positions there today. By 2008, Datamonitor expects numbers will be down 133,000 from current levels — a total decrease of about 4.65 per cent, Best said.

Meanwhile Canada, currently host to 4,500 call centres, will see its numbers increase by 800 between now and 2008. “The majority of growth in the Canadian market will be due to organic growth out of the market,” Best said, noting that most of Canada’s growth will still be in call centres serving domestic customers.

Other growth factors in Canada will include newly built call centres and nearshore outsourcing from the U.S., the report added. Agent positions in Canada will see a 93,000 increase on today’s levels, which currently total 212,000, for a compound annual growth rate of 7.6 per cent, according to the study.

“Canada is a slightly less mature market than is the U.S. and [this growth rate] is in line with other slightly less mature call centre markets,” Best said.

Best emphasized that agent positions should not be confused with jobs. He said the term “agent position” actually refers to the terminal from which call centre agents make and/or receive telephone calls to internal or external customers. In call centres with different shifts, multiple agents might use the same agent position — so if two agents sit at that same desk on two different shifts, that’s two jobs but one agent position.

“It’s much more accurate to talk about agent positions than jobs, because at different times call centres might add or leave off capacity” according to how many calls are expected to come in, he said.

Best said the U.S. call centre job loss will occur for several reasons. The majority of shrinkage is expected to result from both offshore and nearshore outsourcing. Some of the work will be nearshored to Canada, but other popular offshore destinations such as India, Mexico and the Philippines will also benefit from the loss, he said.

Another reason is the increasing use of self-service technologies that allow callers to resolve their call automatically — for instance, a change of address call or balance inquiry — which improves agent productivity and means that call centres need to employ fewer people to handle the calls.

Canadian companies are also jumping on board the self-service bandwagon — but one firm says it is doing it to increase efficiency and customer satisfaction, rather than cut jobs.

Nine months ago The Shopping Channel, a Mississauga, Ont.-based broadcast retailer, implemented a customized, automated voice-recognition ordering system nicknamed Susan. The system has speech recognition, voice authentication and text-to-speech software.

According to the Shopping Channel’s vice-president of customer service, Graham Kingma, the retailer implemented Susan in order to give customers more ordering options and help deal with the flood of calls when a really popular item is being sold. “We have extremely volatile call volumes, and it all depends on what (product) is on air,” Kingma said. “There are times that there is an extremely high demand for a product, and we don’t have the staff to answer (the incoming calls). So we established an automated way where customers could order items quickly. It also reduces the on-hold and wait times for customers.”

Customers can still choose to speak to a live representative, or they can use Susan.

On an average day, The Shopping Channel receives 10,000 calls and Susan is now handling 20,000 orders a month. Kingma said the system has “significantly reduced” the wait time for customers to order products, thereby enhancing their experience.

Despite the efficiencies gained, Kingma stressed that no call centre job losses have resulted from the implementation of Susan.

Montreal-based airline Jetsgo Inc. also recently implemented voice recognition technology to help handle repetitive calls regarding flight information, including status and changes, and to help increase customer satisfaction.

In a previous interview with ComputerWorld Canada, Michael Granshaw, Jetsgo’s vice-president of corporate planning and development, said 50 people manage his firm’s call centre operations and the airline receives 3,000 to 4,000 calls a day, depending on the season and what promotions are being offered.

After implementing voice recognition technology, the airline has experienced a 30 per cent reduction in calls coming in to live call centre agents some weeks, he said.

“What’s happening there is that many calls are now being managed automatically, which means much better service levels internally (when we’re) resolving customers issues outside of flight information,” Granshaw said.

Although self-service technologies are making call centres much more efficient, Best said Canadian call centres need not worry about extensive position loss due to automation.

“The (number of) agent positions lost to self service technology is not the majority of agent position losses,” Best said. “Whereas we do see [adoption of self-service technologies] a little bit in Canada as well, the technologies [are adopted] on a slightly smaller scale,” simply because Canadian call centres tend to be smaller than those in the U.S. “The efficiencies gained by those technologies are not as great (in Canada) as in large American call centres, and that doesn’t lead to as much loss of agent positions.”

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