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The London Borough of Newham was one of the Best Value pilot authorities and implemented its contact centre 4 years ago.  The council is at the forefront of e-government and receives 500,000 calls a year from council residents and tenants.  Calls can be for housing and council tax enquiries and benefits, rent, social services, education and environmental issues.  Newham also leads the National CRM Project.  

The contact centre performance has been poor over the last 2 years, with long wait times, high abandoned calls and unresolved calls - the Mayor was looking to treat customers as if they had a choice of service provider. 

“We recognised there were issues around performance during the course of 2003, but did not have the in-house contact centre expertise to pinpoint key issues and drivers.  We engaged the services of an interim contact centre specialist, Prit Ahluwalia, to review, recommend and implement a major business transformation to our centre”, stated Chris Wood, Assistant Chief Executive.

Prit has significantly improved call handling capability, delivering outstanding service level and response time performance within 3 months.  A major business transformation was undertaken including processes, people and culture.  A balanced scorecard of KPIs was developed to ensure continued outstanding performance.

The Contact Centre at Newham has shown significant improvement in performance since January 2004 and over the last six months, has delivered excellent and sustained level of customer service. Service improvements include;

Ø       Service level from 63% of calls answered within 15 seconds to 94%

Ø       Average Response Time from 36 seconds to 6 seconds

Ø       Abandoned calls from 10% to 4%

What Was Wrong?

A key issue was that the incumbent Contact Centre Manger and Head of Customer Services, were not contact centre professionals, and therefore, didn’t recognise some of the prevailing issues and problems, which Prit was able to identify, vis a vis:

Contact Centre Occupancy & Utilisation Levels

The contact centre did not measure occupancy levels – talk/non-talk time percentages (a key contact centre metric to drive efficiency levels).Call handling times were unknown and therefore, could not be managed.Clear guidelines were not set to enable staff to deliver proactive call ‘responsive’ behaviour (“be ready” for calls). 

Contact Centre Management

Team management lacked call centre operational competency and awareness.Team management had low motivation and delivered little proactive contribution on ways to achieve performance.Basic call centre best practices not implemented.No interrogation took place of past intra-day performance to plan ahead.Little call observation and call monitoring took place.

There was a clear lack of leadership and coaching skills within the contact centre management team.There was insufficient team leader coverage – reduced from 5 to 3 during 2003 – resulting in high ratio of spans of control in some areas for an 8-8 working window.No individual or team performance targets - or feedback and coaching.Poor performance not identified and addressed.Lack of team management and staff accountability and responsibility – department not setup in team format – all staff do not have a line manager.Little technical training took place and no refresher training – some staff are expected to handle calls from a service with very little training, which is very stressful.Lack of a customer care (training) approach in some cases.Lack of enabling support roles – trainers, resource planner, quality and MI analysts.Limited part-time staff to cover peaks – few variable hours available.Staff had low moral – no feedback, encouragement or praise.There existed a high level of temporary staff, who have served lengthy spells.

Systems Support

Majority of PCs have insufficient memory for applications required, resulting in considerable systems delay.Contact centre ACD/MIS systems full of discrepancies of statistical data.Current ACD does not allow and support ‘behavioural’ activity monitoring and reporting. 

Additional Services and Activities

Other activities had begun to encroach on headcount, without additional support, impacting service levels:Customer profiling during each call – obtaining profile/ethnic details, increases handling times.  Outbound collections and email response handling, can take up to 3 FTEs, and was expected to be absorbed within existing headcount.Services – FACs – with lengthy handling times (up to 30 mins), are not conducive to front-office handling to be processed in CC.Intense recovery action deployed through 2003-04; resulting in 25% (35k), Dec YTD, additional recovery documents or ‘customer prompts’ issued (Apr-Dec YonY).Contact centre was unable to tackle such unexpected high peaks and was not consulted.Poor communication between contact centre and back-office functions meant that contact centre was unaware of mailing and customer contacts.

How did we deliver a sustained improvement in performance?

The contact centre is now competing with the best private sector standards.  Annual Billing 2004 was a clear testimony to this, with the issue of 100k bills, our service levels remained the best ever, delivered by the contact centre.
Some of the actions and measures introduced by Prit to tackle the prevailing situation are highlighted below:

Reorganised and implemented new contact centre structure.Increase level of team leaders and coverage throughout working window.Improved leadership and operational skills of management team.
Introduced Senior Customer Service Offices in all areas to support team leaders.

Introduce support roles – trainers, resource planner and MI Analyst.

Allocated teams to team leaders for accountability and staff development.

Delivered technical and refresher training to staff.

Change culture and behaviour to improve responsiveness to callers.

Deployed the use of work activity modes to improve occupancy and talk-time percentages.

Targeted all levels of staff to deliver work activity mode targets.

Developed a suite of reports to manage and improve occupancy and establish handling times to understand resources required.

Resource plan to ensure optimum deployment of staff to incoming calls, through forecasting calls and scheduling staff.

Reviewed shift and rostering patterns to improve service level performance throughout the day.

Worked well with inter-dependent functions to minimise impact of customer prompts (Revenues, Hosing and Environment areas).

Relocated contact centre to Vicarage Lane to ensure open plan centre to provide better management coverage.

Introduce performance measures and targets for switchboard staff.

Where new services are introduced into the contact centre, appropriate staffing levels will be reviewed.

Reviewed and recommended ACD upgrades and reporting systems to further improve our contact centre systems.Provided good input to improve the councils’ CRM Customer Tracking System.
Client Testimony from key sponsors and stakeholders:
“Our contact centre performance was a great cause for concern to me and our residents.  Prit was able to translate the borough’s vision into reality of providing a customer centric approach to service delivery”
His passion for customer service excellence and delivery gained in the private sector was refreshing and a breath of fresh air to us.  From the changing scope of project delivery to staff leadership, Prit inspired members, officers and staff alike to become a valuable member of the team”
Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham
“Prit’s achievements in such a short space of time were remarkable, he overhauled and undertook a complete business transformation of the contact centre, delivering measurable results.  He has the commitment to develop relationships and bring the people along with him”

Chris Wood, Assistant Chief Executive
“We had been fumbling with our contact centre for a number of years and not quite sure which way to turn.  Prit was able to bring clarity of vision and crystallise issues for us.  He introduced many benchmark contact centre processes and practices”

Graham Hishmurgh, Director for Housing and Customer Services