As 02’s reputation takes a beating, Michael House visits its huge contact center in Bury, where the man in charge of all things O2 customer care, Bob Dunn is determined to get back on top
Photo credit: Jo Chadwick
Bob Dunn gives his fixed address as “a suitcase” as he shows us around the colossal Bury contact centre that handles 200,000 calls a week. Dunn is O2’s general manager sales and service (voice channel) and his quip is an early indicator of just how intent he is on ensuring O2 – as he puts it – “never gets customer service wrong”.
The operator has been on the end of some worrying-looking scores in Mobile News’s Mystery Caller section over 2010/2011, but Dunn is determined to demonstrate O2’s strength in customer service.
The Scotsman is the aorta of the operator’s 7,500-strong contact centre colony. Overseeing a million calls a week, while constantly travelling among sites in Bury, Glasgow, Leeds, Preston Brook and the O2 head office in Slough, it’s easy to feel exhausted as he rattles off the names of cities across the UK whose road junctions he surely must know better than his own driveway.
Dunn, however, seems anything but worn-out as he shows us around the Bury site where 1,200 CSAs work 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, taking calls about prepay, pay monthly and general support, as well as the retention of pay-and-go customers and all Tesco Mobile’s services.
The site was a greetings-card factory in a former life, before it was taken over by O2 11 years ago. Although calm, remarkably thorough and often smiling, there are no flippant remarks thrown around by Dunn as we sit down to talk about the mammoth operation he oversees. He is dead serious about being tasked with turning the traditionally dreary call centre into a place of innovation, inspiration and high motivation.
He also remains honest in admitting O2’s faults, but is intent on using them to fuel his desire to take the company’s service levels to the same heights as its revenue and patronage.
“The biggest focus for me last year was asking, ‘How did we deliver that constantly good customer experience?’,” Dunn says.
“We do a million calls a week across all of our sites. This is a people business. It’s people talking to people and sometimes we will get what we do wrong.
“The whole focus of the business is driving the customer experience – that’s where we start and that’s where we finish and I want to get to the point where, in my mind, we never get it wrong.”
It’s a pretty lofty target, but one Dunn is adamant of reaching with the implementation of strategies from employee-reward schemes, to consistent training that keeps staff’s knowledge and motivation the best in play.
It’s imperative, too, Dunn says, that O2 keeps abreast with the continually developing mobile industry to cement itself as the leading customer service provider in the sector.
“This market moves incredibly fast and if we are not growing with it, every day we are going to get left behind,” he says.
The main driver of this ‘avalanche’ of technology is, of course, the smartphone revolution, which has seen manufacturers seemingly unable to keep a lid on the number of phones they pour into the market each year. Dunn reveals a piece of research that shows O2 CSAs spoke to customers about 946 different handsets in one day last year. The figure sounds simply too big, but when one stops to think of the number of handset models released in the last 15 years, it becomes understandable.
“The emergence of the smartphone has definitely seen an increase in the level of calls to our centres,” Dunn continues.
“They are not necessarily trouble calls, rather calls from users wanting to have a conversation with us to see what they can get out of their handset. Questions like, ‘How can I set up email on my BlackBerry?’ and the likes.”
Dunn reckons the growing smartphone market has also made the customer more savvy when it comes to making purchases, making the buying process a multi- channel affair.
“We need to ask ourselves, ‘How do we deliver a consistent customer experience across all of the channels? How do we join this up and connect our services to make sure customers who look at a phone in a shop, then on the internet, then call us and ask our advice get the best, fortified channel experience?’”
This question has lead to the appointment of O2’s ‘Connected World’ team, the phone equivalent of its in-store ‘Guru’ service. Members of the Connected World group are trained to be experts in particular fields, to know everything there is to know about as many devices as they can, and are there solely to converse with customers about how they can get the best out of their handsets.
The Connected World team, along with the Gurus, are also used to further reduce calls into the centres with the introduction of YouTube-style video clips, where they demonstrate to customers exactly what they can do with their handsets to get the most out of them.
But it is the fear of falling behind other operators that is clearly Dunn’s worst nightmare. So what is he doing to keep pace, or more importantly, remain at the front of the race? The obvious answer would be to increase staff numbers, but Dunn disagrees.
“Our staff numbers have stayed about level since the introduction of smartphones into the market, the reason being that we have become more effective around how we manage the customers,” he says.
“We have given our people better tools to manage customers and invested a huge amount of time and money on learning and development.
“For example, we have given our guys a GUI (graphical user interface) front-end system, which we call Synergy.
“Before we introduced this the guys would have to switch between 27 different systems to manage a customer. Now that information is pooled and presented on one system, allowing them to deal with customer needs faster and more effectively.”
Dunn is reluctant to talk about the amount spent on training – instead choosing time as a currency: 300,000 hours in 2010 across all sites – an increase of 20 per cent compared to 2009.
“This is what I would call a ‘mix’ of traditional and computer-based training and this will go up again by 20 per cent this year, too,” he says.
On top of this there is side by side “coaching”, and briefings on things as they happen, such as the recent VAT rise.
Listening to what the customer wants is also key. Dunn says it was the customer who indirectly called for the Synergy platform and the consumer again who caused a shift in some parts of customer service to online and text messaging platforms.
“We had customers ringing up and saying, ‘You know what, we don’t bloody want to call you to find out what our bundle balance is,’ so this has also taken a whole tranche of calls away from our contact centres,” Dunn says.
“We have been able to keep pace with growth and retain customer interest by taking out the calls they don’t want
But it isn’t just about handing employees more work and responsibility to increase efficiency. Dunn is adamant the majority of staff who work at O2 contact centres are there because they want to be. It’s a strong declaration coming from a man who in the same sitting admits to Mobile News that “talking to people all day is a hard job”.
Staff the key
But the proof is in the pudding and Dunn points out that there are more than 60 employees in the Bury centre alone who have worked there since it opened just over a decade ago. And that 60 per cent of people working as a CSA for O2 have been there for three years or more.
Then there is O2’s head of Bury, Saj Umarji, who is one of those staff members who started taking calls in June 1999. He is now acting as Dunn’s right-hand man in Bury, running the show on a day-to-day basis.
Umarji is equally serious about what he does as Dunn. He “leads from the front” as he puts it – telling Mobile News he chose to work at the centre on Christmas Day along with 380 other employees.
Quality of service and employee satisfaction are also at the top of Umarji’s priority list and both, he believes, go hand in hand. “You can’t have one without the other,” he says.
Umarji is also in charge of O2’s Early Life scheme, designed to provide maximum focus to new O2 customers in their first 90 days with the operator.
The implementation of in-house competitions like ‘A Search For a Star’ – in which anonymous calls are put into the centre by senior team members each month – and activities such as family days out, are all part of Umarji’s emphasis on making the Bury call centre a “great place to work”.
So what is his opinion of the Bury site? He has been at the bottom, through the middle and is now at the top of system.
“The guys are doing a good job,” Umarji says. “No-one can be perfect, so we are always looking for new ways to improve and build on what we have already.
“We have a big emphasis on training so we can get better all the time; every single advisor in the contact centre will get a half-hour coaching session every week.
“They [also] get taken off for 15 minute briefs two or three times a week, just to give them an update on what’s happening around the business. To let them know about any processes which are changing, anything new that is kicking off .”
The busiest times in the centre are during the evenings once people have returned from work. But this doesn’t mean that ‘better’ staff are put on the phones during this period. In fact, Umarji believes spreading the work out adds to the low attrition-rate the centre enjoys.
“We try and balance out shifts as much as possible. It’s important not to have all of your best people working late because that ultimately means they walk out the door,” he says.
“Our attrition rates are less than 15 per cent at the moment, so it’s important we don’t force people to work when they don’t want to.
“What we do offer, however, is the opportunity to move up into new areas. For example, you might be in prepay, but we have a prepay retention area where the advisors are of a higher grade and are better paid, so this could be an area that the advisors might want to move into [as they improve].”
He is also big on the office environments that have been made popular by big US companies such as Google and Facebook. There are “break-out” rooms scattered across the building where members of staff can play computer games, pool, watch TV or surf the internet. There is also a range of events that take place periodically – staff nights-out, Halloween parties and family days.
It also has a ‘Think Big’ initiative where O2 employees are encouraged to help the local communities in which O2
has a large presence – such as Bury – as well as places further afield that have fallen victim to natural disasters, like Pakistan (see box, below).
Despite Dunn’s constant travelling and determination to keep O2 as the best operator for customer service, combined with Umarji’s passion and innovation, there is a trend that worries both of them.
Mobile News’s Mystery Caller section, which appears in every issue and marks operators on six areas of customer service – manner, understanding, knowledge, helpfulness, clarity and overall – has revealed O2’s customer service is on the decline. After winning the award in 2008 with a total score of 20.21 out of a possible 30, the operator finished third in 2009 with 18.04 and is currently sitting in fourth behind Three, Orange and Vodafone in the 2010 competition, with 14.84 out of 30 – its lowest score in the last five years.
Dunn is not happy with the results.
“The scores in Mystery Caller are correct as far as I am concerned, because of the simple fact it is a customer’s perception of us,” he says.
“Looking at that set of numbers, I am not going to pretend that it is anything other than that and we don’t like it, we really don’t like it.
“When I get Mobile News every second Saturday it’s the first part of the magazine I look at, and if we aren’t first it screws up the rest of my weekend.
“Even though that call is one in a million, if we aren’t first I am not happy, because I think we are the best and if we are not demonstrating that on every call I want to focus and improve on that.”
And those words aren’t empty ones. Dunn says his team tries to track down every Mystery Caller conversation, listening to it, giving feedback to staff and working on rectifying what marked them down. The importance of the fortnightly piece is also evident within the call centre at Bury. There is an entire wall dedicated to Mystery Caller, where scores are updated and various issues highlighted by Mobile News are pinned up.
But O2 doesn’t rely solely on what Mobile News thinks. The operator conducts its own research, which includes independent call-backs and text-backs, to get customer feedback on their O2 experience, addressing similar issues to Mystery Caller.
These have yielded positive results. Overall advisor scores are up seven per cent over the last 12 months and up four per cent from the customer text-back service known internally as “Seize the Moment”.
Internal or external, every opinion is taken seriously. Dunn’s determination to be the best and remain the best is evident. It’s a stark warning to rival operators that the O2 ball won’t stop rolling until profit, custom and service are aligned side by side at the top of the ladder.