Is the Role of the Telephone Declining?

By Graham Williams, Centre-ing Services

Is the telephone being slowly ousted by cheaper communication means? Many would disagree with the word "slowly" in that question. It took less than 40 years for radio to reach 50 million users; television spread much, much faster. The web reached this number in 4 years—and is still growing exponentially. E-communication and e-commerce is here to stay. One reputable research organisation has predicted that within 4 years, telephone contact will reduce to 5% of all customer interactions. Others say that the cost of establishing and running a multi-channel workstation and employing fully English-proficient agents results in higher customer service costs - resulting in the telephone being retained as the primary communication medium. What are the factors at play and how does one take a balanced view?

We do know that more and more customers (and potential customers) are gaining access to digital communications. Alternative communication media options continue to expand, and technological and workflow capabilities improve. As organisations seek the most cost-effective ways of handling customer interactions, so an increasing body of business people see a decline in the relative importance of the telephone—certainly as the prime forum for customer service provision, both inside and outside of customer interaction centers.

Already a number of enterprises are beginning to contemplate a displacement of telephone-based call centers by other electronic media, in particular email (web–facilitated and direct). It’s time to once again put the humble telephone into proper context.

Crude Analysis. One way of doing this, albeit somewhat simplistically, is to ignore cross-linking between channels, and set each communication medium independently against some chosen, non-weighted interaction-criteria. Naturally, the criteria, and their relative importance, will vary according to the:

A very generalised example of such an analysis follows, and reveals an interesting rank order of customer interaction media importance:

Communication Medium

Criteria

Score

 

Speed to make contact

Speed of response once contact made

Convenience to customer

"Reach" irrespective of physical distance

Cost-efficiency

Quality of task aspect of interaction

Quality of relationship aspect of interaction

 

Telephone

3

5

4

5

2

4

4

27

Email

4

3

4

5

3

3

2

24

Face to face

-

5

3

2

-

5

5

20

Web Search/Interaction

4

3

2

5

3

2

1

20

Voice response

3

5

3

5

2

1

-

19

Fax

3

2

2

5

2

3

2

19

Letter

1

1

1

3

1

3

2

12


Note: Convenience is a factor of time, location, ease, utility, choice and a feeling of "being in control." Quality of task refers to immediacy, flexibility, the satisfying of complexity. Quality of relationship refers to perceived assurance, responsiveness, reliability, empathy, confidentiality—in a nutshell, to "high touch." (Scoring on this chart is from 0 to 5, being the degree to which the communication medium meets a particular criterion: a score of 5 meaning that the criterion is fully met. The source was a small sample of interviews and conversations with information and communication technology managers and business managers in medium to large financial services and petroleum businesses—and represent subjective responses. Like testing the heat of your bath water before jumping in—you get a "reading" rather than an exact temperature. The "readings" on the chart are relative rather than absolute. This chart is designed to provide organizations with a design framework for carrying out a formal study.)

Interpretation. The scoring in the above example, together with the interpretation which follows, is intuitive rather than intensively researched. The inferences to be drawn are:

  1. There is a place for each of the communication channels, and this raises the challenge of increasingly professional multi-channel scheduling and response management.
  2. Relative cost efficiency and technological capacity will boost email and websearch volumes in future.
  3. The key strategic "tensions" for service-oriented organisations to watch as the communications media landscape develops, are:
  4. In transaction volume terms, although there may be some decline in relative volume against email, the telephone remains our single most important business instrument. Other technologies tend to complement rather than reduce its usage. Advances in telephone mobility (for example cellular phones) and functionality and convenience (for example call-forwarding) increase flexibility and further entrench the two-way exchanges that play such an important part in meeting our basic human need for social interaction and relationships.
  5. Face to face conversation is the only medium which offers both live audio and live visual content. even though largely audio, the telephone carries most potential to gravitate to having a commonplace, "non-remote" visual accompaniment feature. In any event, the telephone offers the discerning user much in the way of non-verbal cues such as voice tone, inflection, silences—so important in meaningful two- way exchanges.

What message does this hold for organisations serious about superior customer service? Superior service now and in future will be about consistently connecting to customers both rationally and emotionally.

The telephone is an integral part of our "connectivity" armoury. In many ways it is the benchmark for all that we should seek in all of our communications, whatever format they take. The principles and practices that make for civil and effective telephone communications that address both the task and relationship aspects of customer service need to be carried into all forms of interaction. This means in essence:

  1. That those who mindlessly rely mainly on isolated, mechanistic measures of service "performance" such as the number of calls per service provider per hour, will probably do the same whatever alternate communication technologies they evolve. This approach will not enhance customer relationships nor raise service levels.
  2. That those who understand and appreciate the niceties of truly competent telephone service, and work hard at investing in and growing the necessary communicating and relating expertise, are far more likely to maintain the role of the telephone in their service delivery endeavours—for both "non-routine" and a number of "routine" exchanges. They are also more likely to transplant these values and behaviours successfully to other alternative communication media. This expertise includes skills and practices such as:

The telephone is a vital aid to superior service and will continue to fulfil this function in those organisations who best know HOW to use it, in complementary ways with developing technologies.

Graham Williams is a management consultant and founder of Centre-ing Services, an international consultancy focused on dissolving customer stress points in organizations. He is based in Cape Town, South Africa. He can be reached at http://www.centre-ingservices.com.

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