Contact Centers as strategic Investments and not Cost Centers

Interview with Mr. Olufemi Adeagbo, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Comnavig, says operators in every sector should see contact centres as strategic investment not just a cost centre.

Nigeria now has a converged ICT policy; what do you make of this policy?

It is an interesting policy document. I think it goes far beyond the issue of convergence. Even when you look at the issue of convergence, it clearly sets out the broadcast regulator role but for content only. Therefore, basically, it is no longer dealing with spectral resource role any more; that is constituted somewhere. That is the proposal of the policy, which was approved in principle. It is under implementation; some parts of it.

There are more difficult parts in terms of actualising the policy itself. Convergence is a global trend. It brings more clarity, more accountability; but we also operate within a political structure. I think the Ministry of Communication Technology is taking the bull by the horns. The policy document goes far beyond that. It really sets the tone for how we move forward, and how we take the next quantum leap to address things like local content how local content is supported.

It actually addresses things like how we ameliorate the issues that are preventing us from having pervasive broadband communication; and how we could address the issue of multiple taxations, which operators have been complaining of.

The content document deals with a lot of issues like these and uniquely, keys into the vision 2020 aspirations of the country to be one of the top 20 economies in the world by the year 2020. That vision is still achievable if you are just looking at the size of the economy rather than the components of the economy. However, a big economy where you have high incidence of unemployment is not optimal in terms of growth, but the policy document also speaks to those things. I think it is a very comprehensive document.

How do you rate the implementation of the policy more than a year after it was approved?

Well, there were a few snags; the Federal Executive Council approved it in principle over a year ago. However, I understand that it is now being implemented.

Why does that policy bring so much from different places together without changing the fundamental laws?

That is what I mean when I say that we work in a political system and even legal framework. So, there is a lot of procedure to still be undertaken. Legislations will need to be altered altogether. So, the National Assembly will still need to come into play. That is why I say there are many good things about the document. There are things in it that can be implemented quickly. There are aspects of it that are easier to implement because you just run and do that within the executive framework.

There are aspects, however, like the converged regulator which require structural changes in terms of legislation. If the National Broadcasting Commission, for example, is going to give up its spectrum allocation rights, its legislation is going to be changed to reflect that. But the bottom line is that everybody reports to the same President to the same Federal Executive Council. So, once they have taken that decision to approve the policy in principle, then they would have considered all those things.

Let us talk about broadband. The Federal Government says it wants to achieve 30 per cent broadband penetration by the year 2017. That is about five times what it is now. Is that achievable and are we taking the right steps towards achieving it?

It is achievable. Whether we are taking enough measures, I think, is the issue. We have about 10 terabits of data capacity on our shores. How do you distribute it in such a way that it is available, accessible, and affordable especially to areas where the operators consider it commercially unviable to take those services to? I like the new thinking of the Universal Service Provision Fund on this. I had criticised the USPF in the past but they have left the devise-centric approach and they are now focused on infrastructure.

What are the factors that can stop us from achieving this penetration? It is simple. How do we remove the barriers in the way of the operators to roll out? The barriers exist. There are multiple taxation barriers where different levels of government demand all sorts of taxes. The security situation is a real problem. There is vandalism of infrastructure in the sector, which is why many people in the sector have been crying out for a critical infrastructure status for telecommunication infrastructure.

With that classification, it places more emphasis on how the society considers telecommunications infrastructure. When you resolve that, there is power problem, of course, but that is not going to go away overnight. I think operators would have to work for a while. There are innovations that can get us out of this fossil fuel dependence.

If we do these things and if we put the right government policies in place, we can achieve and surpass that level of penetration. There must be government policies in place; and there must be incentives. There should be long-term infrastructure to access finance that allows people to get long-term funds for long-term projects because these are long-term projects. You can't borrow at a rate that chokes you and expect to roll out an efficient infrastructure that will be affordable to people. You will notice that this is what has led wholesale carriers, for example, jumping into the retail space because they just cannot wait. Interest is ticking away at the bank. So, we need to take a look at how we finance infrastructure development. We need to look at how to ensure that government is not getting in the way through things like multiple taxation and bureaucracy.

Several years ago, outsourcing which includes the contact centre infrastructure, seemed to be where we should rush to for job creation. Somehow, we could not sustain the momentum. What really happened?

Outsourcing requires a lot of trust. Even though technology exists for an outsourcer to mitigate their risk and see what is happening in that environment, there is still a brand issue. As a national brand, I don't think we have worked hard enough on harnessing our outsourcing potential. Therefore, South Africa is now the one taking a lion share of the business. Amazon, Lufthansa, and the big global brands are picking their calls in South Africa. Moreover, what do they cite? Infrastructure and the English Language. For South Africa, there has been a cohesive drive to get that business. We have done some things through the National Information Technology Development Agency in the past. But as I said, your national brand can help and your national can also work against you in the outsourcing space.

There are many aspects of outsourcing other than the call centre but let us focus on the call centres. We only started having telephone about 10 years ago. Without a lot of people having telephones, there is no case for setting up call centres. So on the maturity curve in life; this is just technology everybody is now looking at. Most banks, if not all, now have call centres. Operators in insurance and other sectors are also catching up this for the simple reason that every client you have has a phone and every prospect you try to get has a phone. So, you must provide platform to interact with them. That is at one level. By building those skills in the market, we can then have stronger credentials to place before the international business processing market. If I am booking for a service that has to do with Nigerian operation, I don't see why my calls should go anywhere else. So all the international corporations doing business here should have local call centres because they derive a lot of revenue from Nigeria. So we need a more cohesive approach. Two, we need sustained investments by those who are even using them as their own organisations platforms.

You are talking about building the local capacity first and you consult on contact centres. What should a local organisation that wants to establish a contact centre be looking at?

First, we have seen many big mistakes made in the market where people have spent money and have had to yank off the technology altogether. This gives the technology a bad name. The problem is not with the technology. First thing is that a call centre needs to be understood in the strategic context of the organisation. Now it is just seen as a customer service platform by most organisations like a help desk, hotline arrangement. They are not seeing it in its right context. This is the only platform that allows you to react; it allows you to be proactive. It allows you one-on-one engagement; verified one-on-one engagement with the person you want to get hold on and that allows you to use multiple channels voice, SMS, email and what have you.

It is the only channel that allows you monitor. It enables you know what the people are saying about your company on the social media, so that you take the information in and respond. That kind of platform needs to be viewed as a strategic platform. In many cases that we see, it is not. Let me take you to South Africa again ABSA has a 2000 seat call centre. They generate over 30 per cent of company revenues through the call centre. That is a bank, whereas what the thinking here is, is that the call centre is a cost centre.

How do they make money from it?

There is money in providing good customer service. If you don't do that, your customer is going to walk away. There is also a lot of money going under the table and into cracks because people are not using it as a proactive mechanism. I will give you a typical example: Let us say you sell cars and you have 10 locations and you advertise 10 different phone numbers. For example, if your sales manager in Benin branch does not answer a call that causes you 10 sales, you won't even know. As a company, you don't even know that it has happened. You don't even know that you have lost the opportunity. When you multiply revenue that is going into the cracks in many organisations, it runs into billions of naira. The call centre allows you to bring in everything together into one resource.

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Understanding what is happening in ICT in Nigeria
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