The Middle East Call Centre Conference takes an entertaining approach to helping UAE businesses improve their customer service.
Dubai call-centre conference takes aim at bad service
For an industry that has a reputation for being peopled by automatons, the word fun is being bandied around an awful lot.
It is listed as one of the Top 10 reasons to attend the Middle East Call Centre Conference, although the ominous "you will have fun" tagline could read as more of an order than a promise.
The evening's award ceremony, where the region's top-ranking headset operators will be crowned, is being billed as the "night of the year", with a magician and entertainers on hand to jolly proceedings along.
And if that was not incentive enough, Brownell O'Connor bounds on stage, to the alarm of some startled delegates in the rather sedate Jumeirah ballroom at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Dubai, and starts talking about sexing up the industry.
One suspects, from his self-styled moniker the "Customer Interaction Doctor" and his website, which features a picture of a wizard alongside O'Connor's gel-spiked, sunglasses-wearing visage, that the honorific for the man who started his career in call centres at Pizza Hut in Toronto is not a medical accolade.
Perhaps an injection of humour is needed though, for the hot topic here at MECC 2011 is a serious one, at its heart an issue of overhauling customer service in a region that is often found sadly lacking.
The concept of call centres is simple enough: a centralised office set up for the sole purpose of making and receiving phone calls from customers, whether to broker new sales or to deal with complaints. Yet it can make or break businesses in a market where appearance and perception is key.
As anyone in the UAE who has ever found themselves hanging on the end of a line for a non-existent manager to materialise, been mysteriously cut off, talked to an unresponsive machine or struggled to make themselves understood will testify, trying to do business on the phone can be a messy, complicated and often frustrating ordeal.
Couple that with the apathy of low-paid call-centre staff who are not given the authority to make decisions, a lack of training for a transient population, linguistic barriers between the country's 200-plus nationalities and you have a dynamite mix that could wreak havoc on the success of a business.
Dominick Keenaghan, the conference organiser introduced to delegates as "the father of Middle Eastern call centres", says: "A lot of companies believe technology is the answer to all their problems.
"They spend all their money on technology and there is nothing left to recruit or train staff. They choose someone from the IT department to run the call centre but it is a people business.
"We don't see many companies here using customer service as an example of how to differentiate themselves."
When he began working in the region 15 years ago, call centres were unheard of. The first firms to open one included Mashreq, Citibank and Emirates Airline.
There are now more than 700 call centres in the Middle East, of which 300 are in the UAE. Yet according to a YouGov survey commissioned two years ago by The National, more than two thirds of UAE residents had experienced problems with customer service in the previous six months and nearly a third of those who complained were unable to get a satisfactory resolution.
While 83 per cent of respondents said customer service was "extremely important", a separate study from the US consultancy firm Bain and Company shows the average firm in the Emirates loses 10 per cent to 15 per cent of its customers every year, with the majority of departing customers citing poor service.
Keenaghan says that has been compounded by the surge in social media and the power of "word of mouth" (WOM to conference-goers), with potential shoppers more likely to trust the word of a peer than a company's marketing department. He equates one complaint posted on Twitter to an average 1,375 in every 100,000 customers lost.
Most callers are disillusioned because the person on the other end of the phone is not equipped to deal with their query or complaint.
"That agent has to go and get permission, which is very frustrating," says Keenaghan. "It comes down to a lack of trust and delegation.
"Sometimes agents do not have the skills to handle angry customers professionally. To be an agent, you need to be skilled and intelligent but it is still perceived as being unskilled labour.
"To have someone who is untrained, underpaid and under-motivated as the primary point of contact for your business is very short-sighted."
Businesses in the Middle East have yet to realise that improving customer service can increase profits in the long run by inspiring loyalty to a brand, he adds.
"They are definitely not of the same standard as call centres in the West," he sighs.
Then again, back in his native UK, there has been something of a backlash against call centres, particularly those outsourced to countries like India to save costs. Stories abound of Indian call-centre staff being given fake names like John and Mike to convince customers they are based in the UK, then showing ignorance of the country's geography or the nature of the business.
Indeed, the industry has struggled to shake off its image of 21st century sweatshops, with some UK-based staff complaining of being forced to wear nappies for spending too long in the toilet and only being allowed three-second breaks between calls.
"There can be no more important asset than the customer, so why would you have the cheapest possible employees dealing with your most important asset? That does not make good business sense," says O'Connor. "If you have cheap staff, you are afraid of empowering them. Senior managers in the Middle East are not implementing customer service because the benefits are intangible, but if a customer is happy, they will come back."
If there are plenty of examples of bad practice, those that are a success stand out. Abu Dhabi Distribution Company has been running a call centre for seven years to deal with customer complaints about water and electricity supplies.
Ahmed el Shawarby, who supervises 40 staff at ADDC, says: "We deal with a lot of complaints. The key is to empathise with customers and put yourself in their shoes."
Redwan Youssef, who runs a Toyota dealership in Qatar, is determined his call centre will not dish out the same bad service he often receives: "Every day as a customer I have frustrating calls with people who cannot make decisions, hang up on you, pass you on to numerous other people or just do not care. I came here to find out how to improve our customer service."
Running a call centre can be a treacherous business - and not just because of enraged customers, as Iole Ocampo discovered when she moved from her native Philippines to manage Roshan Telecom's helpline in Kabul.
"I wanted to work abroad," she says breezily, as if talking about the Maldives. "You would be surprised - despite the fact we are living in Afghanistan, the customer complaints are the same as anywhere in the world.
"The money is good, although my friends worry about me and I am scared the moment I step outside my door."
Even the "Customer Interaction Doctor" might struggle to find any fun in that.