Now the way a product is supported can distinguish the supplier.
Internal IT helpdesks are under similar pressure, with demands to reduce budgets while expectations increase.
In response to this shifting landscape, says John Hamilton, president of Services Strategies, it became imperative that a standard was developed by which technical call centres and helpdesks could evaluate themselves.
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"An ISO standard exists for services and technical support delivery, but many see it as too broad," says Hamilton. "In 1997 we set up a standard, which drills down to cover every aspect of practice and service for technical support centres."
The Support Centre Practices Certification (SCPC) checks 11 competencies including customer feedback, productivity tools, performance metrics and electronic service delivery.
Hamilton says many companies find going through the certification process irons out a lot of the working inefficiencies.
Companies such as Microsoft, EMC, Sage and Xerox have invested in the programme.
Over 20 large call centres in Europe are working on the SCPC audit. "While customer service has always been high on the list of priorities in the US, it is only in the past few years that its importance has been recognised in the UK and Europe.
"Customer service has become even more of an issue since the term customer relationship management [CRM] became a big trend in the IT world, but in many organisations CRM is a bit of a joke. There's no point in a company buying a system if it hasn't got an infrastructure to support it."
Web service delivery is another area where Hamilton sees firms vying for competitive advantage. He says, "Large companies, for example, just don't have the staff to be able to handle everyone over the phone. But the quality of service that is delivered via the Web is not keeping up with the rate at which users are being pushed down this route."
Individuals can also gain accreditation through a five-level development programme. Hamilton says, "There is no doubt that support services and helpdesk positions are a growing area. Jobs in this sector used to be seen as a stepping stone towards a 'real' job but now their importance is being taken seriously with the salaries to match."
Hamilton's top frustrations with call centres are: