The Softline Pastel contact centre, with 130 agents taking more than 50 000 service calls a month, has received the Best Customer Service Award in the 2007 Business Process enabling South Africa (BPeSA) Awards, run by a non-profit association for call centres. 

“The importance of this award is that the final decision was made by customer votes,” says Tanya Miranda, Pastel support director. “So, although our contact centre is comparatively small compared to the other companies – such as Liberty Life, Medscheme, Sanlam, and Cell C – also short-listed by BPeSA, the level and quality of service we offer has been considered superior by the people who actually make use of contact centre services.”
Customers were involved in the survey leading up to the awards for the first time this year – and were asked to rate the contact centres not only on the professionalism of the agents but on the impression the contact centres conveyed of the companies they represent.
“These days contact centres aren’t just tools by which a company makes contact with its customers,” Miranda says. “They also have a profound influence on the way customers perceive the company overall – and are therefore one of the most important marketing tools a company can employ.
“In that context, we understand that agents who don’t feel good about the company they represent can’t possibly market the company well. Something as simple as tone of voice has the power to put a caller off the company. So, the reason we succeed is because we are passionate about our contact centre staff and so they are passionate about our customers. They feel good about themselves and they pass on that positive energy to our customers in the form of relevant, rapid resolution of their calls.”
Pastel contact centre agents receive a high order of personal mentoring by management and team leaders who sit with them as they answer calls and teach them to look back though customer records to identify and pre-empt unresolved issues. “We track all customer contacts and if, for instance, we see that a customer has phoned five times in a given period about the same issue, we call them to see what can be done about it,” Miranda says. “We don’t wait for them to call back a sixth time.
“We also incentivise our staff on customer retention. So they pro-actively analyse the way they work to see if they could have serviced the customer better in any way.”
Unusually, Pastel contact centre agents are encouraged to resolve calls by physically visiting customer businesses. Miranda says it’s the best way to develop a sense of urgency in agents about customer calls. “When you’ve seen for yourself the risks the company faces through downtime on software you have a fresh appreciation for the difference you can make to that business.”
The Pastel call centre has trebled in size since inception nine years ago. Two years ago, the number of agents was doubled to ensure the correct ratio of agents to customers – and optimise agent initiative. In August 2007, the call centre was moved, with the rest of the Softline organisation, into new premises in Sandton where the latest technologies have been deployed to ensure continuous improvement in the service provided to customers.
“But contact centres are not primarily about technology,” Miranda says. “The way you deal with people and the way the team is run is what makes you the best in the industry.”
In March 2007, Miranda was nominated as Best Contact Centre Leader for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) by ContactCentre – the global conference, research and online magazine provider for the contact centre industry.