By Dan Berthiaume
Everyone seems to have at least one story about a nightmare experience dealing with telephone customer service. The fact that many call center providers are located in countries where language and customs are significantly different from US norms only exacerbates the problem. Some experts recommend that companies outsourcing call center functions attack the problem of poor customer service by focusing more attention on serving the needs of customers. But is that always the best strategy?
Michael D. Brown, a corporate consultant and trainer who specializes in developing professional brands, has a slightly different recommendation. “Step back and take care of the employee first,” Brown says. “They will then take care of the customer. Make the employee number one and the customer number two.”
Brown realizes that his advice to place the frontline employee before the customer amounts to heresy in the eyes of many customer service gurus, but he hastens to explain that this is actually the best way to ensure a top-quality customer experience. “When you look at unfavorable dealings with the end user, there is a rush to judgment to put a band-aid on the situation,” says Brown.
Instead of approaching each individual customer complaint as a separate issue necessitating an on-the-spot fix, Brown says companies should make more effort to understand how the frontline call center employees actually spend their day. “Take a side-by-side walk with your frontline employees,” says Brown. “See what a typical day is like; see what types of calls they’re getting and where the roadblocks are. Then ask, ‘Do I have the right processes in place?’”
Brown says real-time communication technologies such as Skype and FaceTime allow US companies to virtually perform side-by-side walking with call center employees who may be working from distant offshore locations.
After performing side-by-side walking (either in-person or virtual), Brown says companies should then go about “smart tasking” outsourced call center employees. “What do the employees do besides just answering calls?” asks Brown. “To deliver a world-class call center customer experience, look at the sequence of tasks employees perform and see if you can make any changes to enable them to deliver a better customer experience.”
Let Frontline Employees Make it Right
Following smart tasking, Brown says companies should provide outsourced call center employees with what he calls “Make it Right” power, or the ability to solve certain problems on their own. “Often the person answering the call can do nothing other than pass on the call to someone else when there is a problem,” says Brown. The customer becomes even more infuriated when they are passed to person after person.”
Instead, Brown says the employee manual should provide frontline employees specific instructions on how to resolve common issues and that the second person they speak to should have the authority to handle all problems.
“Most customer problems are not rocket science,” comments Brown. “The frontline employees hear the same issues day in, day out. Ask them what they are doing day to day and look for organically developed solutions.” Brown says companies should then compile these solutions into a continually growing “What-If Arsenal” of resolutions to common problems that is built from the bottom-up, guaranteeing employee buy-in.
Brown says is it also important for companies engaged in call center BPO to encourage “bubble up innovation,” or innovative ideas that come from frontline employee brainstorming sessions. “Often we don’t have the answers, but need innovation bubbling up from the bottom,” Brown says. “It gives the frontline employees ownership in the workplace.”
Brown says all the steps he recommends to achieve world-class customer service in an outsourced call center will not succeed if everyone involved is not relentlessly focused on the same goal. “Does everyone understand the vision, or are people in different silos?” he asks.
Of course, companies also need to simply follow through and make world-class customer service happen at their outsourced call centers. This includes remaining open to making changes in response to changing needs of customers. “Keep it fresh,” says Brown. “Things will change. Look at what happened to Borders. To take call center customer service to the next level, you need to say enough call centers are giving the industry a bad name, it’s time for us to rise to the top.”
An essential part of making it happen is ensuring frontline employees fully understand what customers expect from products and services. “Too often the call center employees haven’t a clue,” he states. “They must understand how things are made, not necessarily from a technical standpoint but in terms of the promised experience. Often the call center employees don’t know what has been promised to the customer.”