From Good to Great: What it Takes to Raise Call Centers to a Higher Standard

It is business common sense that a crisis is bad for reputation, but negative consumer experiences are not the only ones that can send customers to competitors; mediocrity …

Claire Sporton of Confirmit says improving call center performance relies heavily on utilizing the deep understanding frontline agents have of customers

It is business common sense that a crisis is bad for reputation, but negative consumer experiences are not the only ones that can send customers to competitors; mediocrity can be as damaging. Settling for delivering okay, average or even just adequate experiences should never be the goal, so how can contact centers make the leap from just good to great, from okay to excellent?

Tim Pickard, SVP of Marketing at NewVoiceMedia, highlighted that businesses in the current context need to strive to not just meet, but exceed, customer expectations.

He cited data from Forrester Research, Inc., that found that more than half of customer service decision-makers want to deliver customer experiences that are the best in their industry.

While quality of experience is important, efficiency and speed are equally vital, especially for the millennials who, according to research by Boston Consulting Group, prefer speed, ease, efficiency and convenience above friendly service. Pickard added that they are more likely to turn to self-help solutions before engaging with a service representative. A recent OpinionLab survey exemplifies these preferences, finding that millennials are more likely to turn to their devices and social networks for guidance rather than customer service reps. The focus then needs to be on quality of experience and convenience, ease of use and efficiency.

Jim Nicholson, managing director of Maze, believes that while most businesses focus on the customer, world-class contact centers have “turned the telescope around and built their strategy based on the employee”. This, he said, makes sense given that their biggest challenge is to reduce the variation between the best performers (who often only account for 20 percent) and the rest (80 percent)—and not least when employee engagement has a direct and measurable impact on customer engagement: a 240 percent boost in financial performance, according to Gallup.

Nicholson added that in a sales and service environment where customer requirements today are more complex, knowledge is the key to providing great customer experience,  so it is extremely important to retain staff, and essential to have clear career paths if you are looking to build a world class contact center. “Scripting then becomes less important and the conversations with customers are more natural,” he said. He recommended combining real-time customer feedback with sound employee coaching techniques based on behavioral economics, an approach used by Maze with its clients.

Claire Sporton, VP Customer Experience Management at Confirmit, said that the call center has always provided customers with a wide range of services but it is the fact that it interacts with customers at different stages in the customer lifecycle via multiple channels that has given it the unique opportunity to capture and articulate the customer experience (CX).

“This enhanced role as the conduit of the customer experience, providing a true understanding of customer pain and feeding it back into organizations, is where the call center can make a real difference, if it’s taken seriously from the outset,” she said.

Sporton offered five vital aspects to remember when striving for excellence in the contact center environment:

  • Putting the contact center at the hub of a CX program is not just about capturing feedback on each of the key touch points in the customer journey.
  • Call centers that want to help improve the customer experience need to identify the best way to disseminate the information that is gathered across the organization.
  • Obtaining customer feedback should not be demoted to a ‘box ticking’ exercise that doesn’t add value.
  • Transformation of the call center and its services requires a new way of thinking. Instead of the traditional ‘once and done’ transactional approach to customer service, the call center has to adapt a ‘customer experience’ philosophy.
  • Service representatives must focus not only on the immediate request at hand but look to understand the customers’ individual goals and anticipate and address future needs.

Sporton emphasized: “In order to move from ‘OK to Excellent’, we need to capture feedback from our customers not only about how well we performed on that individual call or contact, but also about how well we have ‘done’ in helping the customer achieve their goal.”

Sporton said that improving call center performance would rely heavily on recognizing and taking advantage of the deep understanding frontline agents have of customers. “They must be given the opportunity to become customer champions or advocates across the rest of the organization, communicating the requirements of our customers and acting as a ‘sense check’ on any improvement activities,” she said.

Within the call center itself, Sporton advised, companies should integrate the customer’s voice – via satisfaction scores and verbatim feedback – with internal call listening, frontline feedback, and quality scoring, to provide a holistic view of the service experience.

She went on to say that, from the agent’s perspective, employee appraisals should feature four primary performance objectives: repeat call rate, call resolution, overall representative satisfaction and customer experience – in order to ‘free’ employees from the ‘once and done’ mindset, to an approach where future customer needs are anticipated and addressed.

According to Sporton, changing the approach to customer service in the call center has the power to deliver statistical reductions in repeat calls and increases in several Voice of the Customer (VoC) metrics, such as NPS or Customer Effort. “Measuring results in real time also provides front line staff with immediate feedback and ultimately validates program results with the customer’s voice,” she said. “The ultimate benefit is undoubtedly reduced repeat contacts and improved scores for call center representatives across a range of measures.”

Pickard highlighted three main areas of focus for contact centers wanting to achieve customer experience excellence.

Dealing with Customers

The first is “help customers help themselves”. Pickard emphasized that, in the age of the smartphone and continuous online access, customers are not only extremely familiar with, but have an expectation of, being able to carry out certain transactions themselves.

“Why would you want to wait to speak to an agent just to find out your bank balance, where the nearest store is located or when a bill is due? Self-service portals that are efficient and easy to navigate enable customers to carry out specific transactions themselves,” he said.  “Not only do your customers get what they want quickly and easily, but it also frees up customer service agents so they can devote more time to handling more complex inquires.”

Secondly, he said, serve customers where they are. “Some customers are more likely to pick up the phone, submit online inquires or engage on social media. Whatever their preferences may be, businesses must be able to deliver and ensure that it’s seamless and consistent across all channels,” he said, adding that if a customer starts a conversation on one channel and then moves it to the next, they should not have to restart the conversation.

He cited the example of someone filling out an online form about a recent order and then picking up the phone to follow up. In such a scenario, Pickard said, the frontline agent must be able to pick up where the online form left off.

“To offer seamless service that spans all channels, businesses need to invest in the right tools. Equipping your team with tools that integrate seamlessly with mobile CRM solutions means that your agents can work beyond the confines of an office while ensuring that agents have access to important CRM data,” he said.

Lastly, he advised, get personal. “The more agents know about a customer, the quicker they’ll be able to solve the issue at hand and deliver value,” he said. “Using CRM data provides customer insights, so agents can provide a consistent, personalized customer experience, put hot prospects to the head of the queue, route support calls to the right agents and give VIP customers priority treatment. By engaging customers in meaningful ways, businesses can better retain them.”

Giving Free Hand to Staff

For Simon Stackhouse, Business Development Manager at BancTec, the key to a successful contact center is enabling your staff to be independent and effective, avoiding the need to pass customers from pillar-to-post.

“A system with relevant scripting needs to be put in place. Scripting empowers staff-members, giving them the best chance to resolve each enquiry at the first point of contact, without needing to defer to colleagues,” he added.

Sign up for our Nearshore Americas newsletter:

Stackhouse echoed Pickard, saying: “Excellent contact centers will have a case management capability, by which every customer has a personal profile and notebook containing their complete history. Information from every communication channel; not only telephony but also from web, email, document and social communications, can be stored and shared in this space, meaning that when customers get in touch, all relevant information is available. There is little worse for customers than being asked by an advisor, ‘do you know who you spoke to before?’ and an advisor disappearing off to find employee x.”

He said that giving staff all of the relevant information, would also empower them to deliver a strong one-to-one customer experience, improving decision making and increasing the efficiency of the contact center. The business also benefits from a reduction in total call numbers, faster query resolution and further improving customer satisfaction levels by communicating with the customer using their preferred channel of choice.”

As Pickard noted: “Amazing customers through exceptional service may be the goal of many service centers; but what customers actually value most is a consistent, low-effort solution to their problem, delivered quickly and without the need to switch channels.” Excellence, then, seems predicated on a thorough understanding of customer needs and wants coupled with consistent service delivery that matches those customer expectations.

This article was originally appeared on NSAM sister publications Customer Experience Report.

Tags