By Donna Fluss
Call center representatives (CSRs), supervisors and managers know that wasted customer data represents a very high hidden cost for call centers. Invaluable customer information is ignored or, even worse, shunned by CSRs who are encouraged to handle as many calls as possible, turning the call center into a veritable assembly line. In over 90% of call centers today, CSRs are required to rush customers through calls in order to meet call center productivity goals.
All too often, employees who believe in providing high quality customer service have no incentive to do so. If there is any doubt, just ask a CSR. Sure, there are “bad eggs” who could care less about the quality of the service they provide — we’ve all spoken to them. But there are even more CSRs who arrive at organizations with good intentions and great people skills only to have them trained away. CSRs who are constantly discouraged from spending too much time with customers will either adopt the policies of the center or quit. Even worse (and more ironic) is when quality assurance programs are used to promote efficiency.
Of course, as 70% to 80% of the cost of call and contact centers are people-related, it is important to minimize these expenses. It’s also worthwhile to motivate customers to use alternative self-service channels, which have great potential for providing high quality service at a fraction of the cost of agent-based channels. But organizations shouldn’t divert customers to alternative channels by subjecting them to poor service from CSRs.
There are many parallels between the adoption of automatic teller machines (ATMs) and the adoption of eService channels. The eService channel (web-based self service, e-mail response management systems, chat and collaboration, vRep) has yet to become as popular as ATMs. However, looking back to the early days of ATMs, it’s clear that many of the reasons why bank customers shifted to ATMs weren’t so positive. Many bank customers were initially hesitant to bank with a machine instead of a human being, but as wait times in banks grew longer and tellers became ruder and more rushed, banking with a fast-acting machine that didn’t talk back no longer seemed so bad.
Traditional brick and mortar banking is people-intensive, as are call centers. While banks may deny it, there is no question that they have cut their operating expenses by reducing both the quality and quantity of tellers. Retail banks didn’t make this change maliciously, but it was important for profitability.
Call centers are feeling similar pressures, but haven’t yet figured out how to deliver high quality service at a fraction of the cost of the agent-based channels, as banks did with ATM machines. Customers are increasingly demanding, calling more frequently and expectations for good service are growing as products and services are ever more commoditized. Often, the only differentiator is customer service. Customers worldwide have not yet bought into eService channels, as reflected by the fact that less than 10.7 % of US-based call centers have implemented an eService application. So far, the most successful method of controlling costs in call centers has been increasing productivity. There is a reason why the quality of customer service appears to be decreasing — it is!
It doesn’t have to be this way and it shouldn’t be. It’s fair to expect good customer service. It’s fair to want to call a company and speak to a CSR who is well informed, pleasant and empowered to fix a problem. It’s fair to expect to be connected to a CSR without getting lost in “IVR hell” and waiting extended periods of time before being connected to a harried agent. But companies, pushed to meet profitability objectives, are not overly concerned with fairness. Customers and, surprisingly, CSRs are both victims of our economy where profits come first.
While CXOs (CEOs, CFOs, CTOs) want to provide good service, they are not going to prioritize good service at the cost of productivity. Cutting staff and pressuring call centers to be more productive are not favorite past times of any CXOs, but many know that if they don’t stay profitable even more people will lose their jobs, making service that much worse.
Some may call this ruthless; I call it realistic and see it as a great challenge and opportunity for call centers. Call centers have to figure out a better way of improving their company’s bottom line. There are two sides to the profitability equation — we can either push down expenses, which accounts for the current emphasis on productivity, or we can increase revenues. Too much attention has been given to productivity and too little to increased revenue.
There is a way to enhance productivity and increase revenues in call centers. CSRs need tools and applications that are easy to use, do not add additional incremental time (cost) and allow them to capture the information freely offered by customers during calls. For example, when a customer calls a bank for a loan, the customer often communicates the reason for the request. Perhaps they need the money for a down payment on a car or even a house. If the CSRs had tools with which to capture this information, this valuable data could be used to increase revenue. The tool needs to be much more than a capture and up-sell application. It needs to have intelligence, workflow, personalization and routing capabilities. It needs to be seamlessly integrated not only with the CSS application, but also with the delivery organizations so that the information can be acted upon in a timely manner.
What I’m describing is a major application shift that could help drive a revolution in call centers. For years, driven by the CRM movement, we’ve talked about migrating call centers to profit centers and moving from single channel phone centers to multi-channel and multi-purpose servicing environments. We don’t yet have all the necessary tools, though. Great progress has been made in developing a universal queue to address multiple channels, but there is still work to be done. Little or no effort has been put into creating analytics tools that empower CSRs to capture and process the information they need to provide quality service while increasing revenues (beyond just up-sell and cross-sell).
Keeping analytics the exclusive domain of the marketing organization is a costly mistake for enterprises. The lack of mutual respect and cooperation between marketing and customer service costs organizations millions if not billions on an annual basis. No one side is more at fault, but it’s too expensive for these attitudes to prevail.
As the emphasis will remain on productivity for the foreseeable future, call centers are not going to do anything that slows down the handling of calls. Applications and tools that add incrementally to the already burdened CSR will not be adopted and, if forced on CSRs, will fail, as we have seen.
A new set of tools called Actionable Analytics represents a great opportunity for enterprises. These products need to be designed and developed jointly by call center and marketing analytics experts. Actionable Analytics will analyze data, patterns and preferences in real time (unlike the majority of existing analytics products) and facilitate immediate action. These tools will increase revenue while improving productivity. And, by enhancing the job of the CSR, these products will improve service quality and decrease the rate of agent attrition.
Sound like a dream? Maybe it is, but we won’t find out until marketing and customer service work together and give it a chance.