Get your developers and marketers taking customer calls; you’ll soon stop developing anything that requires your customers to endure to pain of calling you. Seriously.
Come on, hands up, how many of us live in fear and dread of having to call any company for help? Generally speaking, it’s a fairly hideous experience. You want someone to answer, quickly, who can actually help. You would think this is simple, but generally it’s not.
I came into the customer service industry through the back door, so to speak. Starting at the complaints end, I saw the rich, fertile ground for improvements. Simple improvements that often get overlooked.
One radical improvement in customer service though, in my opinion, is to get rid of your call centre. Call centres are an amazing hive of industry all of their own, likely devastating to your brand and bottom line (despite the often heroic efforts of those working in them).
We’ve made a science out of something that simply shouldn’t be.
Let’s step back. You are the provider of a product or service. You want your customers to buy what you offer, remain loyal and recommend you to others. So brand is important, feedback is important and continual improvement is important.
Here’s the thing. Call centres as a rule tend to remove the customer from your business and cost you a phenomenal amount of unnecessary money. In larger companies we’re often talking tens of millions of dollars each year in staffing alone. Then there’s the technology, any other capital investment and – most devastatingly – the damage to your brand.
Think about how they came to exist. Back office staff were getting too many calls distracting them from their ‘day job’. So call centers were born; a false economy.
My interest in customer experience transformation has often meant I’ve found myself in roles managing call centre contracts, or having one in my portfolio. In my last role, one of the most visionary people I’d worked with went for the big ‘call centre’ job, I was horrified. Worse, he wanted me to come and help him create a transformation.
Now don’t mistake my statements here for any derision towards customer service professionals, quite the opposite. The people who work and rise in the industry are extremely dedicated, insightful, resourceful and knowledgeable. But, frankly, they are often set up to fail.
For a call centre to give great service, it requires a number of things. Here’s what typically happens in organizations with a call centre ‘machine’:
A call comes in from a customer – why? Because the company has failed to provide something the customer needs. So the first thing is, how do we recognize this customer? Where we all fall down in our thinking is to assume companies are like Big Brother, they know everything about you when you call.
There are various forms of CRM (customer relationship management) systems that can – in theory – help companies to not only identify the customer but give a good indication as to why they are calling (begging the question, why not fix it before they call). I say, in theory, because most technology would work amazingly well if it was all the company had ever owned and all its basic operating systems were the most compatible and up to date. In reality, most companies now have so many legacy systems it takes an army of specialists to even map it all out.
So, if you happen to be a customer of a company and use several of its products or services, to think the company would know our whole profile is a given, but it’s often not the case.
Once you’ve got past they ‘who am I’ part, then there’s the ‘what am I calling about’ part. This is often sent with yet another silent prayer, or, depending on your experience of queuing and being identified, many expletives and a desperate hope that this actual person you are now talking to will be able to help you.
To do that requires a huge amount of training in the company's products and services. Now, what do you think is often the first thing to get canned when call volumes and/ or company expenditure is too high? Good learning and development specialists, most managers, staff and customers all want employees to be excited about the brand that they work for, to be advocates outside of the workplace. In reality, very little investment gets made in this and any training becomes about how to press which buttons, with very little context about the bigger picture.
Then there’s the knowledge about the detailed inner workings of the product or services themselves. “Isn’t that what training is for?” people ask. Mm, training is useful but not to learn the contents of an encyclopedia, which is what it can be like trying to understand the in’s and out’s of some products or services.
This is where Knowledge Management Systems come in. A bit like CRM systems in term of their issues, with the added complexity of requiring constant upkeep and input. I’ve yet to see a fully ‘locked and loaded’ system, hence the array of post it notes and signs adoring many call centre desks.
So once the inadequately trained person on the end of the phone manages to somehow find an answer to your plight, the next task is to track customer issues and make improvements to your product or service. Well, that’s what you’d think.
Even companies with fabulous tracking systems (again, the same system issues arise as for CRM systems and Knowledge Management systems), generally fail to take adequate action. The reporting system, if there is one, produces statistics.
Decision makers might look at the reports and say, oh, it’s only x% of revenue or our customer base, accepting certain degrees of failure in their product or service; though it can be a leap to say these things get connected to even this degree.
At best there will likely be a handful of improvement specialists that tend to then fail to have a real impact in terms of systematically reducing the call/failure demand based on a lack of overall understanding and commitment of the wider leadership.
It would make good sense to have a customer service representative involved all the way upstream, when you have a new concept and then start the design, or particularly when you are redesigning an existing product. This is a rarity, even if they are involved, it’s seldom with any kind of sign off - even when there’s a direct impact on call centre resources.
Then of course there’s the internal politics of call centers. The typical dynamic is a mutual loathing between customer service and the developers and marketers.
Imagine instead a customer service department that was looked upon as the ‘looking glass’ of success or failure of the company. Where those developing the upstream products and services regularly visited to hear first hand what customers had to say. Likewise, imagine customer service departments that live and breathe the brand and are active users and advocates of your products or services.
There are companies that have programmes to encourage or enforce this, but these are often short lived due to costs. When it does happen though, it opens up a whole new perspective and, for a short time, dialogue begins. A new found respect can be seen and the customer gets considered right upstream where they should always have been anyway.
So here is the point, why do you have a call centre? Take a long look at the costs here, direct and indirect. If you can look through all the points above and say, “we are doing those well”, then great, you are in the minority. If not, seriously, take a close look at this self destructive machine you’ve created and either set it up for success, or get rid of it and send those calls upstream. Dare you.
This article was originally published in LinkedIn.
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/10295270@N05/4500117446">R.I.P Dare</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>
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