Thursday, June 17, 2010

Call Center Focus: Serving or Selling?

There was an interesting article in the June 7 WSJ [link] about efforts to improve the quality of service provided by call centers.  My first reaction was "it's about time" as the article described efforts by some businesses to emphasize the quality of service more, and the quantity of calls handled per agent less.  As I read on, however, I concluded that some companies still don't understand the concept of customer service.

Focusing on the Wrong Lever

I spoke at a call center conference in Europe last year and was disappointed - although not really surprised - to learn that the industry's main (and virtually only) focus continued to be cost-cutting with little or no emphasis on quality.  The main topic of my presentation was related to increasing competitiveness by focusing on higher quality services at lower costs than their customers (i.e., the companies that contract their services) are able to do themselves.  The basic premise of the talk was, if a call center established a clear and consistent purpose, took care of and invested in its team members, continually improved its processes, and focused on its customers (those whose calls they handled), it would dominate the market.  Based on my personal experiences with call centers as a consumer since the conference, however, I don't think my message was accepted.

I don't totally blame the call centers for this misplaced focus.  These companies have responded to pressure from their direct customers to continually reduce the price of service, and have been forced to cut costs or die.  In Portugal, for example, the entire industry has been under attack by competitors in low cost countries where wages are lower.  The reduced prices offered by competitors is resulting in a loss of business for Portuguese companies on a daily basis.

Whatever internal problems the industry is facing, though, I can't think of anyone who hasn't had at least one frustrating encounter with a call center agent.  In fact, according to the article, 68% of people surveyed had stopped doing business with at least one company in 2009 because of poor service.

As I read the article, I did find it refreshing to learn that some companies are starting to understand the link between customer service and increased business.  As an example, in an attempt to increase customer loyalty, American Express has begun shifting the focus of its agents toward the level of service provided rather than the quantity of calls handled.

Do They Really Understand?

Most people do understand that financial benefits to a company are the result of customer satisfaction.  Statements in the article about increased loyalty leading to "a bigger share of the patient wallet," and increasing call center resources to upsell or "retain customers and sell higher-priced services," however, made me realize that many companies still don't comprehend the importance of, and reasons for, taking care of customers.

Looking at it as a simple cause and effect relationship, the cause is making customers happy and the effect is increased revenue.  Like any cause and effect situation, however, one cannot focus on the effect.  Attempts to increase business will not lead to happier customers and, therefore, will not result in actually increasing business.  High pressure sales tactics from call center agents will not satisfy customers who call, but judging by some of the comments in the article, it's clear that satisfying customers is not the objective of some of these companies anyway.

I can't imagine how angry a customer will get when an agent listens to his or her problem and responds by attempting to sell more of a company's products or services.  The situation could get downright ugly.

Internal or External to the Company - It's Still a System

One of the biggest problems with call centers is that they are often operated as separate entities from the business.  The producer or service provider causes the problems for customers that the call centers are expected to resolve.  When I asked several people at the conference about feeding information about the problems encountered back to their customers, I was told that it was not normally done (to be fair, I only talked to a small percentage of the conference's attendees).  During the discussion, I found that there is often so much pressure to process calls that no valuable information is recorded and fed back to the business to prevent similar problems from recurring in the future.  This practice results in losing a significant amount of valuable information for problem-solving.

Whether a company handles its own call center or contracts it to an outside agency, it is still a valuable part of its system.  Although call centers need to take responsibility for satisfying customers who call with problems, the real improvement comes from providing a higher level of quality in the first place.  The better the quality of products or services provided by the producer, the lower the volume of calls to the call center, making more time available to handle those who do call (provided that lower volumes do not mean laying off agents).

If Only . . . 

To be fair, some of the companies referenced in the article do seem to understand that better customer service from call center agents leads to more satisfied customers which, in turn, leads to more revenue for the company.  Others seem to think that skipping steps will lead to the same results.  Unfortunately, these companies will probably find out the hard way that it won't.

The more I learn about call centers, the more I wonder where we would be today if the obsession all along had been with quality improvement rather than cost-cutting.  My guess is that there it would mean a significantly fewer number of people in the world needing blood pressure medication.


fern said...

In my opinion, Call center isn't about being perfect. Call center is about making things right, not just the immediate problem, but the root cause. And it is totally about listening to the customer. Anyway, thanks for sharing this post. Keep posting!

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Gregg Stocker said...

Fern. Excellent points . . . It's unfortunate but in so many cases, customers are the last group to be considered in making business decisions.

Thanks for the comments. I'll be back to posting soon. I'm finishing writing my next book and it's pretty much consuming all my writing time these days.