A recent article in Newsweek claimed that the average call center agent can turn a rather healthy customer into a candidate for a coronary within 60 seconds. Call centers are the most hated industry in America. Telemarketing is synonymous with great annoyance to the point that advertisers started to use it in their ads. People hate the customer service representatives they deal with and find them helpless and useless. It is very much in vogue to complain about them and share your horror story.
The reality is that call centers are just a symptom for a much more serious problem. There is not much you can expect from people who are measured and compensated based on churning calls and processing complaints. The agents were not born helpless; it is the lack of tools provided to them that made them such. They were not born pathetic; it is the efficiency-based rules imposed on them that force their responses to sound as such. The problem is that the call center isn't located anywhere near the company's headquarters, the place where the rules and guidelines came from.
In the beginning
All corporations understand very well the importance of selling and recruiting new customers. The science and art of selling was mastered throughout the years. Master salespeople can take uncommitted prospects and make them shell hard-earned dollars to purchase a product they are not sure they need. As customers go through this process, they are shifting slowly but surely from an uncommitted stage to a commitment stage with the organization. They start to develop a relationship with the company and continue to buy its products.
As customers are reaching their emotional peak, fully committed to the company and its products, this is when the company invests the very least in the relationship. The best example for this is call centers. They function as a cost center, striving to reach the highest levels of efficiency through churning customers as fast as possible. Agents are receiving bonuses based on productivity, and the walls are decorated with electronic boards reminding agents that there are more calls waiting, therefore they need to hurry up and end the call and move on to the next one.
Corporations view customer service as a cost of doing business. As such they try to minimize the cost and run it in the most efficient way. The result is call centers with rigid rules and no power to resolve problems, which leads to the accelerated deterioration of customers' loyalty and commitment. Without admitting it, companies are asserting the efficiency at the expense of the customer.
When auditing the call centers of one of the largest U.S. airlines, we discovered that the most loyal customers, the platinum level passengers, were hung up on automatically after a certain wait time. The call center manager admitted to configuring the system for automatic hang up. His excuse? His compensation can be negatively impacted if he handles calls that have been on hold for an extended period of time. I could not blame this manager. He was a victim of the rules of efficiency his company was enforcing on him. His company was trying to manage its relationship with its most committed customers in an efficient, rather than an effective manner. The problem here is that efficiency and relationship building/maintaining do not go hand in hand. Try it with your personal life and you will fast realize that your loved ones will vehemently refuse to "press 1" for love.
At the height of the customers' emotional commitment, when they are primed for evolving the relationship further, customers are forced, through bad service, to forgo the relationship. As the relationship deteriorates, and the customers eventually become emotionally detached and uninterested, this is when the company increases the investment in the relationship once again. A host of "stop the defection" programs will be initiated to avoid losing any customer. We all know that an existing customer is more profitable than a new one.
This emotional and financial roller coaster usually creates high expenses to companies and very little customer commitment. If only the gap were narrower, companies would enjoy a longer customer commitment and lesser need to recruit new customers or re-recruit a defecting customer, hence lowering costs while increasing sales.
There are many problems that lead to this stage. Understanding them is key to starting to resolve the issues.
Avoidance of Blame Perceived as the focal point for all customer complaints, the call centers were avoided by executives who wanted to stay away from the upset customers. Executives found it much easier to pay other people to deal with the consequences of their mistakes in the form of dealing with the irate customers.
Customer's value Many organizations are measuring the costs associated with the acquisitions of customers and assume that after the customer is on board, the rest is all about maximizing profits. They never factor in the cost of customer maintenance, and if they did they viewed it as an expense standing between them and their better margins--a factor that must be minimized to maximize profits. This approach must change, and companies must realize that the cost of maintenance is equally -- if not more -- important that acquisition costs.
Inertia in progress In today's turbulent economy, the customer holds all the cards. In the past the tables were turned. Companies didn't have to fight as much for each and every customer. Companies could dictate whatever they wanted and may have been able to get away with a low level of customer service. But not today. Now, in an era when the customer has the power to compare prices quickly and easily and to post their grievances online to millions of people around the word, companies must get out of the inertia mode and reconsider the importance of their customers' role in the company's existence.
Perception of lack of importance Executives often view the call center as a cost center simply because they do not understand the role it plays in building loyalty and relationships with customers. If the call centers' reports are full of statistics regarding average length of call and average speed of answering, there is no wonder why executives will undermine the role of the center. They are looking for operations that contribute to the bottom line, and the call center is not perceived to do so.
The key to changing this vicious cycle is to redefine the customer service operation at the company. Reviewing its role and responsibilities and diversify its activities to include revenue generation. Organizations must empower their agents to deliver the most outrageously pleasing experiences that will result with aligning the emotional commitment and the relationship with customers. Call center managers must learn to speak in business-impact terms with the rest of the organization and demonstrate the importance of their operation. They also must ensure that the rest of the business draws benefits from its centers in the form of research information and customer insight. These activities will also boost morale among agents, as they will recognize that their role is that of agents of change.
Ultimately, companies should seriously consider shifting funds from the expensive recruitment and defection programs to enhancing the service operation and reducing the gap between the company's investment and the customer's commitment.
Allowing agents to deliver great, memorable experiences will enhance customers' commitments and will reduce the cost of defection-prevention programs. It will also reduce the company's dependency on new customer recruitments to retain its revenue target.
So next time you are upset with the service you get, do not take it out on the agent. He is merely an agent with a message from the CEO. A message about how important your commitment and loyalty is to the corporation. Rather than contacting the call center again to complain, find the number for the company's headquarters.
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