For most Americans, customer service conjures thoughts of an irritating maze of phone menus, call flows, and transfers, followed by scripted voices with strange accents belonging to people halfway around the world who can do little to resolve problems. That description is supported by research.
Two-thirds of consumers (67 percent) have hung up during service calls before their particular issues could be addressed, a recent survey by Consumer Reports found. Seventy-one percent were "tremendously annoyed" at not being able to get a real person on the phone, and 56 percent were just as annoyed after having to jump through multiple phone hoops to get the right information.
There is nothing unusual or surprising about a study that reveals American consumers are unhappy with the customer service they receive. Other surveys have uncovered similar levels of dissatisfaction for years. What is surprising is that so little has been done to remedy the problem, and that needs to change—fast.
"Companies are no longer just in the business of selling goods and services; they are in the business of selling a customer experience," says Mark Johnson, CEO of Loyalty 360, the Loyalty Marketer's Association. "Especially in today's challenging marketplace, brands that excel at delivering an experience that engages customers by creating and maintaining a strong emotional connection with them will have a distinct competitive advantage."
So, how do companies get there? They must view customer loyalty as integral to their organizational strategies and understand their customers' needs as fundamental to business success.
Consider the following tips to enhance your long-term CRM success:
1. Start with the Staff
It's a long-standing tenet in contact centers that happy employees lead to happier customers, but far too often the agents in the contact center are far from happy. Instead, the work is often viewed as being "a small step above convenience store clerk," asserts Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research.
Lior Arussy, president and founder of the Strativity Group, says that for the wrong person, the contact center can be "a toxic environment." Agents typically field more than 10,000 calls a year from angry and upset customers, he says.
It takes a special type of person to work and thrive in that kind of environment, and too often the agents that companies hire are not the right matches for the required work.
"The recruitment and hiring of new agents is the real weak link in the whole customer service process," Stockford says.
Maggie Klenke, vice president and founding partner of the Call Center School, which consults in the development of contact center personnel, agrees. "First and foremost, you need to hire and keep the right kind of people, with the skills and capabilities to do the job the way you want it done," she says.
Easier said than done. Fifty-seven percent of call center managers responding to a recent Knowlagent customer contact center productivity survey said they are having trouble finding and keeping employees with the right skill sets for their facilities.
Klenke suggests exposing potential employees to the contact center environment, painting a realistic picture, and letting them know what they can expect well before hiring them.
Bruce Temkin, managing partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm, recommends "hiring for the attitude and then training for the skills." The ideal person should be engaging with a desire to help people, he says.
Then, Stockford suggests mixing psychology and technology into the screening. Some companies offer software that lets contact center managers or directors of human resources prescreen candidates by posing a series of questions presented in an interactive voice response system. One such question might be, "Are you legally eligible to work in the United States?"
Finally, the system should be paired with performance management tools to track the success of the people who are ultimately hired, identify common traits among them, and recycle those characteristics back into the hiring solution to seek them in the next round of hiring.
"Then, once [the right people] are in place, you need to keep them there," Klenke says. To achieve that, companies will need to rethink how they provide incentives to get qualified and capable agents to stay in a call center job for more than a few months.
2. Incent with a Purpose
"The first mistake we see in the design of incentives is the assumption that money buys love," Arussy says. "You're not going to make people care about you just because you gave them a little more money."
Another flaw, according to Temkin, is tying incentives strictly to higher call volumes, with bonuses based on the number of calls an agent takes.
A more effective incentive program, he and others say, would provide agents with a clear career path and mobility and reward them for meeting or exceeding performance metrics, rather than for simply taking a higher-than-normal number of calls.
Incentives also could revolve around the feedback that agents elicit from customers and for the little things that improve the quality of the call and the customer experience.
Moreover, as contact centers increasingly handle non-phone channels, such as email, chat, fax, or social media, agents need special training to handle those interactions. Incentives could be tied to the cross-training agents receive and the different roles they can handle within the contact center.
However, for such a program to work, call center operators and managers need to set clear performance guidelines and use quality and performance management applications to determine which employees are meeting or exceeding those guidelines.
"You need to look at their intrinsic motivations," Arussy says. "If they're there to help people, you need to encourage that. And when they reach milestones, celebrate them. Don't provide incentives as a supplement to their income. Incentives should raise the standard of performance."
3. Let Them Stay Home
More and more customer service organizations also are embracing "homeshoring," in which agents answer calls from home without ever having to remove their slippers, as a way to attract and retain good people. Homeshoring yields better service, according to research, because it attracts more experienced workers who like the scheduling flexibility and the opportunity to skip commuting to work. Other benefits include lower staff turnover: Companies that outsource calls to home-based agents report turnover rates of between 10 percent and 30 percent, compared with about 80 percent in the average call center.
While homeshoring is a popular choice for stay-at-home moms and semi-retired people, Stockford sees great potential from another untapped source. He endorses a nonprofit organization called Veterans to Work, which trains thousands of out-of-work veterans in customer service and sets them up in home offices. Ninety-seven percent have high school diplomas, and 28 percent have bachelor's degrees or higher. Hiring veterans gives contact centers a spectacular opportunity to create goodwill in the community and alter the public's perception of the industry, he says.
4. Twice the Training
Regardless of whom you hire or where they work, training is the only pure way to ensure that agents are prepared to take calls. Saying "you can never overtrain someone," Arussy suggests that companies across the board double their training of agents.
As proof, he cites the Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel chain, which mandates that every customer service agent receive at least 250 hours of training each year. Such an effort, which helps to keep people sharp and motivated, has helped the hotel maintain a leadership position in customer satisfaction year after year.
In addition, cross-training on multichannel interactions allows managers to pull agents "off one area to fill another" as needed throughout the day, Temkin says.
Klenke points out that it is just as important to train supervisors as it is to train agents. "Most supervisors do not know how to get the most out of their people," she says. "HR often gives them help to do employee evaluations, but not much else."
5. Tackle the Technology
A recent survey by Velociti Partners found that the average customer service rep in financial services uses seven or eight applications daily to resolve issues. Often those applications, and the databases connected to them, are siloed, meaning that even the simplest processes require extra time and effort. As a result, call handling times, customer satisfaction, and even costs suffer.
Therefore, the first step in tackling technology involves breaking down silos and integrating data across departments. Using one integrated set of analytical data throughout the company could help executives make important decisions about how much to invest in a particular customer.
Duke Chung, chairman and cofounder of Parature, which provides software for customer service, help desk, knowledge base, case management, and trouble tickets, takes that advice one step further. "Integrate your CRM system with an online customer support solution so your sales and support teams can get one comprehensive view of your client's customer service inquiries," he says.
In addition, because technology is such an important part of the contact center, agents and supervisors should know how to use all of the tools available to them. But even before that, contact center operators must start by giving agents the tools they need to be successful and deliver the right customer information at the appropriate stage of the call flow. A reliable and accessible knowledge base can help.
"You want to have and build out a consistent knowledge base that you can deploy to self-service through the IVR and to the agents," Temkin says, noting it is vital to arm the agent with information about the customer before she picks up the call. "Deliver as much as is relevant as quickly as possible," he says. "A lot of ROI can be seen in putting in place a single-screen, single-platform system."
Ed Shepherdson, senior vice president of enterprise solutions at Coveo, a provider of enterprise search technologies, says the rewards can be many. "When you provide the agent with access to the complete set of information, they are able to answer the customers' questions with ease, be more confident in their answers, and have greater job satisfaction," he says.
Conversely, when new employees don't know how to get information, they interrupt coworkers, reducing productivity, Shepherdson says.
Among the emerging technologies taking hold in the contact center are unified communications and presence, which Stockford says can influence first-call resolution rates. Through presence, for example, companies can see which agents are available and route the calls to the agents with the appropriate skill sets to answer callers' particular questions. That will have a profound impact on first-call resolution, he says.
But, with any technology addition, the caveat is that you should not try to install too much at once. Doing so would overwhelm customers and staff and produce an overblown system that few would want to use, experts say. Instead, they advocate focusing on the top five processes that you want to implement and then keeping it simple.
Some suggestions that would have long-term effects on customer and employee satisfaction include automatically synchronizing customer data across multiple systems; logging all customer interactions (regardless of the channel) and automatically adding them to customer records; automating the delivery of cross-sell or upsell offers to customers; allowing employees to access data stored in multiple applications, databases, or servers from one application with a single interface; and providing a mechanism that automatically alerts agents when a high-value client is on the line.
Nonetheless, Arussy warns against simply throwing technology at a perceived problem. "The real battleground is in getting the agent to deliver the right answer to the customer at the right time," he says.
6. Make It Mobile and Multichannel
Just as important is delivering the right answer in the right medium. Though the phone still constitutes 70 percent to 80 percent of all interactions within a contact center, more and more customers are reaching out to companies via text messaging, email, chat, social media, and other means. Experts recommend serving customers in their original, preferred communications channels, rather than pushing them to email or a toll-free line. If a transfer to another channel is required, the process and technology should be in place to make it seamless to the customer.
"You need to do [customer service] the way the customer wants and have a way of noting preferences in your files," Klenke says.
In that context, mobile CRM solutions have moved beyond niche applications or specialized, nice-to-have options to become part of the mainstream. Organizations that haven't already done so must rush to find new ways to allow mobile communications with customers.
In designing customer service applications for mobile, Jim Larson, a speech consultant and user interface instructor, suggests that developers do away with proprietary systems and platforms and build to industry standards that provide greater integration and portability. "You can write a native app for each [mobile] platform—Apple's iOS, Windows, and Android—but wouldn't it be better if one app could work on them all?" he asks. Using standard languages and programming interfaces, such as VoiceXML or HTML5, also would help, he says.
Regardless of the channel, though, never forget that the message, not the channel, is important, Arussy says.
7. Be Social
The one channel gaining the most traction is social media, which should be a part of any multichannel customer service initiative.
"Adopt a multichannel customer service strategy and make sure that social media is a major component," Parature's Chung suggests. "Customers expect to connect with your company anytime, from anywhere, and increasingly customers are turning to social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, to ask questions or provide feedback on your products. Your company now needs to monitor these channels; provide rich, self-service knowledge bases; and engage directly with customers in real time on Facebook and Twitter, as well as traditional platforms, such as the Web and email."
Undoubtedly, social media interactions should involve contact center staff. "You definitely want your contact center involved," Temkin states. "Customer issues are best left to the contact center, where they have the skills and tools to remedy customer situations."
In so doing, however, companies need to be aware that it takes a special agent skill set to address customers on social media sites.
Within the social CRM space, there are a few hard and fast rules that the experts suggest.
- Choose appropriate social networks: With more companies looking to provide customer care options via Twitter, Facebook, community forums, and YouTube, select the social networks most appropriate for the desired customer experience.
- Don't limit the conversation to these sites: "You do not want to limit your responses to 140 characters," Temkin says, noting that some conversations might not be appropriate for public forums.
- Prepare to give up some control: Although extremely convenient, easy to set up, and inexpensive if not free to use, social networks are not owned by your company. You do not own the content or the platform. Also, know that conversations over social media are very public.
- Commit both time and people: Social CRM is not 9 to 5. Gone are the days of waiting until Monday morning to call support. Many customers interact with companies during evenings or weekends, or both.
- Social CRM requires a special skill set: Customer care reps need to be trained on when and how to respond in social networks, many times unscripted, while still adhering to the corporate policies for response.
- Integrate it into the contact center: The social tools used to monitor, track, and respond to issues raised on social media sites should be integrated into existing CRM systems. Agents dealing with customers in the social space need to be able to access customer information and previous interaction histories just as much as agents on the phone do.
- Don’t go overboard: "Social should fit in somewhere, but it's not going to replace the phone or email," Stockford says. "It should not become the main focus of your efforts."
8. Get Personal
Customers hate to feel as if agents are reading to them from a script. Besides responding to customers using their preferred means, companies should learn customers' personal needs and profiles and target their service and message to each individual whenever possible, experts say. Cross-sell and upsell opportunities can be tailored to the individual customer based on demographic profiles. Location-based services can provide additional personalization. The key to developing a successful customer experience is to develop a response that is unique and compelling to a customer need.
9. Listen Closely
Experts also recommend getting feedback from customers and other employees and monitoring the customer experience firsthand. Rather than simply relying on complaints from customers about how horrific it is to do business with your company, put yourself in the customer's shoes by going through the typical experience, navigating the same menus and prompts, and keeping track of where the pain points surface.
10. Clean Up the IVR
In the closing keynote of this year’s SpeechTEK conference in New York in August, Larson joined Susan Hura, principal consultant at SpeechUsability, a voice user interface design firm, in asserting that people still hate using IVR systems and urged attendees to improve them at all costs.
"The current state of the speech industry is not very happy," Hura said. "Speech in the IVR context is not winning rave reviews from the general public. People, by and large, have a negative opinion of this technology."
Larson shared Hura’s outlook. "IVRs are giving speech a bad name," he said. "Let's clean them up."
As proof of customer dissatisfaction with IVRs, both speakers cited the growing number of companies that are promising customers they will speak to a live person rather than an IVR when they call. In addition, the continuing presence of sites like GetHuman.com is helping consumers bypass IVR menus when they call a customer service line. To get IVRs back on track, Hura outlined a three-part plan:
- Automate repetitive and time-consuming tasks whenever possible, using speech "where it makes sense and fits within the callers' needs and contexts of use."
- Make speech work flawlessly by reducing the number of recognition errors.
- Set the bar higher than just usability in terms of metrics.
Hura defined usability as the ability of the customer to do what the system was designed for, adding that it's "not good enough anymore" as a metric by itself. Instead, she said, applications should solve a real problem for customers; be pleasant; efficient, so they don't waste callers' time; and transparent, so they don't get in the way of what the caller would like to do.
Fellow designers should "make capturing user feedback as important as gathering requirements from the business stakeholders," Hura urged.
Temkin also pushed for more user-centric design, noting that call paths, prompts, scripts, and even menu screens need to be easier to use.
Arussy likes the idea of a more agent-centered design, in which companies look at their best agents and consider what they need to perform optimally. But, to truly improve the customer experience, companies "need to tap into the inner customer within every agent. That is the key motivator to get people to help the customer better," he says.
News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at email@example.com.