Companies must define the role of the customer in their relationship, the type of customers they are seeking and the types of customer they are not seeking to form relationships with.
Posted May 12, 2003
"It is really not me, it is you," he said. "You see here is the chart of our relationship as I was tracking it so carefully." He pulled the color-coded chart full of red spots and very few yellow and green spots. Surprised, she was staring at the chart, not aware that it existed until a minute ago.
"As you can see," he continued, "the average enjoyment per dollar spent is at its lowest ever, the average time to close complaints is sky-rocketing, and the average response time to my requests is reaching all-time high. I am not sure how we got there, but I am sure it is not going to continue that way. As I said it is not me, it is you."
Puzzled, she replied, "But it was not like that before. What went wrong?"
"You are right. At the beginning, while we were dating, I invested lavishly on this relationship, taking you to fancy restaurants and wonderful, expensive shows, even buying you some presents. But after we firmed up our relationship, I needed to start getting some results on my investment; I moved toward this efficient way of minimizing costs and maximizing profits. It is only then, when I started to track our relationship, that I could see that this is a losing proposition for me. Our relationship is not efficient enough for me and it does not deliver the best return on investment."
Welcome to the efficient relationship
As odd and impossible as this conversation might seem, it is a true reflection of relationships corporations are forging with their customers. The customer relationship paradox is a true depiction of the corporate mindset, which believes in heavy investment in customer recruitment and then quickly shifting toward milking the relationship for all its worth while busy investing in the next customer acquisition rather than nurturing the existing one.
For years companies did not have much of a problem admitting it. Efficiency was king and every operation was measured based on the most rigid numbers and benchmarks. The call center industry was no different, and it was forced to adhere to rigid benchmarks that were geared toward reducing the costs of dealing with customers, not forging long-term relationships with customers. The only aspect of long term that is expected is for the customer to keep on paying. The success of the outsourcing business in the call center industry is a strong testimony for that mindset. You would hardly see an outsourcing company pitching, "We will handle your customers better that you and at a higher quality." It would rather sell what its customers demand: cheaper. And cheaper has a price. The price is the relationship and its long-term viability.
But don't just blame the outsourcing companies. They are the symptom, not the source of the problem. After all, they sell what companies buy. The source of the problem is corporate denial with regard to the true intentions regarding customer relationships. It became very popular in the past few years for companies to declare their unbeatable, irreversible commitment to their customers and to building lasting loyalties. They even bought the books and invested in the technology. But all these efforts were running on the wrong foundations. Companies were running customers initiative and commitment on top of an efficiency business model. That is where the problem started.
One can not claim commitment to customers while tracking to the second on large electronic boards the number of calls waiting and the average talk time, and hence pressuring its employees to churn calls. A customer relationship commitment will never stand a chance while you pay your staff based on productivity, which gives staff strong incentive to complete as many calls as possible regardless of their quality. "We love you, our customers" in advertising is completely useless when the people on the phone have no power to solve the problems presented to them. And by the way, an IVR is not a tool to create a dialogue, it is a tool to kill it.
Let's fix it--Attempt number 1
Sensing that something is wrong, but still reluctant to deal with the source of the issue, companies rush to conduct quality monitoring. They create a detailed, weighted average form that allows them to track how well they are doing so they can demonstrate their true commitment to the relationship. The quality monitoring is a very important tool, but this attempt is often an abuse of the system.
How would you rank sincerity?
Can you measure the smiling performed during the discussion?
How would you track a caring attitude?
What criteria would you use to assess willingness to help?
These are some examples that are illuminating the challenges of trying to force efficiency on quality. The next generation of applications that are emerging in the call center industry are geared to take the efficiency model to new heights, not to reverse it.
By the way, an efficiency model is a perfectly legitimate model. It is also a perfectly legitimate form of a relationship with a customer. The customer will behave accordingly and will be efficient in his relationship--always searching for the lowest price provider, disregarding any premium provider and abandoning any possibility of a long-term relationship.
Lets face the source of the problem
The source of the issue is that customer initiatives are done on the surface level and do not reach to the core of the business. If a company is committed to customers, it must design itself accordingly. If companies are keen about forming relationships and building lasting loyalty, they must organize in accordance with their customers' needs, not on their products and services and the most efficient way to deliver them. This does not mean that efficiency cannot be implemented in a customer-centric organization, but the priorities must be clear.
Following the proper organization companies must define the role of the customer in their relationship, the type of customers they are seeking and the types of customer they are not seeking to form relationships with. The nature of the customer experience must be defined and so does the nature of the relationship.
The next step is to search for people who can deliver these types of experiences and create the tools and environment for them to do their job at their best. The performance evaluations and the compensation plan should reflect those values and desired experiences--and not some industry efficiency model. It is only then that companies can start to measure the quality level of the experiences they deliver.
Lacking these definitions, it is like shooting in the dark toward a moving target. Although many companies are waving the results of their customers' satisfactions surveys as a proof of success, they ought to give it a second thought. The value of a customer satisfaction survey without pre-defined relationships and experiences is an exercise in relativity. Is a high customer satisfaction rating is reflecting the mediocre performance of your competitors or the bad experiences you delivered in the past? What would happen when a visionary competitor emerges with outstanding service and well-defined experiences that go above and beyond customers' dreams? What would then be the level of your customers' satisfaction?
The risk of operating without well-defined relationships and experiences is too high.
Quality monitoring tools are great coaching tools. They allow you to empower your people to identify their areas of improvement and allow you to show them how others are dealing with same problem. They are also excellent tools to track, reward, and promote your top performers. Just do not turn them into another efficiency-enforcement mechanism; use them as a tool to measure against the defined experiences.
Facing the future
The revolution in call centers' role and their shift toward loyalty centers is happening. The problem is that call center professionals cannot do it alone. They must build the case and work in tandem with management to alter the efficiency model to create a relationship model that focuses on the quality of each interaction. When doing so companies must take into account the following issues:
1. Organize around the customers' needs, not around products and services
2. Define desired customers and undesired customers
3. Define the experiences and relationship the company is seeking
4. Search for people who can deliver such experiences to the target customers
5. Provide the right training, tools, and empowerment to allow people to deliver the defined experiences
6. Design the performance evaluation and compensation plan to reflect the newly defined goals
7. Connect the call center into the rest of the organization as a source of customer insight and loyalty
8. Remove any procedure that conflicts with the customer-centric organization
Customers are not foolish. If anything has changed, they have become more suspicious than ever before. If corporate advertising campaigns are based on customer commitment promises, yet the organization operates on the efficiency model, customers' disappointments and resentment will only be greater. All that the ad campaigns will deliver is greater expectations, faster crushing realities, and stronger advocates against the company.
It is time to face the true challenge and make a choice. This can no longer be lip service, just as it is impossible to have an efficient lover.
About the Author
Lior Arussy is president of Strativity Group Inc., and author of the book The Experience! How to Wow Your Customers and Create a Passionate Workplace (CMPBooks 2002)