• October 18, 2004
  • By Coreen Bailor, (former) Associate Editor, CRM Magazine

The Underrated Differentiators

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Contact center agents today have the most interaction with customers for a majority of organizations; therefore, the agents have the greatest opportunities to impact customers' decisions. However, instead of treating this group of frontline employees as the vital bridge between customer and company that it is, businesses all too often consider their contact centers as purely an overhead cost. Such firms are missing a huge opportunity. According to Lior Arussy, president of Strativity Group, it's the people who are creating the reasons for the customer to buy, not the product or the services. Call centers are a tremendous competitive advantage, he says, because customers "have no way to differentiate, no way to make a choice, and they're putting more weight today on the human relationship and on the soft skills that corporations don't know how to deal with." Companies like the Home Shopping Network understand that the more time you spend on the phone with a customer, the greater the likelihood of discovering additional selling prospects and opportunities. That strategy may not work for every organization, but any firm that understands the true value of the contact center can convert that operation into a competitive differentiator. Following are the stories of how three companies have done so. Closely Monitor Performance Vhi Healthcare, the dominant player in the Irish health insurance market, chose not to play the who-can-go-the-lowest pricing game, but instead opted to provide superior service to differentiate itself from the competition. To do that, Maurice Whelan, general manager of customer service and direct marketing for Vhi, wanted a performance management tool that would allow supervisors to get away from day-to-day management information systems and get back to spending more time coaching and giving feedback to customer service advisors. "I'm a great believer in power to the people," Whelan says. "If people know what their objectives are and if they're getting daily feedback in a meaningful format, it can act as a real motivator." To support Whelan's coaching strategy Vhi selected Performix Technologies' Emvolve Performance Manager, which integrates data from all the contact center's systems to provide performance information on an individual, team, and overall basis. Managers can in turn inform the agents on what objectives need to be met to achieve the overall goal of being a customer-centric organization. "Technology itself isn't going to give you your competitive advantage," Whelan says. "It can point you in the right direction...but if your team leaders aren't doing the coaching, or if they're not using the tool that identifies the areas for improvement for the advisors, you're probably only getting half the benefit of that technology." Another vital component of its performance management strategy is training. As part of their training Vhi contact center agents visit customers' locations to relate more closely with those customers. "Customer service advisors go down and visit a hospital as part of their training," Whelan says. "I want to make sure that my advisors are able to empathize...." Incorporating emotion into customer relationships is sometimes an overlooked tool in the kit to ensure a satisfied customer, but for Arussy emotions are exactly what you are asking customers to give when you ask them for loyalty. "The customer care center can reciprocate the type of emotions that can build relationships that companies are seeking," he says. "This is why it is a critical way to differentiate--because the people on the phone...are going to create a very strong brand and a very strong bond with their customers." Vhi lives up to differentiation through service: Employee productivity rose 23 percent within a three-month span after launching the new performance management strategy, with more than 93 percent of calls answered in 10 seconds and a less than 1 percent abandonment rate. Contact center agents are also reaping the benefits: The employee satisfaction rate is 63 percent and the attrition rate is only 6.7 percent. The capper? Vhi enjoys 84 percent market share. Real Results: Vhi
As a result of its performance management strategy, Vhi:
  • saw its employee productivity rise 23 percent within a three-month span;
  • agents answer 93 percent of calls in 10 seconds, with a less than 1 percent abandonment rate;
  • enjoys 84 percent market share and record membership growth;
  • has an employee satisfaction rate of 63 percent and an attrition rate of 6.7 percent. Do It All in One Call Some contact center managers equate efficiency with cutting talk time with customers. By hurrying customers off the phone, however, agents may be slamming the door on uncovering a new opportunity to truly meet and surpass their customers' satisfaction levels. Wheels, an automotive fleet company, recognized this opportunity. "Because our value proposition is customer intimacy, our beliefs are, we want to help that driver get from point A to point B, so we stay on the phone with them, assisting them...until the call is complete," says Bridget Moscatello, director of quality assurance and driver services. "[It] makes our talk time with our end users longer, but it drives up the quality and the satisfaction scores that we typically enjoy in the marketplace, and that is fundamentally where we see [our contact center as] being a differentiator." That first-call resolution, even with longer talk time, may still result in lower overall costs. According to Moscatello, Wheels's cost-per-call of "well below three dollars" is about half what she says is considered the industry average of $5. Stratford Dick, director of marketing and e-commerce strategy for Wheels, further drives that point home: "A faster phone call may not get everything accomplished, which leads to a higher number of calls--so even though your per-call time is low, your time spent with that driver across any given time period is going to be a lot higher." One way Wheels ensures the level of service required for high first-call resolution rates is through its hiring and training strategy. By using an intense selection and training program that includes completing multilevels of interviewing and standardized tests, and four levels of internal certification, Wheels sees to it that only the most qualified and prepared individuals hit the phones to provide quality service. High standards--for example, 85 percent of the department has to meet the required standard of 90 percent on their evaluation forms--act as motivators for agents to reach such levels. "Our recruiting costs are practically nil from a budgetary perspective," Moscatello says, "because we spend so much time in the selection and the training of the employees and our commitment to our employees." Real Results: Wheels As a result of its focus on first-call resolution Wheels has:
  • driven up quality and satisfaction scores;
  • low turnover and low per-call costs;
  • highly satisfied and motivated employees. Be Proactive With Service, Sales, and Marketing Operating in a sector where competition is acute, interactive communications and entertainment service provider Knology needed a system that would allow it to use its contact center to deliver impressive customer service, pump up sales, and improve marketing campaigns. One of its service initiatives is its Sterling Silver promise, a 30-day money back guarantee that it will deliver responsive, friendly service for each customer. Knology agents call customers on a regular basis to ensure the service, installation, and overall customer experience are up to par. "Those [calls] let them understand we value their relationship as a customer," says Steve Harrison, contact center director. "What we're evolving into is customer relationship managers, rather than customer service reps. We want the [agents] in the case to own customers and to own their problems until resolution." To help make that happen Knology deployed Blue Pumpkin's Workforce Optimization Suite. The result is a 19 percent increase in productivity that translated into more than $750,000 in annualized gains, a boost in service levels by 121 percent, and a 31 percent reduction in call abandonment rates. In addition Knology can now more effectively match the staff with the workload. Knology also uses its contact center as a revenue generator. "We have a specialized team of representatives that deal with only inbound sales activity," Harrison says. "Through marketing efforts that will direct [customers] via an 800 number to that specialized team, the goal then is to take that lead and turn it into a phone sale." The company is seeing a steady progression in results. In fact, during the week of August 23, 42 percent of all the calls that came into the group resulted in a new sale of at least one of its core products. The contact center also provides the marketing department with customer feedback, including what they are interested in and what implementations are producing sales. Additionally, the contact center provides the marketing department with feedback during a formalized biweekly call. This information is then used to help craft successful marketing strategies. "The feedback mechanism makes sure that the efforts that they're trying to implement are actually succeeding," Harrison says. "We're using that to make sure that there is always something fresh for the billing and service people to offer customers in terms of value-add." Real Results: Knology As a result of mixing sales and marketing with service, Knology:
  • realized a 19 percent increase in productivity, which translated into more than $750,000 in annualized gains;
  • increased service levels by 121 percent;
  • saw a 71 percent increase in service level consistency;
  • reduced by 31 percent its call abandonment rate. Contact Assistant Editor Coreen Bailor at cbailor@destinationCRM.com
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