Who's Answering the Phone?

Managing a large-scale customer contact center effort is a daunting task. But even the best training and technology within the boundaries of the contact center can't account for all crucial customer interactions. Escalations, special requests, and simple flat-footedness on the part of front-line agents often lead customers to interact directly with knowledge workers or back-office employees within the organization. It is during those interactions that crucial business can be won or lost. "Particularly in financial services and telecommunications, you can go into a claims processing area or an underwriting area, and they can be taking as many phone calls as your front[-office] service areas," says Mike Callaghan, CEO of performance optimization specialists The Opus Group. "The contact center and the sales force can do everything perfectly, but if accounts receivable treats [customers] like garbage, it has all been for naught," says Maggie Klenke, founding partner at The Call Center School. "All of us want to be able to do the same thing these days--pick up the phone, dial the 1-800 number, and get to the department that can answer our question," Callaghan says. "But organizationally, [companies] didn't address the service requirements of the individuals who would be providing that service, so there are a lot of customer service reps who used to be accounts payable or accounts receivable reps...and they're expected to upsell." Integrating those crucial back-office players and knowledge workers into the customer support process without disrupting their other defined job tasks is difficult. Robin Goad, senior analyst at Datamonitor, recommends the use of "presence" technologies like those found in instant messaging systems, to gauge availability to participate in tricky customer support escalations. How companies approach back-office customer support is a litmus test for those that label themselves customer-centric. If key customer services players, regardless of their job title, are not all treating customer satisfaction with the same priority, then the organization is not as customer-centric as it claims. "If people are still being [paid bonuses] on departmental results or product-oriented results, there is no way a CRM process can achieve its goals, no matter what kind of technology and training you have," Klenke says. "If the compensation plan doesn't go, the whole thing falls apart." A reorganization is the best way to unify the customer service experience. It requires, Callaghan says, "a true partnership between the front office and the back office, which historically hasn't occurred. They're used to just throwing things over the fence on both sides. Take the fence down altogether--it's one and the same."
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