Giving a Voice to the Contact Center

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The traditional view of the contact center (and that of customer service in general) has been as a mission-critical operational department: When it's working properly, no one should notice it, much less involve its managers in questions of corporate strategy. Though this attitude may be quite shortsighted, there's no denying that it remains widely held.

With customer culture changing so radically, it's more important than ever for people with visibility into the customer experience to have a voice at corporate strategy sessions. Their point of view is relevant to the C-suite: They have custody of the customer across multiple interaction channels, and they own the data and systems that run those interactions.

Many executives will claim to care a great deal about hearing the voice of the customer, but to do that well, they need to pay closer attention to the voice of the contact center. Professionals inside the center need to speak with a stronger, louder, more corporate-friendly voice to make themselves heard (and understood). There are many reasons companies are still stuck in old-fashioned modes of thinking, but it's clear that a better customer experience stems from incorporating contact center expertise into overall corporate planning.

So how should contact center professionals make their views indispensable? Everything depends on the context, of course, and the culture and personalities of any organization. But generally, there are four areas in which the contact center has to have crystal-clear capabilities if its executives want to work closely with the C-suite and peers at the head of strategic departments.

The first is currency. As a service pro, you have to be able to answer a couple of basic questions: Do you know what's going on around you, the fundamental business dynamics that are affecting your operations? You have to be aware of which technologies are moving, where they are going, and what tools are available. Can you see the problems and bumps in the road ahead?

The second is your capability to respond. Sometimes this is a practical matter: Do you have the budget to solve a problem? Or, are you fast enough to respond to peaks and valleys in call volume or staffing? In a more nuanced sense, it also means this: Do you have the will to respond to changes, or are you satisfied with the way things are going? Are you willing to take steps to confront industry-wide or institutional changes? Answering "no" is often what keeps the contact center from being considered as a strategic asset.

The third is visibility. A contact center's strengths must be visible not only to customers, but to the C-suite as well. Do your corporate sponsors know how on top of things you are? Or, more worrisome, do they know if you aren't? Do they have a farther-reaching view of the customer interaction landscape than you do? In many companies I've studied, upper management has charged marketing and IT departments with creating mobile customer care strategies that bypass or ignore existing contact centers, creating extra silos and degrading the customer experience. If this looks like your organization's structure, you need to act to change the perception that the contact center is out of the loop.

The fourth is persuasion. Do you have a carefully crafted set of proposals and requirements that reflect business goals? Are they expressed in concrete revenue and profit terms? Metrics that reflect revenues will encourage top-level planners to include contact center ideas and requests.

Putting all these elements together gives you a framework that will help you articulate the service organization's activities and importance.

Only the contact center professional sits at the intersection of service and customer experience. If managers want to control some of their own destiny, they need corporate decision-makers to see them as critical contributors to company health. Managing today's more complex center requires insight, ability to respond to change, visibility, and willingness to make your case.

Keith Dawson is principal analyst, customer interaction, at Ovum Ltd.

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