Would You Call Your Own Contact Center?

This essay is excerpted from the "Avaya 2013 Guide: The Collaboration Trends Transforming Your Organization and Industry This Year." The original podcast is available at The Point, the magazine of communications solutions and service provider Datapoint.

According to recent research, the number of calls made to call centers is growing at a rate of 20 percent every year. This surge is partly due to the growing number of tasks covered by call centers, both customer-facing and internal to a company, such as help desks. The surge is also due to customers calling on the move from mobile phones.

There has also been a sharp increase in customers giving up on their calls—from 5 percent in 2003 to just over 13 percent in 2010. Call abandonment rises when customers have to pick their way through multiple options and messages. The resolution rate for their calls is only about 50 percent—maybe as high as 70 percent if a more senior level of help is involved in the call, but still well behind the call center industry's own target of an 85 percent resolution rate.

Getting help from a call center is like being an Olympic hurdler on the last lap before the finish line. There are both technical hurdles and operator hurdles to overcome.

The Technical Hurdles

The Complicated Menu

A menu may come with multiple layers and a selection of four or more choices per layer. This can be made worse by a poorly performing voice recognition system. Time is wasted listening to your options, and stress builds. Stress builds even more when callers hear the options incorrectly or don't hit the right numbers. Stress builds even higher when callers do not get through to an operator for all their obedience and efforts—but only reach another level of button pushing. And this is just the beginning.

Being Kept on Hold

Being kept on hold was the number one reason for rage in Britain in an anger survey that I conducted a few years ago for a major bank. A customer longs to hear a human voice to explain his complicated problem to, but instead gets canned music or a time-wasting plug or ad. In a 2010 study by Which? magazine, it was revealed that a well-known British phone company took 14 minutes to answer a call about its broadband services, while a major bank and a major energy company took more than 10 minutes to answer their calls.

What is the call center customer feeling at this point? Lonely, frustrated, impatient, and angry. What is he or she thinking? That "the company doesn't really care about me."

Being Charged for the Call

Many call centers have quietly switched from free to nonfree numbers. A well-known low-cost airline charges $1.60 a minute after hours and on weekends—even if you've been made to wait or been cut off.

"It's not so bad if the call is free," said one customer, "but when you have to pay for it, the story changes, especially when the line has a minimum rate call charge."

We don't deserve customers if we treat them like this—especially when there are automated systems that can log your caller ID and then automatically call back once an operator is free.

The Muzak

It's not just being kept on hold—it is also what we are forced to listen to. On average, callers hang up after listening to just 65 seconds of canned music. If customers have to face the music, get the selection right.

Operator Hurdles

Putting Your Call Center Abroad

An overseas call center may be fine for routine inquiries. It may, if you're lucky, even be efficient and cost-effective.

But remember how customers see it: "The company is willing to delegate my relationship with them to a third party." They sense that the company has done this for one reason and one reason only: to save money, not to provide better customer service.

The Language Problem

Related to the first operator hurdle, many offshore operators speak excellent English and can both understand what is being said and make themselves understood. Many cannot. One call center customer had such a problem with the language barrier that he resorted to communicating via MSN Messenger.

It isn't just the understanding of English but the intonation, diction, and speed of talking that can be issues. These issues can be especially problematic if a caller is trying to arrange the transfer or payment of a sum of money and has to keep repeating back the numbers just to ensure the agent has them right.

Patronizing the Customer

In order to avoid language or cultural issues, operators often stick to a script, which can make them sound sing-songy, stilted, overly formal, overly deferential, patronizing, and just plain unreal. If an operator is stumped by a question, the result is a long silence and then a repetition of the last line of their script. As one customer put it, "If they don't know the answer, that's okay. They should just admit it or find someone who does. But they never do."

Getting Cut Off

The customer is left wondering if this is merely a technical error or if it was deliberate. One caller realized that every time he was cut off it was just before 12:30 p.m. He worked out this was probably the operator's general lunch break. It has also been rumored that call center operators cut people off deliberately if they accidentally input the wrong information or—it gets worse—if they think that you are about to cancel your subscription.

Badly Logged Calls

The customer calls back to check his status, only to be told that there is no record of his previous calls. So he has to start all over again. All calls should be recorded—not only to be acted on, but also in order to create a history of calls for reference. Why aren't operators doing this regularly?

A Smooth Race to the Finish

In an ideal world, all call center operators would have something of the psychologist about them. They would stay cheerful while I whine, and then say something like, "I'm sorry that you're experiencing this problem but I'm going to do my best to sort it out for you, and if I can't I'll find someone who can." What we never want to hear is, "I'm sorry you feel that way," implying that it is just our feelings that are out of control. Listen, operator, my feelings are a part of the problem, so sort the problem out for me, please.

For the customer, the operator represents the company. Whether the operator works for the company directly or not, they need to pretend that they do and act accordingly. That can mean actually thanking customers for a complaint as it allows you to hear about the problem and to do something to resolve it.

How can the operator make the customer experience a smooth run to the finish line?

1. Come to the phone armed with options. This exudes a sense of power and control and gives the customer a sense of control as well.

2. Give the customer your full name. If the customer needs to call you back, he'll need it. Give out IDs and extension numbers.

3. Promise to do something quickly. A rapid response proves that you are serious about your promises and provides the highest level of customer satisfaction and retention.

4. Ask the customer what it would take to meet their needs or requests. Based on that, explain what you are going to do.

5. Ask if you don't understand anything and if there is anything that the customer doesn't understand. You could even say, "If I do so and so, will that meet your needs?" Then do it. Words like but or however should not be part of an agent's vocabulary. "I'm taking personal responsibility for this" should be.

6. Ensure that your call centers and branches or departments actually talk to each other so that an operator can do what he or she promises. There is nothing worse than a branch or department referring a customer to a call center that either isn't aware of how to deal with the problem or, worse, doesn't care.

As one expert says, you can make call centers perform anywhere if you have the right processes and good management in place. Indeed, "I have seen this situation from both sides, as a customer and once as a call center worker," one customer told me. "My personal view is that companies simply don't spend enough money on keeping customers happy once they have them, and far too much money on trying to get them in the first place."

Donna Dawson is a psychologist specializing in personality and behavior and serves as an advisor to large consumer-oriented companies.

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