The curious case of call centres

Technology promises a better tomorrow: it's a crucial enabler. One key leadership competence is helping people use new technology effectively. That's not easy.

Technology comes with its own jargon, culture and assumptions which each leader must graft onto the existing practices of their own team. All of which makes the current case of Call Centres very curious indeed. Leaders have started at the wrong end. Technology-based assumptions underpin very rigid management practices, across virtually the entire inbound industry. The assumptions are people-unfriendly, so both customers and employees do experience stress. The reality they face is daunting. Do you know anyone who looks forward to making a query or laying a complaint through a Call Centre? Those customer experiences can range from the difficult through the demanding to the downright objectionable. Customers don't leave; the competitor's Contact Centre is probably just as bad. They just stress.
Employees mirror that customer reality. Call Centres experience high staff turnover, and not for pay: Call Centre jobs are generally well-paid. They leave because it's a high-stress dead-end job. Not for nothing do books condemn Call Centres as emotional sweatshops. Time was when chatting to customers by phone seemed like fun, and a great training ground for entry level staff. What created such a radically different employee scenario? What can be done about those awful customer service experiences? Do Call Centres really have to function this way?

Five technology-based assumptions
Without first questioning, senior managers responsible for Call Centres have swallowed a pack of assumptions about how Call Centres should operate, which seek to maximise the benefits of the ACD (Automated Call Distributor to the uninitiated). They totally ignore the stressful experiences of employees and customers. Five current assumptions urgently need questioning.

Technology-based Assumption One: Customers must get through quickly.
When Call Centres first gained acceptance 20 years ago, getting through quickly was indeed the main customer need addressed. Today, that's no longer true: it's what happens after you get through that matters. However, most Call Centres still manage mainly by this dated assumption.
They fanatically control answer time (the key statistic is 80/20, for 80% of calls answered in 20 seconds) and time taken by each agent to complete and wrap up each call. That completely misses the point. The implicit customer promise in dialling just one number is that your query or complaint will be resolved on that call. If not, the very least you want is personal contact with someone to navigate you through to resolution.

Leadership Assumption One: Customers want first-call resolution of their query; or someone they can trust to personally help them get satisfaction.
Technology-based Assumption Two: Handle all customers the same way. Customers can differ in basic ways. Some have more complex enquiries, perhaps because of their relationship with the organisation. Others face high-risk situations, making their interactions demanding for customer and agent alike. That's when it saves time and effort to deal with the same agent on repeat calls, an agent who has in-depth exposure to that customer's dealings. They build up detailed knowledge of the particular problem situation which customers then don't need to repeat endlessly. Routing repeat customer calls to the same agent can be done. The ACD (or IVR) is quite capable of routing those calls to the right person, saving time and improving Call Centre productivity.

Leadership Assumption Two: Recognise important customer differences in the way you route and deal with each customer.

Technology-based Assumption Three: Handle all queries the same way.
Queries and complaints do differ. They sometimes involve complicated processes and significant consequences. More than one department may need to become involved - another obstacle to resolution, and a minefield when the IT systems of each department cannot talk to the other. It gets worse. The inappropriate prohibition on any agent personally receiving an inbound call - or making an outbound call - can prevent customers from getting satisfactory closure to their complaint. When a query requires specialist expertise, it's time to decide if it's best handled through a Call Centre, with its rigid rules; or a Help Desk that's focused on delivering good customer solutions to complex problems and is relaxed about call duration. Call Centre leaders need to decide in which cases their rigid rules should give way to a more flexible approach.

Leadership Assumption Three: Recognise important call differences in the way you route and handle them.

Technology-based Assumption Four: Any agent can deal equally effectively with any customer query – even an outsourced agent on the other end of the world!
Agents are not all the same. Some are more experienced and handle queries in different ways. In building that experience, they develop extensive knowledge of the business aspects and systems that address particular issues. Handling queries involving other departments (or outsourced service providers) helps agents build up a network of relationships with the right people. That translates into speedier call resolution. By harnessing the unique knowledge and contact networks of experienced agents, customer satisfaction and productivity can improve.

Leadership Assumption Four: Recognise the unique experience, skills and networks of each agent in the way you handle customer problems.

Technology-based Assumption Five: Call Centres are cost-centres which do not leverage strategic results.
It's the leader's job to connect their team's activities to their organisation's strategy. Putting Call Centres into the wrong strategic box is the ultimate act of leadership neglect. Customers are always a strategic resource. What they experience impacts almost any strategy. The consequences are practically and financially measurable. That spin-off may be negative or positive, depending on choices made by that leader. Managing a Call Centre purely as a cost-centre is a potential negative. It could constrain strategic effectiveness by having too few resources and squeezing agents to do more with less. Then agents leave; agent turnover itself generates costs. The upside gets ignored. Effective resolution of each complaint can produce significant goodwill; enough for satisfied customers to take actions that generate positive strategic results.

Five distinct strategies can turn a profit from great customer service. Which ones do apply to particular queries? How can they be applied?
For example, some satisfied customers could buy more services; others may refer the names of their colleagues as prospective new customers. That's over and above the customer retention and customer education that should be happening on each call.

Leadership Assumption Five: To realise results, link your Call Centre activities to your broader business strategy.

Be a leader: think outside the technology box

Call Centre leaders who ignore reality by slavishly following rigid technology-based rules don't help their people. Disaffected customers and high staff turnover are just two signals that inbound Call Centres are failing to deliver on their promise. At best, technology provides useful tools. It's a great servant, but a poor master. Leaders who help their people harness new technology must question their own assumptions. At Wits Business School, we exhort our students to think outside the box. Nowhere is this more urgently needed than in managing inbound Call Centres today.

Sid Cohn
Sid Cohn lectures on Service Industry Management and delivers an in-company programme - Service Experiences: Five Strategies for Profit - at the Wits Business School in Johannesburg, South Africa

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