Neglect Equals Bad Service
The first one I will deal with is complete neglect. This is most common in SMB’s with small call centers where the center is not really considered as a major part of the enterprise. They are neglected, their costs and budgets roll up into other much larger budgets like Operations, IT or Sales and senior managers and executives do not any visibility into what is really going on in the call center nor, likely do they really care. It is neglected. Of course this can change dramatically once the call center reaches that special threshold, whose level varies by organization, but it is when the call center actually appears as a line item on the monthly P&L. The first time this happens you can almost hear the screams of astonishment from the executive suite, “We are spending what on the call center!” In centers receiving this form of neglect they will generally be underfunded- trying to do more with less, significantly lack appropriate technologies to serve customers and be struggling to meet their service performance and targets. The operation of the center is usually in a vacuum, they are disconnected from the organization and only dimly aware of the company’s goals and aspirations. With insufficient staff, poor processes and technology and no vision these centers struggle day in and day out not to deliver lousy service, but they do not often succeed. This is not good service.
The second form of neglect is neglecting to understand that a call center is a primary communications channel between the organization and its customers. In fact for many organizations it is the primary communications channel and the only meaningful one that facilitates a two way discussion, a dialogue. Failing to recognize this fact leads organizations to undervalue the contribution the call center and broader customer service and technical support plays in sustaining the business. Not only can a call center generate revenue through orders, up-sell and extensions, but the call center also protects revenue already promised through solving issues and fixing problems, many of which were not caused or created by the call center. As my colleague John Cockerill is wont to say “There are only two kinds of calls; Value, where we gain revenue and Fault, where we fix a problem someone else created”. By neglecting to understand the role played by the call center in maximizing lifetime value and customer retention these organizations treat the call center as an after- thought. The call center discovers new campaigns and initiatives only after they launch are criticized for failing to meet patently unattainable goals which they had no part in creating and generally receiving all of the perks and privileges bestowed upon it by ‘mushroom management’. It is in these centers where senior executives will ask if we really need all of those people or even if we really need to answer the phones at all. For the record I have heard that exact statement on two occasions in my consulting career. In centers suffering from this form of neglect they will be generally underfunded-trying to do more with less than none, they will often invest in technologies to reduce costs or create efficiencies regardless of the suitability to the purpose of the center or its potential impact on customers. The operation of the center can be characterized as a cost center, in a way that informs you that this is a very bad thing to be. There will be calls to transform the center to a profit center, to reduce costs and to increase productivity. Of course all of these activities can be positive however they are all but doomed to failure if they are not connected to the desired customer experience and the service quality the organization wishes to deliver. With insufficient staff, poor processes and technology focused on reducing volumes and/or reducing transaction times these centers make it difficult for their customers and when they get an answer they rush them off the phone. This is not good service.
The third form of neglect is complicity in these organizations the call center is acknowledged to exist, its role appreciated and generally understood and there is an agreement on the value the center delivers to the organization. Senior executives look at their weekly dashboard reports and might comment on the change in service level or abandon rate. All may appear to be happy in ‘mudville’, but that is not necessarily so. The company having invested in people and technology to equip the center to do its job and recognizing its value reviews and scrutinizes the weekly reporting can feel that its job is done. You can almost hear them saying, “There now the call center is completed and we won’t have to worry about that again”. In the call center itself this stage can be the most frustrating as it begins with such promise; spending on headcount to match the demand, acquiring new technologies etc., but it soon grinds to halt coming face to face with the perception that ‘we did this (the call center) and now we are done’. The conversations go along the lines of “why do you need more people, you just hired 6 last quarter”, or “Last year we spent X million on your techno-goodies so you will have to make do”. All of the hallmarks are there of a professional call center engaged and integrated into the business, but it is not really so. The center likely struggles with scheduling and a disinterested and high turnover workforce, adequate technologies give them a fighting chance, but the absence of integration to the company vision and low level of agent experience condemns it to deliver inferior service.
It is clear from the above that neglect can take many forms and that these various forms of neglect can handicap a call center and ensure that they deliver bad service…service that sucks. Success in delivering Good Customer Service lies in not neglecting your center but rather to paying attention to the center. Organizations have found success by elevating the call centers role within the organization and openly discussing the role the center plays in attracting and retaining customers. By defining the strategic plan for the call center and linking the call center plan to the company goals, mission and values brings everyone onto the same team and speaking from a perspective of alignment. By equipping the center with the appropriate tools to do the job the organization can begin to reap the rewards of this stewardship. Of course this should not be construed to suggest that the call center should be given a blank check. Quite the contrary each desired investment in people, or process or technology should be modeled, justified and be confirmed to be in line with the call center strategy and the broader goals and objectives of the business. Any requested investment that doesn’t make economic sense and/or fails to align and support the business goals must be discarded until a more suitable and appropriate solution can be found.
There is no excuse for an organization to have poor service the cause can includes neglect, lack of funding or perhaps even projection. But if there is no excuse for bad service why hasn’t somebody done something about it?
There are likely a million reasons that have been cited by other authors, experts and pundits, but I would suggest that the simplest reason is that companies don’t have too improve service. We expect poor or at least difficulty in resolving customer service issues Forrester Research found in some verticals such as computers and health insurance only 30% of consumers expected customer service to be easy. We often expect to have a fight on our hands. If this is the view of the customer, then is it any surprise that organizations steel themselves for the conflict with restrictive policies and penalties for changes.
The Way Forward
Of course at the same time this expectation of poor customer service creates an opportunity for those organizations able to rise above the din and actually deliver superior service. They could be motivated by a sincere and genuine wish to deliver better customer service to their customers or they may simply realize that happier customers stay customers longer and spend more money with you.
But this can on the surface appear to be a risky strategy, to spend more money to improve the quality of service, staff, technology and processes and then to wait and hope it pays off. But maybe it is not so risky. Research from American Express found that 61% of Americans report that quality customer service is more important to them in today’s economic environment, and will spend an average of 9 percent more when they believe a company provides excellent service.
A few organizations are bravely marching forward carrying the ‘Superior Customer Service’ banner. Some of these organizations have achieved fame and success others are just quietly reaping the financial benefits. Zappos has defined itself as a Customer Service organization that just happens to sell shoes and has created a cult of believers. F&C has been recognized as the best call center in the UK by exceeding all service parameters. And American Express, well it is their research cited above that tells us that customers will pay more for better service, it appears that they are walking the talk. American express derives their customer satisfaction scores directly from their customers and this CSAT score has replaced the internally generated quality score that they used to rely on. Satisfaction is in the eye of the customer, it is as simple as that.
So we are not forever doomed to suffer through endless IVR call trees, hours on hold only to speak with an ill-tempered and poorly trained agent. We needn’t abandon all hope when we enter the customer service queue. We must simply choose to patronize organizations that deliver superior service. Voting with our feet and our wallets is the best way to encourage lagging organizations to cease their policies of neglect and embrace the new maxim of better service equals more and happier customers.
Hopefully and not to far in the future companies will no longer be able to provide poor customer service because they can get away with it, customer service laggards are going to be punished by the market and forced to change their ways. At least that’s what my crystal ball says.