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Start Calling on Your Call Centers
Business Journal

Start Calling on Your Call Centers

There may be no better place for executives to learn about their employees and customers

by Teresa J. Tschida

There's no better way to understand a job than to actually do it; you know what they say about "walking a day in another man's shoes." Firsthand experience of employees' jobs -- especially those of front-line employees -- can be invaluable for senior executives. It puts managers intimately in touch with the wants and needs of those closest to a company's customers.

This is especially true in call centers. Understanding call center employees and their roles can help executives make an impact on how employees and customers feel about a company. Making the call center a stop along a senior manager's career path -- even if for a brief period of time -- is essential in maximizing call center potential. Even though call centers are often ignored, they are integral in creating an engaged customer base and, in turn, building profit and increasing stock value.

QUOTE: You can't really understand customers' pain until you gauge the temperature of their frustration.


After all, call centers are the place where the company continually makes an impression on its customers, for better or worse. It's where employees solve problems, take orders, cement customer relationships, and deliver on brand promises -- or fail to do these things. Essentially, a call center is the one place besides a storefront where companies have continued contact with their customers.

Big business

Call centers have become a booming business. According to McDaniel Executive Recruiters' 2004 North American Call Center Report, there were 50,600 call centers in the United States staffed by 2.86 million agents in 2004. Although the U.S. market is predicted to shrink over the next three years, that decline will probably be small. Datamonitor reports that the call center market worldwide "reached a value of $40.1 billion in 2003, having enjoyed a compound annual growth rate of 7.4% in the 1999-2003 period." And the global market is set to see a boom: Call centers in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa are expected to mushroom to 45,000 by 2008, with 2.1 million agent positions, according to Datamonitor. Industry experts also expect rapid growth in Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

These numbers show that call centers have become a big business -- and yet, many senior managers still haven't fully grasped the power of their call centers. Most executives have never had the opportunity to work in a call center. Whether they've come up the ranks in a sales organization or climbed the corporate ladder in marketing, the call center is one stop they've managed to avoid.

But why would a senior manager want to get close to a call center in the first place? Often, call centers are thought of as messy places overrun with armies of people wearing headsets. Turnover is high, and unfamiliar faces abound. And there's nothing glamorous about taking complaint calls all day.

But there is a lot to learn by working in a call center, as Beth Meenan, vice president and sales development manager for Wells Fargo's Greater Minnesota Region, would attest. Meenan's career path went from being a leader in Wells Fargo's store network to managing the call center to her current role in sales development. While in the store network, Meenan thought of the call center as "them," but after working in the call center, she sees call centers as part of "us."

"The call center and the stores share responsibility in meeting the needs of customers, regardless of the delivery channel they choose -- and both channels must exceed customer expectations," she says. "Failing to respect and understand the value of what a call center brings to an organization would be a major misstep in growing and retaining your business."

Time well spent

Why is intimate knowledge of the call center so important? It's the best way to get insights from customers on how they perceive your business. Add that to the insights you can get from the call center employees, and you have a panoramic view from which to lead.

  • Customers: Hearing what customers say on an inbound call may seem arduous, but it's market research in action. Real people are calling about your business, and this is your chance to get their feedback -- for free. Budding managers should take this opportunity to learn what makes customers crazy and what managers can do to fix it. They should find out what customers don't understand about the products and learn how to teach them. Managers can also discover what makes customers love their company -- and how to encourage even more customers to love it. The call center is where you can learn how your customers experience your company and your brand. This is a great place to get ideas for future enhancements -- and future profit growth.

Tim Searcy, CEO for American Teleservices Association, raises a great point: It's one thing to get data about what frustrates customers but a whole different experience to hear it directly from them. Having spent the majority of his career in call centers, Searcy knows firsthand the importance of listening to customer calls. "The nature of human interaction is such that there is power in hearing in the customer's voice how frustrating a particular issue is," Searcy says. "You can't really understand customers' pain until you gauge the temperature of their frustration." Searcy adds that there is no other way to get the immediacy of feedback a call center can provide -- and for many companies, the call center is the single biggest customer touchpoint.

  • Staff: When senior managers work alongside call center employees, it has a positive effect on a company's staff. Call center land is made up of lots of employees -- and they are the face of a company to its customers. By learning the points of pain in their employees' daily lives, managers can resolve real problems and start to develop a more engaged, productive workforce. After all, the happier call center associates are, the better experience customers will have. In the end, intimately understanding the roles in a call center yields higher dividends.

Bringing visitors to the center is one way to demonstrate the importance of call center agents and their work, as well as instilling confidence in remote employees. Carlson Hotels Worldwide invites its hotel operators and franchisees to visit the call center and listen to live calls. According to Brian Stage, Carlson's executive vice president of sales, distribution, and reservation services, the call center tour is just like a plant tour -- with just one stop. At the call center, visitors can learn about the company, see the call model that the sales representatives use, and hear how customers ask questions. This experience gives visitors a firsthand experience of the company's intense customer focus and makes them feel confident that their hotel guests will be treated well when they call.

  • Managers: Senior executives should also get to know their call center managers. Executives will find that call center managers think differently from other managers and track many things that other managers aren't aware of. They learn to be agile in the moment -- a career skill worth acquiring. "Call center managers know about driving daily metrics," Searcy says. "They are adept at reviewing the status report and knowing what levers need to be pulled to impact results."

For example, call center managers understand that a particular policy change will increase handle time by two seconds per call, which means that they now need 10 extra people on the phone -- and the cost per call will increase accordingly. They might also see that a large investment decision like a more efficient routing technology could increase productivity significantly, ultimately reducing costs. In essence, they see how decisions, big or small, will affect the center.

As Stage says, call center managers operate in an almost laboratory-like environment. "You can dissect a call, using a Six Sigma-like approach, improve each part of a typical call, and put it back together," he says. "Because there is so much repetition, you can tweak the call model iteratively, make improvements, put it back in the field, and tweak it again. This exposure to process improvement makes call center experience invaluable."

Coaching

These same call center managers are asked to spend a lot of time coaching. And the industry is abuzz with the notion that increased coaching is the way to improve productivity and customer experience. Yet in a recent survey by Contact Professional, only 4% of respondents whose job it is to coach said they do so more than 50% of the time.

Why is finding time for coaching so hard? Listening to the coaches tell you why versus experiencing it yourself are two vastly different things. It's easy to make excuses for avoiding coaching, whether they are legitimate or not. If executives really want to understand the challenges that deter managers from coaching, they should roll up their shirt sleeves and dig in. Firsthand experience in this realm is the only way to truly understand the challenges and come up with practical solutions.

Meenan believes in the power of coaching in the call center. She notes that the very nature of a call center, with calls constantly coming in or going out, creates the need to provide immediate feedback -- both corrective and positive. In turn, managers need to be on the floor observing and coaching -- all day, every day. "One of the biggest things I learned is that there is a sense of urgency in coaching activities at a call center," she says. "Each agent may take one hundred or more calls each day, and there is no room to save feedback until tomorrow -- you just can't afford risking providing a substandard quality of service to a hundred or more customers. This sense of urgency is an important lesson for a coach to learn."

This intensity of coaching pays off, Meenan adds: It enables managers to develop team members' skills at a much faster pace, which in turn helps reps repeat positive behaviors or correct negative ones. At the same time, customer and team member retention improves, as does the number of successful customer contacts.

Worth the time

While time in the call center can give an aspiring senior manager many gifts, call center employees can learn from top executives' expertise, too. Whether their background is in marketing or accounting doesn't matter -- their knowledge is needed in the call center. Call center managers tend to "grow up" in call centers, so often "they don't know what they don't know." Exposure to other disciplines and trying out new management techniques -- by wearing a pair of call center shoes -- is good for them, too.

Sure, a position in the call center may not sound like a walk in the park. So what if you spend six months there and don't like it? It's okay. If you don't like it, don't stay. Luckily, there is a core group of agents managed by talented leaders who do want to stay. The idea here isn't to steer you to a permanent place in a call center. But do stop for a while, because you'll see your business differently. You'll gain insights that will help you lead your business differently. And making friends with the heart of the call center -- its employees -- will help you steer your business in a better direction.

Teresa J. Tschida is a Strategic Consultant and Principal of Gallup.

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