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Business Journal

Making the Right Calls

by Tom Rieger

Providing great customer service in a call center is challenging. The action never stops, and managers are inundated with data. Everything a call center employee or team does is measured and monitored, from call quality to handle time to schedule adherence to unit cost. Reports are constantly sent out, and feedback sessions are frequent.

Ultimately, success in a call center comes down to how well each customer service representative (CSR) engages each customer. Despite continuous reporting, feedback, and monitoring, and regardless of the reams of data, many call centers -- and CSRs -- struggle to improve their levels of performance, and organizational barriers often prevent improvement.

QUOTE: If a representative meets all his quality requirements but does not help the customer, the rep and the company have failed.

By conducting a series of formal audits in nine different call centers in four different industries, Gallup has identified four barriers that can substantially undermine local efforts to improve employee and customer engagement in call centers.

Barrier 1: No time to coach

Most call centers struggle to keep service levels high while keeping costs as low as possible. This has led to scheduling and forecasting practices that allow very little room for staffing above the exact level of projected calls. As a result, team leaders generally need to jump on the phones during high-volume periods to make up the difference.

In addition, the constant pressure to keep handle times low can encourage CSRs to escalate calls to management rather than taking the time to research customers' problems themselves. This increases the time it takes to resolve problems and frustrates customers.

The administrative workload given to team leaders has also been trending upward. One company estimated that each of its supervisors spends two full days every month on Sarbanes-Oxley-related reporting alone. There are many other types of "new" reporting requirements, such as tracking personal or medical leave use to prevent its abuse.

As a result of these pressures, team leaders have limited time to invest in their teams, such as coaching CSRs on how to create customer engagement or working to improve employee engagement. And training is useless if centers don't give CSRs time to apply their new learning on the job.

Barrier 2: No time to learn

A new press release, a new policy, a systems upgrade, a new marketing program, a new disclosure -- initiatives like these create the need to communicate quickly and efficiently with CSRs so they can handle related calls or comply with new policies. In one public utility's call center, for example, 50 or more changes per month is considered a "normal" level of activity.

Most call centers, though, don't allocate any time to help CSRs stay informed about changes; even when centers make time, they don't help managers or CSRs sort to the highest priority changes. Yet CSRs are held accountable for implementing these changes, even though they often get in trouble for logging off the phones or checking e-mail to find out about them.

Barrier 3: Confusing the process with the result

Quality assurance monitors often listen for specific "value added phrases" that CSRs must use in every call, regardless of the context. But making those phrases mandatory can frustrate or anger customers. For example, even a friendly phrase such as "Is there anything else I can help you with?" can irritate a customer if the CSR was unable to solve the original problem. And cross-selling, while often mandatory, is not appropriate in every customer interaction.

What's more, "service level" -- a percentage of calls answered within 30 or 60 seconds -- is not a measure of customer engagement; it's a productivity measure. Call centers often place so much emphasis on meeting service level targets that customer service suffers. CSRs may be tempted to rush customers to get off the phone so they can meet their service level targets. Even worse, some centers make their service levels look good at another center's expense by scheduling employee meetings during peak call times, which reroutes a huge call volume to the other center. The result is that the other center looks bad because it cannot handle the huge increase in call volume.

The most important part of a customer service representative's job is providing good customer service. But few centers enable customers to rate their experience; fewer still track the customer experience at the individual CSR level. More often, a CSR's customer service performance is subjectively determined by someone other than his customers, using a checklist of phrases and behaviors that may not have anything to do with providing good customer service. Ultimately, "what you grade" determines "what you get." If a CSR meets all his quality requirements but does not help the customer, the CSR and the company have failed.

Barrier 4: Poor alignment and communication with other departments

Few companies use their customer service centers to channel customer opinions back to the organization. Instead, too many companies use their call centers to push multiple and often conflicting initiatives at their customers.

Too often, call center managers' goals are unrelated to the goals of the internal groups they support; similarly, the internal groups' goals can be unrelated to what happens in the call center or to the customers who call. As a result, promises made at one customer touchpoint may not be fulfilled at another. It's hard for CSRs to provide good customer service, for example, when brand promises or implied benefits made by the marketing or telemarketing department were not fully communicated to or understood by the consumer. And ultimately, a company's brand suffers when a call center focuses on meeting arbitrary "service quality requirements" instead of solving customers' problems, and this can damage long-term customer relationships.

Fixing the problem

So what's the solution? Eliminating barriers like these is not easy, but it can be done. The first step is to examine the root cause of the barrier. For example, why are CSRs escalating so many calls to managers? Are all reports really necessary? Can some reports be automated? How do departments relate to each other, and what goals do they share? How much time is needed to process changes, and how are they prioritized? Who is ultimately accountable, and who has decision rights?

Once the root causes are identified, then action can be taken to address them. Many of these barriers are cross-functional, so solving the problem will require call center managers to work with managers or staff members from other departments. Barrier removal should begin at the senior management level, and companies often find it helpful to ask a neutral third party to facilitate the discussions. Otherwise, the solution is likely to be slanted toward the individual or group that is driving the negotiations.

Here are some examples of specific actions that help eliminate organizational barriers:

  • replace routine quality monitoring with customer-driven feedback

  • eliminate nonessential reports to free up coaching time

  • add a "senior CSR" position to handle escalated calls

  • develop and implement a process for communicating changes that is integrated with scheduling requirements

  • restructure "decision rights" so that there is clear ownership of and accountability for key functions

  • develop a set of underlying principles to prioritize conflicting initiatives and align goals

Any barrier-removal effort should include a detailed communication plan, account for required training, ask for the commitment and involvement of all interested parties, and include post-implementation follow-up to make needed adjustments.

Barrier removal requires a strong commitment. Nothing should be considered sacred, and managers and employees will be required to cooperate at levels well beyond what may currently be the norm. If barriers are left in place, however, they will continue to erode customer goodwill and employee morale.


Tom Rieger is the author of Breaking the Fear Barrier.

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