The Anatomy of a Good Call: Managing Customer Expectations

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Filed under - Industry Insights,

Dick Bourke of Scorebuddy shares his advice on managing customer expectations to improve customer–agent conversations.

Do you remember the discos that you used to go to when you were 16?

If you met somebody nice, you would have asked for/given them your phone number, right? Well, that’s not happening anymore (I asked my nephew). Now people are ‘adding’ each other on Facebook (or whatever the app of the day).

How we connect socially has changed and will continue to change. How we shop, how we find our way around, how we expect to be served by brands, it has all changed.

Look at how your niece/nephew/son/daughter talk to their friends, this will give strong indicators of which channels you will need to serve in the future as well as the expectations that your customers will have during the interaction.

Customer Expectations

Your customers’ expectations have changed a lot in the last 10 years. Online shopping has dramatically increased the standard of service that we expect from brands.

Amazon has raised the stakes in customer service for everyone. Never before has it been so easy to research and buy products online. Amazon is famed for its checkout process, where it is held up as an example of ‘best-in-class’ for speed and usability.

Now consider this scenario… your customer has just ordered something from Amazon in record time, the whole process was intuitive and everything went well. Now that person is starting a ‘chat’ with one of your customer service team looking for help with their account… the pressure is on!

Not only is your customer service team being compared with the competition, your customer service team is being compared with every website out there (regardless of sector). This might seem unfair, but this is what’s happening.

A recent article by ICMI looked at the top 10 trends that are changing how you need to manage customer expectations. The main findings were:

  • Social media is changing the definition of what’s “fast”
  • The online world is changing how efficient we expect a business to be
  • The rise of self-service has led to a generation happy to help themselves
  • The “always on” culture means customers expect 24/7 service (or as close as possible)
  • E-commerce has become commonplace – and shoppers no longer expect to pay for the convenience of it
  • Channel or device-hopping habits mean customers expect omnichannel service
  • Social media has made customers feel more empowered
  • The data-driven online world means consumers expect a personalized service
  • Our mobile-focused culture means customers expect your site and customer service to be “mobile-friendly”
  • Social media means customers expect you to be “listening”

The Importance of Properly Managing Your Customers’ Expectations

  • Do not meet their expectations = they will be disappointed (you don’t want this)
  • Meet your customers’ expectations = they will be happy
  • Exceed their expectations = they will be delighted

This all seems pretty straightforward, but it is important to recognize this before you start putting a quality framework in place. This understanding will let you know what service levels are expected to keep customers happy.

A considered framework that is well implemented will enable your agents to focus on fulfilling your customers’ expectations, and this in turn will give your agents the opportunity to exceed these expectations and create advocates – and this is the Holy Grail.

These changes described above help us understand what the new ‘call’ will look like (albeit in many guises), but the real challenge we face is how we handle these interactions while at the same time maintaining customer satisfaction. Here are our ideas on how best to achieve that.

Managers Need to Really Understand What Is Important to Their Customers

Contact centres in general will record the standard metrics: calls waiting, first call resolution, time to answer, etc. These are important and of course you should continue to measure them.

However, we have learned from our customers that these metrics are not necessarily a hard-and-fast way of measuring a good call; understanding what a good call looks like can be a better indicator of managing customer expectations.

For instance, if you look at the average-handling-time metric, the desired result might be a speedy call. However, getting through a call with a customer as quickly as possible can be a good or a bad thing.

A good example of this would be to look at two calls taken by a reservations agent at a hotel. Their first call might be a customer looking for the most affordable room in the hotel, while the second might be somebody looking to rent out the entire second floor for a conference.

The second call will take longer because there will be a huge amount of detail to get through, there will probably be a negotiation on price and the conversation in general will be very different from the conversation with the first caller.

If we apply the average-handling-time metric to these calls, the performance of the agent on the second call will be considered to be not as ‘good’ as their performance on the first call. So does that make the second call a poor performance? Is this the correct way to manage customer expectations? Of course not.

What we are saying here is that while the old metrics are still important, good call handling will be different for different types of calls, leading to different outcomes. To manage customer expectations correctly, these calls cannot be assessed using the same yardsticks. Contact centre managers need to be more fluid when assessing the quality of these interactions.

Whatever the brand, whatever the product, understanding what is really important to your customers is paramount. You may have already established what is really important to your customers, but how long ago did you do that? Expectation management must also change with the times.

Average Handling Time

Average Handling Time is one of those metrics that has been used to manage customer expectations since… well, forever.

The customer experience is now at the centre of how call centres are handling calls around the world. The idea that a customer might be rushed off a call in order to meet performance metrics sounds crazy in today’s call centres, but it does happen.

As a result, a growing number of call centres have stopped using the AHT metric.

Carolyn Blunt from Real Results Training is an expert on this topic, having worked in the industry as a training consultant for the last 13 years.

Her own take is that we should take a balanced view towards AHT, to not throw the baby out with the bathwater so to speak.

My own personal opinion is very much that AHT is not the bad guy and that its bad reputation has come from scenarios where it has been used incorrectly.

If we rush customers off the call, all we will do is increase the volume of repeat calls. That said, if we take the focus off AHT altogether, then we will end up with planning going out the window, we will end up with long wait times for customers in queues, and that will of course will negatively impact the customer experience.

So it’s very important that we do keep a focus on AHT and that we don’t follow this recent trend of removing the targets and all the visibility that comes from that.

With that said, there is a further distinction to make, which is that targeting AHT (talk time) at the advisor level can be very dangerous. That has caused a lot of the bad rap that AHT has garnered. Instead, using average talk time peer group comparisons as a coaching tool and as a way of identifying training needs, is key.

Notice where there are significant delays (due to lack of advisor knowledge/confidence), loss of control, too much unnecessary information ‘pushed’ on the customer, excessive use of hold, etc. This is where good efficiencies can be gained that also improve CSAT.

Carolyn Blunt

As we have mentioned in previous articles, the traditional metrics are sound and should definitely continue to be used, but in the future, if we are to get the customer experience right, we need to be looking more closely at the actual content of the call.

We need to be looking at sentiment, building rapport etc. not just measuring how long that call took to close.

Every Customer Must Be Treated With the Same Level of Service

This might sound like an oldie, but treating every customer with the same level of respect and patience has never been as important. Why is that?

If a famous person, for example, contacted your customer service team, there is a good chance that the agent that took the call would do their very best to make sure that the call was a success. Famous people have lots of friends and would be considered to be an influencer among them.

Today, with social media, influencers come in all shapes and sizes, and often come without a recognizable face or name. A bad experience for one of these influencers could damage your brand reputation very quickly.

Anatomy of a Call

How do you meet customer expectations? It’s all in the call! The agent’s tone of voice can make all the difference between a great call and one that may cause a customer to leave the company.

Additionally, managers need to ensure that their agents are listening to customers on the phone.

Cutting off a person or answering them in a way that clearly shows the agent was not paying attention is a surefire way to get on the bad side of a customer.

Opening and Closing the Chat

The beginning and end of a conversation have been proven to be the most memorable parts, and call centre interactions are no exception. Opening with effective questions can lead to faster call resolution times.

While you don’t want to ask a closed question and leave callers feeling like they can’t ask what they need, you also don’t want to ask too open a question. Rather, start with an open question that can ‘lead’ the caller into asking a question that you can help answer.

To close the chat, many agents will try to complete a call as soon as possible in an effort to boost their AHT, but that is a mistake. It’s important not to rush the customer off the phone and cut the conversation short.

Agents should manage expectations by closing with a summary of the call and reiterating the solutions that were discussed on the call. Always close by asking the customer if their problem has been solved and if they have any additional questions.

How Do Your Agents Come Across via Email or Chat?

Most contact centre managers will have started their careers during a time when customers would contact the customer service team exclusively by phone.

But email, social media and live chat are the channel of choice amongst young people, and those young people will grow up to be regular adults, and when that happens, email, social media and live chat will become the norm.

As a result, the agents of the future will need to be able to communicate clearly and on brand via the written word. That is a skill that might not necessarily be present in your team.

Managing Customer Expectations 

This might sound strange… but are you over-delivering? Would your customers have been fine waiting a bit longer for a response?

The customer channel will often dictate the expectations. Your customer will want a phone call to be answered as quickly as possible, while live chat should be answered in less than 30 seconds, and the expected response time to an email could be closer to 24 hours.

We had a conversation recently with a customer about expectations and customer satisfaction. This customer used our voice survey product to survey their customers post-call with regard to response time.

This customer wanted to investigate how a reduction in response time would affect customer satisfaction. They boldly reduced their response time by 20% and this had… wait for it… zero effect on satisfaction levels.

This freed a number of staff up and they were able to work in other areas of the business. With a large number of staff, even a half a [percent reduction in resources can have a significant impact.

Once you have decided on how to set customer expectations, publicize them. Transparency of service performance will become the norm for customers.

Cross-Pollinate Your Agents

We recently attended a presentation where they spoke about staffing and attrition rates. They learned that their staff fell into two categories, those that were looking for a career in the call centre space and those that were just looking for a job.

When looking at those that were considering a career in the call centre space, they realized that getting staff trained up on different channels helped to develop the agents’ understanding of the business and its products.

As the agent moves between the different channels (calls, chat, email, etc) they will bring with them some best practices that might be lacking in other channels and may be able to highlight these to the channel manager.

For example, the usual warm greeting on a call might not be part of the live chat template. The brevity of a Twitter post might highlight the fact that an email is too wordy.

We call this cross-pollination.

Change How You Listen to Your Agents

A thumbnail image of Dick Bourke

Dick Bourke

Staff surveys are another way of checking on what is working and not working and whether the key brand thrusts are understood and being delivered.

Regular, short surveys of your agents will help to keep a healthy dialogue between agents and team leaders/supervisors/managers. This will also help to make your agents feel more valued and engaged.

Author: Robyn Coppell

Published On: 7th Aug 2019 - Last modified: 14th Aug 2019
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