Despite the contact centre industry nearing its 30th anniversary, the outdated perception that the industry provides poor service still persists. Phil Stewart examines how contact centres can tackle this challenge and improve the customer experience in preparation for the next 30 years.
A recent YouGov study confirms that despite many improvements in the industry, the perception held by the public of call centres today remains negative. The research reveals that most customers are annoyed by poor communication from contact centre agents. The study also shows that more than 80 per cent are frustrated by long waiting times. This unarguably poor perception of the industry is even more alarming when you consider that, for many customers or prospective customers, the contact centre is their first engagement with a business or brand.
To address this situation, contact centres have invested heavily in everything from technology to people and processes yet, in the drive to deliver excellent service, something still appears to be amiss. Far from advising going back to the drawing board, my suggestion is that most contact centres probably already have most of the ingredients in place to deliver world-class customer service but, just like cooking the perfect meal, it is the way they are mixed together that will create a successful result.
The following tips provide some thoughts on how contact centre managers can ensure that they are exceeding consumer expectations and getting the most out of their customer service environment:
1. Keep quality consistent
The quickest and most reliable way to gauge levels of customer satisfaction is with direct feedback from customers themselves. This can be done simply by asking them if they are happy to take part in a short survey at the end of each phone call and can even be integrated into the call waiting process. Direct feedback like this will enable managers to view the service that they offer through their customers’ eyes while the opportunity for customers to praise staff by name can offer a welcome boost to morale. Running evaluation of this kind regularly ensures the business is able to respond to any changes in customer perception in a timely manner.
Similarly, asking staff for feedback can give managers a real insight into how customer service could be improved. Something as basic as slow connections to basic customer files, or the lack of an expert or senior manager to address complex queries can prolong call resolution times but can be easily overcome by providing the right channels to escalate issues.
2. Education, education, education
It goes without saying that staff must have strong communication skills and a solid understanding of the products and services that customers may enquire about. Without this it will be impossible for contact centres to provide customers with the best possible advice.
If staff are to keep up to date with the latest product developments, regular training and assessment is vital. In a busy environment where shift-based teams are often the norm it is all too easy for training sessions and team meetings to slip out of the diary. Short, informative video tutorials, available on the company’s private network, are a great alternative when face-to-face training sessions aren’t a viable option. As well as helping staff understand new products and technologies or to generally refresh their memory on business best practice they can also be shared with customers to educate them on products and generally improve their relationship with the brand.
3. Improve response times
Generally, long waiting times are the major bugbear for customers, especially if they have a problem that needs resolving urgently. Key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure metrics such as the average waiting time, typical call length and the number of calls handled per hour are the basic rudiments for assessing customer satisfaction but, in most cases, a more sophisticated approach is required.
Customers today expect to be able to contact companies through a variety of different channels, at any time. While traditionalists still like to use the phone others will be much keener to engage with a company via email or instant messaging, or even a mixture of all three. This ‘horses for courses’ approach, and the need to track and respond to customer requests through a variety of communications mediums, is driving the demand for unified communications technology.
By integrating the various technologies listed above into one channel, unified communications not only helps organisations to engage in the way that best suits the customer but also helps ensure that all interactions can be stored, viewed and managed from a central location. This gives contact centre staff a holistic view of the customer and their requirements and makes it easier to address their needs. What’s more, by unifying these various communication strands, management can ensure that all customers receive the same level of care and attention, regardless of the communication channel that they choose, this works to negate old frustrations around poor communication and long waiting times.
4. Keep it personal
Historically, the anonymity of call centre interaction has been another source of customer complaint. With the advent of unified communications it can be argued the opposite is true. Agents must tread a fine line between investing time in ensuring that they treat each customer individually, while simultaneously not overstepping the boundaries of business professionalism when using less formal channels such as SMS and Instant Messaging. Call routing can play a role here, by enabling customers to speak to a dedicated person or team to resolve their issues, thus helping to build personal rapport and making it easier to switch between the different communications mediums.
5. Put policies in place
However, in order to reap the full benefits of this enabling technology and associated staff training, clear policies need to be put in place outlining how agents should react to certain scenarios. For example, a policy could be introduced advising staff how to loop in an expert advisor or senior manager to resolve a customer issue over Instant Messenger; how to record the resolution and then, how to share this with their team. In this way customer service best practice can continually be fine tuned and evolved to keep pace with the changing modes of customer engagement and ensure the investments made in technology and training are not lost.
A call to action
So, while improving customer service may seem like an impossible task at times, it can be done. By taking a joined-up approach and investing the right amount of time and money in both technology and training, contact centres can ensure that customers receive the service that they deserve and staff, in turn, receive the recognition they warrant. After all, the best technology in the world is useless if staff have not received the training they need to use it. Equally, excellent staff can be stifled if poor technology holds them back. Combined, the two can have a powerful impact in updating the perception of the contact centre industry. With these improvements in mind, we look forward to the next 30 years!
Phil Stewart is Director of Customer Service, Virgin Media Business (www.virginmediabusiness.co.uk)