In a tough economy, a path of least resistance is the belief we can save our way back to profitability with savings from, among other so-called cost centers, call centers. Thinking fewer calls are better, we drive customers away from personal contact and toward website technology that lets them resolve issues for themselves. Thinking shorter calls are better, we link customer service representative performance to faster average handling times.There is nothing inherently wrong with these actions. Properly executed, they can lead to significant savings and enhance profitability - at least in the short term. But can these call center cost reduction strategies alone translate into long-term growth and profitability? What does an exclusive focus on call center cost savings do to customer experiences and satisfaction levels?
During a recent contact with the American Express call center, I had a great customer service experience. Early in my work career, a mentor shared valuable advice when he said, "No matter how long you've worked or how tired you are, the number one rule is to treat every customer as though they were your first and only customer of the day." This was my experience on the American Express call - I felt I received service on par with that provided to guests at a Fairmont or other five-star hotel.
In an August 2010 Workforce Management article, Making the Call for Themselves (registration required), senior editor Ed Frauenheim provided a detailed look at the American Express strategic initiative to invest in its customer service people and to empower them with the skills and processes needed to provide best-in-class customer experiences. Examples of practices now in play include the following:
Training and customer interaction: Agent training focus has shifted from technology to developing interpersonal communication skills.
Metrics and compensation: Performance measurement has shifted from the number of transactions per day to customer satisfaction scores.
Recruiting: Instead of hiring based on contact center experience, American Express seeks professionals with a background in hospitality or service.
I am not saying that call center technology, metrics, and accountability are unimportant. There are a number of exceptional technology vendors whose applications successfully support the customer experience, boost agent productivity, and reduce costs.
But it is to say -- like American Express -- we need to invest in the high-quality touches that deliver the rich brand experiences needed to create and retain loyal, lifetime customers. Companies operating best-practice call centers see reduced agent turnover, lower training costs, increased customer awareness of offerings, greater customer spending, and higher customer satisfaction scores.
It's been said that we only have one opportunity to make a first impression. Striking the right balance between call center investing and saving assures hundreds and hopefully thousands of additional opportunities to make our customers even more enthusiastic about our offerings.
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