In a tough economy, a path of least resistance is the belief we can save our way back to profitability solely with call center cost reductions. Sometimes it's with a wide-swath machete. Other times it's with a surgically-precise scalpel. Regardless, the hits occur across the board: facility closings, hiring freezes, and cuts in headcounts, compensation, and training.
Thinking fewer calls are better, we drive customers away from personal contact and toward website technology to let 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 either of these actions. Many customers like options and prefer self-service for certain interactions. 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? More important, what does an exclusive focus on call center cost savings do to customer experiences and satisfaction levels? I might add that these questions extend beyond B2C inbound call centers to apply to B2B and outbound calls centers, as well.
All call center transactions are brand experiences that-taken collectively-form the brand relationship and deliver on the brand promise. When everything's in sync, a great brand supports premium pricing and higher margins. It makes for high-value, long-term, satisfied customers.
Cost reductions alone can put positive customer experiences-as well as the brand, growth, and profitability-at risk. How important are cost savings when a customer has a sense the representative is hurrying to complete the call and doesn't have the time or mind-set to listen attentively and fully understand the issue? For those preferring personal contact, what are customer takeaways when they're advised they can use website functionality to resolve issues themselves? The best outcome: lower customer satisfaction scores. Unfortunately, customer defections are more likely.
The solution is to balance cost reductions with strategic investments in call center professionals and processes in order to drive high-quality customer branding experiences.
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 the 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 the 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. Professionals are encouraged to engage customers in unscripted conversations, and they are empowered to resolve issues during calls.
Metrics and compensation: Performance measurement has shifted from the number of transactions per day to customer satisfaction scores. A key gauge of performance is how customers reply to this question: "Would the customer recommend the company to a friend?"
Recruiting: Instead of hiring based on contact center experience, American Express seeks professionals with a background in hospitality or service.
The article noted positive recognition for improved customer service: the company has achieved J.D. Power & Associates' number one customer satisfaction ranking for credit card companies the past three years. The good news extended to the expense front, where reduced turnover lowered training costs, and overall costs declined.
Again, all of this is not to say that call center technology, metrics, and accountability are not important. There are a number of exceptional technology vendors whose applications successfully support the customer experience and boost agent productivity. Reducing handling times by even seconds can translate into millions of dollars in annual savings for high-volume centers.
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. Let us not shy away from these investments for fear of lack of return or out-of-control costs. Companies operating best-practice call centers see reduced agent turnover, lower training costs, increase 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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Dan McDade is president and CEO of PointClear. The Sales Lead Management Association named Dan one of the 50 most influential people in sales lead management in 2009. He blogs at "ViewPoint | The Truth About Lead Generation." Contact him at email@example.com