Erase Dumb Contacts, Melt Snowballs and Enhance the Voice of the Customer

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The best way to approach customer contact is to work to eliminate the need for contact at all. That was the message from Bill Price, president of Driva Solutions and first vice president in charge of global customer service for Amazon.com, speaking before delegates at the CustomerThink Leadership Summit in June in Santa Cruz, California.

That doesn’t mean getting rid of your call or contact center. Far from it, says Price. It means concentrating on big-ticket items, listening to your customers and making sure the agents are working to their strengths.

While you’ll never really eliminate the need for contact, you can drive it down. And doing so addresses the two competing forces involved in maintaining a contact center: the need to make your customers happy and the difficulty hiring and retaining good contact agents.



Doing things the same old way isn’t going to work, if for no other reason than the “almost epidemic” percentages in turnover in contact center personnel, Price said. In the United States, there’s an average of 100 percent turnover in staffing over the course of a year, Price said, and the number goes up for outsourced centers.


High turnover


“If you start with 50 agents at the beginning of the year, all 50 are gone by the end of the year,” Price said. That means 50 agents who have to be trained and brought up to speed with your way of doing business. It also makes maintaining consistency in service a challenge.

The classic solutions€”cutting staff across the board, mandating reductions in handle times and “forcing” automation that doesn’t answer customers’ questions€”don’t work and, in fact, can cause problems in terms of the quality of service you’re providing, ultimately irritating your customers, instead of giving them a reason to stay on board.

The better mode is to focus on the “wow” factor, giving customers exceptional service.

To do that involves four elements, Price said:

  • Eliminating what he calls “dumb contacts”
  • Focusing on matching your customer service reps to their strengths
  • Establishing a way of giving the customer a voice in improving service
  • Giving the entire company a stake in success by giving different departments ownership over certain types of complaints


Price put this knowledge into practice with resounding success at Amazon.com, where he served as the company’s first head of global customer service. Amazon was one of the 2005 CRMGuru Summit Award honorees for customer centricity. There, Price established a system that led to a 30 percent

per year

reduction in contact, which meant the company could keep its headcount flat.

Key to the organization was limiting the number of contact codes to 30, with each code “owned” by a specific department. Equally important was giving the customer a voice in making change. And the company developed its list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) from real questions that came in frequently.


Voice of the customer


Price and his team enhanced the voice of the customer by empowering agents to recognize good ideas and putting them in place. Many of Amazon’s innovations came out of that feature, Price said, including a change in the way the company approached its “1-Click” purchases. With “1-Click,” a customer with information stored in the Amazon system could complete a purchase from the product listing with a single click of a button.

One customer on the phone with an agent over a billing question mentioned that “1-Click” wasn’t so handy when you wanted to send the product to someone other than yourself. You had to manually enter the entire address, and suddenly 1-Click wasn’t so speedy.

The agent noted the complaint, and as a result, Amazon added a simple drop-down box to display all the customer’s stored shipping addresses. Call it one-and-a-half clicks, but it did the job.

Under Price, who has since left to lead his own contact consulting company, Driva Solutions, the Amazon contact system involved a number of elements. In terms of personnel, Price and his staff evaluated the agents, trying to balance their roles in a way that would enhance the voice of the customer. They surveyed customers about their contact and then promoted top agents, concentrating on the agents’ speed as well as their ability to resolve the problem. “Every time you lose a €˜best agent,’ you have to hire two or three,” Price said.

And having the right person in the right job improves contact. “If you have agents who are doing an awesome job but are really slow, those agents really should be doing something else other than being in the contact center world,” Price said. Similarly, it does no good having a speedy agent who doesn’t completely solve the problem.

In fact, a big goal for Price was the elimination of “snowballs,” problems that weren’t resolved in the first contact. Price developed a strategy that appeared almost as a game to his staff. An agent receiving a second contact was relieved of handle-time metrics and allowed to take as long as he or she could to completely solve the problem. Once the problem was solved, that agent sent an email to the initial contact agent and that agent’s supervisor saying, “I just melted a snowball.”

By looking at the ratios of the people causing snowballs to those who were melting them, Amazon was able to reduce snowballs from 32 percent down to less than 1 percent.



And that, Price said, is what your customers really want.

“Customers really want everything to work well,” he told Summit delegates. “They don’t really want to contact you again.”

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