Skip Ahead a Year To See How 2006 Turned Tumult Into Customer Satisfaction


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It’s 2007, and it’s hard to believe all the changes in contact centers this past year. In 2005, the industry faced some heavy challenges, and it wasn’t clear it could get out of the hole. But 2006 turned out to be a banner year for the contact center industry and, more importantly, for beleaguered customers all over the world!

I believe it’s because of the way the industry took to heart five key issues:

  1. The industry finally acknowledged that there is a customer service agent attrition crisis.
  2. The IVR revolt rocked the industry into being “fast + simple.”
  3. Agents at home are hot, HOT!
  4. The fog clears, thanks to data and speech analytics.
  5. “The Best Service Is No Service” catches on.

Let’s look back at how 2006 turned the corner on customer contact centers issues.

  1. The industry finally acknowledged that there is a customer service agent attrition crisis.

    It was bad enough when the turnover in agents was 60 percent per year, but the roused economy leading to the November elections in the United States and the surprise results propelled attrition to rates even higher than 100 percent per year across many sectors, including, not surprisingly, U.S.-based teleservices and, less predictably, outsourcing in the United States and India and much of the tech support industry.

    As GM woke up to the impact of healthcare costs for retirees, companies finally realized how costly agent attrition really can be. Not only does it cost in excess of $20,000 to replace a lost agent, but also you have to hire two or three new agents for each one lost and redouble efforts to hold onto upset customers.

    Last year saw broader acceptance of three elements that have begun to make a difference in many bellwether companies:

    • Online training such as ePath Learning
    • Team-based scheduling and management, such as ac2 Solutions (not individual agent optimization that’s been so popular for the past 10 years)
    • Agent empowerment, such as performanceAgents’ methods of “replicating your best agents”

  2. The IVR revolt rocked the industry into being “fast + simple.”

    National Public Radio’s Morning Edition did a piece in November 2005 on Paul English’s IVR Cheat Sheet. The Cheat Sheet, at
    , is a list of the phone buttons to push to get past the automation to a human operator at major companies. It was picked up and extended by weblogs all over the world, reminding everyone how bad IVRs have been—more like the ’90s “call avoidance” than true help.

    Thank goodness that, in 2006, almost half the companies on his list changed their IVR scripts, and nearly all of them have made them much simpler to use with fewer options, easier instructions and obvious ways “to escape” and speak with a real person. “Fast + Simple,” originally from LimeBridge’s Budd company in the United Kingdom in late 2004, has been picked up all over the place, because after all, we’re all consumers, and none of us likes the opposite (slow + complicated). But that’s how all too many companies operated until late 2005 and early 2006.

    Not many of us applauded when those big banks publicly scrapped their IVRs for “live support only,” because we all know that most customers actually prefer self-service (just look at airport check-in kiosks; their lines are now as long as the old-fashioned check-in). And exciting new advances like Transera’s On-demand Global IP Call Center Solutions, launched back in late 2005, enabled 2006 to deliver on the promise of ubiquitous global call routing from anywhere to anywhere, connecting customers with the first agent, and only that one agent, who can help them and fix their problem or answer their question.

  3. Agents at home are hot, HOT!

    JetBlue re-started the trend, using agents at home taking inbound calls or handling email (something that was tried in the pre-high-speed ’90s to little success) a few years back. All of its reservations agents work from home, and six specialty outsourcing firms (led by Alpine Access, Willow and West Home Agent Solutions) now only have agents working from home. But in 2006, when two huge banks and one large tech support player each moved 2,000 agents to work from their homes and those other two companies ballyhooed bringing back calls from offshore to agents here in the U.S.—placing all of their work at home—the message was finally clear: The one bright spot for American outsourcing and captive centers will be the home.

  4. The fog clears, thanks to data and speech analytics.

    The “paperless” age never did happen, did it? On top of that, we became awash with so many CRM metrics and data that no one really knew what was up or down or good or bad. The “old guard” of BI software missed the boat, but, thankfully, in 2006, we saw the “breakout” from emerging software players to clear the fog, and about time! With companies like Intelligent Results, Sigma Dynamics and Utopy making such clear sense out of unstructured data and unstructured recorded speech, we can finally “close the loop” for “voice of the customer” and customer attrition, as last summer’s announcements from their customers highlighted.

  5. “The Best Service Is No Service” catches on.
    The hot business title of the year 2006 made waves right from the start, challenging old myths that have ruled CRM for way too long. “Customers
    are always right,” and I am pleased that my new book with colleague David Jaffe is able to leverage my lessons learned from Amazon, and also to remind us what my old mentor Tom Peters wrote in his blockbuster with Bob Waterman about being Close to the Customer. By eliminating “dumb contacts” and deflecting to high completion-rate self-service instead of merely “coping” with demand, both customers and agents are much happier and loyal, incredibly important ingredients to achieve a truly “customer centric” organization through one’s contact centers.

So what do these top 2006 issues portend for 2007 and beyond? Agents are more excited about their jobs, will stay in place rather than quit and, therefore, will become more productive. IVR and web self-service are “fast + simple” and fully answer customer questions or route them to the right place the first time. There are fewer and fewer needs for customers to have to go out of their way to pick up the phone or scribe an email complaint or launch a chat session.

Maybe, just maybe, there will be fewer customer service agents globally in 2007 than in 2006 or earlier years, and there will be the long-awaited up-tick in customer satisfaction indexes for consumers everywhere!

Bill Price

Bill Price is the President of Driva Solutions (a customer service and customer experience consultancy), an Advisor to Antuit, co-founded the LimeBridge Global Alliance, chairs the Global Operations Council, teaches at the University of Washington and Stanford MBA programs, and is the lead author of The Best Service is No Service and Your Customer Rules! Bill served as's first Global VP of Customer Service and held senior positions at MCI, ACP, and McKinsey. Bill graduated from Dartmouth (BA) and Stanford (MBA).


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