Apply the “People Prescription” to Call Centers


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My friend Cindy made 85 calls to the same number. She refused to give up in her quest to speak with someone able to use human judgment. And hers isn’t the only modern call center war story. Just one of the worst.

If you dare to talk about call centers at any gathering of adults in the United States, you will get an earful. Odysseus took 20 years to get home after the Trojan War. Today’s call center stories seem to be about 20 years in sales and service hell.

A sick joke is circulating—one I heard among presenters and practitioners at the International Call Center Management conference in 2006. It goes like this:

So we train and motivate the heck out of our agents to meet their key performance indicators (KPIs) so that our team leads and supervisors can meet their KPIs, so our call center director meets her MBO bonus target, so her VP meets his executive bonus target … and so on up to the CEO, who gets to collect as many bonuses as he can before he … goes to jail.

What are people saying about your call center?

Consider the health industry, whose story is highlighted by Daniel Goleman in his book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, September 2006). In it, he coins the term, the “people prescription.” Goleman points out the forces of change that will cause healthcare professionals and organizations to pay closer attention to relationships.

Malpractice suits, for example, are based more on the people. Goleman cites the Journal of the American Medical Association, which in 1997 found that it was poor communication with patients—not the events, themselves—that predicted whether a physician would be sued for malpractice. JAMA found that doctors who communicated well, did some simple things: They told patients what to expect; reassured them; shared laughs with them; checked if they understood what they needed to do; and asked for their opinions, encouraging them to talk.

Yet, malpractice insurance premiums generally don’t reflect whether a doctor is a good communicator or not. Based on the JAMA study, good communicators should pay significantly lower premiums, just as good drivers and more experienced drivers pay lower car insurance premiums.

Perfect WordPerfect
My CIE Institute colleague, Casey McNeal, Ph.D., started in technical support with WordPerfect, the well-beloved word processing software application now owned by Corel. Every single WordPerfect user I’ve met is a raving fan.

It was poor communication with patients—not the events, themselves—that predicted whether a physician would be sued for malpractice.

In its heyday, WordPerfect didn’t even need to pay for advertising, according to McNeal; employees just talked with their customers and heard their problems and solved them there and then—or told the product managers what the customers wanted. The company’s monthly phone bill was $26 million. In McNeal’s group at WordPerfect, they kept track of performance by organizing teams of no more than 14 people each. Everyone knew each other’s expertise. They cared about their customers and their team mates. Customers loved it.

McNeal and I recently met a former WordPerfect customer who told us, “WordPerfect customer service knew me when I called by the sound of my voice.” She spent an hour telling me wonderful, joyful, exhilarating WordPerfect stories, stories of how WordPerfect made her a champion in her company, allowing her to innovate and experiment. She talked about how, when her corporation moved to Microsoft Word, she bought a copy of WordPerfect for her home computer. I reckon that’s the platinum standard for customer loyalty.

Think about your customers: Would they continue to buy the product to use at work, using their own money? Could your service or product be valuable and useful to that degree to your individual customers? To the companies they work for?

Goleman says there is a scientific case to be made for “rapport building.” In an earlier book, Working With Emotional Intelligence (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, September 1998), he introduced Emotional Intelligence (EQ), a factor he said was equally important as, if not more important than, intelligence quotient as a factor in one’s personal happiness and success.

Goleman cites a study that found that nurses who most strongly wanted to leave their jobs had more work that upset them, had lost their sense of mission and caught and spread negativity in their interactions with co-workers and patients. Nurses who escaped this contagion did simple things, including speaking warmly and showing affection; building nourishing relationships with patients; improving their moods; benefiting themselves emotionally; enjoying better health; and having a sense of a meaningful mission. And they were less likely to leave their jobs. Would you rather be a patient at a hospital that created a intrinsic motivation and supportive environment for the health care providers or one that doesn’t even recognize the problem?

Kevin Schwartz went to Massachusetts General for lung surgery. A harried nurse took the time to get to know him and went out of her way to reassure him that someone in that cold sterile hospital cared about him, an act of kindness that, he said, “made the unbearable, bearable.” As a result, when he died, his will directed a bequest to the hospital, which established an annual Compassionate Caregiver Award to honor medical staff members who show extraordinary kindness in caring for patients.

Today’s call centers suffer from customer churn and employee churn. Counting the number of calls and average call time just because they are easy to count is wrong. It costs in lost customers, lost employees and the loss of your company’s hard-won reputation. Is your call center guilty of robotic misapplication of industry benchmarks and metrics that might not apply to your unique customers? What might be inadvertently happening call by call everyday in your call center that erodes the hard-won trust of your customers?

Apply the “people prescription” and provide meaning and mission to employees. It’s about time we truly earned customer trust. Demand technology that furthers this goal. Your customers will be delighted, and they’ll tell their friends and colleagues. Isn’t that what business and ROI is all about?

Mei Lin Fung
Institute of Service Organization Excellence, Inc.
Mei Lin Fung, blogs on ebCEM – evidence-based Customer Experience Management. The Service Leadership Transformation Program developed in an innovative public private partnership with Avaya and Oklahoma State University received the Phillip Crosby Golden Medallion in 27. Her curriculum has been implemented by Microsoft Telesales in China, and Johnson and Johnson in Asia. She designed the first US Department of Labor approved Contact Center Apprenticeship Program in Oklahoma. Blog: Learning to Earn Customer Trust by Mei Lin Fung


  1. Nice post. I think learning skills is one of the best and to improve the value of the productivity of making a good relation to the customers and or clients.

  2. Thanks for your comment Glenntorres

    You have pin pointed the key aspect – relationships are enhanced by learning…..since I wrote this post, its become clear that relationships are enhanced by learning…..our interaction with each other is a critical part of the way we learn.

    Social networks will see their greatest value-creating in networks that learn, that share a purpose to improve.

    Improving our productivity in learning and building relationships is the most impactful thing we can do for ourselves and our colleagues in service.

    mei lin

    Mei Lin Fung
    Twitter: meilinfung Blog: Mei Lin Fung says Professionals Earn Customer Trust

  3. Over the years, we have found that the best way to improve the customer call center experience is to compensate our employees above the industry average for CSR work. By getting people with better than average skills and creating a “fun” work environment, our people really care about our company, and that reflects in how they treat our customers.

    The converse is that we need to keep our prices a bit higher to afford to do that which means we are not as attractive as other centers.

  4. Dear Specialty Answering Service

    Attraction is always in the eye of the beholder… You are earning the trust of your clients by earning the trust of your employees that you will provide good pay for good work.

    It is better for you to have good clients who appreciate the value you are giving them. So go after them, persevere to fully realize the potential of your company and the potential of your employee.

    You have something special, you are building the capability to earn and keep trust – companies and organizations are coming around to realize how important that is, in a globalized world, where so many are trying to make a quick buck without building relationships.

    Keep up the good work. I know it will pay off for you!

    Mei lin


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