Are You Listening?


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There is a disturbing disconnect between customers and the companies with whom they do business. Service quality trends continue to decline. There is a growing sentiment among consumers that companies do not listen to them or even want to speak to them.

Consumers often cite their frustration of being forced into a bottomless pit of IVR prompts or being rushed off the phone once they reach a live agent.

When I tell people that I work in the customer service industry, they eagerly complain about having their calls "outsourced to India." While offshore representatives may be polite and intelligent, there is still a perceptible communication gap between American consumers and offshore agents. Consumers are smart. They read the papers. They know their calls are being sent overseas to save the company money. Unfortunately, consumers feel shortchanged in the process. Their calls may be answered quickly, but their concerns are not. Is anyone in corporate America listening to their customers?

I’ve managed call center operations for more than 15 years. On several occasions, I have helped generate significant value for companies by managing the call center as a customer insight "engine." One case involved British Telecom, where we reduced customer attrition rates in the mobile phone business (Cellnet) more than 50 percent by aligning marketing and product strategies with what customers were telling the company on the phone.

Customer feedback can point an organization in the right direction and produce bottom-line benefits. First, you need to listen to your customers and then be willing to follow their lead.

As a call center consultant, I often struggled to introduce this customer-centric management model within the call center vendors of my clients. Our team was consistently able to lift call center performance in the short run, often by more than 50 percent, by employing management techniques that better aligned the call strategy with the needs of the customer. However, these gains were quickly lost after we left the scene because the vendor’s management team did not embrace the customer-centric model. Why should they? They got paid for answering calls or making calls. As long as they minimized wait times and processed as many calls per hour as possible, they got paid and the clients got what they paid for. The call center vendor was not hired to proactively identify ways to improve the overall profitability of a client’s marketing program.

There is a costly disconnect between vendors and marketing clients today. As the primary interface between customers and the business, call center vendors are uniquely positioned to serve as "customer insight providers." However, it is difficult to find a vendor who embraces this philosophy. As a result, marketers have been disconnected from the voice of the customer. Their marketing strategy decision-making is limited to reams of quantitative response data and unactionable measures of "customer satisfaction."

The stream of communications managed by outsource vendors holds a potential treasure trove of customer insights, preferences and new product ideas that goes untapped today. Every day companies are missing out on hundreds of good ideas, as every call that comes into the business is processed as simply a one-way transaction. Why? First, vendors are typically managed by the client’s operations management team and not by the marketing group. The goals of operations are quite different than the goals of marketing. Operations wants cheap efficient processing. Marketing wants to hit sales targets and grow market share. Second, led by the goals of operations, the call center vendor is operationally focused, as well. Its key performance indicators are defined exclusively to measure transaction management productivity, with only a wink and a nod given to call quality.

Customer centricity requires a methodology for soliciting and capturing qualitative customer feedback, opinions and recommendations. Implementing such a process requires a shift in the very culture of the call center organization. It is difficult for operations managers to justify incremental costs to implement a new set of processes that may not show hard dollar benefits immediately. In fact, customer-centric interactions may actually increase talk times slightly, thus increasing the cost per call. However, customer-insight driven strategies can produce significant and lasting hard-dollar benefits in a number of ways. They can help you:

  1. Reduce inbound call demand by addressing the root causes of call demand. If you identify and fix problems upstream that generate calls and/or re-direct calls to self service options, you reduce the overall service cost per customer. It is not in the financial best interest of vendors who are paid by call volume and phone hours to recommend ideas for reducing call demand.

  2. Improve the design of your products and offers based on direct customer feedback. Every call with a customer or prospect is not only a transaction that needs to be processed. It is also a focus group of one. Use live interaction to gather product improvement recommendations from your users. If one customer would like to see something new or improved in your product, you can bet there are many others with the same sentiment.

  3. Learn about your competitors. Callers will gladly tell you about your competitors’ offers. Customer calls can serve as an early warning system that your offers are overpriced or your products inferior in some way. Tapping into this stream of insight will enable you to quickly identify, respond to competitive threats, and avoid customer attrition. Learning what your competitors are up to can help you stay ahead of the competition and grow market share.

  4. Figure out what sells and what does not. Use the live call to learn why customers buy from you and why they don’t. Make sure your call center reps emphasize these purchase drivers and are prepared to present effective rebuttals for the most common objectives. Buying/non-buying reasons will change and evolve over time, so it is important to have a process in place to continually monitor customer feedback and respond accordingly. Customer-centric designed scripts and offers will yield more sales.

Customer insights can be harvested by modifying business processes and adjusting management practices in the call center. The customer-centric model also requires a cultural shift from being a purely operations-focused organization to one that shares responsibility for the effectiveness and profitability of the overall business. Adopting a true customer-centric model requires integration between operations, marketing and product management, where the needs and desires of your customers are acted upon across the organization.

Actively listening to the voice of your customers will take a lot of the guesswork out of your next strategic planning session and improve the effectiveness of your marketing offers going forward. Are you listening?

David Sawicki
Voice Teleservices
David Sawicki is the president of Voice Teleservices, a provider of contact center services and strategic consulting. Sawicki has more than 15 years of call center leadership experience, including seven years as a vice president with the direct marketing agency Digitas.


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