Four Big Steps to Trim Contact Center Costs and Improve Customer Experiences


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Sure it’s tough now, and it’s liable to get tougher before the world powers and consumers pull out of the recession. But, it’s also an exciting—and critically important—time to figure out how to balance customer experience (CE) and costs in your contact center operations.

Frankly, CE and costs need to be in balance no matter what’s happening in the economy, good times or bad, structural growth or decline, emerging markets or maturing ones. When times are good, however, we tend to let costs get out of whack, arguing—erroneously, as it turns out—that “we love our customers” and “no expense spared.”

Some companies walk down a very different line. At, founder & CEO Jeff Bezos is fond of repeating “It’s still day one!” to remind all of the employees that they must remain vigilant to control costs, as if they were spending their own cash, while pursuing the company’s lofty goal “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.” Most other companies tend to “get soft” and relax their attention to detail when the top line is running away, when customers flock to the malls or their websites, or when they read the glowing headlines.

Now is the ideal time to rethink fundamentally how your company designs and delivers the entire supply chain and contact center support network, how customer experience (CE) drivers are shaped and nurtured, what costs are needed, and what costs are superfluous. Moreover, it’s a great time to inspect why customers are buying your products or services (instead of your competitors’), why they need to contact you for support, and how you can organize your team for optimal performance—and thereby be much better prepared when the economy rebounds. And of course it will, before too long.

Over 30 percent of the volume of contacts handled in the typical contact center are “dumb.”

After the last recession many CFOs continued belt-tightening for a few years, some even sustaining the frugal emphasis for a long time. Rest assured that after this one is over, CFOs will keep a very tight leash on expenses—capital and operating—so now’s the time to get ready.

It’s all too easy to cut costs—e.g. exhort agents to take more calls per hour or stop investing in new systems—and it’s also easy to delay well-known customer demands, creating a burdensome “to do list” that will not be possible to extinguish when the economy rebounds.

Here are four big steps that you can take in your contact center operations to increase customer experience during this recession while also containing costs, and then exit this period in much stronger shape.

  1. Pay attention to the cracks
  2. Get rid of dumb contacts
  3. Retrain your workers, and flex everyone
  4. Celebrate taking initiative and the successes

Let’s review each of these four big steps to demonstrate how the contact center can contribute to increase customer experience during these challenging economic times.

1. Pay Attention to the Cracks

This is the perfect time to pay attention to the cracks in your company through the lens of contact center operations, the place where there are more opportunities to listen to the customer than anywhere else. Unfortunately very few of these conversations are known outside of the support team, yet they can produce incredibly important value to sales, marketing, IT, legal, and other departments. Instead of letting customer insights fall through the organizational cracks, some companies are investing today to build deeper voice of customer (VOC) programs to extract competitive and product information from these steady streams, send the data to research and product/services development teams, and (re)engage with their customers.

One of my clients told me this recent story about the benefits of paying attention to the cracks. During a routine inbound phone call to change her mailing address, the customer told the agent: “I wish that you’d stop sending me all of those catalogs to try your new stores—I don’t think you’re adding stuff that I want in the store where I’ve shopped for 10 years.” Instead of saying something polite such as, “Gee, I’m sorry to hear that” and then wrap up the address change, the agent paused and asked which catalogs she didn’t want to receive anymore, and also offered his apologies to the customer.

Then the rep passed the entire conversation to his contact center interface with the marketing department, which quickly called the loyal 10-year customer to reassure her that they were very much focused on her favorite store, inviting her to participate in a panel to re-design that store’s next generation of products. The customer was delighted, and you have to believe that she told a bunch of her friends! In addition, marketing removed her from the unwanted catalog mailings (saving money, of course) but went a step further and initiated an opt-in program to ask customers which catalogs they wanted. This led to a 30 percent reduction in mailings, just when the US Post Office is talking about raising rates even higher for catalogs.

2. Get Rid of Dumb Contacts

One of Amazon’s most fervent quests was, and still is, getting rid of customer contacts that add no value to the company or to the customer—what in my book The Best Service is No Service we call “eliminating dumb contacts.” Now’s the right time to figure out which customer contacts fall into this brand-damaging and costly category, perhaps overhauling underlying systems or removing confusing offers or statements that are causing them. We’ve shown that over 30 percent of the volume of contacts handled in the typical contact center (volume being contacts times AHT times the agents’ cost) are “dumb”—so if you can cut half of them that’s a huge “win” during this recession or at any time.

One of the best examples I’ve seen is with a telecom company where the contact center director frequently listened to customer calls (always an important thing to do!) and kept hearing agents translate the monthly invoice into the caller’s language. While you could argue that this was helpful to the customer, let’s think a little more deeply about this—the customer had to interrupt his/her bill-paying to call, maybe waiting on hold, to ask: “How much do I owe you?” or “Can you explain all of these detailed charges?” As soon as the agent opened with, “How may I help you?” the telecom company was losing money, so it qualifies as “dumb” or no value.

The center director had a better idea, recommending that his company produce invoices in multiple languages and guess what happened? The contact rates plummeted by two-thirds, customers remained even more loyal (since competitors still only presented invoices in English), and the telecom company paid back the billing system changes in a matter of months.

3. Retrain Your Workers, and Flex Everyone

Today it’s even more important to figure out who are your best customer-facing employees and retrain them to handle more complex issues and become more empathetic to be able to work with demanding or worried customers. Think about it. Your agents are also worried about their future, their income, and their value to your company. Investing to retrain them and create greater flex is going to keep them loyal when the economy rebounds, and pays huge dividends in the meantime.

Your agents are also worried about their future, their income, and their value to your company.

Toyota recently announced that they will not lay off factory workers in the US during the recession. Instead, “the employees spend their days in training sessions designed to sharpen their job skills and find better ways to assemble vehicles.” (“Toyota Keeps Idle Workers Busy Honing Their Skills”, Kate Linebaugh, The Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2008). By the same token, contact center teams can benefit from soft skills and product training, ideally delivered online to save money vs. traditional classroom training. In addition, more companies are building at-home programs where their best reps take calls or handle email at home.

One company I know tested the waters 18 months ago with five reps working four days a week from home, the fifth day in the contact center, but found that their productivity and quality scores were each 20 percent higher at home. So now these five reps have been joined by 40 others, roughly one-third of the contact center staff. The company is still seeing 20+ percent improvements so it hasn’t had to replace attrited staff or hire any new reps in the last year. Customers have remarked that the reps are calmer, explaining details to them more clearly, so they’re happier too.

4. Celebrate Taking Initiative and the Successes

I’ve been reading about companies that decided to cancel holiday parties; yet that’s when many firms take a few minutes to celebrate end-of-year successes and share what’s going to happen in the next year. Other companies are ensuring that they celebrate taking initiatives that might benefit customer experience and reduce costs, and also celebrate successes. All of us like to be recognized, and not being recognized by one’s supervisor is one of the primary reasons why contact center reps and support team members quit. Maybe not today during the recession when they want to keep their jobs, but as soon as the economy rebounds they are much more apt to leave.

Amazon does a fine job in this area with its quarterly “Just Do It” awards given to employees who take steps to try something new, whether or not it works. There’s plenty of evidence that trying economic times are the cauldron for big new ideas, like the founding of Google 10 years ago, and today with plug-in recharging station start-ups like Better Place and Coulomb, as well as electric car producers like Tesla and Zap.

Contact centers can play a big role celebrating taking initiative and enjoying successes. The opposite situation from “dumb contacts” is when contacts are valuable for the customer and for the company. Another client of mine has done a great job here—they told their reps that if any customer mentions how happy they are with the company’s products, they should thank the customer, ask them what they like and if there’s anything else that they would like to see or get from the company, and, most importantly, ignore the clock or reader service board and take as long as possible to engage with the customer. In a VOC-like way, the company then reaches out to those happy customers, enlisting their help with future planning on the new product Wiki, but also sharing the good news across the company.

At times like these when the news seems to be uniformly grim, it’s a nice tonic to product developers and marketers to learn from the contact center reports that they’re doing something right!

Get Benefits Now and Prepare of the Rebound

Following these four “big steps” in your contact center operations will pay enormous benefits today and will prepare you and your company for the inevitable rebound, producing a tighter grasp on why customers like your products or services or why they are dissatisfied; applying new ways to improve their experience and that of your front-line workers and agents; “living with less”; getting your house in order by sweeping out dumb contacts and impediments, thus streamlining the entire operation; and achieving greater productivity and efficiency.

Please keep in mind these final points:

  • Challenging times always produce innovative solutions, and that can happen again now, despite shrinking budgets
  • Balancing customer experience (CE) with costs needs to be uppermost anytime
  • It’s time to review critically the key drivers behind CE and the blockages that you might have tolerated in “good times,” and adopt a long-term view with immediate “quick hits”
  • As a result, you will find fresh approaches and greater efficiencies that will lead to much higher levels of effectiveness.

The fundamental benefit from the four big steps will be to produce much higher levels of effectiveness, because after this recession is finally over, you won’t be returning “to the days of yesteryear” with unchecked budget increases or complacency.

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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