The Strategic Role of the Call Center in a Recovering Economy


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As the econ­omy begins to recover and orga­ni­za­tions begin rein­vest­ing in key per­son­nel and equip­ment, many areas of the orga­ni­za­tion con­tinue to have to do more with less, includ­ing the call cen­ter. Rather than think­ing of the call cen­ter as a cost cen­ter, how­ever, smart com­pa­nies are using their call cen­ters to strate­gic advan­tage. As the first line of con­tact with customers—whether it be in a sales or ser­vice role—call cen­ter employ­ees rep­re­sent your cor­po­rate brand. They are the ones who deliver on the promises you make to your cus­tomers. Dur­ing a slow-growing econ­omy, they can improve sales and build cus­tomer loyalty—and they can do so while reduc­ing oper­at­ing costs.

Busi­ness mag­a­zines are filled with sto­ries of com­pa­nies that are known for excel­lent ser­vice: Ama­zon, the Ritz-Carlton, Zap­pos, and Hewlett-Packard to name a few. Unfor­tu­nately, most of our inter­ac­tions are with com­pa­nies whose ser­vice is less than stel­lar. The extra time and energy is takes to extract ser­vice from a sub-standard ser­vice orga­ni­za­tion is wear­ing. Con­se­quently, we search out a com­peti­tor, or we buy as lit­tle as pos­si­ble from the offend­ing com­pany. Either way, we’re sure to tell our friends about our mis­er­able encoun­ters, and the com­pany brand is maligned.

A study last year of 195 pro­fes­sion­als and 165 col­lege stu­dents by Ernest Ronan found that when cus­tomers had bad expe­ri­ences with call cen­ter staff, they were less will­ing to buy from the com­pany in the future. The strength of this reac­tion increased from 72% in 2005 to 86.3% last year. Sim­i­larly, cus­tomers’ neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of a company’s brand as a result of bad ser­vice increased from 83% to 98.9% in 2010, and their unwill­ing­ness to rec­om­mend the com­pany rose from 77% to 91.5% over the same period. These fig­ures indi­cate that buy­ers are grow­ing sig­nif­i­cantly less tol­er­ant of poor ser­vice. When the econ­omy is not strong, com­pa­nies strug­gle to com­pete for fewer cus­tomers. Los­ing cus­tomers due to poor ser­vice is just not smart business!

On the other hand, pos­i­tive call cen­ter expe­ri­ences will have a pos­i­tive impact on cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion and lead to a num­ber of fac­tors that will ben­e­fit a com­pany vying for busi­ness in a slow-growth economy:

  • Loyal cus­tomers. Cus­tomers who are sat­is­fied are nearly 33% more likely to pur­chase again. And since it’s less expen­sive to keep a cus­tomer than to acquire a new one, improv­ing cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion reduces costs.
  • Improved sales. In addi­tion to pro­vid­ing repeat sales, cus­tomers who are sat­is­fied are more likely to respond to an up sell­ing or cross-selling offer. Loyal cus­tomers also tend to be less price-sensitive, thereby increas­ing your oppor­tu­nity for a high-value sale.
  • Refer­rals. When the econ­omy is down, min­i­miz­ing risk becomes increas­ingly impor­tant as cus­tomers decide where to spend lim­ited funds. Word-of-mouth adver­tis­ing is the most trusted—and least expensive—form of adver­tis­ing. The more sat­is­fied your cus­tomers, the more they’ll tell others.
  • Improved share­holder value. The Har­vard Busi­ness Review traced a direct cor­re­la­tion between cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion and share­holder value. They the­o­rized that a 1% improve­ment in cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion trans­lated into a 3% mar­ket value increase for the aver­age com­pany. This flies in the face of the tra­di­tional view of call cen­ters as cost cen­ters. They may cost money to main­tain, but they gen­er­ate a wealth of return if man­aged correctly.

When cus­tomers inter­act with your call cen­ter, they form per­cep­tions of your brand that are far more pow­er­ful than the mes­sages you send through your var­i­ous mar­ket­ing chan­nels. Accord­ing to Right­Now, 89% of cus­tomers began doing busi­ness with a com­peti­tor fol­low­ing a poor cus­tomer expe­ri­ence. This is a pow­er­ful incen­tive to use the call cen­ter to sup­port your brand –one that will more than pay off when the econ­omy rebounds.

Rather than look­ing at your call cen­ter as a cost-center to be invested in only after other areas of the orga­ni­za­tion have recov­ered, look at it strate­gi­cally as a profit center—one that can improve cus­tomer loy­alty and reduce oper­a­tional costs. With a lit­tle atten­tion and a small invest­ment, your cen­ter can achieve stel­lar results for your com­pany. Here are the steps to take:

  • Assess the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. What are your cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion scores, net pro­moter scores, or cus­tomer effort scores? What are your inter­nal qual­ity scores? How about oper­a­tional met­rics like aver­age speed of answer, talk time, call res­o­lu­tion rates, etc. Do your call cen­ter employ­ees under­stand the crit­i­cal role they play in the suc­cess of your busi­ness? Ask them what their job is and if they say, “I’m in the claims depart­ment,” or “I’m a tech­ni­cal sup­port rep,” know that you’ll need a cul­tural change to help them see them­selves as serv­ing others.

What you want to hear is “I help our cus­tomers get a fair reim­burse­ment on their insur­ance claims and help them feel secure know­ing that we’ll take care of them.” or “I make sure our cus­tomers have the least down-time pos­si­ble so their employ­ees are pro­duc­tive and their busi­nesses are prof­itable.” You’ll use this base­line assess­ment later as you mea­sure your improvement.

  • Iden­tify process snags. Do your processes and pro­ce­dures make it easy for cus­tomers to do busi­ness with you, or is their pur­pose to make it easy for you to do busi­ness with your cus­tomers? Cus­tomers want to spend the least amount of time and energy pos­si­ble in get­ting answers to their ques­tions and solu­tions to their prob­lems. Exam­ine your inter­nal work flows and adjust them to be more customer-friendly.
  • Iden­tify oppor­tu­ni­ties for improv­ing agent skills. Do your employ­ees know your prod­ucts and pro­ce­dures? Do they know the company’s val­ues around ser­vice? Are they able to lis­ten to cus­tomers and clar­ify their needs? Do they focus on the pos­i­tive: what they can do for cus­tomers rather than what they can’t? Do they show value in what they ask cus­tomers to do? Do they set expec­ta­tions for what will hap­pen after the call? If the answer to any of these is no, an invest­ment in train­ing is indicated.
  • Engage front-line super­vi­sors. Front-line super­vi­sors are the ones whose job it is to see that new processes are fol­lowed and that skills learned in train­ing are employed on the job. Be sure that they under­stand the strate­gic value of the call cen­ter to the over­all suc­cess of the busi­ness and the impor­tance of their role in lead­ing their teams in a process of con­tin­u­ous improve­ment. If pos­si­ble, tie part of their pay into the per­for­mance of their team.
  • Mea­sure again. Once you’ve stream­lined your processes, assured that your call cen­ter agents have both the atti­tude and skills to pro­vide out­stand­ing ser­vice, and have front-line super­vi­sors engaged in con­tin­u­ous improve­ment, it’s time to mea­sure again.

When processes are stream­lined, call cen­ter employ­ees are trained, and front-line super­vi­sors empow­ered to sup­port con­tin­u­ous improve­ment, you can not only expect improved cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion scores, but reduced costs as well. For exam­ple, Jen­nifer Edwards train­ing and pro­gram man­ager at Motorola’s Home & Net­works Mobil­ity Divi­sion reported a 10% increase in cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion and a 56% improve­ment in call res­o­lu­tion rates. Jean Pierre Berone, Cus­tomer Ser­vices Direc­tor for Dell, reported that within two months after begin­ning the ini­tia­tive in Mont­pe­lier, they achieved a 10% rise in cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion rates and a 10% reduc­tion in the time taken to resolve tech­ni­cal issues. Many other companies—large and small—report sim­i­lar results after fol­low­ing these steps.

In as lit­tle as a few months’ time, and with min­i­mal invest­ment in process improve­ment and train­ing, you can turn your call cen­ter into a strate­gic tool to improve cus­tomer loy­alty and reduce costs. This will improve the bot­tom line, and you’ll be well-positioned as a ser­vice leader as the econ­omy recovers.


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