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.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Peggy Carlaw
Peggy Carlaw is the founder of Impact Learning Systems. Impact helps companies develop and implement customer service strategies to improve the customer experience. Their consulting services and training programs help organizations create a customer-focused culture while producing measurable business results. Peggy is also the author of three books published by McGraw-Hill including Managing and Motivating Contact Center Employees.


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