Features and Analysis

Customer-centricity: Four lessons from the call center

Most customers are more than happy to give suppliers their opinion on why they aren’t happy – often with considerable passion: Customer experience evokes emotional responses. And generally the worse they are, the higher the emotional intensity.

Too often feedback loops are poor. Let’s take call centers as a starting point, which are still the primary point of interaction for many customers. The fact that a customer service representative got off the phone in the optimal time doesn’t necessarily equate to an optimal outcome for the business or the customer. Answering calls within X number of rings is a good start, but if the representative is not empowered to deal with the customer’s complaint or query, that advantage evaporates rapidly. The customer is frustrated and the whole situation escalates, which is expensive for the company to deal with.

There are several important lessons to act on here.

  1. Empower workers

Businesses must empower frontline staff to respond appropriately to the customer and treat them as a valued individual, which means getting the right information to the right person at the right time.

It’s more than that, though. It’s empowering customer-facing staff to use their judgment and discretion. Recently, I wanted to return an unopened item to an online store and buy a much more expensive one. The intended recipient, my mother-in-law, had died in the meantime and I’d been too distracted to deal with it sooner. The nice man in the call center apologized profusely, but explained items have to be returned in 28 days and, in effect, the company would rather lose additional income and a customer than break that rule. It’s probably not what a Nordstrom employee would have done – no wonder 75 percent of its sales are repeat business.

  1. Feedback: Keep it simple

A simple, efficient feedback mechanism for the representative that can be analyzed, understood and acted on is essential. Good customer representatives in a call center are a font of experience and knowledge, many aspects of which are not covered by key performance indicators. In a fast-moving market, feedback needs to be frequent so trends can be spotted and addressed. As recommended in a Harvard Business Review article, The truth about customer experience, published in September 2013, regular surveys of customers and staff are a powerful tool that any company wishing to remain in business needs to take onboard. It’s a big, continual undertaking, but essential – as we explore further below.

  1. Don’t let metrics mislead

Be aware that it’s possible you might be hitting the thresholds you set for your metrics, but still be failing to achieve the intended outcomes. To quote from the same Harvard Business Review article:

“Companies have long emphasized touchpoints –the many critical moments when customers interact with the organization and its offerings on their way to purchase and after. But the narrow focus on maximizing satisfaction at those moments can create a distorted picture, suggesting that customers are happier with the company than they actually are. It also diverts attention from the bigger – and more important – picture: the customer’s end-to-end journey.”

The article continues,

“A company that manages complete journeys would not only do its best with the individual transaction but also seek to understand the broader reasons for the call, address the root causes, and create feedback loops to continuously improve interactions upstream and downstream from the call.”

Its research shows that getting it right delivers massive benefits: Performance on journeys is more predictive of business outcomes than performance on touchpoints: “Across industries performance on journeys is 30 percent to 40 percent more strongly correlated with customer satisfaction than performance on touchpoints is – and 20 percent to 30 percent more strongly correlated with business outcomes, such as high revenue, repeat purchase, low customer churn, and positive word of mouth.”

  1. Customer experience: Avoid the narrow view

The fourth lesson we can take from the relatively straightforward call center scenario is that the widely accepted definition of what ‘customer experience’ entails is way too narrow.

For instance, in the communications sector, poor or unreliable network coverage are the single biggest touchpoints for users of communications services – and the greatest source of customer dissatisfaction. Research house Ovum is warning that up to 50 percent of customers are likely to churn in the next year due to frustration with poor browsing.

As customers’ expectations rise, their tolerance of inadequate service will fall. After all, it undermines the entire proposition of mobile in particular – being able to do what you want, when and where you to do it. Yet network performance metrics are not typically seen part of the narrow definition of customer experience, which is built around customer channels.

Viewing network performance in this light offers many opportunities, including being proactive with high-value customers when an outage occurs, for example, and offering them some form of compensation, perhaps before they’ve suffered any adverse effects. This boosts the customer’s confidence and trust in the company, and makes them feel valued. This is of course in addition to using the data to plan network investment wisely and to gain maximum business benefits, including happy customers.

This is an extract from the 2nd edition of our How-to guide, Becoming an agile business

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    About The Author

    Snr Director, Research & Media

    Annie Turner has been researching and writing about the communications industry since the 1980s, editing magazines dedicated to the subject including titles published by Thomson International and The Economist Group. She has contributed articles to many publications, including national and international newspapers such as the Financial Times and International Herald Tribune, and a multitude of business-to-business titles. She joined the TM Forum in 2010 and is responsible for overseeing the content of the Research and Publications portfolio.

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