Loose Talk

Customer service companies are giving their consultants more freedom on the phone, allowing them to provide a more casual, flexible – and hence effective – service.

Calling a customer service line is a familiar chore for most people. Being transferred to a teleconsultant who sounds like an automaton is also a regrettably common experience. Within the limits of the call scripts they are given, it is often very difficult for call centre operators to deliver good service, and increasingly companies are seeking better ways to deal with customers over the telephone.

Customer expectations of call operators are changing, says Keith Francis, managing director of the Chiltern Consultancy, which runs training courses for telemarketers, tele-account directors and telesales operators.

“Customers everywhere are much better educated about the buying process than in the past. Selling can no longer be based on an armoury of unique features and benefits, and if customers feel manipulated or pressurised they might make the purchase, but they will not come back.”

Against this scenario, says Francis, call centres have an increasingly important role to play in developing customer relationships. This, in his view, requires telesales and telemarketing staff to focus on the customers’ perspective of the buying decision.

“Our view is that they should not use scripts or a structured approach, but should converse with the customer in a relaxed and natural way, allowing their own personality, strengths and interactive skills to establish rapport and trust. In face-to-face selling, nobody uses scripts anymore, so why do it on the phone?”

For The Ops Room, which recruits large numbers of call centre operators, training is a crucial prerequisite for effective scripting. Managing director Stuart MacMillan Pratt, explains: “I don’t think that scripts will ever be redundant, if only because they are such a useful part of the training process. In CRM environments, even where the same routine series of questions needs to be answered, it should be done in a manner that sounds like a friendly chat between chums. Equally, the computer system shouldn’t be so rigid that the call centre operator is forced to go through the conversation in exactly the same format every time.”

Scripts should provide a framework for the operator to work within, says Sue Randall, a director of Teledynamics.

“Human beings don’t always give us dialogue in the way that we expect it. Sometimes, people don’t actually say what they mean and they correct themselves. We offer our call centre operators a framework covering the key points that need to be addressed. It allows them to capture personal data and provides flexible call routing. It allows operators to go back and confirm the point that’s being made.”

Where clients prefer an unscripted or loosely scripted approach, Randall says the role of the team leader is critical to success.

“In a casually scripted environment, the supervisor’s role is much more focused on whether the objectives of the call are being met. Giving operators the opportunity to converse in their own words can be risky if you do not constantly monitor what is being said. Team leaders play a vital role in ensuring that operators are delivering the right message.”

Learning from quiz shows

Call operators can learn a great deal from the way quiz shows use scripts, says Liz Christie, senior consultant at The Customer Contact Company.

“We refer to quiz shows when we’re training clients. Participants in quiz shows have freedom to act as long as they are prepared and qualified to appear on the show. In the same way, as long as teleconsultants are trained and qualified, they can have various anchors, roadmaps and signs, but within that they can do what they think is appropriate to the particular customer.”

Giving teleconsultants authority within sensible limits fosters good customer relations, says Christie.

“If someone makes a complaint, a teleconsultant may be allowed to compensate that customer with up to £20 or send a bottle of wine. The important thing is to give limits within which they feel free to act, and clarity around those limits. The other thing we suggest is having a maximum number of hand-offs, that is, passing the customer on to someone else. Certainly for inbound contact, we try to deal with the customer and complete the transaction within the first contact rather than transferring them.”

As part of the Next Group, Ventura is the UK’s largest customer service outsourcing organisation. Managing director Bruce MacLeod says Ventura believes in matching scripts to the requirements of individual clients.

“Many of our clients, including BT Cellnet, Barclaycard and Lloyds TSB, provide us with detailed scripting for the customer service advisers to work from, in particular for outbound telemarketing calls. However, we may recommend adaptations.”

In terms of outbound calls, MacLeod says there are benefits to both client and customer service advisers in using scripts and claims that scripts ensure maximum sales – although there are those who would dispute that.

In the inbound arena, however, MacLeod says some clients prefer a script-free environment.

“Calls such as complaint handling or general enquiries tend to demand a more flexible approach, and scripts are not appropriate. In these cases the advisers are experienced in responding to the particular query and have the knowledge to do so without scripting.”

Tailoring scripts

Scripts should be tailored and personalised to individual customer’s needs, says Keith Symondson, commercial director of Noetica, a company which develops contact centre software.

“Traditional scripts tend to be inflexible as they cannot be tailored to the individual customer. They are just a list of questions that need to be asked in a specific order. This is why they make agents sound like robots; there is no scope for deviation. And while it is important that agents have some structure to keep control over the messages going out to customers, it needs to be personalised to the individual.”

Symondson says Noetica has developed a product called Synthesys, which takes a context-sensitive approach to the interaction between agent and customer.

“Depending on the answer given by the customer, or information held about that customer in an existing database, the agent will automatically be presented with a different question. This mimics the flow of a normal conversation. It also allows context-sensitive help pages to be attached to individual questions. This leaves the agent to concentrate on the person on the other end of the line, allowing him or her to relax and sound more natural.”

Live operators can be flexible, but automated services do not have that luxury. This area of customer care should not be overlooked, says Maggie Evans, head of marketing for Telecom Potential.

“A lot of services are automated and a bad script can kill an automated service. With Interactive Voice Response (IVR) it is important to have the right kind of voice for the right kind of tone and a script which does not allow more than four options at any one time. The key is to make it relevant and interactive and keep the caller involved.”

In all areas of teleconsulting, Evans says the relationship with the corporate client is much closer than it has been in the past.

“There is a lot of collaboration on scripts and call guides. Very often we do a pilot, and the script changes and moves on. All parties are much more involved than they were before, from the agents through to our advisers, from the consultants to the clients.”

Satisfaction declining

One of the most challenging areas of teleservice is the online environment. Siemens Communications has commissioned research by the Henley Centre on consumer attitudes to online shopping, including the service provided by telecentres. The survey reveals that while 73 per cent of people have called a customer service number in the past three years and 84 per cent say they are useful for dealing with complaints or queries, customer satisfaction with telephone service has declined in the past three years.

Siemens Communications manager of consultancy practice Phil Jones says there are two main reasons people bring scripts in.

“One is to shorten call durations so that they can lead people through to a particular result more quickly. The other is so that they can devolve decisions on less experienced staff. It is a partial solution, because unless you have people in the front who are motivated and product aware and who understand the processes of the business, they are unable to deal with customers in the way that most of us would wish. We need people who can interpret and intuit what we want, who can look actively for products and services that will meet our particular need, and you can’t get that from an organisation which relies solely on scripts.”

Whatever their reasons for picking up the phone, it is clear that customers are crying out for meaningful responses. Companies would do well to take note of their aversion to wooden or insincere scripting, and give their telerepresentatives a human face without losing sight of the need to supply high-quality information.

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