Listen to customers and learn

Companies wanting to strengthen customer loyalty toward their brand are missing a trick by not using customer carelines to their fullest potential

Companies keen to foster brand loyalty need to ensure that product information is easily accessible to consumers. The internet and e-mail are frequently the first stop when looking for brand information, but the telephone remains the medium of choice when consumers are looking for instant answers or have complex questions.

One of the more specialist telephone services that companies provide, notably those marketing packaged goods, is the customer careline. These services (the telephone number for which is often found on product packaging) offer access to teams of people who can answer queries, record complaints and provide information; but, more importantly, they can act as the voice and ears of a brand. It is a method of data collection that not all brands use to its full potential.

These customer careline services can play a valuable role in establishing relationships between brands and consumers. Sometimes this relationship will take the form of a single conversation, but on other occasions it will be ongoing. Either way, communicating with consumers offers a brand the opportunity to exchange useful information that can help to create and build a future relationship.

However, research by The Listening Company into how packaged goods brands handle their customer careline calls found that many brands do not maximise the potential to build relations with their customers. In calls to 50 of the leading UK brands, only five per cent of operators asked for a customer’s contact number or address enabling communication to be developed at a later date. Furthermore, only 26 per cent of those surveyed offered to send further information and only 35 per cent asked if the caller had any further questions.

The research also shows that some packaged goods brands view the provision of a careline as an obligation rather than an opportunity to start a relationship. It is acknowledged that not everybody who calls a careline will want a long-term dialogue with that brand, but some consumers will be quite happy to give their details in return for relevant information. It is also an excellent opportunity for brands to obtain real consumer feedback about products.

A customer’s perception of a brand can be formed or changed by the way in which calls are handled. Some companies are guilty of seeing call centres as a cost rather than an essential service, and that leads to poor customer handling. The call centre industry has also been particularly criticised for its over-reliance on technology, with customers being greeted by an electronic voice (interactive voice recognition system) and passed around a system without speaking to a human being.

Callers who have had bad or frustrating experiences either with an automated system or a human operator can be costly to companies. Customers will share such experiences with their friends and relatives and negative word-of-mouth publicity can gather momentum.

The Listening Company research shows that the majority of packaged goods carelines are competent in the way calls are initially routed, with 86 per cent of calls answered by a live operator. The remaining 14 per cent are routed to an answer machine. Speed of answering calls was also encouraging, with 52 per cent of calls answered within two rings and at no time were lines either engaged or an answer machine used.

After consideration on how swiftly a call is answered, the most important element in the “brand experience” is the attitude, competence and confidence of the call handler. Critical measures of success are whether the call handler introduced themselves, whether they quickly established the caller’s name and needs, whether they were able to satisfy those needs and how they closed the call and got back to the caller if further investigation was required.

Of the carelines reviewed, the majority of companies performed well, with 55 per cent scoring “fair” in their quality of service and 16 per cent rated as “excellent”. Looking closer at the individual performance of the operators, 37 per cent were rated as “confident, enthusiastic and professional” in the way they handled the call. However, 22 per cent appeared to be hesitant or disinterested, while 13 per cent were judged to have ended the call unprofessionally. Though these figures are encouraging, there is clearly room for further improvement.

In the increasingly competitive world of brands, companies need to do all they can to ensure that they hold onto their customers. It makes good business sense to maximise every opportunity, to understand more about your customers and to take steps to build profitable relationships with them. This does not mean forcing information out of people when it is not relevant to do so, but asking questions and gathering information where the caller is happy to provide it.

Good call centre practice is therefore imperative and for packaged goods brands, customer carelines should be seen as an investment in delivering an important extension of the brand experience, and not simply as a costly service.

Factfile is edited by Caroline Parry. Martin Williams, marketing director of The Listening Company, contributed

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