Isn’t modern customer service marvellous? You speak to a salesman, wave your credit card and then waste three mornings waiting for your gadget which never arrives. You then spend 20 minutes trying to avoid being connected to the Guatemala call centre to learn about the product they’re launching next summer. You then listen to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. By the time you speak to someone who can’t find any record of your order, you are happy to offer your feedback.
This kind of experience is why, according to John Orsmond, chairman of database and remarketing specialists Data Vantage Group, so many people do not even stay in the system long enough for the firm to know they exist. His study of 6.5 million UK customers found that 82 per cent were experiencing widespread failings.
Even worse was the undetected damage done by barrier technologies such as interactive voice recognition (IVR), queuing and playing music while putting people on hold. Basic failures to find out whether callers were newcomers or existing customers, and what kind of service they wanted, drove dissatisfaction levels up to 91 per cent in the poorest sectors – utilities, local authorities and travel. The banking and insurance sectors were among the worst for concealed damage and hidden consumer defection, with about 40 per cent of business vanishing, never to return.
Keep the faith
Demos Samsatli, consumer services support manager at Sony Computer Entertainment UK, recognises the problem. It doesn’t matter what area of the company you work for, he points out, what matters is that the customer thinks you represent the brand. “You destroy someone’s faith in the PlayStation brand, you destroy their faith in Sony,” he says. “They won’t just not buy another PlayStation, they won’t buy another Sony item.”
These issues are not going to go away. But it’s not all bad news. There are success stories as well as failures, and technology is helping companies to improve.
Customers too are becoming more sophisticated. As they get used to juggling complex deals, such as mobile phone contracts, they are using these skills elsewhere. Many say that they don’t mind automated call systems for routine transactions such as booking cinema tickets, but they don’t like being trapped in an automated system when they want advice.
Telephone is still the preferred way for customers to buy remotely, with websites predominantly used for research, although this is changing. Companies are getting better at linking their websites and their call centres to give a more integrated service. Sony Computer Entertainment UK, for example, recently introduced a system called Metafaq to provide a smoother route from its website to its call centre. Samsatli had become aware that callers were being passed on to PR managers and marketing managers and there was no guidance about how they answered questions.
The problem was that callers varied from parents who knew very little about PlayStations to teenagers who were experts. The new system had to be able to find out not just what they were asking, but what they really wanted to know – not always the same thing. Metafaq relies on a database of frequently asked questions, but, more importantly, it searches not by key words, but by a complex formula which analyses meaning. The idea is that it can supply the right answer to rambling questions. If all else fails, an e-mail is sent to the call centre agent who will try to answer the question.
“It has increased the number of e-mails to the call centre, but this is because it’s channelling people who wouldn’t normally have called us,” Samsatli explains. He can track the system to see every question asked by a customer and the answers they received. He can also find out whether answers are causing confusion to customers, such as overseas callers, and rewrite them accordingly.
Davin Yap, co-founder of Transversal, which created Metafaq, describes it as a combination of a knowledge base and “a state of the art semantic indexing engine”. He says: “Instead of searching by words, it matches millions of ways of asking the same question to a finite number of answers, because there is a finite amount of useful information about any company or product.”
This has wider repercussions. Call centre jobs are generally repetitive, dull and are rarely seen as a stepping stone to greater things. Even worse, most agents suffer from abusive callers. Not surprisingly, turnover is often high. More than half of the UK’s call centre agents are being provided with on-site counselling for stress and morale is a critical issue, according to research by Vocalis, which produces voice-driven systems. It does not help that many companies still monitor their call centres by number of calls processed and length of time taken, rather than customer satisfaction.
Understand the brand
All call centre staff should receive adequate induction training and know how to handle different types of calls. They should also understand the company’s brand and be able to provide a consistent response. It is no use concentrating on new campaigns if the call centre staff are unfamiliar with it.
The next step, according to Paul Miller, business development manager at Prolog Connect, is to understand the product as the consumer does. He says: “We take products into the call centre and ask agents to take them home and play. This is the cheapest form of market research there is.”
Maggie Evans, head of marketing at iSky, which runs call centres for firms such as Honda, also believes that it is essential to have dedicated teams who form a close relationship with the product and firm. “Our people have been on the lawn mowers, in the cars and under the bonnet – they know the product,” she says.
Significantly, new Honda recruits are sent to the call centre as part of their induction training, so they get a feel for the brand. The centre itself has all the most recent ads posted round the walls so that agents can see what callers are talking about.
Miller believes that all agents should visit the company’s offices and feel that they work for them as much as for the outsourcing company. He says the job is becoming more challenging as new systems and offshore centres deal with routine enquiries and CRM programmes mature.
And it does not have to be a dead-end job. “All of our managers began their career with us as call centre agents and two of our directors did as well,” he says. “If you have the attitude that agents are unskilled menials, that is what you get. When customers get a poor experience the blame doesn’t lie in the call centre, it lies with processes and management structure.”
It’s essential that all agents can switch callers to the right department quickly, according to Evans. If they can’t, there should be an efficient messaging service so that the right person can call them back.
Call segmentation is also important. Miller argues that worries about prejudices are largely unfounded as long as the call is handled well. As soon as there is high stress, as in the case of IT breakdowns, callers can become abusive.
Given that more than half the population will be 45 or older by 2011, and the average UK call centre agent is aged 24-32, it would be sensible for call centres to look closely at their recruitment procedures. Miller argues that there is no reason why more calls cannot be segmented so that older callers speak to an older agent. An easy way to do this is to establish different phone numbers for different customer marketing channels.
At present, according to Orsmond’s research, only a quarter of all companies have segmented their databases properly and only 12 per cent can deliver a segmented view to handler contacts. Yet when effective segmentation is introduced, his company has seen 40 per cent gains.
Offshore call centres may be cheap, but they are likely to increase all the potential risks of poor brand knowledge and inadequate management and communication.
Evans confesses she is worried by the prospect. “We do have agreements with offshore partners, but you have to be very careful,” she stresses. “Offshoring will continue to grow, but you have to remember that a brand is expensive to build, and easily crushed.”