We don’t talk anymore

I thought my luck was in when I rang my home insurance provider the other morning, and found myself listening to a live human voice after the fourth ring.

Customers are tired of being left on hold, rerouted or not being able to speak to a human voice when they call for ‘customer service’, causing many to switch companies, says Paul Gander

I thought my luck was in when I rang my home insurance provider the other morning, and found myself listening to a live human voice after the fourth ring.

Then I was rerouted to “customer service” by way of endless dial tones interspersed with recorded messages. These offered everything from pet insurance to the option of changing my details online, while treating me to the full loop of U2’s Beautiful Day and The Lighthouse Family’s Lifted. Some ten minutes later I finally spoke to an adviser, neither lifted nor thinking it was a particularly beautiful day.

This is a fairly typical example of customer service in any sector. In fact, a growing body of research shows that consumers’ call-centre experiences are frequently much worse than this and, far from leaving him or her “lifted”, finish with the service provider in question being dropped.

Holding on for too long

In research published this summer, Accenture found that 50 per cent of the 1,000 UK consumers surveyed said they changed service provider in at least one industry in the previous year because of poor service. Frustrations when dealing with customer service agents over the phone included being kept on hold for too long (82 per cent of respondents), needing to repeat the same information to different agents (77 per cent) and not getting the answers that would solve their problems (70 per cent). The study found that the average UK consumer spends nearly six minutes on hold and has to speak to an average of 2.7 representatives for a question to be resolved.

The Accenture research spanned ten different service sectors, but found that the highest overall turnover rate for suppliers was in the utilities sector. Poor service meant that 18 per cent of UK respondents had switched gas, electricity or water providers in the previous year.

But an online YouGov survey commissioned by software company Corizon earlier this year uncovered similar findings in the telecoms sector. According to the company, one in five respondents had changed mobile or broadband provider at least once because of frustrations with customer service call centres, although there was no reference period here. Corizon’s research also shows that a hefty 40 per cent of mobile users are less than satisfied with the call-centre service they receive.

Apart from waiting times, the research found that the amount of time spent dealing with agents was of paramount importance to customers. A third of respondents said they typically had to talk for more than ten minutes to resolve their problems. For broadband users, the situation is worse. Seven per cent of broadband customers contributing to the survey regularly needed to spend at least one hour talking to one or more agents. More than half of broadband users said they had to make multiple calls to achieve a satisfactory result, according to Corizon.

The growth in the number of consumers using services such as broadband may have contributed to the pressure on call-handling here. But in the utilities sector and elsewhere there must be other explanations.

Why can’t we just talk?

“Over the past three or four years, companies have been cutting costs in order to survive,” says Marc Delesalle, managing partner in Accenture’s customer relationship management (CRM) practice. Customer contact has proved to be one of the easiest areas to cut, with technology companies increasingly being tasked with diverting more calls to automated and self-service systems. But Delesalle says: “It’s a classic case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Customer service is not only easy to cut, it also saves “incredible amounts of money”, according to technology provider Amcat. “And, if you don’t have interactive voice response (IVR), your agents end up taking lots of calls that really don’t require a live person to be there,” says Amcat vice-president of marketing Dudley Larus.

But like Accenture, Amcat points to research – this time from the University of Akron in the US – which underlines the case for live, as opposed to automated, call response. Some IVR systems create “an impenetrable wall” for consumers who are anxious to talk directly to an agent, Larus points out.

One consensus taking shape, both among companies that have chosen cheaper automated routes and those that have stuck largely with direct call-handling by agents, is the need to differentiate between distinct categories of call.

The Akron research implies that an automated, self-service system is ideal for responding to transactional types of call, where information such as account balances is required. “In these cases, consumers may even be happier not talking to an agent,” Larus concludes. “But if they are upset, if it’s a customer service or relationship issue, then the consumer will almost definitely want to talk to someone.”

As the various customer satisfaction surveys indicate, the live response capacity needed for the relationship-based call category will be more costly, but will probably more than pay for itself in terms of customer retention and loyalty, says Amcat.

The complete package

In a separate piece of business-to-business research, Accenture analysed the common features shared by about 700 successful companies worldwide. The single most important differentiator, says Delesalle, was the completeness of the branded customer experience.

Applying the lessons learned from these success stories, Accenture is emphasising another kind of distinction when it comes to customer service. As Delesalle says: “People are realising that it’s not economically feasible to deliver one-to-one customer service to all your customers.” The solution, he suggests, is to provide a superior service for key customers. This tiered service can either operate through dedicated phone numbers or through some sort of filter when customers call and give an account number or other identifying data.

Larus is wary of this segmentation argument. “A few years ago people started talking a lot about customer relationship management and about not treating all customers in the same way,” he says. “It has worked to some extent for airlines, but hasn’t really worked in other sectors.” Loyalty systems are fine, he argues, but it can be dangerous to think you can get away with treating some or most of your customers in a way that will leave them feeling undervalued.

Retention, training and motivation among call-centre staff has been identified as a significant factor in the quality of customer service, but the role of technology is arguably even more critical.

We have the technology

Corizon vice-president of products David Davies says: “One of the aspects to think about is the fact that there’s a lot of complex technology here. What does that mean for the person on the phone?” With two-thirds of agents juggling three different software applications and a quarter using five or more, the impact can be considerable, he says.

“Agents say that time is wasted switching between applications,” adds Davies. “We asked, how can you simplify this so that the agent is focused on the customer rather than on the systems?” The answer, Corizon claims, is user process management software, which allows multiple applications to function as if they were one. The company likes to use the term “swivel-chair integration”. In the telecoms sector, these systems are being used by BT’s mobile business and by Telewest.

In most cases, when consumers ring for advice, the last thing they want is for the conversation to turn into a blatant sales pitch. But as companies attempt to justify the additional costs associated with live-call response, they are increasingly looking at opportunities for sensitive and targeted cross-selling and up-selling.

Enterprise management software provider Unica has developed the Affinium system which can be integrated with other call-centre technology. This is what Nationwide has done, says Unica head of marketing Carol Meyers, in this case running it in parallel with the Portrait CRM system. “It’s about reducing costs, but also improving customer retention,” she says. The system will pick up the fact that a bank customer has an overdraft, for example, and generate a prompt suggesting the offer of a loan.

Aprod with a prompt

Affinium also allows agents to treat the customer as an individual in other ways. So if a credit card has been sent off, a prompt can remind the agent to ask whether it has arrived or not. Meyers warns: “You have to use this in a way that is helpful and relevant to the particular customer, so that it’s a service rather than an annoyance.”

Another response to disaffection among consumers has been the wider use of callback systems. These allow the customer to avoid waiting while still keeping his or her place in the queue. But being proactive rather than responsive can help in other ways.

Don’t call us…

“Companies are starting to figure out the benefits of using outbound as well as inbound calls,” says Larus. This is being seen as an effective way of reinforcing customer loyalty. “It’s becoming more common in the mobile telecoms sector because it’s so competitive. There’s a lot of customer churn, and it’s become so expensive to win new customers.”

Accenture and Unica agree that companies can analyse the reasons for incoming calls, and can often pre-empt them, cutting call volumes in the process. Meyers points to a simple example from Canadian travel and hospitality company Intrawest, which noted the proportion of calls that followed holiday bookings, frequently asking about weather in the resort, directions and other predictable information. “Intrawest began to send out a proactive e-mail, which also allowed cross-selling, and which helped to cut incoming calls to the call centre,” says Meyers.

In the years to come, it seems, service-sector brands will face an unenviable task when it comes to juggling customer service. Reduced costs, customer retention, differential call routing, investment in technology and outbound versus inbound are just some of the balls they will be trying to keep in the air. Luckily, there will be someone else

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