From both my professional and personal experience with Call Centers, I have developed some strong opinions about how they should be run. I worked as a call center agent in various jobs and have also managed three Call Centers at three different companies. It is a tough business since companies don’t like to invest in them. Working in them can feel like being in the front line of a battlefield. My professional experience forged an acute awareness of the failings of Call Centers, especially those that I’ve needed to contact as a consumer. Consequently, I will share with you eight tips all Call Centers should embrace in order to maximize their success. Please note that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list.
- The caller should know how long they will need to wait to speak to an agent.
Rule #1 for customer service is to set proper expectations. This simple act of telling a customer how long they will wait can diffuse an enormous amount of frustration. Many service providers don’t want the customer to hang up since they measure abandoned calls. One way they do this is to conceal the wait time. This is a very dishonest and avoidable approach. Service providers should give a customer options instead of trapping them into a blind wait. Exercise transparency and treat your customers with respect. Also, abandoned calls can relieve the peak times that cause the long hold times in the first place. Give the choice to the customer. It doesn’t have to be a negative.
- Information entered by the customer into the phone menu system must be made available to any agent that eventually speaks to that customer.
It is extremely frustrating to enter a long account number or answer several questions with the automated system, only to be asked to repeat it all over again by the agent. For example, I called a service provider and their system was able to take the phone number I was calling from and match it to my account. To verify the match, it told me the numbers of my address and asked if that was correct. Once I selected the service I needed, I was asked for the last four digits of my social security number. Finally, when I spoke to the agent, he asked me to verify my address. Surely this is too much! I’m sure some who are security conscious can list multiple examples of how someone can cheat the system if the address is not verified. Still, I encourage all service providers to think hard about how much security they really need. I even had to jump through security hoops to verify the account for my dog’s vet. What could a hacker do to my dog? Dox him? Tell the world what prescriptions he’s taking? Let common sense prevail.
- Call Center computing systems need to be fast.
Customers may get impatient waiting on a system to pull up your account, but nothing compares to how the agent feels all day while waiting for information to pop up on their screen. It drives a lot of the anxiety that agents experience and is frequently one of the biggest complaints they make. Service agents want to dispatch the call quickly and efficiently just as much as the customer. Skimping on system performance to save money wastes agents’ productivity, spoils their morale, frustrates the customer, and reduces the smoothness and efficiency of the call. Whether it is latency, computing capacity, or bulky software, service providers need to invest in their infrastructure and systems to speed them up. As a former service agent in, nothing was worse than waiting for that screen!
- Call Center agents need to conduct warm handoffs whenever the customer requires the service of another agent.
This should be a Call Center 101 technique. A customer never wants to start over. However, a Call Center agent is often pressured to limit their average call time. Which one is more important in the big picture, their stats or the customer? Of course, it is always the customer. A second part to this tip is that service agents should never say “I’ll put you on hold” or any derivation of “on hold.” As a Call Center manager, I used to ban those words since it sounds impersonal and negative. Agents need to make the customers feel like the resolution of their issue is moving forward, not stopping. It is a subtle, some may say trite, difference, but an important one.
As an example, I recommend a dialog similar to this:
Step 1: [Agent 1] “It looks like you will need to talk to a specialist in _________ area. I will get you in touch with them in a moment. I’ll be right back.”
Step 2: [Agent 1] “Hello, I’m back. I have [First Name] on the line from the _________ area. I’ve briefed him on your issue and want to turn you over to him for further assistance. Thank you for calling …. “
Step 3: [Agent 2] “Hello ______, I have your account pulled up here and understand the issue you have, so let me…”
This technique makes or breaks a customer’s experience with the service provider. Take heed!
Optimize the width and breadth of issues that can be resolved by one person so that the customer can get everything resolved in the first call.
In a perfect world, doing warm handoffs would never be necessary. For example, if a customer has both a technical problem and a billing inquiry, one Call Center agent can solve both issues. This requires more training and a more flexible type of agent. The advantages are many. Customers always like it. They want to get everything done in one shot. Agents get exposed to a wider variety of issues that makes the job more interesting. They can spend more time with the customer and avoid the constant pressure for short calls. They can also escape an environment where every call is so simple and narrow that the job gets painfully boring and repititious. As a result, this can reduce burnout and turnover and save the company money.
Do not confuse this tip with the usual way first-call resolution is measured. Many Call Centers create specialists for a very narrow type of problem. They get incentives to solve that narrow issue as quickly as possible to make the KPI. If there is a different type of issue, they can pass it on to another department and still count it as a first-call resolution. This solves their KPI problem, but not the customer’s problem. If you cut the number of hoops the customer has to jump through, then there are fewer separate structures, staff members, and locations you have to set up and pay for. This tip also resembles the one-piece flow system that Lean champions. It’s faster and cheaper to solve all the problems at once instead of distributing the problems to different batches.
- Do not remove the ability to select phone tree options by touchtone.
Voice systems are certainly the future, but many people want to make their call from a public area and don’t want to be heard selecting menu options by voice. They may also need to call from a noisy or crowded area or have a strong accent which confuses the voice-activated system. Moreover, it is inevitable that you can’t describe everything you need in one or two words. The system can get confused and send you to the wrong place. It is already difficult enough with the touchtone method. Finally, some topics are just private and you’d like to keep it that way. Give us options!
- Space the messages that apologize for the wait to at least a minute… or more.
Getting these message every 15 or 30 seconds is extremely irritating. Of course, the biggest purpose of these messages is to reassure you that you are still connected. Providing music or some useful information can fill the silence instead, but even keep that to a minimum. Callers don’t like repetitive, useless information. It only reminds them of their impatience. You can combine this tip with tip #2 and include messages that update you on your wait time. Don’t do it too often, but when you do, tell the caller something that adds value.
- Pushing call volume and short average call times ruins things for everyone.
There are many hazards when you run a Call Center like this. First, the agents get burnt out quickly. Most agents want to do quality work and enjoy helping customers. Let them do it! Second, customers feel rushed and may not get all their questions answered. They may also feel like the agent is robotic, dependent on scripts, and fails to think outside the box. (Thinking out of the box takes time!)
For agents, answering 100 calls a day (or more) takes its toll. Whether management agrees with it or not, they are pushing an incentive to treat calls as a liability to the company that must be extinguished. The agents don’t feel valued by their company and they don’t get to serve the customer as much as they’d like. Yes, a Call Center is operating expense and overhead. Trust me, I know all about this. Yet, it is also where the company gets exposed to the customer more than anywhere else. Give the agents the opportunity
Mastering these eight tips, your Call Center can produce great success. Clearly, these eight are only a slice of the many other practices and processes needed to implement a viable Call Center. Consider these the icing on the cake and the key differentiators from the competition. You will gain happy customers and keep talented and helpful service agents. Good luck!