Nearshore Americas

Forget about Handle Time, What About Satisfying the Customer?

Orlando, FL – The call center landscape is changing fast. Because of increased competition and brutal cost pressures in the last year, client retention and consequently client satisfaction are more important now than they’ve ever been. But are companies changing their call center practices to reflect that? We found that for the most part the answer is no. Many are still over-focused on metrics like cost per call and average handle time, while giving less importance to problem resolution and the customer experience.

During this morning’s ATA Expo keynote speaker Bob Simmonds, Vice President of Walt Disney World Travel Operations drove home the point by stressing that many call center operators have lost their way by not putting enough focus on meeting the actual needs of the customer. “We create magic at every touch point,” he says.

Today we’re going to shine a light on some advancing call center practices, as well as a few companies that are modeling that behavior.


Using the  Right Metrics?


In 2005 Dell’s customer satisfaction ratings were among the lowest in the industry, something that competitors like HP were quick to capitalize on. So Dell made some pretty radical changes – namely a shift in emphasis from call time to solving problems during the first call. Not surprisingly the average time of a tech support call increased, but so did the number of incidents that were dealt with effectively. And although it took some time, customer satisfaction scores slowly increased as well. Instead of cost per call, Dell began measuring cost per resolution. Years later the company is still trying to win back customers, but there is a marked improvement in how it delivers support services.

The question is, are you measuring the right metrics? Companies love to focus on handle time, call volume and time in queue because these are easily quantifiable and can be directly linked to costs. They’re important, but they don’t tell the whole story.

“Most airlines are just pushing people on to the Internet,” said Simmonds. “I guess they don’t want that relationship.” As the top Disney executive overseeing contact center operations for domestic Disney vacations, Simmonds said at the core of Disney’s culture is to create meaningful and fulfilling interactions with consumers.

Today’s contact enter reality is that there needs to be focus on balancing efficiency (cost per case, rate of first call success) and effectiveness (closure rate, resolution time). The usual narrow focus on metrics and quantity means that somewhere the quality of your customer experience will be sacrificed.

An example of what to do right is IT hosting company and cloud platform provider Rackspace. It doesn’t measure the activities of its call center agents, but instead considers metrics like customer satisfaction, feedback from customers regarding specific reps, and the efficiency metrics mentioned above. Agents never follow scripts, are well trained in their company’s service offerings, and will stay on a case until the issue is resolved. The result? Seriously high customer satisfaction. “Companies still put up barriers between their clients and their agents, and that really impacts their business”, says Kathy Herrmann, Partner at Pathlight Solutions and ROI valuation expert for social business. “It’s a huge differentiator for companies. When you provide good service, it distinguishes you from the pack and allows you to charge at least some premium pricing”.

The usual narrow focus on metrics and quantity means that somewhere the quality of your customer experience will be sacrificed.


Changing Practices


Empowering your call center agents

Let’s face it, much of the problem comes from over-systemizing the process. As Herrmann says, “The hallmark of great customer service is being responsive to the client. If you want to exceed expectations, you need to empower your call center reps to provide individualized attention. They can’t do that if they’re focused on following a pre-established engagement process”.

So how do you empower your agents? To start with, train them well – in product knowledge and interpersonal techniques. Then assuming you have a suitably talented group of individuals, give them authority to make decisions, including billing decisions. Credit card giant American Express is a perfect example. According to Ann All from IT Business Edge, “AmEx took away phone scripts and gave employees plenty of leeway to help customers solve problems. If a card holder calls about a conflict with a vendor, agents have the authority to set up a conference call to resolve the dispute”. AmEx also changed its metrics to reflect customer satisfaction rather than call volume, and shifted its hiring focus from workers with prior call center experience to those with hospitality or service industry backgrounds. The company also improved the work environment at its call centers, and introduced bonuses to agents tied to customer satisfaction scores. The result was that US employee turnover fell by half from 2006 to 2009, and AmEx has earned JD Power and Associates’ top rank for customer satisfaction among credit card issuers for the last four years.

AT&T is another company really giving their employees a lot of latitude to make decisions on the phone. But for the majority of call center operations, empowering agents is not the approach. “Most companies still use the old model of customer service because they think it’s cheaper. They use low end labor without sufficient training”, says Herrmann. “Customers are more demanding today. The more hoops you make them jump through, the less loyal they will be”. Yes there will be increased costs for providing better service. But the jump in revenue gained from exceeding expectations – better client retention, referrals and after-market sales – more than make up for it.

Tech integration – Another call center trend is the level of technology integration into the workspace. Whether it’s market analytics or just information about a specific client, agents today have a range of sophisticated tools at their disposal. While a few years ago an agent saw only a few data points on the screen in front of him, he now has access to literally thousands. The smartest companies however, will make that access easy and usable in real time. “Many companies’ CRM systems don’t talk to each other, so agents often can’t use more than basic information about the client”, says Herrmann. “Expose agents to a full range of customer information to accelerate first call resolution, as well as the means to easily add new information”.

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Social networking – The use of social networks like Twitter and Facebook to provide customer service is already widespread. The challenge for CRM managers however is that no one really knows how it will play out, how social networks can be optimized to increase client loyalty, or what the longevity of such services are. A fine example is MySpace – huge five years ago, but now completely out of the spotlight. Finding workers savvy enough to provide effective service through social networks is also difficult, especially when you outsource your customer service.


The market landscape


As we soon move into Q4 of this year, analysts agree that expansion and consolidation are topics on everyone’s mind. Most recent was Capgemini’s acquisition deal with CPM Braxis. We expect that any further takeovers will be of this nature – large companies buying medium sized companies – mainly because profit margins for call centers are so tight these days. Companies that are always aggressive and looking for opportunities are Atento, Sykes (especially after conquest of Apex and ICT), Stream (now with new CEO Kathryn Marinello), and Teleperformance (which only two weeks ago acquired UK call center beCogent).

Now there’s intense speculation over the fate of Cincinnati-based Convergys Corp. We recently ran a piece on whether Teleperformance would be buying in case a sale is considered. Although Convergys claims there’s no truth to the story, it doesn’t rule out other options. We’ll be keeping our eyes open.

Kirk Laughlin

Kirk Laughlin is an award-winning editor and subject expert in information technology and offshore BPO/ contact center strategies.

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