Fall 2017

The Call Center’s Role in Supporting Customer Service Trends
A recent article in Fortune magazine pointed to 10 recent trends in customer service. With the call center serving as the frontline voice of the company for many organizations, it’s important to think about how this part of the organization can and should support overall service trends and company goals.

Our industry is full of data that indicates customer service and the customer experience are more important than ever. Here are just a few recent studies pointing to the importance of customer service.

  • According to Forrester, 72% of businesses say that improving the customer experience is their top priority.
  • A study from NewVoiceMedia indicates that companies lose more than $62 billion due to poor customer service.
  • A poll from Fortune showed that the majority of customers form their opinion of the company from a customer service experience, not necessarily from products or pricing.

No company can afford to be a customer service laggard. It’s important to pay attention to customers to stay relevant and competitive. Here are some of the trends outlined in Fortune and how the call center can play a role in supporting these trends.

  1. Customer service is getting better. With the $62 billion statistic mentioned above, one might think customer service is getting worse. Others believe that it’s actually getting better. What’s happening is the best companies are setting the bar and creating a new, higher expectation. There is a new benchmark, and other companies, even with their efforts to improve, aren’t able to keep up with customers’ newfound expectations. The good news is that companies are making the effort, they are improving, and they can catch up to those new expectations.

    As the company rethinks its service benchmarks, maybe it’s time for the call center to take time to think about its service goals and performance metrics. Does the center’s speed of answer goal make sense or should delays be shorter? Is the center measuring first call resolution (FCR) rate in the best way? Do quality scores correlate with customer satisfaction, or is the center perhaps not focusing on the aspects of the call that matter most to callers? Take the time to re-think these questions and set new benchmarks and goals where needed.
  2. Value and experience continue to trump price. Unless a company wants to be recognized as a low-cost provider, the value proposition of good customer service can make price less relevant. That’s how smaller independent retailers can compete against big box stores. Think about how Ace Hardware stores compete against big box stores. Ace Hardware stores are typically a fraction of the size, don’t have as wide a selection, and may not have the lowest price, yet they not only survive, they thrive. This concept is not limited to retail. It crosses into all types of businesses and industries.

    While a smaller organization may not have a huge advertising budget or big social media presence, the call center can support the customer service image of the company. Going above and beyond for the customer can translate into superior ratings and reviews and perhaps a service story that can go viral.
  3. Personalization creates a better customer experience. Technology has made it easier than ever to track customer preferences and history. Big data gives us trends and insights with uncanny accuracy. There is no reason to not create a more personalized experience that caters to a customer’s individual needs.

    There’s no better place to demonstrate personalization than in the contact center. With a wealth of customer information at their fingertips, frontline staff can make each caller feel special. Noting past orders and customer preferences can give each agent a leg up with information that may be useful for a more personalized experience. It’s not just technology alone that can support this personalization. Equipping frontline staff with more training on listening and communications skills can help them find ways to personalize each customer interaction.
  4. AI and IA assist those who assist the customer. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is coming to the forefront of how a company creates a better customer interaction. Today’s technologies’ ability to interact with humans is stronger than ever. AI will help us make better business decisions, many of them positively impacting the customer. AI won’t necessarily take over the human function, although in some places it can and will, but it will assist customer support people, becoming an intelligent assistant (IA).

    Call centers should explore these technologies to see where AI and IA can provide self-service for those callers who want this type of interaction. It can also be used successfully to at the very least create an early triage to define and separate issues so that the caller can eventually get to the right person if a human is needed.
  5. Chatbots are getting better. This ties into AI. The online text conversation we have with a company’s customer support center may not be with a live person, but a computer. When a machine can create a positive experience for the customer, everyone wins. The best chatbots are able to not only respond to requests and questions, but also recognize when the customer is confused and seamlessly hand off the conversation to a live customer support rep.

    The use of chat is growing and is typically housed and managed in the contact center. It’s important to recognize when an exit from the chatbot is needed and to sufficiently staff with enough “net reps” to ensure a complete transaction with a successful conclusion and resolution.
  1. There is more focus on “customer success.” While it is not new, the concept of “customer success” seems to be gaining in popularity. There are certain products that seem to have higher levels of frustration or need for customer support. The goal of a customer success program is to ensure that the customer has success with the company’s products. For example, when I recently bought a new software program, the company provided three coaching sessions that were scheduled at the time of purchase. This eliminated the frustration I might have experienced as I learned the new program (good for me, the customer) that would keep my follow-up support calls to a minimum (good for the company).

    The call center sits in a unique position to provide the service needed for customer success. While ideal on every call, at the very least during times of overstaffing with spare capacity, content can be added to each call that addresses recent products or services and how they are being used. Frontline staff can offer questions to gauge satisfaction with products and provide suggestions for maximizing product use.
  2. Proactive customer service is gaining in popularity. Companies are getting better and spotting problems and fixing them before the customer notices and complains. There are software programs that can alert companies to issues so they can be proactive in mitigating or eliminating problems. A good proactive service program creates trust and confidence.

    The call center is once again in the perfect position to support this proactive service. An effective “voice of the customer” program can quickly identify problems and support issues and then communicate to everyone in the center so that all agents are equipped to deal with the problem. Likewise, once these issues are identified, they can be communicated to customers to “nip in the bud” incoming support calls by notifying customers first by phone, email, text, or social media.
  3. The phone is being used less and less. Alternative customer support channels such as chatbots, social media customer care, self-service, etc., are gaining in popularity as customers learn how to use them more efficiently. It is doubtful that the phone will ever disappear completely as a way for customers to connect with a company. Some difficult-to-solve problems require that human-to-human interaction, but as a quick first line of support, the alternative channels are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

    This trend has been seen for quite some time. Many customers prefer another mode of contact rather than the telephone. Call centers have and will continue to respond by training agents to support chat and other modes of communications. It is also important to realize that a higher level of training may be needed for the calls that remain in the center. Since it will typically be the simple, straightforward problems that can be solved with self-service, that means the calls left with frontline staff are likely to be the more complicated ones. It is common to see performance goals change as this evolution occurs, since average handle time (AHT) will increase for more difficult calls and not as many calls per hour can be handled.
  4. Fast, Faster, Fastest! Customers want a response. Numerous surveys have revealed abysmal results for response times to customer comments, complaints, and questions on support channels such as social media, email, etc. For example, a 2016 study by Eptica showed that email response times averaged more than seven hours. The good news is that recent studies are showing the response times are speeding up. And by the way, the company that responds faster than its competition will stand out and win.

    While call centers have staffed to provide responses to a telephone call within minutes or seconds, it is typical to see response time goals for emails defined as hours of wait time. It is important to analyze what it would take to staff the email queue to be addressed faster. As customer expectations increase, an email not responded to in a timely fashion may simple generate another email or a phone call or chat, causing the center to handle it multiple times. Many centers are finding that staffing for one-hour response times versus 4-hour or 8-hour response times is not significantly higher. It’s worth an analysis to see how much speedier the center can be.
  5. Convenience wins the day. This may be your ultimate customer service and customer interaction weapon. How easy and convenient are you to do business with? Good service is table stakes. Your competitor is trying to outdo your customer service. So, all things being equal, how can an organization tip the scale in its favor? Convenience. Amazon is the poster child for today’s concept of convenience. For example, its Dash button makes it as easy as pushing a button to order consumable supplies such as detergent, ink cartridges and much more. Amazon is even revolutionizing shopping with its new Amazon Go grocery stores. By featuring the most advanced technology, they have eliminated lines and the checkout process – you grab and go. If you want to win in business, figure out how to be more convenient than your competition.

    This one may be a little tougher for the call center, since we tend to think of a fast self-service option when thinking about convenience. But even in a traditional telephone conversation, finding ways to streamline the conversation by using computer telephony integration (CTI) to populate screens and rethinking IVR menus to support self-service can support the convenience goal.

These 10 trends are changing the ways customers do business. Take time each year to examine the trends and figure out ways the contact center can support the organization as it strives to move forward to provide the best possible service to customers.

Penny Reynolds was Co-Founder of The Call Center School and is a popular speaker and writer in the area of call center operations. Recently retired, she serves as an Educational Advisor to SWPP and QATC, continuing to provide thought leadership and training to the call center community. She can be reached at 615-812-8410 or pennyreynolds00@gmail.com.