Top 5 Reasons Customers Dread the Contact Center

Halloween is officially in season. We went to Target the other day to buy a beach umbrella and they told us that they took out the summer seasonal “stuff” to stack the shelves with Halloween gear and goodies… I thought summer ended on September 21st, oh well. It’s also hard to miss the slew of horror movie trailers plastered all over the television, among them are “Saw 3D”, “Paranormal Activity 2”, and “Let Me In”. I’m not a huge horror flick fan, but I am a huge fan of customer horror stories (try Googling “customer horror stories” for some entertainment).

Many of your customers are afraid of calling customer service lines for fear of what might happen or what might NOT happen. The telephone channel is still the most used contact channel by customers, 69% according to Forrester’s North American Technographics Customer Experience Online Survey, Q4 2009. However, in that same study, it showed that 72% of US online consumers prefer to use a company’s web site to get answers to their questions rather than contact companies via telephone or email. We have a mystery to solve here, phone is the most used, but at the same time they prefer not to call the contact center. Is it because customers are growing tired of nightmarish contact center experiences? Let’s look at the villains.

  1. There is No Web Self Service Option. Forrester reports that 36 percent of online US customers crave (strongly prefer) self-reliance for service. This number jumps up to 46 percent for 18- to 29-year-olds. When there is no self service option, it forces customers to call you (and probably at a significantly higher cost to your business). Customers in the social age are looking for simple, fast resolutions to their problems. By not providing a self service option for your customers, you could be frightening web savvy consumers by requiring them to dial you for basic service requests.
  2. Customers Are Required to Navigate an IVR System. Often termed “IVR Hell” for semi-appropriate reasons. Gartner summed up in their 2010 “Key Issues for Customer Experience Management” Report that IVR implementations are usually poorly executed and ultimately lead to worse customer experiences rather than improved ones. The technology is not the primary culprit here; it’s the design and implementation. Companies that can’t mirror the customer processes with the customers’ needs through their IVR systems are setting the stage for a bloody customer encounter.
  3. Agents Can’t Solve Problems (fast enough). Let’s be clear that the number one goal is to actually solve the customer problem, secondary to that is how quickly and efficiently the agent can solve it. How many open windows and applications reside on the agent desktop for a customer interaction? According to Ventana Research, 44 percent of contact center agents need to access three or more applications to resolve a customer interaction, and 70 percent say they waste time switching between applications. A messy agent desktop is a recipe for delivering frightful customer experiences. From our experience, “Alt+Tabing” can add between 1 and 2 minutes to a typical customer call. This is an unnecessary evil that’s slowing your agents down and costing your customers time. Companies who can deliver a customer process driven workflow (based on what’s happening on the call) over a unified agent desktop with application data residing on one interface will eliminate unnecessarily lengthy calls.
  4. Customers Are Required to Repeat Information. Your customer has successfully or unsuccessfully navigated the IVR system, and now they are being asked to state the same information they provided to the IVR robot. Maybe the customer emailed the company already, and was following up only to find that the agent doesn’t have access to support emails. Perhaps the customer was routed to another agent who asks the customer to restate everything once again because they are on two different systems. Why all the “suspense” in trying to resolve a customer issue? Even in 2010, the reality is that only 15% of companies have multiple interaction channels synchronized according to Gartner. Leverage business process management and integration tools to deliver customer insights from any channel and/or application to the agent’s desktop. Many times this information can be embedded directly into the workflow/script that the agent is following. Rather than ask them to repeat, ask customers to confirm an email address or a phone number.
  5. U.S. Consumers Are Most Satisfied by U.S. Based Agents. In a recent blog post, we analyze this impasse between the largest consumer base (American consumption accounts for 70% of US GDP) in the world and the foreign agents who serve them. Additionally, a recent CFI Group report indicates that 79% of customers are satisfied by U.S. based agents versus a 58% satisfaction level from foreign based agents. We compared these results with the responses from various LinkedIn groups. We were able to determine that for reasons right or wrong, U.S. consumers are not be “scared” of foreign based agents, but have more satisfying experiences with American agents.

Let’s save the terror for the big screen, not the customer experience. Through a combination of leadership, strategy, process, and technology, you can make customers happy and fearless when they contact you. Once you achieve this, you will see your customer loyalty and advocacy grow.

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The Verdict is Out: Americans Prefer American Call Center Agents

My first article on this topic seemed to bring about a good number of discussions in various LinkedIn groups. So, I aggregated all of the comments across multiple LinkedIn group discussions, our web site and a few other sites where we post. There were 41 total responses and here’s what I found:

Of the people that made comment, it was clear that the overwhelming majority determined that Americans prefer to speak to American Call Center Agents. Nearly 64% felt this way, while 27% disagreed. While these results would not be considered conclusive evidence obtained from a wide spread study utilizing responses across various genders, age groups and nationalities, it is still a viable indication of opinion from people in our space. Ironically, the numbers seem to be in line with a recent (hot off the press) study conducted by CFI Group just a few days ago, citing the move of call center agents back to the United States for the second year running. In fact, CFI Group outlined that “The biggest argument for repatriating a call center is the almost unprecedented level of dissatisfaction associated with offshore agents. The study finds that call center satisfaction is only 58 out of 100 when the call is handled by an offshore agent, compared to 79 for U.S.-based agents.”  The Sample size from CFI Group is much larger, but the results are obviously in sync.
Additionally, I broke down the responses by source and found some interesting data. I’m not certain that any conclusions can be made from it, but found it to be interesting that certain LinkedIn groups swayed in different directions. Here’s what I found:
  • The Customer Experience Management group comments clearly sided on there being a preference toward Americans: 67%,
  • In the Customer Service Professionals group, the split was 50/50,
  • And finally, in the Worldwide Contact Center Professionals group, 75% disagreed that American’s prefer American agents.
In each of these cases, the response rate was at least 8 respondents. Again, not a large sample size by any means, but interesting data nonetheless.
The second half of my analysis covers feedback from the population of responses. In addition to claiming yes or no on the preference, there were opinions as to why this is the case or what can be done to offer a better overall experience to the customer. It was apparent in all of the discussion threads that the following list of items would increase the probability of offshore agent acceptance:
  1. Better overall employment screening.
  2. More training to the agent on products, processes, language and culture.
  3. Hiring individuals without an accent, or at least one that matches the locality of the customer.
Point #2 hits squarely to the findings by CFI Group which states that “U.S. agents are 34% more likely to resolve the problem on the first call than those handled offshore.”

So, in conclusion, I’m not alone in my past experiences and opinion of the matter. I do want to make it clear that an outstanding customer experience can be achieved regardless of where the agent is located or what language they speak. However, it is a growing debate that is gaining press in all forms (fall TV series), attention by the masses, and a move back to the U.S. by major organizations looking to increase their overall customer experience.

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6 Pieces of Research Every Customer Service Pro Should Know

Looking to make your point in a presentation about customer service? Trying to sell the case to the boss about why he or she should really care about the customer experience? Considering a foray into social customer service? How about some facts and figures about Social CRM? Stats make a good argument, and help give you instant credibility. On top of that, they are interesting and fun to read. Here are a few that you may find valuable whether you are making the case to the executive team or simply writing a blog post.

1. Good customer service = Bottom line results.

  • Stat(s): A majority (61%) of Americans report that quality customer service is more important to them in today’s economic environment and will spend an average of 9% more when they believe a company provides excellent service.
  • Source: American Express Global Customer Service Barometer, August 2010

2. Poor customer service = Lost customers.

  • Stat(s): 17% will leave you after a single service mess up; 40% will leave you after two blunders and 28% will leave after the third mistake. That adds up to an overwhelming 85% of your business that could potentially be lost due to poor customer service.
  • Source: BIG Research, Jun 2010

3. Declining consumer use of telephone as a support channel = increasing use of self service as a support channel.

  • Stat: 45% of consumers prefer to communicate with customer service over NON-telephone channels (i.e. web self service, social media, email, etc).
  • Source: Ovum, Genesys “Global Cross Channel Survey”, March 2010
  • Stat(s): 36% of online US customers crave self-reliance for service. That preference is even stronger among younger customers: 46% of 18- to 29-year-olds and 42% of 30- to 42-year-olds prefer to be self-reliant. Only 28% of respondents prefer to resolve a service issue by speaking to someone on the phone.
  • Source: Forrester Research
4. Multi Channel Customer Interactions = Need for integration and process centric technology platforms
  • Stat: 85% of the contact centers observed by Gartner indicated that the multiple interaction channels are not synchronized.
  • Source: Gartner, February 2010

5. Delivering integrated and actionable Insights to a Unified Agent Desktop = Reduced Agent Training Time.

  • Stat: The technology behind interaction guidance involves systems that extract data regarding the customer and the products owned by the customer, and suggest the best flow for the dialogue. Automating the assembly of actionable information on the Agent Desktop can result in agent training time dropping 25% to 40%.
  • Source: Gartner, February 2010
6. Social Media Monitoring and Engagement = Mainstream consumer and enterprise adoption by 2014.
  • Stats: By the end of 2014, 45% of contact centers will have integrated some type of social media support – monitoring social networking sites for mentions of a company/product, responding to blog or Twitter posts with an invitation to participate in a survey, incorporating tweets as a means of communicating directly with the contact center (currently, between 6.5% of contact centers have a Social CRM Strategy in place).
  • Source: DMG Consulting, July 2010
  • Stat: 79% of the Fortune 100 are already present and listening (over social media platforms), using at least of one of the main social platforms to communicate with their customers.
  • Source: Burson-Marsteller Evidence-Based Communications Group

These are just a few pieces of research that can help guide your customer initiatives. Making note of them may help you stay away from becoming a bad customer service viral phenomenon.

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Do Americans Prefer American Call Center Agents?

Yes, a touchy subject. I’ve seen some write ups on this topic, but always wondered about the PC factor and the risk of going live with such opinions. However, since we are in the business of creating outstanding customer experiences, I think this topic is one worth exploring further.

Last evening, I called Capital One because I misplaced my credit card and was in a panic, wondering who has it and how many charges they tallied up on my behalf. With the rampant surge of identity theft, I didn’t want to take any chances. So, I dialed up the 800 number on my statement and after going through the prompts, I landed a live agent. At the point of hitting the last number on my phone’s dial pad, knowing I would be talking to someone live, a wave of anxiety passed over me. Wow, anxious about who I was about to interact with?!?!? What’s wrong with me?

After assessing the experience once the call was over, I realized that this wave of anxiety was tied directly to my fear of having to talk to someone in another country. In a mere second, my subconscious had me thinking: will this person be able to handle my issue? will I have to explain myself twice? will I be put on hold again to talk a level 2 support person? will I get frustrated in this call? will I, will I, will I??? Wow, all this in split-second time? Is it me? Am I a freak?

As my blood pressure jumped and my heart started racing all in that tiny window of time, it was diffused back to it’s normal biological state just as quickly. Yes, (what appeared to be a localized agent with a southern accent) picked up the line and said “Thank you for calling Capital One, how can I help you?” PHEW! A huge sense of relief passed over me and I felt that whatever issues I had would immediately get resolved. In fact, they did. My card was canceled, a new card was issued and I would have it in 5 business days.

I thought about why this anxiety fell over me in this particular situation. I can likely contribute it to one of a few experiences I’ve had recently; namely with Intuit. About 6 months ago, I called Intuit and ended up being on the line with someone half way around the world (not that there is anything wrong with that…). Outside of the poor line quality, the communication barrier, lying to me about his real name (I’m pretty sure his name wasn’t Chuck) and his inability to answer my questions in a reasonable time frame (was searching the same knowledge base that I had already searched), the call was great! Right. What a horrible experience.

So, do I associate the poor experience with the location of the agent, or the solution that they are using? Well, I’ve had multiple experiences like the one with Intuit and I think there is a conclusion to this trend. I’m sure that as the world becomes smaller and the English language continues to be a viable second language in other parts of the world, most of my anxiety will dissipate. Although, the cultural differences are a completely separate topic to be saved for another posting.

I still have a way to go to rid myself of offshoreagentphobia. Maybe one day, I can be free of the fears that control me in those times of my customer experience needs. Oh by the way, I found my credit card in the side pocket of my racquetball bag. Too late though; another is already on its way.

(There is great hope for the offshore contact center. Stay tuned for a follow up to this posting with a few suggestions.)

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I’m a Contact Center, Not a Cost Center!

Is it really possible to delineate between a pure cost center and a pure profit center at the contact center level?  For example, if I’m a contact center that is solely assisting customer problems with my product, it’s likely to show up on the balance sheet as an expense.  But what if that customer-to-agent interaction consistently delivers exceptional customer experiences?  That won’t show up on the balance sheet either, but it may eventually as future sales because those customers who have received stellar experiences from the contact center will remain a loyal customer and an advocate of your brand.  The data from analysts and consultants reinforces this line of thinking, have a look at Jon Picoult’s article on customer experience return and Bruce Temkin’s post regarding the correlation between customer experience practitioners and stock return.

A rather mature trend in the contact center world is to have up sell and cross sell offers worked in to the customer interaction work flow. This is an obvious option to generating more revenue and a great opportunity for consumers to derive more value from your products or services over the course of the customer journey, thus enhancing their experience.  Revenue generation doesn’t end with programs for up sell and cross selling in the contact center.   Revenue generation in the contact center begins and ends with the customer centric strategy and tools you employ to support these initiatives. When all’s said and done, enhancing the experience creates more loyalty to your organization, which results increasing the life time value of that customer. The simplistic way of viewing this is to say “customers will buy more products and services from your business when you deliver better experiences than that of your competitors”.

You may refer to your contact center as a cost center or profit center, but I encourage you to look at the contact center as the delivery mechanism for outstanding experiences which keep customers coming back.  Let the accountants and finance pros identify cost efficiencies and profit opportunities in the product or service.   The caveat is that no cost cutting should come at the expense of the customer. The tricky part is finding the mix of strategy, processes, technology, and people that create operational efficiencies that keep costs managed and the customer experience in an ideal state. In pulling it all together, start treating your contact center as a contact center, not a cost center.

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Humility Is a Great Customer Service Strategy

How many times have you had to listen to explanation upon explanation as to why you received a poor customer experience?  My guess is more times than you have heard, “Sorry, we made a mistake”.  Until companies are run by robots, there will always be mistakes.  Simple mistakes can be costly to a business, but mistakes that cost you a customer can be a permanent loss of future revenue, let alone the damage to your reputation should the customer create a YouTube video or publish a tweet to their 20,000 followers.

Social media has only enhanced the need for humility.   For example, look at the humility shown by Domino’s Pizza in their new ad campaign that uses traditional media, YouTube, and Twitter to win back customers. They have the CEO admitting that their pizza was not good, with screenshots of tweets that claim “Domino’s pizza tastes like cardboard”.  I have no empirical data as to the results of this “humility” campaign, but I can say that I have ordered a Domino’s pizza because of it. Let’s be honest, being from Chicago, Domino’s can’t compare to Lou Malnati’s and Gino’s East, but for $5.99 you’ll be happy with it.

It would be interesting to see how Domino’s is leveraging technology to improve the customer experience and the role it played in admitting to their faults. Unfortunately we cannot program a “humility” module into our software. However, an effective customer experience platform can help you identify the customers that need to hear “sorry”.  With that first step, you have a great customer service strategy.

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When Poor Customer Experiences Go Viral

The intention of the this post is not to bash any of the companies involved, but to highlight how easy it is for one poor customer experience to go viral and influence fellow customers’ (or potential customers) perception of a company. Here are three scenarios that should serve as case studies of just how easy a bad experience or a poor customer service response can spiral out of control.

  1. United Breaks Guitars YouTube Video. This might be the most famous viral poor customer experience video ever uploaded to YouTube.  When musician Dave Carroll’s guitars where broken, he created a song to express his frustration with his customer experience. As of 7/16/2010, there have 8.8 Million views of the video.
  2. Nestle and Facebook customer backlash. Greenpeace launched an advert aimed at Nestle to change deforestation and sustainability practices around their use of palm oil in their products. The video went viral and consumers made their opinions known by ambushing Nestle’s Facebook page to sound off. Although Nestle responded with a new zero-deforestation policy that will make its use of palm oil 100% sustainable by 2015, the consumer backlash on Facebook created a huge stir and a PR nightmare for the company.
  3. AT&T Cease and Desist Warning. When iPhone developer, Giorgio Galante, sent an email to AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson to voice his displeasure over wireless data plan changes, the company’s legal department called to issue a cease and desist warning. Unfortunately for AT&T, Giorgio recorded this phone call from AT&T’s legal team and posted it online. It went viral and AT&T quickly had to issue an apology.

All three of these companies are Fortune 500 companies with very structured customer service teams and processes. It’s not to say that they always deliver poor customer experiences. In fact, there are surely countless positive customer experiences that you never hear about. Customers are more (socially) empowered and all it takes is one bad experience that goes viral.

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