Wake Up Call: Call Centers Hold Enormous Potential For Brands

Call centers sit on the frontline of customer experience where they provide sales, support, and customer service functions. They’re often customers’ first — and sometimes their only — human interaction with a company.

Even with conservative estimates, it’s easy to make the case that large call centers have customer influence on par with, if not greater than, that of mass advertising campaigns. (Assuming a call center with 3,000 agents and an average of only 50 calls per agent per day, a company has the opportunity to make 1.05 million personal connections each week — and 54.6 million each year.) 

Call center interactions have the potential to build a company’s brand image, delight people so much that they recommend the brand to friends, and even generate incremental sales. 

But bad call center experiences spoil millions of daily opportunities to drive business value. 

Despite their reach and potential impact on the business, call centers go largely ignored. Instead, companies are making deeper investments in the Web and other sexy of-the-moment digital service interactions, like mobile and Social Computing. Consumers have noticed — they tell us that phone conversations with live agents just don’t stack up to online or in-store experiences. What's worse, Forrester has been tracking US consumer satisfaction with phone conversations across multiple industries since 2007 and 2008, and all but one industry saw their satisfaction rates sink during this time period. Only investment firms bucked the downward trend, and even there, the story isn’t a whole lot better: Satisfaction scores have been effectively flat since 2007.

The root cause: Call centers treat agents like slave labor.

Some large call centers hold agents accountable for strict metrics like time-to-answer, average call handle time, talk time, idling time, nonproduction time, and adherence to script — just to name a few. Other call centers literally make agents raise their hands in order to use the bathroom or only permit them to display one photo on their desks. In return for adhering to these draconian practices, agents get paid low wages. Not surprisingly, companies that take this approach count employee tenure in months — not years — and see employees quit to go elsewhere for raises of less than $1 per hour.

Cultural change is the most effective tactic for improving the call center customer experience. 

Instead of sinking millions of dollars into call center technology projects, companies like American Express, Esurance, Lands’ End, and Zappos.com, which are known for delivering great call center experiences, have focused on creating a customer-centric call center culture.

My recent research found one thing that contributes to a customer-centric call center culture more than anything else: the agents’ passion for delivering outstanding customer service.  From retail and financial services to high-tech firms, top call center managers agree that technical knowledge and previous call center experience shouldn’t be prerequisites for employment. In fact, some of the companies we spoke to specifically look for candidates who don’t have call center jobs on their resumes in order to avoid undesirable habits and attitudes learned elsewhere. Instead, these hiring managers look for candidates who have worked for retail stores, ski lodges, cruise lines, supermarkets, and nursing homes — essentially any position with a service focus. Then they ask for examples of how candidates have handled tricky customer interactions — or about great service experiences they’ve had from the customer side.

For companies that have been ignoring their call centers or find themselves mired in a factory mindset, a cultural shift will mean big changes. In addition to overhauling their hiring practices, call center execs will need help developing new training programs and revising internal incentives and metrics to encourage customer-centric behavior.

How does your company’s call center customer experience stack up? Is it a key component of your overall customer experience strategy?

To learn how to boost the business value of your call center, please join my upcoming teleconference, Building A Strategic Call Center That Supports Your Brand And Business, on May 18 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time (18:00 UK time).


Schwab - "Talk to Chuck"

This graphic is an excellent demonstration of what I've 'felt' in recent calls I've made to companies. One change that stands out is Schwab. Your article accurately describes how I've felt during and after calls with them. At first, I was taken about by their new "Talk to Chuck" cavalier slogan- but it turns out they mean it. The agents *do* want to talk to you, and are very happy to do so. From your chart, the downward shift in call quality only further highlights star improvers. Maybe Schwab took a page out of the Zappos book?

I haven't talked to Chuck myself...

I'm always on the lookout for companies that delivery great call center customer experiences. And, I'm even more thrilled to hear about a customer experience that lives up to the promises made by marketing! I'll make a note to reach out to them for a future report. Thanks!

Eventually, brands will spot

Eventually, brands will spot the pattern:

Customer Complaint to Call Center
--> Call Center *Drone* provides bad Call Center Experience
--> Customer Blogs or Complains to Twitter Followers
--> Instant Brand Damage on twitter.

Good point @ParentingExtra. I

Good point @ParentingExtra. I would add that even adding in "excellent social media response" into the mix still won't repair the damage done. It's like putting a band aid on a garden hose.

Thank you, Twitterers!

Without the throngs of social media users voicing their opinions every day, I'm not sure that we'd currently be seeing such a large uptick in executives that are interested in improving their customer experiences (in the call center and across other channels). Long live the groundswell!

More satisfied customers is good, but...

Could the adoption of alternate channels like IVR, and other sexy of-the-moment digital service... for «easier» interactions be impacting negatively customer satisfaction over the phone? Let's say customers choosing to interact with agents are now trying to solve more complicated problems. They are booking flights and hotel rooms on their smart phonse but are still using call centers most likely when the company screws-up... Could they be more critical about their satisfaction score because of the complexity or the nature of these interactions ?

you raise a great point

hi Jeff,

It's true -- we often pick up the phone only after other channels have failed us. So while I'd expect satisfaction going into the call would be low, I'd hope that satisfaction after the call would be higher that it is. Why? Because phone agents (in theory) should be able to solve even the most complex problem AND create some sort of emotional/personal connection -- and I think the combination of those two things would increase customer sat, even for callers who might have preferred to interact via another channel. The fact that customer sat is so low (and falling) makes me think that agents aren't effectively solving callers' problems and/or aren't making that connection.

On a somewhat separate point, consumers' expectations for great customer experiences are being constantly raised by brands like Apple and Zappos and by new (sexy of-the-moment) technologies that enable richer interactions. I'd bet this is having some influence on customer satisfaction with phone agent interactions. A bad experience is more obvious (and irritating) when you've got an amazing experience to compare it to.

What do you think?

Maybe multi-channel is also to blame ?

I agree and your article is insightful. Phone agents should be able to solve complex problem on the first call AND create some sort of emotional connection to drive customer sat. That is easier when a customer joyfully calls you to book a trip to Hawaii. However, when the call is caused by the company or the customer believes that it is, then it's a bigger challenge for the agent. Think of a high bill issue or a reservation mistake… Could the overall rating of the interaction be inferior?

Acme answered in 10 seconds, no crazy IVR menu in the way, Bob was really nice and he did a great job to solve my problem. My overall satisfaction about the call is : average (not top box). I wish I didn't have to call Acme at all.

I am wondering if customer satisfaction is sinking (or flat) also because complex calls are proportionally increasing in the call center channel. Certainly, this bias was always with us and our customer satisfaction score were comparable when the phone was taking care of anything and everything. Maybe multi-channel is also to blame here and Call Centers will need to deliver an enhanced customer experience just to preserve their score.

Halo effects + complexity

Great points, Jeff. I would bet that there are, in fact, halo effects around the type of interaction (booking a trip to Hawaii vs. resolving a billing issue) and overall channel preference (web vs. phone) for most companies. And given our ever growing options for self service, I'd also bet that the complexity of most service calls is increasing. In some industries, like utilities, these issues might be especially problematic.

Interestingly, the folks at Zappos told me that customers who connect with the Zappos call center give the company higher NPS scores than those who shop online. So there's got to be something about the customer experience that can help companies overcome both of those hurdles.

Yes i does affect the brand

Yes i does affect the brand reputation and customer satisfaction vote it, if a call center is able to resolve the query in quick time and fulfilling all callers requirement as per his/her desire.

Chris Shetler

Nice points you have

Nice points you have mentioned here. I totally agree in what you said that Cultural change is the most effective tactic for improving the call center customer experience. I think still the best techniques for customer service representatives or call center agents is the skill of listening and adjusting to whatever culture they are encountering with. Thanks for posting this anyway :)