Attention-Catching Customer Service Depends on People

By Mike Roy

As telecommunications companies consider implementing the latest contact center technologies, they should bear in mind that technology is only as good as the people using it. And while self-service is a boon to contact center cost-cutting, used indiscriminately, it’s the ultimate turnoff for customers.

As any contact center executive knows, maintaining the balance between cost-effectiveness and delivering excellent customer service is difficult at best. The rise of advanced technology for contact centers, including self-service capabilities, has led many companies to believe that the human touch in customer service is something that can be progressively minimized to reduce costs.

However, organizations are now finding that much of the savings derived from these efforts to reduce the cost of live, well-trained agents are often offset by lost revenue opportunities, customer churn costs, and agent turnover. Here’s a look at why companies today are taking a second look at the human element in excellent customer service.

People Prefer People: According to a J.D. Power and Associates report issued earlier this year, wireless provider performance declines significantly when customer care issues are handled by a computerized response or IVR system. The 2007 Wireless Customer Care Performance StudySM  from J.D. Power and Associates found that customers who spoke with a live agent rated their experience nearly 40 percent higher than those who went through an automated response system. Aberdeen Group research on service chain performance also points to a combination of good technology and skilled, highly trained agents to create the best results.

While it is important to take advantage of the quicker handling times offered by automation technology, using IVR for self-service is appropriate only for certain types of transactions. Companies who force customers through unwieldy and annoying IVR trees risk frustrated callers, lower agent morale for agents dealing with irate customers, and missed opportunities for cross-sell and up-sell due to customer anger and frustration.

The potential loss of cross-sale opportunities is particularly critical for telecom companies, which are depending on triple play (and in some instances, quadruple play) relationships with customers to boost revenues and profits.

Customers to Companies: “Just Solve My Problem”: Being forced to deal with a system, or an agent for that matter, that is unable to empathize with a customer’s situation or solve the problem, can leave consumers feeling undervalued and underappreciated. That’s one of the reasons why “homeshoring” is often replacing offshoring for many call center operations. Reports and anecdotal evidence indicate that customers are tired of not being understood by agents – offshore or otherwise. They want to be able to talk to an agent who understands their needs and has the skills to solve their problems.

Resolving issues in a single call is a win-win for everyone. For the customer, “first-call resolution” means higher satisfaction and a lower likelihood of taking business to a competitor. For the company, first-call resolution results in lower overall contact center costs.

Unfortunately, companies still have a ways to go to reach customer satisfaction nirvana. The J.D. Powers and Associates survey shows that the number of calls to resolve an inquiry by phone actually increased to 1.87, up from 1.76 in the previous survey.

One of the reasons for the increase could be that average reported hold times on calls to customer service departments was 3.58 minutes. One reason for longer hold times can, paradoxically, be the IVR system. After customers have suffered through a painful IVR experience before reaching an agent, calls are often longer and more unsatisfactory for both the customer and the agent. Call times lengthen, agent morale drops, and agent productivity takes a hit.

The Right Blend of Technology and Live, Skilled Agents: Service providers in the communications industry are starting to get the message about the need for highly skilled and trained agents. Instead of relying solely upon the latest IVR solution or offshoring customer service to the lowest bidder, savvy contact centers are blending technology with a properly trained staff of contact center agents to address the current crisis in customer service satisfaction.

This means making the most appropriate use of IVR to reduce cost center costs, but not forcing self-service on all customers. By striking a balance of advanced technology, the right people, and proper staffing levels, contact centers can keep hold times at a minimum. Then, when a customer requires assistance from a live agent, using technology to connect the customer with the agent best skilled to handle the customer’s problem will result in shorter call lengths and more satisfied customers. At the same time, these highly skilled agents listen for indications that the customer is interested in additional products and services.

Poorly trained agents who are merely answering the phone can’t provide this quality of service. Yet achieving just the right blend of human interaction to ensure exceptional customer service can be difficult for companies to cost-effectively achieve on their own. Telecom companies are finding that it pays to work with a strategic outsourcing partner who can help improve customer satisfaction through human interaction while still keeping costs low and productivity high.

Outsourcing Fills the Gap: A strategic outsourcing partner with the right set of tools and expertise can help improve customer satisfaction by delivering a more personalized approach while still maintaining costs and achieving productivity goals. Providing a skilled, empathetic human touch to customer service can be achieved while still delivering those services efficiently and in a cost-effective manner.

A Communications Industry Example: One telecommunications provider that our company worked with needed to optimize its customer interactions to improve service and deepen the relationship with the customer. We put a sales training program into place that included scripting to ensure that all of a customer’s needs were met before ending the communication, which helped to ensure one-call resolution of any customer calls and thus reduced the overall costs of servicing customers while also further enhancing customer relationships.

The Value of a Human Touch: Communications companies, as well as enterprises across all industries, are realizing that there is no replacement for a skilled, live agent to ensure an exceptional customer service experience. After all, people really do prefer people. When it comes to a relationship with a customer, no company should underestimate the value of the human touch.

Michael Roy is the vice president of client management and solutions for StarTek, Inc., a provider ofhigh value business process outsourcing services to the communications industry. Roy has twenty years in marketing, consultative sales, strategy, and solutions development. Contact StarTek at 800-541-1130 for more information.

[From Connection Magazine November 2007]

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