Do Your Call Center Agents Have “The Voice?”

By Gerard Castillo

Unless you have been on hiatus on Mars for the past decade or so, you’ve probably heard of “The Voice.” For those who haven’t, it is one of the hottest reality NBC-owned television series that feature the singing prowess (or some say lack thereof) of new and aspiring talents, in the hopes of finding new recording stars, determined by public voting.

Just like its television counterpart, did you know that the call center world likewise looks for “vocal prowess” when it comes to matters such as customer service? That’s right, using the appropriate tone of voice when handling a call can make or break a deal, and ultimately the company.

I recall the time when my mobile phone provider contacted me to inform me that my request for a new handset had been approved. I have to admit that I was more pleased with the friendly tone and demeanor of Harry, the customer care agent, than the good news itself.

On the flipside, my mother had tried to reserve an airline ticket with one of the leading carriers, only to swear never to ride their planes again. Her reason? The rudeness in the way the reservations rep told her, “there are no more seats in the business class section and we cannot give you an upgrade, even if you have so many accumulated points.”

If her decision may sound drastic, remember that a customer contact center agent doesn’t have the “luxury” of showing body language, unlike his or her counterparts who come face to face with the client. Their voice, along with what they are saying, is all they have to go by. Get it wrong and the transaction can go south in a flash.

So do your best to speak in a cheerful, friendly tone. It can go a long way in bringing customers back—or driving them away. It’s your call.

Gerard Castillo is a content writer of Magellan Solutions, a Philippine-based inbound call center.

Efficient Routing the Key to a Successful Call Center

By Lisa Mitchel

The modern call center is often much maligned, but it plays an integral part in customer relationships in a world where customers are increasingly detached from the operational hub of a company. Good customer service is a principle that is at the core of any successful business and the call center represents the interface between a company and its consumers so it much deliver to a high standard. Call traffic is both inbound and outbound and both categories can be managed in a way that maximizes the benefit of a call center to a company.

Outbound Traffic: Call centers making outbound calls operate under strict guidelines that ensure they are not seen to be predatory or persistent callers. Technology is designed to call multiple numbers at once and the first caller to answer is routed to the call center operatives. The slight delay in voice communication can cause customer service issues and it is essential that calls are only made to potential customers and partners that specified they were willing to receive calls. A failure to adhere to basic rules governing the frequency of calls made and appropriate content can lead to a fine and will adversely affect the commercial brand of the call center operation. The reason for an outbound call can determine the propensity of a customer to respond. It is expected that the response rate would be low for companies selling a product that has many substitutes. If the call is relating to credit control procedures then many customers may choose not to answer whilst others may want an instant resolution to a problem.

Inbound Calls: Some call centers exist purely to handle inbound queries and are known as contact centers. Making no outbound calls, they are there to bolster the customer support system of a company but can also act as an administrative function, for example handling claims within an insurance company. The customer menu option is critical because if it is a lengthy process many customers may be bored and frustrated by the time they reach a call center operative. Alternatively they may choose to select the menu options that they feel will direct them to an operative by the quickest route. An example of this may be customers selecting options that suggest they wish to make a bill payment because this would be the most responsive area of the system. Inbound call center staff must be able to demonstrate good company knowledge and an ability to handle customers.

Failure Demand: The efficiency of a call center is all based on statistics. Operatives may be monitored on the speed of call answer and the time spent on the phone will be monitored in the form of average call lengths. It is a delicate balance to consider the need to provide excellent customer service against the need to keep call time to a minimum so that other callers are not kept waiting. If a customer receives incorrect information, or an inappropriate response, this will lead to an additional call. This situation is known as failure demand because an additional call is made to address an issue that could have been handled during the initial call. Business managers invest heavily in technology and trainers for call center operatives because management of failure demand is critical to the overall efficiency of a call center. There are many mainstream and specialist lenders are willing to offer assistance to firms seeking to improve their call center infrastructure. The importance of the call center as the critical nerve center of a business is acknowledged and companies who have a strong function are usually highly regarded by their industry peers and customers.

Drive To Cut Costs: The call center is no longer a new concept and efficiencies have been introduced in technology and in the training of call center operatives. Call routing directs callers to the operatives who have specialist knowledge and access to specific system areas. Training ensures that call handlers hold an efficient conversation which leads to increased capacity on the network. One cost saving strategy that has come to the fore in recent years is the relocation of call centers to the Asian subcontinent. India has a large network of highly educated individuals that command lower salaries than workers in America. Companies such as American Airlines have chosen to reduce labor costs by relocating call centers to India. The results of companies making this type of switch have been mixed because whilst labor costs have been saved, operational issues, most notably the difficulty of disguising local accents and dialects, have actually increased failure demand and reduced levels of customer satisfaction. The evolution of the call center is now entering a new phase and in the last few years the migration of jobs in the industry outside America has slowed and it is anticipated that jobs growth will increase when the labor cost differential reduces and if the moves continue to be poorly received by customers. The future for the call center industry looks bright as continual technological development brings further efficiencies to the process. Increasing regulation governing the conduct of operatives and data security is likely to lead to a greater proportion of services being provided within America.

Call Center Opportunity

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

I received an interesting press release today. The headline reads:

“Mobile Companies Fail to Meet Customer Service Needs Online”

The subhead says: “Comprehensive consumer study reveals that technical issues prevent consumers from accessing the services they want online.”

The announcement continues: “U.S. consumers have declared that mobile operators are falling short of their online customer service standards.

A study conducted by Dimensional Research, an independent research firm, for Business Transaction Management (BTM) software company, OpTier, has found that 72 percent of mobile phone users in the U.S. are heading online to view or pay a bill, upgrade their phone, change their calling plan or purchase content. Yet more than half (51 percent) stated that they have experienced ‘significant’ problems in doing so. Users identified poor performance, website functionality and usability as prominent pet peeves when using their mobile operator’s portal.

“Adding to the pain for mobile operators, 74 percent of consumers said they will call their service provider if their inquiry is not resolved online. This means that mobile service providers could be missing out on the potential cost savings of providing online customer service, as visitors get disillusioned with self-service only portals and instead choose to call customer service.”

This presents an opportunity for outsourcing contact centers on many different levels: text chat, assisted browsing, and email and telephone support.

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

When a Telemarketing Call Fails…

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

I am the first to appreciate and embrace well-done and smartly executed outbound calling. I am also highly critical of and greatly annoyed by poorly executed telemarketing efforts. Another example for this latter perspective arrived at my office today, courtesy of my telephone. The call went like this:

“May I speak to the person in charge of your freight deliveries?” She mechanically droned. The agent had a pleasant enough voice, but showed no enthusiasm or interest.

“We don’t do any freight deliveries,” I responded matter-of-factly.

“Really?” she asked.  “You do no inbound or outbound freight shipments?” she probed, as though I was lying. “But I got your number from the Internet,” she added, as if that was the ultimate source of accurate information. (Incidentally, the number she called is not listed on any of my Web sites.)

“We do no freight,” I confirmed. “I’ll let you go on to your next call,” I said as positively as I could muster.”

“You’re rude!” she declared.

I responded in kind and communication quickly deteriorated, with me hanging up on her — which would have been more productive had I done so much earlier in the call.

Each time that a telemarketing call fails, be it through lack of training, a poorly conceived campaign, a bad list, or a company that just doesn’t care, the result is the same: everyone’s job of making calls has just become a bit harder.

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

Call Center: The Wrong Way

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

I selected on an Internet firm to file my trademark application for my new publication, TAS Trader. After a perfunctory phone call to remove concerns over their viability, I submitted my information online. This set in motion a series of email communiqués with their “trademark team” that became increasingly frustrating, lacking in substantive communication. Once it became apparent that we were at a communication impasse, I called again. To my dismay, “customers” are routed to a different group than “prospects.” My customer service contact was not nearly as impressive as my sales contact.

Regardless of what I asked, she responded with: “We cannot guarantee that your application will be accepted,” or “We do not provide legal advice, as was stated…” Neither response was relevant to what I was saying. Each time her tone was mechanical and even-paced, as though I was talking to a robot, possessing limited response options.

“You’re not listening to me,” I implored. “I can appreciate you have to read this disclaimer to me, but…”

This evoked an emotional retort, “I’m not reading a script,” she declared with irritation. “I’ve worked here for five years and know what I’m saying; I don’t need to read it.” Soon, she regained her composure and reverted to her tired verbiage, punctuated with, “Shall I place your order or not?” Eventually I acquiesced, albeit with grave reservation.

Although she answered quickly, after minimal IVR interdiction, her efforts were dispassionate and distant. Her responses were polished to the point of boredom, while her rebuttals were few, likely limited by a legal department intent on minimizing lawsuits. Although she salvaged my account, the interaction was not successful and my customer satisfaction was nonexistent. The rep may have won the proverbial battle, but she lost the war; my account was salvaged, but my future patronage was lost.

[See “Call Center: The Right Way” for a much better outcome.]

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

Call Center: The Right Way

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

Recently, I had questions about my HSA (Health Savings Account). Expecting the worst, I reluctantly called my provider. To my delight, my call was quickly answered, there was no queue, and no queue announcements. I don’t even recall being subjected to an IVR on the front end of my call. The agent was cheerful and pleasant — dare I say perky — while communicating in English with ease and aplomb; I never once had to ask her to repeat herself. I explained my dilemma, and she agreed that their statements were hard to understand, assuring me that she would help me to understand mine.

Telling me that supplemental information was online, I logged in and she walked me through the options to get to the page that would provide the additional detail. Amazingly, she went through this information with me line by line, explaining what each item meant and informing me how I could click on any entry to obtain more detail. Upon doing so, I was able to obtain the additional clarity I sought.

She then said something surprising, “The Web site is confusing to use, so feel free to call back next month when you receive your statement, and I can go over this again.” It was as though she was paid on commission and wanted me to call again. Wow, that’s customer service that I’ve not experienced in a long time.

So for this call, call center technology was not used to restrict me from talking with someone, my call was answered quickly by a personable, knowledgeable, and trained person who spoke English clearly, my frustrations were acknowledged and validated, and I was not treated as though I was ignorant or incompetent. Plus, I was asked to call again.

[See “Call Center: The Wrong Way” for an alternate tale.]

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

That’s No Way to Run a Business

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

A while back, the Connections Magazine sales line was slammed with phone calls — for another company. The calls were from irate individuals trying to call a removal line of the fax service bureau that had sent them faxes. It seems that they had received an unwanted fax solicitation on behalf of a travel company. They angrily called the fax removal number listed in the fine print to stop the unwelcome intrusions. Unfortunately, between too small print and the low quality of faxes, the number looked a lot like ours.

With voicemail now screening the calls, I set towards averting a future reoccurrence of this fiasco. I called the number in the ad. My call was abruptly answered by someone who cared little about professionalism or customer service. There was a cacophony of talking in the background. I had reached a call center boiler room!

Once the agent realized I was not interested in her spiel about vacation cruises, she became even less interested. When I asked to speak to a supervisor, I was disconnected. I called again. After more futility, I demanded to speak with a manager. I was placed on hold for several minutes — and eventually heard dialtone. Calling the actual fax removal number, left me trapped in an automated loop with no escape.

At the risk of stating the obvious, permit me to make some recommendations.

For the fax service bureau:

  • Make sure the removal number is easily readable.
  • Provide a way out (press zero for operator or at least let them leave a message).
  • Offer an alternative means of contact, such as email or snail mail.
  • Don’t illegally fax ads.
  • Don’t provide services to unscrupulous clients.

For the call center:

  • Train your staff to be polite and professional. Retrain or terminate those who don’t capitulate.
  • Don’t hang up on callers.
  • Allow calls to be escalated when requested.
  • Have a website; make it easy for people to contact you.
  • Don’t use “bait and switch” tactics.
  • Remember that if you don’t police your agents and compensate only for sales, expect nothing else from them.

Most of the people reading this are not the ones who need to hear it, but perhaps this post will find itself in the hands of a call center manager who needs to reform their company’s wayward practices.

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

eCommerce + Call Center = Success

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

I like to order online. Unfortunately, several of my recent e-purchase experiences have fallen short of expectations — providing valuable lessons in the process.

The first occurred when ordering a box of books. Upon receiving the email confirmation, I noticed that I had inadvertently ordered forty copies of a different book with an almost identical title. With no option to cancel online, I called their customer service number. The recording said they were closed for the weekend. I called at 9:10 AM Monday morning only to find that the books had been “shipped” earlier that day. The rep instructed me on how to return them. When I received the order, there was a second error — one of the three boxes contained unrelated DVDs, but with no packing list and no paperwork for return. I called again. The rep determined what had happened and how to resolve it. Had their call center been operating 24×7, the errant order could have been cancelled, saving a wrong shipment, a second phone call, a return shipment, a credit card refund, and a month to resolve.

Another time I placed an order, received the confirmation, my card was charged, and the product was shipped — but I received the wrong book. The only customer service option was email. I concisely explained the situation, receiving an automated reply that they would respond within 24 hours. They did, but with a canned message telling me how long shipping might take. I sent a second message; expect for their automated response, there was no reply. Two days later, I sent a third message, and the next week, a fourth. My fourth plea was responded to — three days after it was sent. They told me the book I ordered was no longer available, they would refund my money, and to donate the errant shipment to charity. This incident took three weeks to resolve, required four contacts, resulted in lost merchandise for them, and did not produce the book I ordered. With an available call center, this could have been resolved with one call.

For the third incident, I received an error message during checkout, which I couldn’t resolve. I called customer service; they were so familiar with the error that they knew what I had ordered and told me how to correct it. However, I had more gifts to order, each going to a different address, thereby requiring separate orders. My second order defaulted to the first shipping address. A second call to customer service was needed to cancel the errant order and receive instructions on how to bypass the default shipping address. Two needless calls had to be made because their Website was confusing and poorly designed.

So there it is; three e-commerce lessons for call centers.

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

Happy New Year!

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

We, at Connections Magazine, wish you a safe, healthy, and prosperous 2009.

Thank you for all your support, encouragement, and appreciation in 2008. We will work to keep that momentum going, continuing to serve you as we roll into 2009.

Have a Happy New Year!

Peter DeHaan, Connections Magazine and Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

Want More Sales? Check Your Email

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

If it’s your job to obtain clients for your call center, I have a secret technique to increase your closing ratio and success rate: check your email. Seriously.

I suspect that there’s a better than even chance that you are missing leads, spurning prospects, and losing sales – all because of email. If you don’t believe me, I have proof.

On the Connections Magazine website, I list outsource call centers. There is an expanded version of the same information on the website Find a Call Center. All the data listed has been directly submitted by the call center themselves, be it the owners, marketing managers, or sales professionals.  [List your call center.] The one thing they have in common is that they are all eager to receive leads and make sales. Once the information is submitted, I review it, verify that the information is relevant, and then post it on both sites.

I verify listings annually and recently sent out the verification messages. The lack of response — and the slowness of response — was appalling. Emailing sales contacts at 188 call centers, only 48 (25%) responded to my first email message, while 21 (11%) of the addresses generated a failure notice. The majority of those responding did so the first day, but many trickled in over the next week.

I sent a second email message to the remaining 119 non-responders. This time 16 (13%) responded, with 4 (3%) generating a “delayed” message, eventually “giving up.” One third of the responders did so within one day, with the rest taking up to five days. A third and final email was sent out to the remaining 103 call centers. This time only 5 (5%) responded.

Someone might assert that sales inquiries take precedence over my verification email, but does this somehow justify never responding? That is unacceptable. Remember, if my verification request is ignored, they lose their listing and all subsequent leads.

In summary, only 37% responded at all — only about half did so on the same business day; 13% had non-working email addresses (“failures” or “delayed”); an entire 50% were seemingly received but ignored.

If your call center marketing strategy and sales staff relies on email inquiries for lead generation, prospecting, and sales, then these are indeed sobering numbers.

[Posted by Peter DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]