The Importance of Channel Consistency



By Peter L. DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineI wrapped up last year by buying a lot of products online—well, at least it was a lot by my standards. Some items were gifts, a few were for myself as I took advantage of Christmas sale prices, and the rest were for work to complete purchases before the fiscal year ended. As I investigated options and made my selections, I interacted on more than a few occasions with various customer service channels.

Though far from scientific, my empirical results can inform and encourage us.

Web Chat: As a consumer I’ve never been a big fan of chat services. Though my typing speed is decent, my accuracy isn’t. Plus, as a recovering perfectionist, I double-check and triple-check my words and their meaning before I click “send.” A phone call, assuming that option is available, seems so much more effective.

Plus my past encounters with web chat were never good. Sometimes a rep never came online, other times the delay between responses was unbearable, and many times the rep never really answered my questions. Once after a response that was completely off topic, I made the mistake of typing, “Did you even read my question?” The rep’s response wasn’t kind. These experiences conditioned me to avoid web chat.

Things have changed, however. My recent web chat experiences were all great, approaching excellent. (I imagine hearing a collective sigh of relief from all of you who provide this service.) Each time I received the help I sought in a timely manner. The reps responded to my chat requests quickly and answered my questions fully, engaging me in the process. One of the best was from a well-known computer company. I asked the rep how many simultaneous sessions she handled. Her answer was three, but she added, “Sometimes they ask us to handle four if we get busy.” I doubt these requests are optional, but it was refreshing for her to use the word ask instead of make.

Phone: With my computer order placed, I later needed to call the company: After a month of shipping delays, they canceled my order. There was something fishy about their explanation, but the result was that I needed to reorder since my original configuration was no longer available. I had two options: go online or call a special number.

I opted to call. I mistakenly assumed the rep at this special number would know about my situation and have a quick, easy resolution to speed my new computer to me. I was so wrong. I spent about ten minutes trying to explain the situation to the phone rep. Once he finally understood, I thought I was seconds away from ordering a new computer. Instead he said, “Let me transfer you.”

The second rep claimed to have no knowledge of my first conversation, but it only took her a couple minutes to understand the situation—and then she transferred me. The third rep, Sylvestor, was the hardest of all to understand, with me pleading for him to repeat—sometimes more than once—what he had said. In the end I caught most of it.

Though I didn’t ask these reps where they were located, their accent suggested a country known for its call centers. This surprised me because I heard that this company had brought their call centers back onshore in response to the outcry of their customers.

Email: Within seconds of hanging up, I received an email from Sylvestor. He confirmed my purchase and provided a link to track its progress. The link didn’t work, and the transaction never showed up in my account. I replied to his email to express my concern—twice. I was still waiting for his response when the computer showed up. My purchase still hasn’t appeared in my account.

This company excelled with their web chat, disappointed with their phone service, and had an epic fail with email. Their channel experiences didn’t align, and I judge them by their weakest channels, not their best one. My three decades as their customer has ended.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, AnswerStat, TAS Trader, and Medical Call Center News, as well as a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

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Answering the Call Is Just the First Step



By Peter L. DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineI see more and more companies moving away from forced self-service to some degree of customer service. It matters not if they offer customer service by telephone, text chat, or email. What’s important is their attempt to provide support to customers and not let them flounder. This is good for consumers, companies, workers, and the contact center industry. Everyone wins.

While some companies hide their customer service channels behind a wall of self-service options and FAQs, others make their offerings prominent. They are the champions. They want to make it easy for customers and potential customers to reach them. They’ve figured out that it’s good business to actually help the people who buy their products – the same folks who make it possible for them to stay in business.

Unfortunately some companies try to control the method of contact. They still don’t fully understand that the customer is important, but at least these businesses are doing something. Other companies limit their hours of availability. They’ve probably decided that they can’t justify having customer service staff work on the third shift or outside of regular business hours. News flash: Outsource the work to provide 24/7 coverage on a cost-effective basis.

Smart companies offer a full range of contact options: phone, chat, email, and even fax and snail mail for those so inclined. And they offer them 24/7. I applaud them. They have the right vision and understand the importance of providing support to their current customers and prospective buyers.

Yet this is only the beginning. Answering the phone, accepting a chat request, or reading an email is just the first step. A critical step to be sure, but execution makes the difference.

Yesterday I hung up the phone in frustration. I had called a company with two questions. The first question, which I assumed was the easy one, produced only confusion. We were both talking, but we weren’t communicating. I succinctly gave the needed background for my query and then asked my question.

“So what’s your question?” she said.

I repeated what I had just asked, word for word.

But instead of answering it, she went off on a tangent. I think she heard one word, keyed in on it, jumped to a wrong conclusion, and went off on a rabbit trail that had no bearing on my question.

On my third attempt she answered my question, but I have no confidence that she gave me the right answer. In fact, I have no confidence that she even understood what I was asking.

However, she did understand my second question – but she gave me a quick answer packed with company jargon that made no sense to me. She used one phrase repeatedly, and when I asked what that meant, she explained it by using that same phrase. Again, we had a failure to communicate.

If this person had received any customer service training, she surely didn’t show any evidence of it. I suspect she knew her company’s basic offering well, but she lacked the ability to effectively talk about it.

I thought about calling back in hopes I’d get someone else who could actually help me, but my past interactions with this organization gave me little expectation for a different outcome. I would switch vendors if not for the fact that they offer the best package for the lowest price.

Though I was frustrated with this agent, I fully suspect she was frustrated with me – or at least with our call and the struggle we had for effective communication.

Better training would have made the difference. Not product training, but customer service techniques, listening skills, and some side-by-side coaching.

I commend the company for answering the phone when I called. That’s the first step. The next step is to actually help the people who contact them. That’s the key to customer service.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, AnswerStat, TAS Trader, and Medical Call Center News, as well as a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

Call Center Reality and Public Perception

By Peter L. DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineI’ve been in many situations lately where people ask me what I do for a living. It’s a query I dread, not because I’m embarrassed but because I find the follow-up questions exhausting. Here’s an example:

“What do you do?” the woman asks.

“I’m a writer, and I publish magazines.”

Her eyes brighten. “What kind of magazines?”

“Trade publications for the call center industry.”

Her smile fades. “What?”

Like most people, she’s either stumbling over “trade publications” or “call center,” but she doesn’t say which one.

“I produce specialty magazines for call centers.”

“Why?” she asks. “Are there any call centers left?”

“The call center industry is alive and well,” I explain.

“I thought they all went overseas.”

“Some did, but many have come back.”

“Why?” She’s more confused than curious.

“In some cases the cost savings weren’t as good as projected or offshore management was too difficult. Another reason is to improve quality.”

“They care about quality?”

“Yes, it’s what customers want.”

Her blank look tells me she doesn’t understand, but she has run out of questions. I change the subject. “So, what do you do?”

In another conversation, at the point where I mention call centers, my interviewer asks, “You mean like telemarketing?”

I shake my head. “Some call centers place calls, but most answer calls.”

“Huh?”

“Like calling a company to place an order.” He doesn’t react. “Or calling with a question about a product.” He shakes his head. “How about a nurse advice line?”

There’s a glimmer of recognition. “They’re worthless,” he says. “It’s like they’re just following a protocol.”

“That’s exactly what they’re doing! They’re following a carefully devised, time-proven process to determine a proper course of action.”

“But they always tell me either to take two aspirins or go to the ER.”

Apparently he calls often, but I wonder why since he claims they’re worthless.

Another time the guy knows exactly what I was talking about. He had worked in several call centers during college and for a few years after. This was in the 90s. His experiences weren’t good. He decries the rows of cubicles, the hovering supervisors waiting to pounce on the tiniest of mistakes, the pressure to hit unreachable productivity numbers, and the sweatshop conditions of his environment. He shudders in horror.

“There aren’t too many like that anymore. The focus is now on quality and customer service.”

He looks at me as if I’m delusional.

At the mention of call centers, other people launch into a tirade. “I hate it when they call during dinner,” says one woman.

Apparently she still has a landline and hasn’t heard about the do-not-call list. Instead of explaining, I say, as calmly as possible, “You don’t have to answer the phone.”

She glares at me as if I’ve just suggested that she murder someone. “But it’s ringing!”

“Let your answering machine get it.”

“What if it’s important?”

“Don’t you have caller ID?”

“What’s that?”

Other times people share specific horror stories of calls gone bad: rude agents, poor connections, being disconnected, double orders, delayed shipments, billing errors, and wrong (sometimes harmful) information. They complain about accents they can’t understand, robo calls, and hang-ups. They grumble about the agents’ inability to comprehend what they’re saying or answer simple questions.

The phrase call center evokes many reactions from those outside the industry, none of which are good. The public view of the call center industry – for all its successes and countless positive outcomes – suffers from a public disconnect. Past wrongs and negative press paint a picture of call center incompetence and irritation. All the good we do to help people and contribute to the economy is largely lost.

Next time someone asks what I do, maybe I’ll say, “I’m a writer” and then see where that conversation goes.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, AnswerStat, TAS Trader, and Medical Call Center News, as well as a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

Embrace the Call Center as a Business Strategy

By Peter L. DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineThe call center has had its share of detractors over the years, from businesses that dismissed it as an unnecessary cost to consumers quick to voice their frustrations and politicians who want to fix it. (Actually most of the politicians just want to garner support from frustrated voters.)

One big salvo against the call center came during the dot.com bubble, which advocated online self-support in lieu of call center customer service. It was good in concept: a scalable solution with minimal labor expenses. The only problem was that self-support didn’t work all that well. With too many wrong answers and not enough good ones, self-support meant no support for most people.

The belief that end users didn’t need customer service support mostly died when the dot.com bubble burst. Call centers were needed, and businesses restored them. But because they focused only on the bottom line and viewed the call center as a cost center, many businesses offshored their call centers to the lowest cost provider. The results were disastrous. It’s not that offshore call centers are bad, but when the focus is on cost containment over quality service, callers are bound to complain. And complain they did: to the businesses, to each other on social media, and to their elected officials.

Many offshore call centers returned onshore, and most of the rest focused on improved quality over lower costs. Everyone won – well, almost everyone. Younger generations, reared on the self-service mind-set and then conditioned to experience low-quality phone support, wrote off the call center and never returned. Picking up the phone became their last inclination; we trained them to think this way.

Yet I see many reasons for call center optimism.

My hosting company has provided US-based phone support for as long as I’ve used them. For a time, they seemed to want users to contact them via email or text chat, but now they emphasize phone support and actually encourage users to call with questions. Their on-hold message even proclaims that they love talking to customers. They understand the value of having real people verbally communicate with their customers.

Another area is my business accounting software. It works well, but I have a low success rate when it comes to upgrades. The first time an upgrade didn’t work and broke the software, I had to search hard for a support number. When I called I was dismayed to learn that, even though their upgrade caused the problem, they intended to charge me to fix it. They demanded that I buy an annual support agreement that cost almost four times what I paid for the software. I declined their offer, and after a few hours of searching online, I learned the solution from another user. Over the years, however, they’ve gotten better. When my last upgrade went south, I found their support number easily, they answered quickly, fixed the problem (that they caused), and didn’t charge me a thing. It seems that they finally understand the importance of serving customers through their call center.

A related issue is my merchant account provider. In the early days, once they completed the initial setup, I was on my own to figure things out and resolve problems. If a card didn’t go through, too bad. Their online solution said to try later, verify the card information, or use a different card. Though it takes a couple of clicks to get there, their online help now gives a phone number to call. To my delight the agent I talked with was most helpful.

My credit union also dabbled in the self-service concept. Several years ago they began opening new branches with minimal staff and a row of ATMs. If you wanted to open an account, a person was available to help you. For everything else you had to use the ATM. Members were not impressed. The credit union reversed this failed strategy and began opening full-service branches. Plus they support members with one of the best call center operations I’ve ever experienced. They are growing fast and consistently receive high satisfaction scores from their members.

All these businesses comprehend the importance of having people serve people. It’s a sound strategy.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, AnswerStat, TAS Trader, and Medical Call Center News, as well as a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

Let’s Be Honest About Omnichannel

A literal implementation of omnichannel makes no sense and would not be cost-effective

By Peter L. DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineWhen a new technology emerges it sometimes takes a while for the industry to converge on a singular label to describe it. Such is the case with the vision to fully integrate multiple communication channels in order to provide users with a seamless customer service or shopping experience.

Looking at this description, two key words stand out: multiple and channel. Hence the logical label is multichannel. But some proponents of the technology objected – for reasons I don’t remember and barely bothered to understand. They advanced a seemingly superior, all-inclusive descriptor of omnichannel. Rhetoric and vitriol ensued.

Frankly I don’t care. Connections Magazine has used both terms interchangeably in these pages and online. (Don’t shoot me; it’s just semantics. Really.) Whichever label an author uses is the one we use in that article, and we will continue to do so. Multichannel versus omnichannel seems much ado about much too little.

The key of the technology is channel integration for the benefit of customers. This is a great effort and will be an even greater outcome once the industry fully realizes it. We can call it “get-right-answers-fast” or “custro-technobabble” for all I care. The name is not the point. The results are. Be it omnichannel or multichannel, the modern contact center sits in the middle and the customer wins.

However, in the battle of words, omnichannel seems to be winning. So be it.

But call center technology aside, I’m also a wordsmith. Let’s break down the omnichannel label before we wholeheartedly embrace the word and all its implications.

The first part of the word, omni, is a Latin prefix that means “all” or “every.” So when we say omnichannel, we literally mean all channels or every channel. This may appear as an ideal understanding, but it’s not practical – not at all.

Omnichannel certainly encompasses the main communication channels of today: voice, email, and text. So far, so good. It also makes room for emerging channels, such as social media and video, as well as future channels not yet imagined. I applaud this holistic inclusion of popular options and promising technologies, but there are limits. Is anyone open for a mental telepathy channel?

If we say all channels and really mean it, we must actually embrace them all. This includes fax, telex, teletype, and telegraph, too. What about CB, ham, and shortwave radio? These are all channels, all part of the omnichannel paradigm, albeit with varying degrees of obsolescence and practicality. While some contact centers may still provide a fax channel and will process an occasional snail mail missive, I don’t imagine any are pursuing telegraph or CB channels, no matter how big the directive for true omnichannel integration.

So the next time someone gets in your face about the need for pursuing a true omnichannel initiative, simply ask, “So, what you think about smoke signals?”

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, AnswerStat, TAS Trader, and Medical Call Center News, as well as a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

[From Connection MagazineJuly/August 2016]

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How to Combat Survey Fatigue

Too many poorly implemented surveys have conditioned people to disregard them.

By Peter L. DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineOrganizations of all types know the importance of receiving feedback from their stakeholders, be it their customers, clients, stockholders, prospects, users, participants, donors, volunteers, or advocates. A stakeholder who feels heard is one who feels valued. This results in an increased affiliation with the organization and a growing connection to its mission.

One-on-one meetings are the most effective way to accomplish this, rather than in person, on the phone, or via email. Next on the effectiveness scale are group interactions, which similarly lend themselves to physical meetings, conference calls, and group messaging. These all take time and have varying degrees of expense associated with them. But they are ineffective at obtaining feedback on a large scale.

Perhaps that’s why online and automated phone surveys have taken off. Both are inexpensive ways to obtain valuable feedback and cement a stronger connection between the organization and the stakeholder. In addition to not costing much, surveys are also time-conscious.

Their ease of implementation and low cost, however, have led to overuse and misuse. Too many are poorly designed. Too often they irritate stakeholders instead of ingratiating them.

Here are some reasons why surveys fail:

Too Often: I deal with some companies that ask me to take a survey at the end of every call. Sometimes I sigh and take the survey. Other times I sigh and don’t. The data they collect is actionable, more or less, but it is also trivial.

Too Long: Some surveys go on and on, presenting an array of questions, often asking the same thing but in different ways and various formats. These are clearly designed by people with a data focus but who lack a people focus. They gather my feedback and earn my ire in the process.

Too Short: Do one-question surveys really accomplish anything?

Too Soon: Often I’m asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the call before I know the answer. Many times, when the call ends I think the problem is resolved, but time proves otherwise. Then I need to call back, even though on the survey I said the reason for my initial call was accomplished.

Too Limited: Sometimes I want to provide detailed information, either because I’m mad or because I have input I feel is valuable. Yet the survey has no provision for me to provide it, just options to click and no place to write.

Too Frustrating: The opposite of surveys with no provision to give details are surveys that force it. For example, “Did the agent address your concern?” is followed up with the inane “How?” which requires a response in the form of an essay question. If I have nothing to say in a particular manner, don’t compel me to make something up.

As a result of all of these problems, people too often respond to surveys by not responding. And that may be the most telling response of all. They have survey fatigue.

To recapture the full benefits of stakeholder surveys, organizations need to overhaul their use and their form. They should design surveys that provide both actionable and important data. These new surveys need to engage stakeholders and show true appreciation, not merely spew trite platitudes. And they need to provide value to both parties.

To develop improved surveys, organizations require input from the stakeholders who will take them – just don’t send them a survey to gain that input.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, AnswerStat, TAS Trader, and Medical Call Center News, as well as a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

[From Connection MagazineMay/June 2016]

Healthcare Is Hot – Is Your Contact Center Ready?

By Peter L. DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineFor the past five years, Connections Magazine has taken one issue each year to focus on healthcare, be it telehealth, telephone triage, or healthcare contact centers. For the last couple of years, this has occurred in our March issue.

Our sister publication, AnswerStat, focuses on the healthcare contact center industry. At AnswerStat we just updated our tagline to read “The information hub for healthcare contact center news and resources” to better explain what we cover.

Our work with AnswerStat gives us an up-close view of what’s happening throughout the year in the world of telehealth, allowing us to share the best of the best for Connections Magazine’s annual focus on healthcare contact centers. With AnswerStat starting its fourteenth year, that’s a lot of coverage.

Always an interesting area, healthcare contact centers and telehealth took on a heightened level of importance with the Affordable Care Act (more commonly known as ObamaCare). Even before the bill passed, speculation abounded on the ramifications for healthcare contact centers and the telehealth industry. Opportunities seemed everywhere, from doing more of what we were already doing to delving into exciting new areas of service.

Some of the newer possibilities included helping to contain costs, enhance patient care, reduce hospital readmission rates, improve operational efficiencies, and oversee disease management. Under the more-of-the-same category, we saw telephone triage, appointment setting and reminders, physician referrals, and medical answering service all grow in importance.

On the front of leading-edge technologies, I recently wrote a column in AnswerStat titled “The Internet of Things Intersects Healthcare.” At its basic level the Internet of Things (IoT) puts an RFID (radio frequency identification) tag in things in order to monitor where they are or what they are doing.

For healthcare the IoT as many applications. While monitoring patients’ vital signs is common in the hospital environment, the concept can now extend to home-based convalescence or hospice. Locating dementia patients who have wandered off is feasible with the IoT. Even remotely administering medications is a possibility. Telehealth taps into the IoT and can greatly expand because of it. The list of potential healthcare IoT applications is limited only by our ability to imagine grand solutions.

While the idea behind IoT is automation, at some point people must be able to evaluate the collected data. As such, the modern healthcare contact center stands at the intersection of healthcare and the IoT. That means more opportunities – and the IoT is just one such evolving technology.

Given all this it’s not surprising that our healthcare contact center coverage this year is the biggest yet, with our vendor directory and articles on telehealth, finding the right consultant, and telephone triage.

Of course this issue isn’t all about telehealth. We have our regular columns as well as some general articles.

We hope you enjoy this special issue of Connections Magazine.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and AnswerStat, as well as a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

[From Connection MagazineMarch/April 2016]

The Cost of Poor Training

By Peter L. DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineMy wife ordered a coat online from a well-known regional chain for a Christmas present. She has a history of positive shopping experiences at the chain’s physical stores and assumed their virtual store would be no different.

The coat went on sale the week before Black Friday, and when combined with a 30 percent off coupon the price was slashed in half. This made a too-expensive coat suddenly affordable. With free shipping, my wife clicked “submit” and smiled, satisfied over the really great deal she got.

Her satisfaction didn’t last long. Two days later the coat went on sale again, this time discounted even more. With the new sales price and another 15 percent discount, the coat now cost one-third of the original price.

She checked the store’s policy about making adjustments for sales prices. Their website stated that they would issue a credit if a sale occurred within two weeks of the original purchase. Unfortunately she couldn’t do this online. When she placed her original order, she couldn’t log into her account – one she had set up to receive all the discount coupons – so she completed her order as a “guest.” This wasn’t an issue until she tried to log in to get the adjustment.

So she picked up the phone.

The first rep couldn’t make the adjustment, but she could fix the log-in problem. Twenty-five minutes later that issue was resolved, and my wife found herself transferred to someone to issue the promised credit.

This guy cheerfully agreed to make the adjustment for the sale price but couldn’t include the coupon. My wife pushed, but he didn’t budge.

She tried a new approach. “But if I placed the order today, I’d get the sale price and be able to use the coupon.”

“Yes, that’s right,” the rep said. “I can place the order for you if you’d like.” It seemed like a good solution to him. “Then just return one of the coats.”

“That’s a lot of extra work and expense,” my wife countered. “Can’t you just make the adjustment in the computer?”

He gave a long explanation that she didn’t fully understand.

“So what you’re telling me is that your hands are tied.”

He didn’t like her summation, but that’s about what it amounted to. In the end he placed the order for her, again with free shipping. He charged her card for the second coat and told her to return the first one for a full refund. Of course she’d have to pay shipping or go through the hassle of returning it to the store. This part of the call took an additional twenty minutes.

The next day the first coat arrived. The color wasn’t even close to what she expected. “Maybe you’ll like the second coat better,” I said. I had no idea how wrong I would be.

A few days later the second shipment arrived. The box seemed too small. With apprehension, she opened it. Inside was a pair of boots. The order and paperwork was correct, but the packer picked the wrong item. Most likely someone else opened a box expecting a pair of size 13 black men’s work boots only to find a bright purple woman’s coat.

My valiant wife made another call to the customer service department. Though it took her a long time to explain the details of the two sales, the two coupons, the two orders, and the two packages – one of which was wrong – once the rep comprehended the situation, she knew just what to do. She said the first rep (or the second one) should have been able to make the full adjustment without placing a second order.

Then, after only a minute or so of typing, she announced she had corrected everything. All my wife needed to do was to return the boots to the store, and she would receive credit for the first coat.

And everything worked out as promised.

To summarize, my wife wasted an hour of her time; three call center reps combined invested an hour of their time. The store paid for free shipping twice, and my wife had to return the wrong item to the store. And this doesn’t even address the grief the other shopper went through to send back a woman’s coat when he or she ordered men’s boots.

If only the first rep had received the necessary training to issue the credit the store’s website promised!

[From Connection Magazine – January/February 2016]

How Would You Like us to Contact You?

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineAfter our basement flooded and the insurance company said, “Sorry, you’re not covered,” I knew it was time to find a new insurer. As I scanned a website for an insurance agent’s phone number, I spotted an information request form. I filled it out, including the customer-centric option: “How should we contact you?”

The five choices were phone, email, text, fax, and mail. While the last three seemed highly unsuitable – text would become cumbersome and fax or mail would take too long – I vacillated between a phone call and an email. I selected email, largely because it would provide a documentation trail of our communication.

I clicked submit.

Soon my phone rang. It was an agent from my prospective insurance company. Normally a phone call would have been fine, even preferable. But why did they ask what I wanted if they weren’t going to do as I requested? We weren’t off to a good start.

I reminded the agent that I preferred email communication, and we switched to email for our subsequent interactions. To the company’s credit, the agent stuck with that channel. As we moved towards finalizing the policy, I had a series of questions more suited to the efficiency of a phone call. This caught the agent off guard, but she answered my questions and confirmed my understanding. I now have insurance through a new company.

This reminds me of the time I looked for a new auto mechanic. The one I picked allowed people to request an appointment online. I filled out the form. They, too, asked how I wanted to be contacted. I selected “text” since I assumed this was the ideal channel for a succinct confirmation message.

They emailed me.

The date I requested was full, and so was my second choice. Obviously their appointment module was a static form and not integrated with their actual schedule. I emailed them back with a third date, and I received a follow up email with a question. We went back and forth with email messages, taking most of the day to set an appointment. A phone call would have been so much more efficient.

Since then I’ve realized that email is their default mode. Though I’ve requested texts to confirm appointments, they’ve never once done so; it’s always email. And when I ask them to call me when my car is ready, they usually don’t bother to communicate at all. The only time they did call me was when they under-billed me. Apparently they thought a phone call was the best way to resolve that.

Considering this, a few thoughts come to mind:

Offering Options Is Good: Letting customers and prospects pick how they prefer to be contacted is a customer-friendly move and a great idea, especially given that customers usually have options of who to do business with and are quick to exercise those options.

Not Honoring Those Options Is Bad: Not using the channel a customer requests is worse than not offering the option in the first place. If you can’t (or won’t) contact customers by the method they request, don’t bother to ask.

Not Responding at All Is Worse: Making no effort to contact customers when they request it is the worst possible mistake. How hard would it be for my mechanic to let me know when my car is ready? He can call, email, or text. Instead I’m left to guess when I can pick up my car.

Know When to Switch Channels: Sometimes a preferred channel bogs down communication. When emails or texts go back and forth without resolution, it’s time to pick up the phone, but before doing so, make that suggestion through the customer’s channel of choice.

Asking how customers want you to contact them is great if you follow through, but if you don’t do as they request, you’re better off not providing this as an option. Conversely know when it’s appropriate to switch channels. Providing excellent customer service relies on excellent communication, whether it’s within the requested channel or outside of it.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

[From Connection Magazine – November/December 2015]

Are You Ready for Customer Service Week?

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineI recently received an email from my friend Nancy Friedman, the Telephone Doctor. For several years Nancy had a regular column in Connections Magazine. I count twenty-eight articles in all, which are still online on ConnectionsMagazine.com for your perusal. For the most part, they are just as relevant now as they were a decade ago. She shared some great advice with us. Go check them out. Just type “By Nancy Friedman” in the search box.

In her email Nancy reminded me that Customer Service Week is coming up, October 5 through 9. I’d like to say this was a personal message from her to me, but it wasn’t. It was a mass mailing. You may have received her email, too. The important thing is that we celebrate Customer Service Week.

To have a successful call center, we need the right equipment, a robust infrastructure, great supervisors, and excellent management. But none of that matters without the right staff. Our agents are our key to success. Without them nothing else counts, and a really great team can even help overcome deficiencies in other areas of our operation, be it technology or leadership.

Yet in the day-to-day grind of running a call center, when we look at the schedule and the payroll, it’s all too easy to see agents as an expense. We can forget they are the backbone of our operation. Without their customer service skills, nothing else matters. Though we should celebrate them daily, at least we can take one week a year to make it all about them.

Consider all they do. First, they interact with customers who are too often at their worst when they call, text, or email. Agents endure a lot of abuse, usually without faltering. Of course we seldom hear about all they do right. It’s only the occasional slipup that gets attention.

Next, consider their schedule. Most people want to work nine to five, Monday through Friday. Call center staff seldom enjoy that luxury. We schedule them at odd times throughout the morning, afternoon, or evening. And there’s weekend work, third shift, and, of course, holidays. There are also short-shifts, split-shifts, unplanned overtime, and an occasional unavoidable double shift. While we try to avoid these inconveniences, sometimes we can’t. We ask much from our loyal staff.

Of course we give them lunch and supper breaks, but these must be staggered because the customers’ needs come first. As a result, few agents can eat lunch at noon or dinner at six. At some centers they never get to eat when the rest of us do because that is often the precise time we need everyone working.

Sometimes we fail to develop the ideal schedule. If we overstaff they’re bored, and their shift drags. When we understaff, they work nonstop with frenzied vigor. They leave work exhausted. If this happens too often, we risk burning them out.

For all this, we pay them as much as we can, and we wish it was more, but we also must balance their compensation with the need to remain viable as a business. We try to do extra things for them when possible, such as provide birthday treats, holiday celebrations, themed events, rewards and special recognition, parties, and food – lots of food. Though we may do these on an ongoing basis, we could likely do more for our staff, the agents who keep everything flowing and our businesses humming.

Let’s make an extra effort this Customer Service Week. Let’s thank our agents and celebrate them. Let’s show our appreciation by words and through actions. We may not say “thank you” often enough, but at least we can attempt to make up for it one week. Nancy Friedman suggests we consider making the week “negative free,” with “no negative words, thoughts, or deeds to anyone.” I like that.

If you want more tips, go to www.csweek.com. They have more ideas than you’ll have time to implement. And you might have so much fun that you decide to carry some of the ideas over to the weeks and months ahead.

Let’s celebrate our staff during Customer Service Week – and all year long.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

[From Connection Magazine Sep/Oct 2015]