Managing Your Customer’s Customer Relationships

By Eric Camulli

As an outsourced call center provider, your client’s customer relationships are in your hands. Providing the highest quality customer interaction is key to maintaining loyalty and repeat business. But when customers hang up the phone because they can’t reach an agent, little cracks begin to form in that relationship.

Will the customer call back? Will they call the competition? If they do call again, will they get through? Will they be angry? Will they create an uncomfortable situation for an unlucky agent? Will they escalate the matter to a supervisor?

This isn’t a crack that can be allowed to spread. Just like a crack in your windshield, it’s a chain reaction that slowly expands and eventually lands you in the shop where you have to rip out and replace the whole thing. To rip out and replace customers is expensive. It makes more sense to retain and reward the customers you have.

What’s wrong with a few abandons? As an outsourcer, each abandoned call translates into an immediate loss of revenue and a potential loss of future revenue for both you and your client. The act of abandoning carries with it the feelings and attitudes a customer has about a company. After waiting on hold for service, a customer is generally angry and frustrated at the inconvenience and may even feel slighted. If you multiply those negative feelings by the thousands of abandons passing through your contact center each day, you’ll have an angry group of customers ready to air their frustrations about your clients for the entire world to hear – and social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter are giving consumers a powerful, unified voice.

Most companies measure abandons in the call center to shed light on how often callers cannot reach an agent or how many callers find the hold time unacceptable. Measurement is an important first step. But understanding how to decrease abandon rates without affecting service in other ways must quickly follow. Unfortunately, many of the techniques used to decrease abandons are ineffective because companies fail to emphasize the underlying cause of abandons: hold time.

Addressing the root cause: Understandably, some clients simply cannot afford to have every call answered in thirty seconds. Additionally, unpredictable spikes in call volume can make it difficult to justify the expense of staffing for peaks. Instead, workforce managers try to do the best they can by modifying agent schedules or adding additional staff. While this can provide temporary results, companies usually find that the time and effort it takes to make continuous staffing changes is not sustainable. Since the outsourcer has no other tool or resource to address the problem, both parties are left with the painful reality that people who call may have to wait — and the cycle of customer dissatisfaction continues.

To truly reduce abandon rates and protect customer loyalty, you must implement a sustainable solution that decreases or eliminates hold time. Unlike the inconsistencies of staffing models and the coldness of a voicemail system, virtual queuing is a technology that provides a warm, interactive experience by allowing callers to virtually remain in line without being placed on hold.

With virtual queuing, a placeholder waits on behalf of the customer in the queue. When the placeholder reaches the top of the queue and is next to be answered by an agent, a callback is automatically placed to the customer. Callers can be called as soon as possible or choose a callback time, allowing them to put the responsibility for a return call back on the company.

The American Postal Workers Union Health Plan prides itself on being a customer-focused organization. But the combination of a growing membership and a new processing system caused unexpected strain on the organization’s contact center and an increase in abandon rates. In just three weeks time, the company was able to implement virtual queuing to address the underlying hold time issues. Within six months, abandon rates dropped by 40 percent.

A 2009 study by the TRIAD Group measured customer attitudes and perceptions about waiting on hold. The study revealed that customers physically waiting on hold perceived five minutes of hold time as unacceptable. Customers waiting in a virtual queue found wait times up to fifteen minutes acceptable. This research demonstrates how the perception of time changes when we, as consumers, are able to hang up the phone and engage in something more productive with our time.

As an outsourcer, you also have a responsibility to manage the hard costs associated with hold time, such as toll costs. AEGON USA’s Annuity Products and Services group has always provided a toll-free number for their customers, but it wasn’t until they implemented virtual queuing that they realized savings on these costs. Because virtual queuing allows customers to hang up, AEGON does not accrue toll charges while customers wait for their return call. Based on the time, location, number of callers using virtual queuing, and amount of hold time eliminated, this can add up to significant savings.

Differentiation for your services: Your clients are looking for outsourcing partners who can help reduce operational expenses while at the same time improve the customer experience. If you don’t provide the differentiation, then you’ve branded yourself as just another outsourcer providing a commodity service that can easily be shopped around to the lowest bidder. By implementing a system that safeguards customer relationships, you not only reduce hold time and abandon rates, but you cut expenses associated with toll costs and show your clients that you have their best interests in mind.

Eric Camulli is the chief technical officer at Virtual Hold Technology.

[From Connection Magazine – September 2009]