Tag Archives: Customer Service Articles

Customer Service and the Human Experience

By Rosanne D’Ausilio, Ph.D.

With continued attention on customer service, customer retention, and lifetime value of the customer, it is no surprise that contact center operations continue increasing in importance as the primary hub of a customer’s experience. The contact center is still the most common way that customers get in touch with businesses. In fact, the well-respected survey organization, Gartner, reports that reports 92% of all contact is through the center.

While much attention has been focused on the technology and benefits of providing multiple channels for client contact, little consideration has been directed to handling the human part of the equation – training agents to field more than just telephone communications. With the explosion of e-commerce, the need to reinforce keeping the human element in the equation is paramount. Certainly now more than ever, customer-centric service is a necessity.

Twenty-five years from now clients will still be human beings, still driven by desires and needs. Virtual environments do not create virtual clients. Except for the simplest transactions, some clients still need to be connected with and nurtured by another person. Amazon.com has learned this. They employ hundreds of traditional customer service representatives using phone lines to help customers with questions that cannot be dealt with online.

In today’s competitive marketplace there is little difference between products and services. What makes the difference, what distinguishes one company from another, is its relationship with the client. Who has the responsibility for representing themselves, their companies, and perhaps their industry in general? Front line representatives.

The ability of a company to provide human-to-human connections continues to be critically important. The fact remains that the voice is the most natural and powerful human interface, real time or otherwise. That isn’t going to change any time soon.

To our clients, people are inseparable from the services they provide. To them, the person on the other end of the phone is the company. It is no wonder, then, that companies with superior people management invest heavily in training and retraining, reinforcing the human element.

Yet customers still leave. The latest statistics on why are:

  • 45% because of poor service
  • 20% because of lack of attention
  • 15% for a better product
  • 15% for a cheaper product and
  • 5% other

This means that 65% (the first two items) of your clients leave because of something your front line is, or is not, doing. This is the good and the bad news. It’s bad news because that’s a high percentage. On the other hand, it’s good news because there is something you can do about it.

It is agreed that people, processes, and ‘state-of-the-art’ technology are what make companies work. For me, the people process is most important. After all, people truly make the difference. Never lose sight of the fact that we are human beings, not merely ‘human doings.’ The fact is, 70% to 90% of what happens with clients is driven by human nature, not technology. Technology is meant to enable human endeavors, not to disable them.

Extraordinary service, or lack thereof, separates the good from the great companies. More and more organizations are turning to the contact center as a strategic player in the competitive landscape. The contact center is already reinventing itself to become the heart of a company’s customer facing operations.

Empathetic Responsiveness: The ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and see their point of view – not agree with them, not make them right and your company wrong – but hear what they are saying is key. After all, every one of us needs to be heard while being treated with dignity and respect.

I think of a call as an ABC process. ‘A’ represents the customer presenting their question, request, complaint, or problem. ‘C’ is the ultimate resolution. Most times ‘B’ is either skipped or left out –because of metrics, calls in queue, or simply because you know the answer before the client has even finished speaking. ‘B’ is where the agent acknowledges what they hear – be it anger, frustration, or fear. It may even be a simple “thank you for taking the time to call and bring this to our attention.” After all, if a client calls in to complain, you have the opportunity/challenge to turn them around. If they don’t call, and only complain to other people, you have no opportunity. Does going through ‘B’ take longer? Not at all. It allows you to move the customer to a more productive interaction and close the call. I’ve heard many callers repeat their opening paragraph (A) again and again, while at the same time the agent is trying to get them to resolution (C). Red alert! Acknowledge what is behind the words and you will move them quickly to ‘C.’ You can’t go from A to C without going through B.

If all clients wanted just the facts (and some do), they could ascertain the information online.  Most people want the human interaction, someone to hear them, someone to care. Most callers want to hear a simple response such as, “I’m so sorry that was your experience. My name is Rosanne and I’m going to do my best to help you.”

Self Service: When asked in a recent study, “What is the biggest barrier your company encounters to self-service effectiveness?” only 14% of the customers replied they don’t know about it. This means that the 86% who do know about it and attempt to use it (1) find it too hard to navigate, (2) can’t find the answers, or (3) don’t trust the system or the answers they do find.

Research shows that customers prefer to deal with companies who are the most consistently accessible. When clients experience a level of service from email and chat support, for instance, that equals or exceeds voice support, then and only then will they gladly migrate to those channels to resolve their problems and inquiries. To increase clients’ satisfaction, be sure to:

Phone: Have a ‘zero out’ option on your system.

Website: Have your phone number or a button to speak with a human.

Email: Rephrase the issue in the opening paragraph.

Purchasing Processes: In an interview with Delia Passi Smalter, the former publisher of Working Woman and Working Mother magazines (Incentive Magazine, 2003), she distinguishes the purchasing processes women and men go through. The biggest one, she says, is that women need to feel more of a connection to the agent; they need to trust the corporation and the brand. Price becomes secondary. A woman takes in a lot of information, including recommendations from friends and family, company and brand reputation, feelings about her contact person, and how the brand will affect her life. Men instead, take a systematic approach, allowing outside influence to some degree, but mostly they are focused on price.

One of the most influential documents in the world, the U.S. Constitution, begins with “We, the people…” Yes, ‘we the people’ are what makes the difference.

Rosanne D’Ausilio, Ph.D., is President of Human Technologies Global, Inc.

[From Connection MagazineApril 2004]

Cultivating the Contact Center

By Dr. Jodie Monger

For the in-house call center, the callers are also the customers. For the outsource call center, it is not that simple; two groups need to be considered. First, there are the clients, who contract with and pay the call center to process calls for them. Then there are the people who actually call into the call center. They are the clients’ customers and only indirectly, the call centers’. Therefore, for the outsource call center, this discussion on how to grow your asset base has two diverging applications: your clients and your clients’ callers. First, let’s address the clients.

It’s true – not all clients are created equal. We derive the majority of our profits from a subset of our client base. Essentially we are gardeners who must tend to the roses and cultivate the potential roses without spending too much of our resources on the weeds. Weeds never turn into roses.

All clients are not the same and should not be treated the same. Have you successfully implemented a process to stratify your customer contacts? Did the effort pay off? Logic does play out in this scenario for call centers that have successfully created different service strategies based on the type of customer as defined by value or potential value to the organization. In essence, leverage your center with your premier clients.

Deeper, more profitable clients should receive preferential treatment – quicker time to the CSR, access to more senior CSRs with better problem solving skills and relationship deepening cross-selling skills. Premier clients should interact with CSRs, supervisors, and customer service staff who have more leeway to do what it takes, what is right for this rose of a customer. Why shouldn’t customers who cost the company money have to wait longer? “Weeds” do not deserve disrespectful treatment, just not the “Rosy” premium service.

Providing premium service does not come without effort on your part. It does require a focus on staffing levels since all calls are not routed from the aggregate pool of calls. Can these efforts provide premium service which is evident to your top-tier customer? Our research indicates that it is. What does this mean for your bottom line? Delighted customers are corporate assets. Knowing the Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) and total profit margin of the premium client group allows for the quantification of the loyalty effect and facilitates growth within the profitable client base.

The same principles hold true for your clients’ callers. If you also apply these principles to your clients’ callers you can quantify and increase their value to your client and in turn increase your clients’ loyalty to you. The asset value of the customer contacts the center handles dwarfs your cost to the client. Your effective management of the client customer base can be proven, and should be proven, to underscore the contribution of the outsource relationship to the client organization in general.

We collect more than 40,000 pieces of real-time customer feedback each month for our clients. In reviewing the evaluations for customers who are differentiating their evaluations based on “premier” versus “basic” status, the effort is paying off. Survey responses are not only higher for the CSR portion of the evaluation but for the company in general as well. The CSR has an affect on the company perception (good and bad) which underlines the need for the roses to receive relationship-deepening service. Our results highlight that 5% to 12% more clients fall into the delighted category (top score) for the roses when examining overall satisfaction with the company and with the CSR specifically.

Using a valid measurement strategy allows you to generalize the survey results to your entire call population. Assume you take 100,000 calls per month for a client. Their roses have a CLV of $500 and 60% are in the delighted category. The asset is valued at $30 Million ($500 X 60,000). In this example, 1% is worth half a million dollars. If you take more than 100,000 calls per month for your client and if the roses are worth more than $500 over the lifetime of the relationship, that 1% is likely to be worth more than half a million dollars. The numbers get very large very quickly.

It is definitely worth focusing on the roses (and potential roses). You and your clients will benefit.

Dr. Jodie Monger is the President of Customer Relationship Metrics, LC. Prior to joining Metrics, she was the founding Associate Director of Purdue University’s Center for Customer-Driven Quality.

[From Connection MagazineApril 2004]

Words to the Wise

By David Friedman

Which of these two statements do you find to be more effective?

“I think you might like this new service we offer,” or
“You’re really going to like this new service we offer.”

What’s In A Word? The difference in wording is fairly subtle but the influence communicated to your customer can be profound. Reread both sentences. The first one contains a weak, wimpy word. In this case, it’s the word “think.” Naturally, there are times to use the word “think” as in when you’re really thinking about something. But in the example above, it makes the speaker appear unsure or insecure with what they’re saying. Some people inadvertently use weak, wimpy words because they think it sounds less combative while in reality, it sounds indifferent and ineffective.

Notice how the second example sentence above is confident and strong? That’s a statement from someone who believes in what he or she is saying! Weak, wimpy words make you appear less confident about the message you’re trying to get across to coworkers or customers. While they may seem harmless on their own, weak, wimpy words will subtly undermine the effectiveness of your business communication.

It Starts Out Naturally: Don’t feel bad. Weak, wimpy words gained a foothold into our personal vocabularies before we even knew we were using them. But once you start to pay attention to weak, wimpy words you’ll begin to catch yourself using them and more importantly, begin to construct more confident sentences. You’ll also begin to notice how often others use them.

Other Weak, Wimpy Words

  • Just, as in “I was just calling to tell you about the new communication course we’re offering.” Replace it with, “I’m calling to tell you about the new communication course we’re offering!”
  • Think as in “I think this sentence will be much stronger without those first two words. Replace it with, “This sentence is much stronger without those first two words!”
  • Wondering and might, as in “I was wondering if you might want to go to dinner and a movie with me this weekend.” Replace it with, “Would you like to go to dinner and a movie this weekend?”
  • You can probably think of many more examples such as “possibly” or “maybe.” The definition of a weak, wimpy word is any modifying word or phrase that makes you sound less confident and can easily be removed, making your original sentence stronger.

We’re All In Sales – Be Confident! It doesn’t matter if you sell widgets or assist customers with their challenges. We are all in sales. Some of us directly sell products and others “sell” assistance, good treatment, or ideas.  No matter what type of customer interaction we engage in, it’s important that we express ourselves in a confident manner.

Be confident in your company’s offerings and abilities. Don’t be afraid to be an advocate for your company. Customers want to do business with organizations and people who believe in what they do and exude confidence and strength. As consumers, we all want to feel like we’ve made the right decision.

In closing, you just might want to possibly think about maybe not using weak, wimpy words in the future. Put another way, removing weak, wimpy words from your vocabulary will help you communicate with greater confidence!

Telephone Doctor is a twenty-year old training company that has helped over 20,000 organizations improve the way they communicate with customers. David Friedman is Vice President and General Manager of Telephone Doctor.

[From Connection MagazineJan/Feb 2004]

Simon Says: Don’t Editorialize

By Elaine Senecal / Illustration by Chris Lewis

Simon Says - November 2003We know so well how negative remarks can affect our decisions to do business with people and companies. That is why it is imperative that we educate our agents on the effect of even the smallest editorial comment they may make.

Whether it is a basic telemessaging account or an advanced teleservices account, agents who make negative editorials can be very damaging to the client we are representing as well as to our call center’s image.

More often than not, negative comments are used by agents to shelter themselves from the caller, to deflect the blame away from the agent. However, editorials only give that caller more ammunition to use against us, our agents, and our clients.

Train your agents to empathize with the callers’ frustration, by listening and acknowledging the inconvenience without editorializing. Phrases as simple as; “I understand your frustration,” “I’ll be happy to assist you,” “I’ll look into the situation,” and “I’m sorry for the difficulty” are key phrases that can be used in most situations.

We’ve all heard that old cliché “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” that makes all the difference. In this case it is what you say that makes the difference.

[From Connection MagazineNovember 2003]

How Good Are You at Customer Service?

By Nancy Friedman

Most of us think we’re pretty good at customer service, but can we be better? I’ve been training people on customer service for over 18 years and during that time I have learned what clients like best. Here are my ten best customer service techniques.

1.   Double-Check: Learn to use those words. Everyone loves it when you double-check something for them. Double-checking shows that you are thorough, accurate, and working hard to assist them. It sounds so good to hear, “Let me double-check that for you.”

2.   Pretend It’s You: If you’re working with a client and they need something – pretend it’s you. What would you want to have happen? What would make you happy? What would make you satisfied? Here’s a great place to remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

3.   Get Involved: Let your clients know you’re on their team. If you’re helping someone solve a problem or addressing a concern, show empathy. When callers feel as though you’re part of the package, they love it.

4.   Stay Focused: Eye contact is critical in delivering excellent customer service; it shows you are listening. Although you can’t maintain eye contact when you are on the phone with a client, you can learn to stay focused and show you are listening. Don’t type unless it pertains to what you are doing. Don’t read something while you’re on the phone with a customer. Stay focused on the caller at all times. These techniques will help you to stay focused and listen to your clients.

5.   Do Something Extra: There’s usually always something you can do for the client or caller that’s extra. In most of the cases it’s simple. Go the extra mile or be sure to end the call on an upbeat, positive note.

6.   Show Your Teeth: That means smile! There are many people who think they’re smiling, but aren’t. So my motto is: “show your teeth.” Smiling is one of the best customer service techniques there is. And, yes, you can hear a smile over the phone!

7.   Ask Questions: A super way to offer superior service is to ask questions. Build on what the client is talking about. Listen for one or two words that you can ask something about. Even a simple, “Tell me more,” will work. Once the client is talking, you will be able to help them much more effectively.

8.   Use Complete Sentences: One-word answers are virtually useless in customer service. Worse, one-word answers are perceived as rude by clients or callers. “Yes,” “No,” and other one-word responses tell the client “I’m not really interested in you or what you need.”

9.   Express Care: Most people have what I call the care gene. Some of us use it more than others. We just forget we have it. Learn to care about what your clients’ needs are. Care about what they are referring to. Care about your clients and they will take care of you.

10. Use Laughter: Laughter will lighten the load. Everyone likes to laugh, some even in the darkest moments. Take the time to laugh and enjoy working with your clients.

Put any one of these customer service tips into action and watch what happens. If you use all ten, you can expect happier and more loyal clients.

Nancy Friedman, is president of Telephone Doctor, an international customer service training company, based in St. Louis Missouri. Nancy will be the keynote speaker at the 2004 ATSI Convention and is the author of four best selling books.

From Connection MagazineNovember 2003]

Simon Says: the Verbose Caller

By Elaine Senecal/Illustrated by Chris Lewis

Simon Says - October 2003Do you know this caller? This is the caller that doesn’t take a breath between words, the verbose caller!

Verbose — talkative, wordy, longwinded, rambling rose.

For industry professionals, it is essential to instruct your representatives how to handle the verbose caller. It may seem a small thing, until you consider how important excellent customer service skills are to your company’s reputation, or how your company is paid for that call. Either way it can be costly. That’s why it is so important to set clear guidelines for your agents.

Think about these elements when setting those guidelines:

– Is this call billed per minute or per call?

o The answer could determine the rest of the story.

– Keep in mind that the caller knows what they want to say before they call.

o Many times, these callers have practiced what they want to say several times and have even told their friends.

– Until the caller has his or her say, the caller will not feel well served.

o The agent should reply with an occasional “I see” or “I understand” to convey empathy, which is what these callers require.

– Agents who cut these callers off, even with the correct answer, make verbose callers feel as though the agent is not interested in their problems.

o Verbose callers will start at the beginning again, prolonging the call even further.

– Each caller’s situation or issue is unique to that individual.

o Listening actively will resolve the call sooner and keep the caller pleased.

So how do your agents to handle a Rambling Rose?

[From Connection MagazineOctober 2003]

Simon Says: Avoid Jargon

By  Elaine Senecal; Illustration by Chris Lewis

Simon Says - Sept 2003ACD, DID and CRT – just as bewildering as “10-76 with acutely hypertensive on board experiencing extreme diaphoresis.”

How important is it to understand that our clients and their customers are not equipped with a jargon translator? Jargon is specialized technical, mechanical or other terminology characteristic of a particular subject or industry.

We strive to present ourselves as professionals on behalf of the companies or organizations we represent. Using jargon in conversation with callers is confusing to them and erodes their confidence in us. Let’s not forget, not all of our clients or their customers have had the opportunity to step inside a call center and would have no real understanding of the terminology or technology used.  In the illustration, the representative should have simply repeated to the caller that he had reached “ABC Books” or the call center name.

Every call could be a potential client or a new customer for our client. You never know which of your representatives may be talking to a decision maker who may be evaluating your services.

[From Connection MagazineSeptember 2003]

Customer Since 1978

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

It was an emotional moment for me. After proudly carrying and using a Shell gasoline credit card for more than 20 years, I had just canceled it and was in the process of cutting it up. Not that I was angry or upset with Shell, but it no longer made sense to carry their card. You see, Shell, in conjunction with Chase Manhattan, had launched the Shell Master Card. If I used it for my Shell gasoline purchases, I would receive five percent off my fuel expenditures on my next statement. For all non-gas purchases, I would earn a one percent rebate on future gasoline. Therefore, I could use the card for more than just gas and get discounts, too. In comparison, my old trusty Shell gas card was an absolute antique. The only practical thing to do was to cancel it.

How did this long-term relationship with Shell start? It was 1978. I was attending electronics school and found myself changing jobs often and moving just about as frequently. During one such transition of both employment and abode, I found myself on the other side of town, far away from the gas stations whose credit card I carried. However, there was a Shell station around the corner from my ramshackle apartment, one down the street from the TV station where I worked, and another next door to the school I was attending. Add to this a gas shortage, skyrocketing prices, and Shell’s tendency to not only have gas, but to be one of the less expensive options. This led to an easy decision to get a Shell credit card. It all began due to practicality, convenience, and frugality.

Of course, it wasn’t long before I finished school, got a “real” job, and moved again. To my delight, there were Shell gas stations both near the office and close to my new home. Soon thereafter, I married and it was a simple matter to order a second card for my wife. In the years that followed, through job changes and relocations, there always seemed to be a Shell gas station nearby. A habit was formed. By then, even at times when Shell didn’t have the lowest prices, little thought was given to going somewhere else. (This is a lesson for anyone selling a commodity product or service: availability, convenience, and consistency produce long-term customers.)

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago when the Shell Master Card was introduced. At first, I viewed their offer with skepticism, but there didn’t seem to be a downside. I could continue my Shell gasoline habit, reduce my overall gas costs, and have a more versatile card. We applied for the card and begin using it immediately. Even so, I anxiously awaited the first statement, worried about a hidden snag or unanticipated caveat. None appeared, just my rebate to be applied to next month’s gas charges. Still the cynic, I cautiously anticipated my second statement. Was there some fine print to let them wiggle away from the result I expected? No. The rebate occurred exactly as indicated and for the amount promised.

Even so, my old Shell card remained in my wallet – just in case. Finally, after a year of non-use, I realized the time had come to throw aside any emotional connection to my long-term companion. It was time to cancel the card. I glanced one last time at the words I had grown to delight in – “customer since 1978” – and cut the card into pieces.

Soon the Shell Master Card was used for all our household purchases and the ensuing rebates grew. Things went well for quite some time. Then a surprise came on our statement, a $29 late fee. My wife, Candy, called Chase Manhattan to inquire. Since our payment history was stellar and Candy can be most persuasive, it was a trivial matter to get the charge removed. We were admonished to mail the payment earlier in order to avoid future late fees.

The next month, Candy mailed our payment five days before the due date. Again, another $29 late fee appeared. This time she called to complain. “We don’t care when you mailed your payment nor do we consider the postmark,” came the arrogant reply. “We only look at the date we post your payment.” Apparently, this was a change in their policy. Plus it seemed a bit despotic, especially considering that our payment was applied eight days after it was mailed. “But we have no control over when you process our check,” Candy countered. The agent’s response was quick and terse, “We always post payments on the day they are received.” No amount of pleading or cajoling could get the late fee removed a second time. The complaint was escalated and soon the only remaining recourse was to submit our concern in writing.

Our letter of complaint was submitted as instructed and a series of automated written responses from Chase Manhattan followed. The last one promised the company would “notify (us) of our findings as soon as they become available.” That was nine months ago. There have been no further communications from them about this matter.

Since the late fees were exceeding our rebates, we stopped using the Shell Master Card and begin buying our gasoline using an existing Visa card. This afforded us a new level of flexibility since there was no longer any need to continue our routine of looking for a Shell sign. We could also shop for the lowest-priced gas. (When we used the Shell Master Card, the rebate would more than offset any higher price we paid for their gas.)  It soon got to the point that we were seldom going to Shell.

Over the past 24 years, I estimate that we have spent about $20,000 on Shell gas. Assuming that our future gas consumption will remain constant and projecting that prices will increase, we could likely spend another $30,000 on gasoline in our lifetimes. In line with this projection, a $50,000 lifetime customer and $30,000 in future business was lost due to a $29 late fee and the policies supporting it.

What are the conclusions we can draw from this experience?

The first is to be careful in pursuing strategic alliances. Yes, this is a business trend and, when properly done, it is a great way to retain clients and obtain new ones. I am sure that Shell saw these benefits, which is why they formed a relationship with Chase. The failure in their strategy is that they relinquished interaction with their patrons to Chase. Chase did not view me as a $20,000 customer or foresee a $50,000 lifetime value; they likely saw me only as an unprofitable credit card holder (since we always pay the entire balance each month and, until the end of our relationship, continually paid on time). Hence, when forming any kind of marketing, cross-promotion, or reciprocal business relationship, make sure you retain control over your clients; don’t leave such a critical element to someone else.

The second lesson is about policies. Certainly Chase’s policy to track late fees and interest charges by the date posted is practical and easy to follow (as well as being self-serving), but is it fair? Care must always be given to ensure that policies and procedures balance the needs of the company with the best interests of the client.

Lastly, consider your staff. The agents Candy talked to did not have the latitude to credit a late fee more than one time. Apparently, their supervisors didn’t either, nor did the managers. Yes, there is a place for rules and policies, but to make them absolute and intractable, unfairly handicaps agents and can ruin client relationships. The last words that a frustrated client or caller wants to hear are, “It’s our policy,” or “I can’t do that.”

Because of these problems, caused by a partner company, Shell, through no direct fault of its own, has lost me as an exclusive customer and has encouraged me to spend money with its competitors.

[Postscript: We have just received a notice from Chase stating in part, “Shell will no longer be participating with Chase in a credit card program.” Do you think that perhaps Shell has realized what I’ve just pointed out?]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection MagazineJan/Feb 2003]

How CRM is Changing Teleservices for Issuers

By Burney Simpson

[Editor’s note: the following article was written for the credit card industry, but is equally applicable to any industry or organization providing service via the telephone. It is reprinted by permission.]

The buzz has been on for customer relationship management for several years now, and its influence is growing in the industry once known simply as telemarketing. CRM is giving rise to a new breed of teleservices employee, one more skilled than the telemarketer of not so long ago.

The ubiquity of the personal computer and the rise of the Internet mean more consumers can ask questions and resolve problems without needing to talk on the phone with a company representative. And advances in the power to track and analyze customers’ actions have made data mining an essential part of any CRM system

While some experts predicted those technological changes would mean less reliance on customer service representatives at contact centers, the opposite has been true. Now, the human touch is needed more than ever to handle the tougher inquiries and complaints that the cardholder with a phone or a PC can’t resolve alone.

The telemarketing industry is finding that computers may be built to collect and sort huge amounts of data, but the human brain is often the best tool to interpret the information. Computers can’t soothe angry customers, fix vexing problems, sell something, or otherwise build the relationship and leave the client with a smile as he hangs up or logs off.

Call centers and their agents must “acquire customers and give them service, but we also have to gain loyalty and bring in more value for our clients,” says William Sims, director of investor relations at Sitel Corp., an Omaha, Neb.-based teleservices firm.

For telemarketers, that’s meant a move away from aggressive outbound sales calls and phone agents with a take-no-prisoners attitude. Instead, the industry is fielding more inbound calls from customers of card issuers and other clients, and employing a kinder, gentler agent. Asking more of the agent is leading to better compensation, though the position remains for most a temporary one until something better comes along.

Inbound calls to third-party teleservices firms working for card issuers rose 54% to 181.6 million last year from 118.2 million in 1999, according to Card Marketing’s annual telemarketing survey. The increase is based on results from 20 firms that reported calls for both years.

At the same time, the growth in outbound calling hours on behalf of issuers cooled off. Thirty-three companies reporting for both years racked up 30.9 million hours for issuers, up only 7% from 29.0 million hours in 1999.

Determining exactly how many of those inbound calls should be classified as CRM is tricky. Still, industry experts indicate that 2000 was the year that CRM became an important factor at call centers. What’s causing the growth is an increasing willingness by issuers to farm out to trusted third parties some customer service functions formerly performed exclusively in-house. For instance, some teleservices companies report that issuers have them handling billing disputes and statement queries, besides at least partial involvement in processing requests for higher credit lines.

It’s too soon to gauge the repercussions from the changes. But as CRM grows, there’s a need for a new type of rep who can not only listen but also can use email and the Web to serve customers. What used to be a customer service representative is evolving into an eCSR.

Today, the eCSR has to juggle ways of dealing with customers. Phone skills are a given. In addition, the eCSR must be able to send back to the customer the proper email response to a question. And with websites placing red ‘help’ buttons on selected pages, customers can request immediate interaction with an eCSR. Once connected, the rep can use online ‘chat’ to engage the customer. If more service is needed, the customer can provide a phone number and the rep can call back.

“Agents have to be able to multitask – deal with email, sometimes [use Web] chat, sometimes live voice,” says Robert Schuman, president of Contact America Inc.

Schuman estimates that 20% of the La Jolla, Calif.-based telemarketer’s business is devoted to customer relationship management. And this year’s inbound calls for card issuing clients appear likely to double last year’ total.

A great eCSR, Schuman says, “must have people skills, analytical skills, show common courtesy, be polite, and able to handle irate people. It takes skills to find out exactly what the real problem is.”

Simply put, it’s all about customer service, says Schuman.

This combination of technical talent and people skills doesn’t necessarily mean that call centers need better-educated personnel, the experts say. College experience is preferred, but a four-year degree isn’t required.

“It’s not an education thing. It’s work ethic. It’s believing the customer deserves respect,” says Roberta Tamburrino, president of Naperville, Ill.-based Customer Solutions Group, which specializes in call-center training and staffing. “That [the customer] should be served – not that they are a burden to the CSR’s workday. We’ve had success with high school students because they’re malleable, open minded, and eager.”

Working the Keyboard: The eCSR must know how to work a keyboard and surf the Web, she says, but these days many young people have already learned that at home.

As noted, the move to CRM has calling centers handling requests that issuers used to keep in house. Schuman says that privacy has been the top concern for cardholders in 2001. Card issuers as well as every other financial institution in the first half [of 2001] mailed out millions of privacy policies to comply with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that took effect July 1.

“They get their [policy] statements and call the 800 number on their bill,” Tamburrino says. Often, the calls are going to a teleservices company rather than to the issuer.

Charge disputes and requests for higher limits also have become common. Call centers don’t have the authority to make a change, but they can email a form that tells the customer the matter is being looked into.

APAC Calling Centers of Deerfield, Ill., has become one of the largest CRM telemarketers, with inbound calls for issuers increasing from 7 million in 1999 to 31 million last year. Card issuing clients include Chase Manhattan Bank and Discover.

When hiring an eCSR, APAC prefers candidates with previous call-center experience or some college class work. The best prospect is someone with background in an APAC client’s industry.

For a card program, APAC may check with human resources at a financial services firm that recently has conducted layoffs. One major account serviced at APAC’s headquarters in suburban Chicago is Sotheby’s, the art auction house. To find a potential eCSRs for that client, APAC checks with the placement office of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, hands out flyers downtown near the school and its dorms, and put ads in the school newspaper.

Job applicants are screened on the phone and must apply online. If that goes well, they take a typing and keyboard test that includes surfing the Web, says Brett Trainor, APAC’s site director at Deerfield.

“We ask them to do a Web search and find five sites,” he says. “If they succeed, it proves they know browsers.”

Then they get verbal interviews. But a quiet person in an interview may still make a great eCSR, says Trainor. “Someone can seem quiet, but you put them on the phone and they’re talkers,” he says.

Once hired, the trainee is put in the classroom to learn about the client she will be servicing and to master three to five software applications, says Claudia Diaz, an APAC account manager. That training lasts 10 to 15 days, depending on the campaign.

Meanwhile, the new reps are assigned to a calling center team with a coach. On their first full day on the floor, the reps sit in a so-called sidecar and watch teammates answer calls. Soon, they go live with the coach in a sidecar monitoring their work.

On a typical day, the center is quiet, with banners on the walls promoting APAC clients. The eCSRs are assigned to only one account each and have no minimum hourly call requirements. “This isn’t your calling center with a guy in the aisle yelling ‘Sell!'” says Trainor.

A rep’s PC has three screens. The first displays background information on the calling customer, including previous contacts, along with account data. On the second screen, nicknamed the “Dashboard,” eCSRs see a scroll of suggestions and scripts for a particular campaign or sale.

The third screen can be enabled for Web interaction with the customer. That can mean email chat. Or, if the caller allows it, the eCSR can figuratively look over her shoulder to see the Web page the customer is viewing. If the call is a complaint, the eCSR may be able to “push” her to a page that resolves the issue. A savvy eCSR peruses the caller’s record of purchases and pushes her to Web pages with products she might want to buy.

Sophisticated Software: Some customers need help with the basics, such as gaining access to their own account information. During slower times, the rep answers emails. APAC offers clients the option of having customers’ emails answered within four hours or 24 hours.

The extensive interaction between customer and agent has brought a need for sophisticated software that can handle as many as six customer requests simultaneously. Indeed, so much data can be generated that it requires a sophisticated user to make sense of it all, says Ellen Arrington, managing partner at Siebel Systems, the San Mateo, Calif.-based CRM software company.

“The technology is very powerful and we have to ensure that the employee uses it effectively,” says Arrington.

That has meant more training for Sitel, one of the biggest teleservices firms serving card issuers. “We used to train (agents) in a matter of minutes. Now it can take four to five weeks,” says Sims.

Sitel’s inbound calls for issuers grew from 2.5 million in 1999 to 13 million last year, according to the CM survey. Its Internet-related revenues accounted for about 10% of its total year 2000 revenues of $760 million, says Sims. Clients include American Express Co.

The need for better-trained and more creative reps has forced telemarketers to become creative with compensation, too. The pay is better, there are more opportunities for advancement, the atmosphere at work is more relaxed, and the reps’ suggestions are respected, not ignored.

APAC pays starting eCSRs $12 to $14 an hour, twice what it pays new outbound agents. That can rise to $18 an hour.

Pay for an eCSR can reach $16 an hour at Peoria, Ill.-based Affina-The Customer Relationship Co., according to Samuel DiLiberto, director of business development. That’s $4 an hour more than agents handling the standard inbound calls earn.

In comparison, the Incoming Calls Management Association in Annapolis, Md., found in a 2000 survey that the median wage for full-time agents nationwide was $12.55 an hour. Affina offers tuition reimbursement at schools near its eight calling centers and a 401(k) retirement program. Every year it also gives its agents about $500,000 worth of the consumer electronics sold by several of its clients.

Those incentives pay off in lower turnover, says DiLiberto. “We estimate it costs us $9,000 every time we lose an agent,” he says.

Contact America’s Schuman says making eCSRs the elite agents encourages others to climb the call-center ladder. “The (agent conducting) CRM is the most highly skilled and the best paid. There is a stratum within a call center. That’s good for the business, because it helps people that want to move up.”

In some ways, APAC treats the eCSR as if he or she were on the management team serving the client. For example, agents monitor what callers say about a firm’s website and share the information with their coaches. That in turn is passed on to the client. That shows agents that their input is respected and improves morale, says Trainor.

Turnover: And they may be on to something at APAC. In an industry where annual turnover rates of 100% are not uncommon, APAC claims turnover at Deerfield has been in the 30% range.

Allowing agents to use their training to solve customers’ problems makes the job interesting and cuts down on burnout, says Schuman.

But even with those improvements, compensation could be better, says Customer Solutions’ Tamburrino. “They are still woefully underpaid,” she says. In general, agents are “people out of high school that may do it for three or four years. It’s not a career, it’s entry level.”

That may or may not change as customer relationship management evolves. But it seems clear that CRM is becoming an integral part of any marketing program for card professionals.

As the credit card and banking industries continue to consolidate, consumers may have never set foot in a branch. So the phone agent is becoming the primary connection to the issuer for many customers, says Schuman.

“Many local banks are gone,” he says. “Contact with managers and tellers is gone. For many customers the only interaction is with an ATM. The only touchpoint is through the call center. So it has to be very valuable.”

This article has been reprinted by permission from Credit Card Management, a Thomson Financial publication, July 2001 edition, copyright 2001. For reprints of this article, in its original from, contact Howard Gilbert of CCM at 212-803-8200.

[From Connection Magazine – November 2001]

Not Measuring Your Customer Service? Then You Are Not Even Close to Managing It

By David Saxby

Most companies and call centers measure success by their sales numbers but they overlook one small detail – the customer. Do you know how your customer feels about doing business with you? Do you believe companies when they say they really do care about their customers? Most people don’t believe that claim. Instead, they think businesses are not walking their talk.

The following are five tips on how to understand customers and how to measure customer service at your business or call center:

Tip Number 1: If you truly want to understand your customers, ask yourself these questions: How do you know your customers are experiencing extraordinary customer service when they use your services? If they are a new customer, will they stay with your service ? Or if they are a new project for your call center, will they return with a new project once the existing project has been completed? Do your customers tell other people about you? Are you meeting or exceeding your customers’ expectations? Are your prior customers now using the service from your competition and/or do you even know?

Tip Number 2: Mystery Shop. Hire a mystery shopping company. These companies have the ability to see your business through the eyes of your customers. The results of the mystery shop give you the feedback necessary to know what is and is not working from the customer’s point of view.

Tip Number 3: Survey your customers by direct mail: Send out an easy-to-understand questionnaire immediately after they have started using your service. They should only have to take one to two minutes to complete the questionnaire and it should come with a postage-paid return envelope.

Tip Number 4: Survey your customers via email: Email your customers an online survey to obtain their feedback. Use this feedback before you change or implement a new service. Develop a core group of customers that becomes your source of feedback for future changes.

Tip Number 5: Call your customers: Hire someone to make the calls. This will make it easier for your customers to be totally honest and it will help keep the results objective. Ask your customers what your company can do to improve its service. Long term profitability in a changing market is not solely the result of increased sales. It’s more about determining the needs of your customers and then meeting those needs. If you can’t measure customer service at your business, then you can’t manage it.

David Saxby is President of Measure-X, a training firm specializing in providing training on customer service skills and employee retention. He can be reached at 888-644-5499 or at david@measure-x.com. Check out their website at measure-x.com.

[From Connection Magazine – September 2001]