Tag Archives: From the Publisher

Customer Disservice

Sometimes a Call Center Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

When call centers work as intended, they’re an amazing resource. They provide needed information and allow for the speedy resolution of problems. They’re fast, convenient, and effective—most of the time.

Though I like to celebrate call center success in this column, it’s more informative, as well as more entertaining, to talk about their shortcomings. By learning from their errors, we can take steps to avoid them in our call centers. This makes the industry better, as we serve callers more effectively. Here is this month’s story.

I work at home, and I rely on the internet. When it goes down, I’m usually the first of my neighbors to know. When the internet went down last month, I found a project to do that didn’t require me to be online. But after I wrapped it up, the internet was still down. I reset the modem and router without fixing the problem. I needed to call customer service.

Customer Disservice

My internet provider’s rep did some remote testing and got confusing results. After several minutes she determined that she needed to dispatch a technician. Since it was midafternoon on Friday, she said most technicians were likely committed for the rest of the day and would be heading home at five. The next available slot was Tuesday afternoon. As firmly as I could state, and still be a tad polite, I told her this wasn’t acceptable. I explained that I work at home; without the internet I couldn’t work. She was sympathetic, but she offered no options other than to let the dispatcher know my plight.

As my neighbors began arriving home from work, our community Facebook page lit up about internet issues. My neighbors heard what I heard: There was no system outage, and our problem was unique to our individual homes. Their repairs were scheduled for Thursday, six days in the future. Everyone was fuming.

Not accepting the explanation that these were all isolated instances, I called again. This time the rep told me there was a major system outage affecting half the state. He also said crews were diligently working on the problem to find a solution and wouldn’t stop until they resolved it. He promised me a callback to let me know when the problem was fixed.

I posted this information on our Facebook page. I doubt anyone believed me. Even those who called after me received the explanation that their problem was isolated to their home.

By Saturday morning the internet was working again. One neighbor posted that he received a free speed upgrade because of the problem. I called for my upgrade. This rep said the system in my area couldn’t go any faster. When I mentioned that my neighbor had received an upgrade, the rep gave me a lame excuse that my neighbor’s feed was from a different source. However, we both live on a dead-end road and the internet feed for the whole neighborhood runs past my house.

Other neighbors also called for their free upgrade. One received it, but everyone else was denied. The explanation was that they were rolling out a system upgrade and our area should receive it in a couple months. Then we would automatically receive the higher speed.

On Monday afternoon I received a phone call telling me my internet service was restored. This came about sixty hours after the fact.

I don’t blame any of the reps for providing wrong information.

I do blame the company’s support system and the training their reps receive on using it. One rep knew it was a system-wide outage, yet the others couldn’t access this information. Two reps knew how to give a free speed upgrade, while the other ones insisted it wasn’t available.

How many extra calls did my neighbors make trying to find correct information and receive the same responses other neighbors received? By giving out wrong information, the cable company probably received twice the calls they should have had they been able to provide consistent and accurate responses.When call centers work as intended, they’re an amazing resource. They provide needed information and allow for the speedy resolution of problems. Click To Tweet

In the end, instead of customer service, they provided customer disservice. May we strive to do better.

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.

Will Customer Service Chatbots Ruin the Contact Center?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Bots, sometimes called chatbots, are applications used to automate responses to social media and online inquiries. The purpose of bots is to speed answers to customer information requests. And they do this automatically. They’re programs, after all. They can do in seconds what it might take a person minutes to handle, or even longer if the message gets stuck in a lengthy queue.

Chatbots respond quickly, expedite communication, and relieve customer service staff from handling basic inquiries. What does this mean to contact centers and their staff? Could chatbots signal the end of the contact center as we know it? Could chatbots signal the end of the contact center as we know it? Click To Tweet

Although it’s easy to imagine these chatbot programs one day taking over a contact center and sending all the agents home because they have no work left to do, this is unlikely. Go back through the history of the call center industry; every year or two we see some new technology coming along that carries the threat of devastating the call center. So far it’s never happened.

Although emerging technologies have served to change how the call center operates, in most cases these innovations have opened new opportunities to serve customers and provide more work for agents. Historically, these technologies have not been disruptive but enabling.

Bots are not a threat to contact center agents but a tool that can aid in communication, assist contact center agents, and speed answers to customers. Just as web self-service and FAQ sections on websites help customers resolve problems, so too will self-learning bots. And though online self-service was heralded as the end of contact centers, this proved false, with frustrated users demanding to talk with people to resolve their most difficult problems. Bots will have the same effect.

However, as the saying goes, “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer.” Bots could accomplish this too. They are, after all, self-learning. What if they learn the wrong thing? What if they reach an errant conclusion and then perpetuate it, spreading their misinformation to thousands of people?

Who will suffer the fallout? The contact center will, as agents field calls, emails, and text messages from confused customers who were led astray by erroneous bots. Who’s going to fix the mess? Contact center agents, that’s who: real people solving big problems caused by well-meaning technology that’s run amuck. This possibility, though likely, will only happen in isolated cases.

Yet there’s a bigger issue at stake. Unlike a typical computer application that can only do what it was programmed to do, bots have an element of artificial intelligence built into them. They can grow, they can evolve, and they can change. They could take over! Though this may sound like an intriguing plot for a sci-fi thriller, it’s a possibility, even if far-fetched. But if bots take over and turn customer service into a nightmare, it will be the contact center agents who come to the rescue and save us all!

My attempts at humor aside, bots present more opportunities than threats. We need to implement them to better serve our customers. Let the bots do the easy things—just like we expect from self-service, FAQs, and interactive voice response—so that contact center agents can focus their attention on the more challenging inquiries. In this way, bots will take some of the drudgery out of routine contact center chores and defer to real people for the really interesting work.

In all likelihood, chatbots will not ruin the contact center industry. They will empower it to become more.

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.

Great Customer Experience Starts with Customer Service Essentials

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In the call center space, customer experience looms as the hot buzzword of our industry. But beyond all the talk, I wonder if it’s not just a new label on a proven theme that’s been around for a long time. The basis for customer experience resides in customer service. Customer service is the reason call centers exist in the first place and serves as the distinguishing factor between excellence and failure.

Here are some customer service elements that all call centers should pursue. These customer service essentials provide for great customer experience. Keep an upbeat attitude, even when dealing with difficult situations. Click To Tweet

Timely Reactions: First on the list is the imperative to not waste the caller’s time. This means answering calls quickly, with minimal hold time, no transfers, and a quick conclusion. Too many callers brace themselves for a long ordeal each time they dial a call center. This is the wrong message to send.

Yes, you need to match optimum scheduling with a desire for speed, but you can strike an agreeable balance. Having the right number of agents available to meet projected call forecasts and adjusting to unexpected traffic spikes is key.

Efficient Interactions: Callers also want their communication with your call center to be proficient. They object to giving their account number again when they’ve already entered it earlier in the call. They also bristle at the need to repeat information each time their call is transferred. And if they must be placed on hold for the agent to check something, they will usually understand, but try to keep the hold time short and restrict the number of holds to a minimum.

Just as you want your agents to be efficient on every call, callers also expect you to be efficient with their time. Respect them and honor the investment they made in calling you.

Positive Responses: Keep an upbeat attitude, even when dealing with difficult situations. Tell callers what you can do for them, not what you can’t. Learn positive phrases and interject them into conversations whenever possible. Talk with a smile on your face, and callers will hear it in your words.

Accurate Results: Most of all, callers expect the information you provide to be correct. Too many callers have experienced agents who will say anything, whether it’s correct or not, just to end the call. Callers want to trust the information you give them. They also expect you to follow through and do what you promise. They want results they can depend on.

Memorable Outcomes: Beyond the length of the call, callers want to feel good about what occurred, both when they hang up and in the days and weeks that follow. Sometimes it takes time for the veracity of a call to become known. Customers may not realize, until it’s too late, that they received wrong information or that the steps the agent took didn’t solve the problem. Then they must call back, and they won’t be happy about it. You want to avoid this. Instead make each outcome memorable and eliminate the need for follow-up calls.

When call centers offer these customer-service essentials, they’re on their way to delivering a great customer experience to their callers. And that’s what customer service is all about.

Though you can spend a lot of time fixated on providing great customer experiences—or whatever the current industry buzzword is—the reality is that this hot-topic-of-the-day usually goes back to customer-service essentials. Start there and build upon it.

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.

Be Nice

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

A friend works for a company that helps government agencies provide better service to its customers. One division works with call centers, and another addresses walk-in traffic. That’s where my friend works.

Often his company needs to address the basics. Sometimes they must start with a simple instruction that seems common sense: “Be nice to the people you serve.”

Inevitably someone asks, “Why?”

So the second step is to explain the reasons behind the instruction to be nice.

While it’s laughable that anyone needs to teach this seemingly self-evident idea to someone in the service sector, apparently not everyone understands it. These staffers need to first learn this lesson, then master the concept, and finally apply it to the people they serve. Be nice to others and most of the time they will be nice to you. Click To Tweet

In a practical sense, “be nice” also stands as an astute guiding principle. After all, if our call center agents are nice to callers, doesn’t that direct the bulk of their actions?

And yet, I can’t imagine day one of agent training opening with a lesson titled “Be Nice.” The ability to be nice should stand as a requirement for hire, a trait we screen for in the interview process.

But if one person slips through who isn’t nice, then short of termination, Be Nice training is in order. Or perhaps an entire shift—or even the whole call center—has degraded into a staff of not nice employees. Instruction on how to be nice is required to overhaul the shift or remake the center.

What would Be Nice training entail?

Again, it seems self-evident, but here are the high points:

Follow the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” stands as the guiding principle for Be Nice. When we treat others as we wish to be treated, we take a huge first step toward being nice.

Smile: Though no one can see a smile on a telephone call, people can hear it. We should smile often at the people we talk to on the phone. If it helps, have a mirror at your station to remind you. Personally, I find a mirror disconcerting, yet as I use Skype more—which allows me to see myself as others see me—I realize the importance of smiling when I talk.

Be Friendly: Don’t be surly. We’ve all encountered surliness in customer service situations, both in person and over the phone. Surly repels; friendly attracts. By the way, it’s much easier to be friendly when we smile, while surly is more likely when we frown.

Respond Fast: Part of being nice is being responsive. It’s frustrating to have to wait to have our question answered or pay our bill while an employee completes a trivial conversation with a coworker or wraps up a personal phone call. Yet this happens all the time. We notice it when we’re in person, but over the phone we can’t see unresponsiveness. However, agent indifference toward callers results in us enduring more rings or listening longer to on-hold music.

Solve Problems: The main reason for customer service is to resolve customer issues, so the ultimate goal of Be Nice training is to solve problems. This includes actually resolving the issue and callers agreeing that we did. This is where first call resolution (FCR) comes in, which most of the time promotes effective problem resolution. However, call centers that focus on average call time effectively encourage agents to offer pat answers, refer callers to someone else, or transfer the caller. This doesn’t solve problems, and it isn’t nice.

Be nice at work, and be nice at home. Be nice to others, and most of the time they will be nice to you. Be nice in all you do, and then you will make a nice difference.

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.

A Failure to Serve

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I often share customer service successes and failures in this column. Though my rants have a cathartic outcome for me, I hope even more that they offer insight to you and your call centers. Here’s my latest installment.

A year ago I finally had had enough with my Web hosting company. They matched their low prices with low performance: overloaded servers, sluggish performance, and increased downtime. After fourteen years of misplaced loyalty, I switched companies.

My new hosting provider charged more and promised more. At first they delivered. Despite that I had to manually migrate all my sites to their platform, their service pleased me—at first. But after a couple of months, their servers grew busier, my load times slowed, and outages occurred. I complained, and they sold me an upgrade. But the only difference I experienced was a higher bill.

I needed to take action—again.

A trusted friend highly recommended an alternative. I studied their website and found the perfect plan for my business, which offered more and charged less than my current provider. I checked their reviews and ratings: excellent. (My current and past provider had dismal reviews and ratings, despite their high-profile status.)

I got ready to change hosting providers. Here’s my log of what happened:

11:35 a.m.: I call their main number. I hear seven rings and then get a fast busy. I try twice more with the same results.

11:38 a.m.: I search their website for an email. Nothing. I fill out a trouble ticket for sales.

11:40 a.m.: I receive an automated response, with a link to check online for the status. It goes to a customer portal. I need to log in. But I’m not a customer, so I can’t.

11:48 a.m.: I get a personal email message from Chad. He offers me the option of an email or phone call. Chad doesn’t give his email address.

11:51 a.m.: I select the phone call option and request it after 1:00 p.m. My reply goes to their generic sales email.

12:18: p.m.: I receive a personal email from Patrick agreeing to a phone call. He doesn’t give his direct email address, but uses the generic sales email.

12:23 p.m.: I receive a Google calendar request from Patrick, but with a wrong phone number, which is my fault.

12:37 p.m.: I tentatively accept, and give the right number.

1:06 p.m.: Patrick calls the wrong number and leaves his phone number and extension.

2:09 p.m.: I call Patrick back. It rings fourteen times, and I hang up.

2:12 p.m.: I call their main number. I press 2 for sales, but I reach support. Support transfers me to sales. I talk to Jeff. He says they had phone problems that morning. The connection is bad. He cuts out once but comes back. Then I lose him for good.

3:00 p.m.: I notice in the Google calendar request that Patrick gave his email address. I email him asking for a call on my cell phone.

3:29 p.m.: Patrick calls me. We talk for twenty-nine minutes. He wins me over, and I sign up for service.How much business do companies lose because they do such a lousy job with phone support? Click To Tweet

This company has a compelling website that provided enough information to sell me, but I had a couple of essential questions before I committed. That’s when they almost lost me. And had I not been so desperate for a change and so short on solid options, I would have surely bailed long before Patrick talked to me and invested a half hour to resell me on their services.

I wonder how much business this company loses because it does such a lousy job with phone support.

(Post-sales update: Though they promised to migrate my sites for me, I spent most of a week and too much time making sure this happened correctly. Trying to communicate with the service department was almost as frustrating as working with sales had been. But in the end, my sites are humming along fine, faster than ever. And that was the whole point. Plus they provided me with fodder for another column and you with an example of bad phone support to avoid.)

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.

The Importance of Channel Consistency

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I 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.My channel experiences didn’t align, and I judge them by their weakest link. Click To Tweet

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 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.


Answering the Call Is Just the First Step

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I 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 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.

Call Center Reality and Public Perception

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I’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.”


“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 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.

Embrace the Call Center as a Business Strategy

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The 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 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.

Let’s Be Honest About Omnichannel

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

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

When 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 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 MagazineJuly/August 2016]