Special Report - Operations & Fulfillment: Rethink Your (Web-Influenced) Call Center
When catalogers and retailers first started to go multichannel, they believed Web-based self-service would be significantly more cost efficient than fielding a full operation of customer service reps at terminals. Over the long haul, they reasoned, humans are more expensive than machines.
But like the benefits of the paperless office, many call-center payroll reductions have been elusive.
Remember, too, the theories of how self-service was supposed to work and the beneficial impact it was supposed to have on your bottom line — they came from equipment vendors and software designers. In effect, the promised payroll savings were part of a sales pitch. The rosy forecasts didn’t take into account all the real experiences, expectations and feelings of customers or employees.
When self-service doesn’t work, customers see it as a negative. If the information customers seek — either to make a purchase decision or fix a problem — isn’t readily available online, they get frustrated and need a greater level of care and attention from live reps.
Customers often don’t want to do much research, read long texts or pick through the process steps available online. They want quick, customized help. And when the detail they want isn’t immediately apparent online, they can feel the company is neglecting them. This frustration is exacerbated when service e-mails are too generic or a live rep doesn’t appear to have access to better information than the customer found online.
So the phone call that’s meant to resolve the problem takes longer than ever. The rep must calm the customer even before establishing the problem, and then the rep needs access to better information than the customer was able to find. Handling a disgruntled or confused customer may take not only a good deal longer, but also require a much higher level of skill than garden-variety service inquiries.
Now comes the double whammy: Which reps are best able to handle these more complicated recovery calls and e-mails? Probably the ones who have excellent skills and enough experience to know what to do. So those interactions cost more because they take longer and have to be handled by longer-tenured and, presumably, higher-paid employees.
These longer-tenured reps are also more likely to have special assignments or sideline ops jobs because they’re trusted and know the most. This sort of multiple assignment slows their production even further.
The operation incurs “switching expense” as they go back and forth from one assignment to another.
Staff retention is usually a positive, but higher pay, based on either length of service or special assignments, encourages people to stick around, creating an escalating spiral in cost — unless you institute wage caps. Also, work tends to fill the time available; people tend to justify their own presence by being busy.
How can you get a modicum of control over payroll costs in the contact center in this Web-dominated age? Try the equivalent of zero-based budgeting for your staffing plan.
Start by analyzing where those payroll dollars actually go — to which specific tasks and process steps. In many contact centers, a variety of nonoperations, ancillary functions accumulate over time. Examples include screening marketing lists for a variety of customer characteristics or data difficulties, or proofing catalog or Web copy. Perhaps the related payroll dollars should be charged to the department that’s the source and beneficiary of the task.
Then explore the operations sideline tasks your more tenured reps actually do, whether they’re dealing with back orders, credit problems or helping peer-based training. Are they allocating their time both accurately and effectively? Review whether performance standards for both call handling and side tasks are being met, and consider whether the standards should be more rigorous.
You may not be able to make all the changes you’d like, but this kind of gap analysis can start you down the right path. Then, once you’ve assessed the people, you can start thinking about all those stacks of paper.
Liz Kislik is president of Liz Kislik Associates LLC, a consultancy that focuses on customer satisfaction and employees in the call center. Reach her at (516) 568-2932 or firstname.lastname@example.org.