Technology’s Back-end Effect
The rapid development of sophisticated technologies has been tantalizing. So much so that it’s been suggested companies can improve efficiency by replacing expensive, variable-cost human labor with incredibly efficient hardware and software, both fixed costs. Such promise has led to change in the call-center business, beginning with call-routing menus and leading to sophisticated, interactive voice recognition systems.
Despite countless horror stories of customers lost in “promptland,” most of this technology has been developed with the best intentions. Yet numerous studies have shown this promise often has remained out of reach.
A recent Aspect Contact Center Satisfaction Index survey found that 55 percent of customers indicated they’re dissatisfied with automated self-service phone systems. The research also showed that based on their most recent call-center experience, almost three out of four retail customers would do less business with the company they called.
For direct marketers, call centers are an important link to customers and bear heavily on the viability of long-term relationships. At the same time, the Web is rapidly becoming the order channel of choice for many consumers, and the role of the call center is changing over to one that primarily fields technical support, product support and other customer-service functions.
This places much higher demands on call centers than simple order processing. Like your catalogs, Web site and other advertising, your brand also encompasses call centers; they’re a strategic part of the relationship you have with your customers. The quality of a telephone interaction can make or break the relationship. And as the Aspect survey suggests, if you blow it, you may not get a second chance.
How can you ensure this all-important channel helps you retain customers and build lifetime value? You can learn from others who’ve adopted call-center technologies before becoming another disappointing statistic in a survey. Consider these steps:
1. Develop a channel-by-channel road map of customer needs. Identify the different ways in which your buyers contact you, and their preferences and needs that must be met for each. The road map should show the channels you operate with and the path customers must navigate to get what they want.
2. Re-evaluate the road map from the perspective of building a long-term relationship with your customer and supporting your brand. Think about each need and how it gets resolved, and ask, “How does this interaction cement my relationship with my customer and reinforce what my brand represents?”
3. Keep it simple. Streamline every customer communication channel, making it as easy as possible for your customers to get to their objective.
A Web site design principle that’s been proven to increase conversion rates is reducing the number of clicks it takes to place an order. When developing call-system menus, less is more. Use clear, descriptive options with minimal menu layers. Then test them to be sure that your customers are getting to where they want, quickly and efficiently.
A quick personal experience here: When I called my phone services provider not long ago with a simple billing question (the rate to use my calling card), I had to wade through five layers of menus, only to be transferred to another system and then wait in a queue for an agent. Then that agent had to transfer me to another agent — another nail in the coffin for that services provider.
4. Apply technology where it enhances the customer experience — not just for cost reduction. Look at each channel and develop the resources needed to meet your customers’ needs. On your Web site, provide customer service (order status, product selection tips) information that’s easy to get to.
With phone systems, use automation where it’s truly a better solution than speaking to an individual (e.g., order status) and not as a replacement for an opportunity to cement a relationship.
Another personal example: When I call my mutual fund company, I have simple choices between checking fund balances or performance using the automated, interactive system. Or I can speak with a representative. Most of the time, I can resolve my need using the automated solution quickly, securely and efficiently (the menu is only two layers deep). When I need to speak to an individual, wait times are given to me and usually I can get through quickly.
5. Don’t ask for the same information several times. If you adopt a system that collects such customer information as account numbers, and the call is passed to another system or to a representative, pass the information along.
I recently called my cable company to add digital phone service to my account. The system requested that I say or key in my account number. After being passed over to an agent, I needed to give my account number again; the agent had to look up my information, taking more time. Why?
Consider the technology in the context of how your customer will use it. Interactive voice-response technology (IVR) has been all the rage of late. While early systems really struggled to interpret speech, new systems can be quite good at it. But when used in the context of some customer situations, the technology doesn’t work well at all. Consider the context and provide alternatives for when customers can’t use them.
Don’t Let This Happen
As a consultant, I have to fly a lot. This year has been particularly taxing, with delayed flights and missed connections. Lines at customer service desks often have been so long that I could miss the next flight out. So, I’ve often called the airlines’ customer service operations on my cell phone from the airport. Ever tried to work through an IVR system on a cell phone in a noisy airport? My backup attempt to use my handheld personal digital assistant to make changes through the Web site also proved fruitless — airline sites aren’t optimized for handhelds, even though most business travelers use them. Enough said.
Don’t be discouraged if your business can’t afford advanced call-center technologies. Small-scale direct marketers often can’t afford the steep price of automated systems because they don’t have the scale to amortize large-fixed costs.
At the same time, however, they can provide a much better level of customer satisfaction because the interactions their customers have are with well-trained teams of reps who are engaging, close to the business and feel they can make a significant difference in the business. It may be more expensive per call in the short run, but it has the potential for greater returns in the long run.
Technology is powerful, but it has to be applied with appropriate objectives in mind. For most businesses, the objective to minimize costs has to be balanced with maximizing relationships with customers. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes and ask, “How do my customer service systems help build my brand and lifetime value?” Answer this accurately and you’ll be glad you asked.
Al Bessin is a partner with LENSER, a multichannel marketing consulting firm. He is a former executive at The GolfWorks, Musician’s Friend and Golfsmith. You can reach him at (512) 351-8197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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