An Unconventional Cure for Call Centers

By Dr. David Blanton Print this article Print

Unisys was determined to improve customer satisfaction with its call center. So it called angry customers and followed their advice.

Your call center is typically the first post-sale experience a customer has with your business. So why is it often such a frustrating experience? Dr. David Blanton, vice president and general manager for global sourcing at Unisys, says enterprises are striving to make these impersonal experiences friendlier, but those efforts are hampered by a lack of technological innovation and a focus on cost-cutting. The results are commodity call center services and dissatisfied customers.

To learn how to improve Unisys’ call center, Blanton and his team called the company’s most irate customers to hear what they had to say. Here’s how Unisys followed their advice, enhancing its call center by using existing tools in different ways and training employees to provide better service to customers.

Call centers. The words alone can be enough to elicit an involuntary shudder.

They may be why you pound the zero button on your telephone keypad every time you come across an automated voice response system: You’re hoping to find that rarest of creatures, a human being.

Or maybe what prompts you to hang up when you reach a call center is the realization that you’re being rerouted to a faraway place to speak to a customer-service representative who is well-meaning, but not the help you were expecting.

These are the issues that dog many global corporations looking to serve their customers in an economical and timely fashion. While consumers may view the call center as a plague of modern times, a company often considers it a meaningful link to its customers.

Given its importance, you’d think most call center kinks would have been ironed out by now. But, as any customer forced to navigate its many layers can tell you, that is not the case. In fact, more than a decade after the proliferation of the call center, aversion to it has become so great that there are now Web sites dedicated to providing real-time “cheat sheets” telling you which numbers to press, in which order, to get help as quickly as possible.

That realization has been slow to sink in for the majority of global corporations and their outsourcing services providers, which labor under the delusion that as soon as customers get used to the mysterious ways of the call center, they will enthusiastically embrace it. That hope appears to be far-fetched, and it’s become increasingly clear that any major adaptations will need to come from the call center itself, not from the customer.

But the science of making customers happy is trickier than you might think. Innovation, in the classic definition, tends to be the last link in the chain, and the focus to date has been primarily on reducing costs.

Truth be told, call center technology doesn’t vary across providers: It’s typically a commodity service. The secret to success involves using the tools you have in different ways, and, more importantly, training the people in the call center to use those tools effectively to help customers.

Measuring the Experience

Traditionally, call center metrics have focused on gauging how quickly customers’ calls are answered and how rapidly their problems are solved. As we are now aware, that barely scratches the surface when it comes to measuring the quality of the customer’s experience.

At Unisys, we’ve focused on providing a single point of resolution for our callers, which ultimately means they won’t be passed from one representative to another to address multiple, varying issues. We overtrain our representatives in the hope of achieving a single point of resolution on every customer transaction, creating an entirely different value proposition for our clients.

This isn’t a matter of leveraging whiz-bang technology for our customers’ benefit. It’s about pulling elements of services together and training our representatives to deliver.

When our outsourcing customers come on board, we build a desktop of applications that’s customized to fit the requirements they’ve told us they need the call center to meet. The tools help desk agents use, no matter how innovative, wouldn’t mean much if the representatives weren’t equipped to handle the needs of callers with the tools at hand.

That’s where the importance of training comes into play. We’ve created an intensive program, including a battery of recurring training for our representatives that focuses on the types of calls we receive. When customers call, the person they reach has the customized combination of remote management and diagnostic tools necessary to resolve their individual issues. Whether it’s a message about a memory error or a password-reset requirement, agents are fully prepared to handle our customers’ needs.

Customers tell us the system is working when we can deal with a password reset at the same time as a remote access problem without passing them to a second or third level of support.

The truth is, though, that we can provide call center services to corporations that check every box on the service-level agreement and apparently meet the expressed requirements, yet still have no way of knowing whether the customer is happy. In fact, we’ve had cases where customer service levels improved on paper, but customer complaints inched higher. This is proof that other methods are needed to keep customers coming back.

This article was originally published on 2008-06-02
Dr. Blanton is vice president and general manager for global sourcing at Unisys.
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