Calling the Customer

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.

Calling the Customer

Because the dissatisfaction with calls centers often stems from callers’ deep dislike of being treated impersonally, it isn’t surprising that automated customer surveys have failed to collect the data necessary to properly address the problem. (Not that it hasn’t already been tried.) At the end of the day, it seems there is only one way to truly understand customers’ concerns: Call them up and ask them.

Unconventional? You bet. A waste of time? Absolutely not. It is amazing to see how even the angriest of customers will come around once the slightest bit of extra effort is exerted on their behalf.

I’ve seen this happen. During the past several months, I’ve told the senior managers of my staff of 4,000 to spend a few hours a month calling some of our most irate call center customers to see how we might better meet their needs.

The results have been astounding. Not only have we found these customers to be quite welcoming—once they get over the initial shock that we’ve actually called them—but the feedback we’ve received from these one-on-one exchanges has been invaluable. Their suggestions often help the corporate clients who engage us to operate the call centers: We serve as a valuable conduit of feedback between the companies and their own customers. The calling practice also buoys customer satisfaction ratings.

I personally make about 10 “unhappy customer” calls a month. Many of these have led to making key adjustments at our call centers. For example, we’ve changed the training we provide to some of our employees overseas so that their speech patterns more closely reflect those of Western customers, and we’ve removed layers of automation in areas where customers find it the most infuriating.

We always give our employees access to the most up-to-date training and educational resources. And we’ve found it equally important to motivate our staff members. For instance, in some locations, we make certain they have transportation to and from work.

For us, tweaking how jobs get done and meeting the needs of our representatives gets us much closer to fulfilling the requirements of our customers.

At the moment, there’s a cultural shift in customer service and outsourcing, with a goal of getting closer to clients in an effort to improve foundational norms. On the face of it, there’s nothing unique about this effort, but there is something to be said for not being half-hearted about it. Many senior managers have become so reliant on client sampling and the occasional survey telling them what the customer might be thinking or feeling that they haven’t even bothered to come into contact with a living, breathing customer for more than a decade.

Razing the Barriers

Companies like ours need to be flexible to meet clients’ needs. Is designing a training program innovative in the classic sense of delivering or implanting new technology? No, but anticipating the needs of our clients, asking them what services they value, combining tools and tweaking how you normally operate renders a differentiated value proposition.

By razing the barriers to form a direct partnership with customers, we can change the tenor of our relationship with them. We certainly can’t please (or call) all of them all the time, but we can get immediate, valuable answers by reaching out to a few of them some of the time. That practice is reaping significant dividends for us.

It’s likely that customers and service providers will need to maintain equilibrium between expectations and business realities. Many customers will never feel comfortable having their calls directed offsite. However, because human contact and the associated costs can be breathtakingly expensive, service providers will continue to locate call centers in areas where they can take advantage of lower labor costs without sacrificing quality of service. They do this not just to improve their margins, but also to control costs for the customer.

That said, we can do much more to ensure that customers are satisfied with the services they are getting. Taking the initiative to get back in touch with customers on a one-to-one basis is a worthwhile first step.

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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