An Unconventional Cure for Call Centers

By Dr. David Blanton  |  Posted 2008-06-02

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.

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.