While the contact center might stand on the front lines of day-to-day customer interaction, it is often overlooked as a linchpin in a broader customer experience management (CEM) initiative, in part because of outdated perceptions of the organization as a cost center, not as a strategic resource.
In fact, experts say the old-school view of the contact center is that of transaction handler, whether that transaction is buying a product such as airline tickets, providing a service such as checking credit card balances or simply serving as a gatekeeper to deal with unhappy customers.
"The call center gets marginalized on a regular basis -- it's thought of as a necessary department and cost structure required to deal with unhappy customers and to put out fires," noted Jeanne Bliss, president of Customer Bliss, a consulting company that coaches companies on customer experience. "It's not viewed as an indicator of the early issues that can help drive the business."
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Because customers' needs, perceptions and influences have a much greater impact in shaping a company's direction, most experts agree that the contact center needs to play a more prominent role. Not only do daily customer interactions provide a barometer for a host of key business issues, but a properly trained and empowered contact center can be instrumental in increasing customer profitability as well as strengthening customer relationships and building and positioning the company brand.
"The call center doesn't just take the call and build the bond; it can take hold of the information and report on things in a much more strategic way," Bliss said. Specifically, she stated that the contact center, like no other part of the organization, has its pulse on the trending and tracking of issues as well as a perspective on the lifetime value of a customer, especially one who has been saved as a result of the center’s handholding and problem-resolution efforts.
Despite the potential of the contact center to help drive CEM, the reality is that most organizations are not well-poised to serve in this highly strategic fashion. From a management standpoint, contact centers are often run by professionals who have a background in operations but who lack experience with strategy and profitability planning and are removed from the business' broader CEM goals.
The metrics used to evaluate contact center performance can also be a hindrance, as they are typically out of sync with the standards used to measure customer experience and customer satisfaction goals. In addition, the manner in which most contact centers communicate and relay customer intelligence back to other areas of the business is often far too anecdotal and subjective, experts say, lacking the kind of analytical insight necessary for driving sustainable business impact.
Contact center management leadership and training
The best way to position the contact center to meet an organization's CEM objectives boils down to a blend of traditional change management practices along with a new leadership focus that aligns the contact center more closely with the organizations' greater goals. In addition, creating a culture around service -- not just within the contact center, but throughout the organization -- needs to start at the top.
"If you want your organization to really care about service, it's has to come be top-down and bottom-up and it's got to be consistent," said Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting LLC, a contact center and analytics consulting firm in West Orange, N.J. "That's the only way to make it happen."
Much of the change management and cultural shift has to do with reorienting contact center management to meet a whole new set of requirements that go beyond the traditional attributes of operational excellence. Call center managers need a keen grasp of finance, strategic planning, business process improvement and organizational behavior on top of their traditional focus on efficiencies, call-handling time and profitability.
"They have to be able to talk the talk with the CFO [chief financial officer] of the company," said Penny Reynolds, co-founder of The Call Center School, a consultancy in Lebanon, Tenn., specializing in training call center executives and supervisors. "It's about all the things you learn in business school, but applied to call center operations. Call center managers can't be stuck in a corner with a view of the center as a purely production environment. Instead, they have to look at all the value a call center can have in terms of generating revenue on its own."
One of management's key initiatives should be providing guidelines and training to help call center agents resolve problems effectively based on what the customer is saying, instead of simply adhering to a formal and rehearsed script.
"You need someone who is strategic in thinking, who has the ability to develop people and who can help coach to that behavior," Bliss explained. "It's a more nuanced set of skills around leadership, culture and human development."
Along with their management, contact center staffers have to be groomed in how to properly listen, manage and grow the contact center customer experience and understand the value of a customer, experts say. For example, if a loyal and profitable customer is irate over a small service charge, the agent has the authority to make a decision to waive the fees as opposed to following a rote set of procedures and policies that only serve to aggravate customers.
That's the approach Best Buy is taking. The electronics retailer has made a concerted effort to create a curriculum for its call center staffers that focuses heavily on role playing and coaching to train agents in how to evaluate customers and leverage that information for problem solving, according to Jeff Radecki, the firm's customer experience manager in the company’s exclusive brands division.
"We talk a lot about empowering agents to resolve issues," he said. "We empower them to resolve some things without having to escalate and transfer the call to a supervisor because that gets to be expensive and it's not a good experience for the customer."
A systematic information flow
Beyond the management aspect, a CEM-directed contact center also needs to establish processes for looping back customer intelligence into other areas of the business. Rather than relaying individual incidents or summarizing customer complaints in an ad hoc fashion, the organization needs to retool its reporting processes to support a systematic flow of information while leveraging technology around analytics to help identify patterns that can unlock valuable customer insights.
Informal note taking and distribution of customer letters for a monthly or quarterly report that categorizes issues, identifies quality trends or summarizes key findings in customer surveys should be the norm -- in lieu of informally passing around call notes or a random bunch of customer letters, according to Sheila McGee-Smith, president and principal analyst with McGee-Smith Analytics LLC, an industry analysis firm in Amherst, N.H.
"The contact center has the information and data that can be useful in defining how the company approaches customer experience management," she said. "Contact center management needs to get better at self-promotion and make upper management aware that they have the data. They also have to make sure they are packaging the data in a format that is digestible by executive management."
At a higher level, companies need to establish cross-functional collaboration and connectivity between the contact center and other critical areas involved in CEM, including the marketing and Web development teams. Establishing a cross-functional task force that can help promote the greater goals of the CEM initiative across the enterprise is critical to the bigger picture, McGee-Smith said, as is putting systems in place that give individual departments a complete picture of the customer.
"To me, one of the big issues companies are grappling with when it comes to customer experience is the notion of understanding everything that a customer has done, so when they come into the contact center, the customer isn't starting from scratch," she explained.
With the process change, technology implementations and cultural shifts, CEM specialists admit it's no easy endeavor to make the contact center -- and the greater organization -- more CEM-centric. Yet the benefits are well worth the effort.
"You have to have the patience of a saint and be able to play chess," Fluss said. "It took years to create these poor service cultures, and you're not going to change them overnight."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for 25-plus years for a variety of trade and business publications and websites.