Improving the customer experience: Call centers making an emotional connection

Call centers are seeking to improve the customer experience by identifying and measuring customer emotions. Call center agent training and carefully crafted customer surveys can improve the emotional connection with customers, but the business is still in its infancy.

Can a call center train agents to feel empathy for customers?

That's a question many businesses are tackling as they try to improve their customer experience. Steve Cohn, a master trainer with Alpharetta, Ga.-based People to People Learning and Customer Focus Inc., thinks the answer is yes. During a panel session at the CRM Association conference in Atlanta in April, he recalled the small New Jersey hospital where he trained customer service representatives who took appointments for patients.

"The trainees said, 'People are nasty when they call,'" Cohn said. "So we had a whole discussion about how people are feeling when they call."

Going to the doctor, the employees realized, wasn't an occasion that anyone looked forward to. At the end, Cohn added, "Many employees said, 'I never thought about my customer that way.'"

Cohn believes that most customer service representatives can learn the skills they need to recognize and deal with customer emotions, which will in turn improve the customer experience. But, he emphasizes, an organization must train call center agents and then continue training them to be attuned to customer emotions.

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"What we're doing is managing not only the tools -- providing services to our customers -- but the whole human behavior component," Dunham said. "We want to make the connection between the human side and the business side of the transaction."

The importance of understanding customer emotions in the call center

Panelist Dann Allen, vice president of business development at Beyond Philosophy, thinks that businesses need a new approach to building loyalty during the customer experience.

"Companies want to improve customer loyalty. But think about what customers want," he said. "They don't really want you to improve their customer loyalty. What they actually want you to do is understand their emotional needs and expectations."

Lior Arussy, president of Strativity Group Inc., agreed. "If you measure emotion, you can understand the customer," he said. Arussy sees measuring customer emotion as a new, but growing, trend.

"The whole business is in its infancy," he said. "The next differentiating factor [for improving the customer experience] is the ability to connect with customers on an emotional level."

Measuring customer emotion translates into a better customer experience

Tracking a call center agent's first call resolution (FCR) or average handle time (AHT) is a straightforward measurement. Customer emotions are more slippery, however. Businesses are starting to come up with ways to quantify emotion.

"Eventually, software tools that deal with emotion will be real-time," Arussy said. He mentioned "emotion detection" software that's available, but he sees that as reactive rather than proactive.

"The first step now has to be that the call center recognizes the importance of connecting emotionally with customers," he said. Next, companies should build models of common buying personalities that reflect the emotional needs of customers, then train call center agents to use these in customer interactions.

Dunham's strategy is first to make sure her call center agents have the most current information available to them in each customer contact in order to understand that customer's state of mind and improve his or her experience. After calls, IBBS agents use a customer report card to mark how they thought a customer was feeling during a call.

"It helps employees translate the emotions of the call," Dunham said.

"Any call center where a supervisor is not listening in on calls is crazy," Cohn said. Quality monitoring should be a standard. Customer surveys can provide feedback on emotion, he added, but the surveys must ask the right questions.

"Ask customers in the survey, 'How did you feel during the conversation? How anxious did you feel?'" Cohn said. Survey questions about whether the customer's question was fully answered don't necessarily reflect a positive customer experience or true customer satisfaction.

During the CRMA session, Allen recommended a system that he's developed for identifying emotions. After doing research, he identified 20 key emotions, including frustration, irritation, trust, cared for, interested and happy. Then, he segmented emotions into four clusters: destroy, attention, recommendation and advocacy.

"For [negative] emotions in the destroy and attention clusters, with those two clusters, our data shows you need to address those two clusters to drive short-term satisfaction," Allen said. "It's about being proactive and minimizing those."

Ken Bott, director of global consumer marketing for InterContinental Hotels Group, noted that his organization has identified 200 variables that are catalysts for customer behavior. They use these during customer calls to find out how customers were feeling when they called and to evaluate the overall customer experience.

Keeping an eye on how well it is working

Call centers still must rely on traditional metrics to judge whether paying attention to customer emotion is improving service. How will a call center know if it's working?

"When the number of escalated calls drops," Cohn said. "It means agents are owning the experience and listening to the customer's emotions."

Allen said that attending to customer emotions will reflect positively on the bottom line as well. His emotion cluster system can be tied to revenue, he said, and show how customer advocates can make more money for the company.

Cohn talked about a training session he runs that's designed to illustrate the divide between customers and call center agents. He divided customer service providers into two groups: one blindfolded, the other in charge of caring for the blindfolded group. Afterward, they asked the blindfolded participants how they felt. They described themselves as feeling vulnerable, anxious and helpless.

"That's how customers feel when they call a call center," Cohn said. "Customers only react badly when they feel helpless."

Suzanne Dunham, senior vice president of customer service at Integrated BroadBand Services (IBBS), a Cartersville, Ga.-based support provider, said the goal of her call center is to make customers feel "completely cared for" when they call. She pointed out that an emotional component exists in the IBBS call center -- in the stressed students whose nonfunctional Internet service is affecting their final exams, or the worried grandmother who complains that emails to her grandchildren aren't getting through.

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