Managing ‘moment of truth’ at call centres (guest commentary)

Empowering, training employees can make world of difference
By Eli Federman
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/24/2011

Businesses interact with customers through a myriad of channels, all of which add up to a brand experience that is essentially owned by the customers. While the concepts of brand management and customer service are readily embraced by most business decision-makers, their application does not always make it to the operation of customer call centres.

The reputation of customer call centres, whether justified or not, tends to be less than positive, with employees’ mechanical indifference adding to customer frustration levels instead of helping to solve problems.

This is also reflected in the challenges call centres face when it comes to the recruitment and, more importantly, retention of skilled staff to provide high levels of customer service.

What makes world-class customer care units so different from their less- customer-friendly counterparts? A call centre is classified as world-class when 75 per cent or more of surveyed customers agree they were very satisfied with the call centre employee and their issues were resolved, according to the Service Quality Measurement Group.

The difference lies in the responsibilities of the call centre employees. Are they trained to be — and see themselves — as order-takers or business advisors? Are they empowered with the knowledge, resources and authority necessary to satisfy and anticipate customer needs? Do they feel like they participate in the business and gain satisfaction from contributing to its success through meaningful interactions with customers and colleagues?

Call centre excellence requires a shift in approach. First, focus must move from call-processing efficiency and speed to the effectiveness and quality of customer interactions.

Second, call centre employees should be motivated to provide high levels of service through comprehensive professional development opportunities. A culture of empowerment and closer alignment of an employee’s day-to-day tasks with the overall corporate strategy and vision also help to create a business advisor mentality.

Historically, call centres were established to efficiently process high volumes of customer queries on the basis of standardized solutions. Employee training generally consisted of rehearsed scripts, tips and tricks on quick online and database research, coupled with tutorials on issue escalation and problem resolution, as well as testing basic customer service skills.

Customer issues seen as irrelevant or outside the scope of expertise of a specific unit were expected to be redirected outside the department. Often, the cycle consisted of multiple loops and handoffs, leading to a resolution only if the customer was sufficiently motivated to pursue it.

What could have been a simple navigation chain evolved into a web of escalations involving a hierarchy of staff and, in many cases, negative experiences for customers and call centre employees.

Adding to the problem, employees were often trained for a specific service function with general keystroke solutions, losing the sense of responsibility or perceived ability to help customers with issues beyond their training. Without a broader knowledge base and exposure to a variety of issues or problem-solving scenarios, many call centre employees perceived their work as monotonous and unchallenging.

The alternative model is to invest in employee engagement programs and provide basic training in all service categories, grounded in a deep understanding of the company’s business operations.

This cross-functional exposure challenges inbound call staff to deal with a variety of business scenarios and issues in a way that involves critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving — all contributing to a more meaningful role for call centre employees as business advisors.

They are empowered with a personal sense of responsibility and confidence to successfully resolve an issue, even at a basic level, instead of relying on a safety net of other departments to handle the enquiry.

The call centre employee’s ability to direct inbound calls to other colleagues, with a guarantee of their assistance in achieving a successful outcome, significantly increases the number of first-call resolutions — a major determinant of customer satisfaction.

Redefining the role of call centre staff pays off in employee retention. For example, by implementing employee engagement and training programs over the last three years, Grand & Toy’s customer care centre has seen a drop of almost 40 per cent in annual employee turnover, which currently stands at less than 25 per cent — significantly lower than the industry standard.

The language used to refer to call centre staff, to a large extent, defines their role expectations. “Customer care representative,” “service technician” and “technical support” are a few examples. Yet, their mandate should go beyond a technical support role.

Call centre staff often serve as the first and most critical point of contact between a company and its customers, significantly contributing to their experience with the company and extending its brand.

With proper training and resources, call centre employees should feel competent and confident enough to advise customers in a range of scenarios, creating customized and highly relevant solutions. In short, call centre employees can evolve to become managers of each customer’s “moment of truth.”

Eli Federman is director of customer care at Grand & Toy, a Toronto-based business-to-business office solutions company with more than 30 locations across the country and three customer care centres.

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