A large part of the interaction that a company has with its customers is through an inbound call center intended to deal with customer "comments"; and we all know that these comments are most likely to be complaints. You might assume that dealing with unhappy customers is a critical business process and would be handled with personnel specially trained to deal with those situations, yet the opposite is true. Most "customer care" activities are staffed by low-paid, untrained customer service representatives (CSRs) who have little or no motivation to maintain customer satisfaction.

There are three major business problems that typically occur at the CSR's workstation, each of which only exacerbates an already irate customer's issues:

  1. Inconsistent interaction and ineffective policy management.
  2. Inaccessibility of information.
  3. Inability to capture information.

I'll illustrate each of these problems with examples. A colleague of mine recently lost her mobile telephone. As soon as she realized that the phone was missing, she contacted the service provider to arrange for termination of service to the associated telephone number and to find out whether there had been any significant usage that would result in additional fees. To her surprise, the CSR told her that she could only be provided with the telephone number of the last call that had been made. A later call to a different CSR at the same service provider refused to give any information about calls that had been made, citing the provider's undocumented security policy along with a claim that it was against FCC regulations to provide any information about the phone, even though my colleague had already been validated via the company's security protocol. When further pressed, the CSR was unable to provide exact documentation for either of these policies. Evidently, the policies understood to be in place by each of these representatives were not properly documented. Additionally, they were inconsistent, resulting in inconsistent interactions with the customer.

The second example is more ridiculous, involving a common call center automation relic that is completely ineffective. On the rare occasions that I have called a credit card company, an automated system prompts me to enter my account number before passing my call into the service queue. Yet when the call is answered, the CSR asks me for my account number. When I ask why I had been prompted to enter the account number in the first place, I am usually told, "We don't get that information when the call is routed." If not, then why ask for that number in the first place? Additionally, what happened to the information that was already provided?

The last problem occurs when multiple calls are related to the same customer issue. For example, when a CSR does not properly document the details of the interaction, the customer must repeat the same information to each subsequent representative. Again, this can only add fire to an already hot customer experience.

These problems are made worse by the kinds of incentives and policies guiding CSR behavior. In one organization, the representatives were given a bonus if they could keep the duration of a large number of their calls to less than 10 minutes. In another organization, the incentive was based on the number of calls each representative handled. In both of these cases, no relevance was given to whether the customer's issue was resolved. The only issue of relevance was throughput.

It is interesting that although information should play a critical role in the customer service operation, it is rarely used to its most beneficial purpose. When a customer contacts a company, that customer is looking for help, whether that is help with a product, help with a billing or accounting issue or help in making a decision. The goal of the customer care activity should be to make use of internal knowledge to most efficiently provide help to the customer. This should incorporate a "total customer view" derived from a CRM initiative, along with a searchable knowledge base that both characterizes and prioritizes problems based on taxonomies and history relative to the kinds of problems raised by the entire body of customers.

Customer service is a prime source of business intelligence. Any kind of problem that propagates to the customer is evidence of some failing process or information problem that was not captured within the organization. If we are going to let our customers find evidence of our problems for us, we might as well try to fix them at the source instead of just treating the symptom.

This means that, aside from the organizational management issues, customer service agents should be trained to properly articulate the representation of a problem so that it can be fed back into the business productivity management processes. In this way, a company can show its customers that it really does care about helping them.

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