Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Help For Help Desks - 1

“Help Centres”, “Call Centres”, “Customer Contact Centres” all describe a place that customers can call to: seek information, solutions to problems, changes in contract terms, complain about poor service and satisfy other needs.  As businesses look to cut costs and ensure that staff spend their time selling or serving customers rather than answering questions/dealing with complaints, “Call Centres” have become the solution.  Some “get it right”, others don’t. 

Call Centres have advantages and disadvantages; some advantages are: 

·         Concentration of expertise;

·         “One-stop” customer enquiries and problem-solving - can usually handle 90% of “simple” problems;

·         May have comprehensive customer information systems;

·         May be able to perform other tasks when enquiry levels are low;

·         Shift work allows centres to remain open 24/7, improving customer service.

Some of the disadvantages are: 

·         Staff may have insufficient expertise, customer knowledge, “soft skills” or incomplete, insufficient or inconsistent  information;

·         Customers may have to speak to several operators to solve a problem;

·         Remoteness (often “outsourced” to other countries);

·         Lack of face to face contact results in lack of empathy and understanding;

·         “Internal policy” often dictates what can/can’t be done/said and escalation of “difficult cases” can be next to impossible. 

I have heard and seen any examples of frustration with “Call Centres”; if you need to see examples for yourself, just Google “complaints about…”  or “… complaints” and insert the name of the organisation in place of the “…”.

I recently spoke to the call centre of my mobile services provider to reduce my contract pricing in return for reduced talk time in line with one of their packages.  I was passed amongst three different operators (each of whom asked security questions to confirm my identity), but none of whom could resolve my issue.  The security questions should only have been needed at the initial call-answering. 

Call centres are potentially more “vulnerable” due to their lack of face-to-face contact.  The customer at the other end may be more stressed and aggressive than in a face-to-face situation, and it’s impossible to tell from body language what they’re feeling.  Operators rely on voice and speech for clues.   

Operators may often be younger workers who lack experience of dealing with people and therefore react in a way that may be provocative.  They may be dealing with customers from a different culture or part of the world, and have only their limited frame of reference. 

Another issue that affects call centre operators is that they often have strict rules or incentives that run contrary to customer interests about what they can/cannot do, about numbers of calls answered and other performance measures.  One operator let slip that staff were paid extra if a customer wanted to cancel their contract but were persuaded not to.  Result:staff used every trick in the book (including hanging up) to ensure contracts weren’t cancelled. 

Information is critical; a large number of complaints that I hear relate to dealing with different operators who don’t know what has been said/agreed/promised before, or who may not know their product/service well enough.  This is slowly being addressed, but systems need to be able to hold details of conversations, actions agreed and commitments made. 

Escalation (referral) processes are vital for good service.  Call centres are there to help, and if operators can’t resolve a problem for reasons beyond their control (and assuming that the customer isn’t being unreasonable), they need to be able to refer quickly to a more experienced colleague with more authority to commit.  Far from being penalised for this, they should be rewarded.  If too many problems are escalated up, it may indicate a problem with the product/service, processes, pricing, communication with customers or staff training.  Whatever it is, it needs to be fixed internally, or reputational problems arise. 

Call centre operatives not based in the country of the caller need to understand that, despite all efforts to the contrary, there will be differences between their perception of the problem and the customer’s perception.  Sadly, for many customers, just speaking to a “foreign” customer services operative will raise their stress levels.  Empathy is essential.   

Quoting internal “rules” or “policy” as a reason for not doing something (especially if it’s not in the customer’s Terms & Conditions) is unacceptable.  Customers aren’t interested in internal guidelines.  They want their problem resolved professionally, and will move if it isn’t.

I have spent more than half my life working in different world markets from the most developed to “emerging” economies. With more than 20 years in the world financial services industry running different service, operations and lending businesses, I started my own Performance Management Consultancy and work with individuals, small businesses, charities, quoted companies and academic institutions across the world. An international speaker, trainer, author and fund-raiser, I can be contacted by email . My website provides a full picture of my portfolio of services.

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