The hell of a call centreLast night the BBC aired Watchdog, which this week focused on the ailing state of customer service among big businesses (and no doubt some smaller ones).

Almost three quarters of people said customer service is getting worse, according to a survey of more than 7,000 consumers. The worst offenders tend to be broadband / mobile operators, and utilities companies, though web companies aren’t immune either

It doesn’t come as any shock to me, but surely good levels of service and a focus on the customer experience are key to surviving a difficult market?

Deborah ‘Dragon’s Den’ Meaden didn’t entirely agree with the survey results, claiming that the UK has some of the best levels of service in the world, and that standards are higher than ever: “People are much more aware of the importance of good service to their customers. The customer is absolutely king, customer care is the most important thing you will ever, ever get in the business.”

But is that really the case? Take these three recent (personal) examples:

  • When I recently renewed my car insurance – a tortuous process – I was informed that “we’ve got millions of customers, we don’t really care about individuals”, by a charmless Admiral call centre employee.
  • When I tried to transfer my Be Unlimited broadband account to my new flat it took the firm six weeks before it replied to my request, and that was only after a direct email to the CEO, with key PR people copied in (a useful ploy for the professional complainer).
  • When I called Lastminute.com on its premium rate ‘helpline’ to confirm some flight details before I booked I was left on hold for 40 minutes, forcing me to – finally – hang up (I paid about £60 for this, and my request for a refund hasn’t yet been answered even though I did it via a post-holiday feedback email). 

It’s not good enough, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. While I’d still recommend one of the above companies on the basis of the quality of its product, I’ll be avoiding the other two in the future. In any event, the customer does not seem to be wearing a crown.

So what can companies do?

It’s all about customer experience, isn’t it? Here are a bunch of ways that might help you get on top of this. Fundamentally I think this is a company culture issue in many cases, so be prepared to change your thinking before you get stuck in…

  1. Online beats offline. Improving online customer service helps people avoid the dreaded call centres, which are a) hateful and b) horrendously expensive to operate. Why not invest some of those millions into better online customer service? By my reckoning self help is always far more preferable to speaking to a shackled call centre monkey, who cannot help and should in any case be freed from such torpor. Some say that burglary is a more noble, mentally stimulating way of earning a living. I once worked in a call centre, before you fire a rocket at me. It sucked.
  2. Watch and learn. Look at what other companies are doing in this space and find out more about what they have to say about it. In Royal Mail’s case implementing better online service reduced 19 out of 20 inbound emails in some areas. Thomas Cook is another company that is doing good things to help boost conversion rates, having introduced a co-browsing service to help customers buy. Stop looking at customer service as the place to resolve issues, because it’s also a place to seal the deal.
  3. Sort out your social media strategy. Ok, I know there’s a lot of talk about social media but it works for us, and we see it working for other people. For example, you can use Twitter for customer service. We do it. Comcast does it. And Zappos does it with such success that it helps generate around $750m in annual repeat business from existing (happy) customers. Other firms like Virgin Media, Vodafone and Npower need to pull their heads out of the sand.
  4. Improve your metrics. This applies to all customer service touchpoints. For example, call centres should be looking to reduce the average time to answer a call, as well as abandoned calls and the time it takes to respond to emails. Online customer service should focus on reducing inbound calls and emails. One thing leads to another. Measure the increase in satisfaction and watch the effects on your conversion rates.
  5. Focus on customer retention, and stop worrying about acquisition. This might require a shift in mindset within your organisation. Many businesses make the mistake of thinking that marketing is advertising, and advertising drives scale. While that may be true, there’s no point filling up a leaky bucket. Efficient marketing will start with your customers. Check out my 20 suggestions to help you delight your customers in 2009.
  6. Empower and reward staff. Do you pay your call centre employees the same bonus that instore sales staff receive, should they convert an enquiry to a sale? Why the hell not? Incentives should not be placed into channel silos!
  7. Join it up. The ‘360 degree view’ is pretty important. Unless customer service staff can see what’s happening then how can they adequately help? Just think about the amount of repetition involved whenever you move from an online environment to an offline call centre. All too often there’s too much explaining to be done, when all you really want is help. Try to show customer service staff the bigger picture, and consider introducing technology such as co-browsing to help them educate consumers (while making sure they become your customers in the process). 
  8. Respond in the consumer’s channel of choice, unless they specifically ask you to do otherwise. If somebody emails you, then email them back. If they call you, call them back. And if they write in via a supposedly secure web channel with a request for a call then try to avoid emailing them (unsecure) to ask for “important information”, with the payoff “Please note that for security reasons they will respond to you in writing rather than email.” (Barclays Bank, in case you were wondering)
  9. Respond in a timely fashion. I emailed Qantas recently and received the following jaw-dropping reply: “We strive to provide exceptional customer service and customer feedback helps us identify products and services that need improvement.  The details of your experience have been logged in line with our continuous improvement program. Please note that Customer Care reviews all feedback, and will endeavour to respond to you within the next 25 business days.” Outrage! Be prompt with your response, or risk alienating the consumer and losing the sale.
  10. Add a visible phone number to your website. It’s a mark of trust, and if it helps you generate new or repeat business then it is worth it. Remember that nobody in their right mind wants to call your call centre, and that you can learn from these calls. If they call you it’s probably because some key piece of information is missing from website, or because some technical issue has befallen them. You can improve your product by listening to (and logging) these calls. Don’t bury the phone number!

What did I miss? Leave your suggestions below…

[Image thanks to vlima via Flickr, various rights reserved]