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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] 
Chris Lake

Published 5 May, 2009 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

Comments (16)

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Richard

I think for many companies there's a 0. that comes above all of your ten very good points.

0. Just meet my expectations in supplying the goods or service in the first place!  I mostly don't want to call you, email you, go on your website or use any other channel to contact you - I just want you to do what I expect you to.  Many of the best customer experiences are 'invisible' and un-noticed - everything just works as I expected.

over 7 years ago

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Chris Nee

Great post. For me, these companies miss two important points. First, our treatment by these call centres is absolutely disgraceful and must lead to a huge amount of churn - I change mobile and broadband suppliers almost on a contract to contract basis because all of them manage to irritate me during the time I'm with them.

Second, that could be avoided by giving me a worthwhile way to complain or enquire online.

over 7 years ago

Kevin Stirtz

Kevin Stirtz, The Amazing Service Guy at Stirtz Group LLC

Great list! Here are a couple more ways to deliver amazing customer service:

1. Ask your customers what they want from you - How well you serve customers is defined by them. Are you giving them what they want? And you can't give them what they want unless you know what it is.

2. Ask them how you're doing - Get their feedback regularly and frequently.  If you make it easy and convenient for them to offer feedback, many will. And it’s priceless.

3. Focus on what you do best – To serve your customers better than anyone else (which is a great way to keep them coming back), you need to be better than anyone else. Do this by only doing what you do best. Leave the rest for others to worry about.

4. Get everyone involved – Your employees know more about your customers than anyone else in your company. Get them involved in finding solutions and opportunities. Their heads are filled with gold!

Kevin Stirtz

over 7 years ago

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Fiona

I am only 28 but often feel really old when I find myself shaking my head in disbelief and saying things like 'that wouldn't have happened in my day' when I receive poor service in fashion stores. I worked in a well known dept store 10 years ago, and it was ALL about service. Great service lead to happy loyal customers who were only too pleased to part with their money for such a pleasant shopping experience. Like Richard says, if they are doing a good job, you shouldnt need to bug them, for prices for instance! It is the most basic thing you expect to find on a product - THE PRICE. Nowadays I am always finding fixtures full of products with no pricetags on, so you have to look everywhere for a member of staff to find out the price for you, or take it to the counter and risk embarrassment if it turns out to be more than you expected. And then the staff don't seem to know what promotions are going on in their own stores, or how long they will last for. It's poor management and bad internal communications.

over 7 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

Fiona - It's interesting that retail customer service in Germany (my wife is German) is quite different to my UK experi3nce.  Shop assistants are actually trained in the art of the role, and in their products  - you can't just get a shop job and start on day one on the shop floor.

I wonder whether they handle call centre staff training the same way?

Online, Germany doesn't have the same credit-card cultrure as here in the UK (yet...they are getting there)  - so many mail order products / online products are sent out *before* they are paid for - with the client sending a cheque after receipt.  I imagine, that would be a cash-flow nightmare if you weren't bang on top of your customer service processes.

Deri

over 7 years ago

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Rick Boretsky

Great post. I especially love #8. I had a horrendous customer service situation with Delta Airlines, where I called, left a message and they responded in email. I replied in email requesting a phone call and got another email. I wanted to 'talk' to someone and that was just NOT going to happen!! I then wrote a letter to the President of Delta Airlines, and FINALLY got a phone call from someone, who basically said 'sorry we can't help you with your situation'!! Aaaaaarggghhhh!

over 7 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

All good points. 

Regards point 10... Amazon is an interesting one on this. Amazon consistently tops lists of favourite brands and top for customer service and yet there is no phone number visible. 

The secret to Amazon's perceived excellent customer service is that they execute so flawlessly that you shouldn't ever *need* to contact them. And you don't really want to. 

They're just several leagues smarter/better in their customer experiences and the slickness of their operations such that you *trust* them not to screw up. And given they have a $15bn business in the US it's amazing how little they get it wrong. And witness how well they're doing as a result.

So a big part of good customer service for web businesses (as well as others) is to not get it wrong in the first place!

Apparently, should you actually call Amazon, they have now taken away all IVR and routing and you get straight through to a real person. They've been able to do this just because they get so few calls relative to the size of their business. Impressive.

over 7 years ago

Guy Stephens

Guy Stephens, Social Customer Care Consultant at IBM Interactive Experience/GBS/MobileEnterprise

Great list/guidelines that would serve any company well. Although none of the points in themselves are difficult, when you start combining them it all seems to fall apart and suddenly become very difficult to achieve. The advent of social media is only going to make things worse. Not only will it highlight the exact stress points in a company's customer service proposition in real time, I think you will also see it gradually erode a company's actual ownership of its customer service process. Customer service will gradually take place between customers themselves on third party sites. Exciting times for all of us working in this area.

over 7 years ago

Alec Kinnear

Alec Kinnear, Creative Director at Foliovision

Lots of these firms make money with poor customer service (see the LastMinute.com example). European firms are especially prone to exploit the premium telephone line hold times.

In the US and Canada, one has 1-800 numbers which reduces the temptation.

But great article. An honest business wants to improve customer service. But so many businesses are run on short term earnings that it's unsurprising that long term customer satisfaction and loyalty is not priority number one.

over 7 years ago

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Alan Charlesworth

If you are going to pay folk to answer a phone when it rings, why not employ people to answer emails when they arrive? Of course, you need to give them some training first. [link on my name will take you to an example]

over 7 years ago

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andrew tobert

Alec has just hinted on something that should have been on the list. In the UK, big companies (especially utilities - I hope Npower are reading this) almost always have an 0845 number or worse, 0870 numbers at the expense of the old-fashioned local numbers like 020, 0161 etc. As more and more people (like me) don't have a landline, calling from these numbers (even the freephone 0800) is hugely expensive. I'm amazed that more companies (like Smile, the internet bank, who i love!) don't publish local numbers so that consumers have the choice. Knowing a call is inlcuded in my minutes means i'm that much more friendly/patient with the person i'm speaking to. Bizarrely, the whole experience of calling their call-centre becomes joy! The fact that they only have one number (unlike barclays or HSBC), are open 24/7 and are based in the UK (Manchester) just adds to the impression of a job well done.

over 7 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Andrew - great point, happens all the time. You can sometimes get around it by using an 'international calls' option (I think Barclays has one), not that you should need to.

over 7 years ago

Alec Kinnear

Alec Kinnear, Creative Director at Foliovision

Chris, that's an all star strategy. Come to think of it, that saved me some serious coin in dealings with both France Telecom and SFR.

Of course, I was out of country but it's a great in-country strategy as well. but as you point out this level of subterfuge just not to get whacked by a 70 euro phone bill for talking to NOOS (true story) who is supposed be providing you internet and isn't - is madness.

over 7 years ago

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John Tschohl

Coincidentally, the few companies that are making a profit in this economy are those that are providing EXCELLENT customer service.

John Tschohl
President, Service Quality Institute
http://www.customer-service.com

over 7 years ago

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verygoodservice

Totally agree with your point 5 in particular. At a time when there is pressure to reduce costs, general overheads are more often the target than areas focusing on upfront sales effort. This often means that customer service will end up suffering. Point 1 is also very valid as online means that customers are responsible for their own customer service, at a reduced cost for the companies, so it is a win-win situation.

over 7 years ago

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contact center philippines

Customer service is an integral part of a call center or a company and should not be seen as an extension of it. A company’s most vital asset is its customers. Without them, companies would not and could not exist in business. When the service provider satisfy their customers, the customers not only help them grow by continuing to do business with the company , but also recommend the service provider to their friends and associates.

over 6 years ago

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