Best Practices in the Call Center: Make Every Contact Count

It’s no secret that customers aren’t buying much these days. The economic engines have locked and stalled, leaving businesses everywhere in freefall. While companies around the globe are jettisoning anything they can to slow the descent, none are ditching CRM. In fact, CRM may be the last remaining parachute: a fact realized during earlier turbulence.

“Like lemmings off a cliff, we watched one company after another make disastrous decisions about cuts to support during the 2001 tech crash: low-quality outsourcing, unannounced cuts to support channels and hours, big support staff layoffs leaving long wait times and stressed agents,” John Ragsdale, vice president of Research at SSPA, a large and influential industry trade group for technology service and support professionals, told CRM Buyer.

“This time around we know better: Every change that impacts customer satisfaction impacts the bottom line,” Ragsdale explained. “Evaluate how every change made in the name of cost cutting will influence the customer experience: A short-term savings is not worth sacrificing long-term loyalty.”

Do You Hear Me Now?

Where once customers were demonized as too costly and troublesome to bother with, now businesses deem them valuable and irreplaceable. But all those high-flying profitable years when customers were ignored, abused and discounted have led to an underlying consumer indifference that is now wreaking havoc on corporate bottom lines.

Brand loyalty is at an all-time low and consumers have learned that having cash on-hand is better than a shopping bag full of, well, anything.

All this makes for a tough hill to climb, but business is to blame for its construct and it is business that will have to level the field again.

“Ultimately, people who are equipped with a strong CRM system will be able to ride out tough economic times and come out on the other side in a better competitive position,” Brad Wilson, general manager of Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Microsoft Business Solutions, told CRM Buyer.

Heeding the Customers’ Call

Adding heavily to the challenge, customers are demanding even more for their money, and they do not accept excuses. Businesses have to deliver well and consistently despite a continuous drop in available resources.

“One of the biggest things an organization can do in a weak economic climate is to make certain it has an efficient call center,” Andrew Hull, director of Product Marketing at RightNow Technologies told CRM Buyer. “Because call centers turn over staff somewhat rapidly, implementing tools to help train and guide agents through complex customer service scenarios becomes increasingly valuable.”

Hull offered the following “must haves” CRM tools/techniques for call centers to be successful in the current economy:

  • Agent scripting tools are a necessity. Implementing agent scripting technology allows inexperienced agents to ramp up quickly and troubleshoot complex customer service situations. This will also drive agent productivity through consistent business processes and complex branching logic, which facilitate greater first call resolution and, ultimately, a happier customer.
  • Turn customer service into a new sales team. Agent scripting will prompt agents at appropriate times to make future purchase recommendations to consumers who are already engaged with the company. This ability to cross-sell and upsell will allow a business to generate more revenue while simultaneously improving its customer service reputation. In fact, the 2008 Customer Experience Impact Report conducted by Harris Interactive and sponsored by RightNow Technologies, found that more than half of consumers (58 percent) are at least somewhat likely to make a purchase during a service engagement, and 24 percent of them have already made a purchase based on an agent’s recommendation.
  • Guided assistance technology gives agents an edge. If a call center staff has been reduced, having guided assistance tools will allow agents to utilize trouble-shooting capabilities through a series of questions and answers, which direct agents to appropriate knowledge answers within the organization knowledge base.
  • Capture customer feedback. Every call center needs to capture customer feedback through any channel that customers can use to interact with an organization. Having the ability to capture this feedback allows business to act on consumer feedback, rather than let it fall by the wayside. Most importantly, consumers will feel like they have a relationship with the organization and hopefully experience a more tailored customer experience because of it.

Essentially, the focus is on keeping the call agent on message, on target and highly attuned to the customer.

“Forward-looking companies are rolling out intelligent, self-learning and in-context engines to guide customer service representatives to the ‘next best action’ when servicing a customer,” Dan Byrnes, vice president of industry product strategy at Oracle, told CRM Buyer.

Hold On, I’m Coming

It is essential to also test the system from the customers’ perspective as it is often the tiniest of details that turn out to be the most costly.

“Hold times are one of the most common threats to customer satisfaction,” Eric Camulli, chief technology officer of Virtual Hold Technology told CRM Buyer. “It’s plain and simple — by placing its customers on hold, a company gives the impression that it doesn’t respect its customers’ time.”

Camulli said that when consumers feel undervalued and unappreciated, they will look elsewhere for the service they expect — especially because consumers are increasingly able to switch brands now that marketing efforts have made it so easy, a la waived start-up fees, contract signing bonuses, and messages along the lines of “15 minutes could save you 15 percent.”

“With such fluidity, it has never been more important for companies to ensure they don’t give their customers any reason to be dissatisfied, consider alternatives, and leave,” said Camulli.

Rolling the Call

Customers contact call centers through a multitude of channels. In turn, call centers have a multitude of channels to respond with. It is vital that all channels are maximized and all messages are in sync.

“Call centers are increasingly being called upon to support customers transacting online or via mobile devices, creating an urgent need for agents to have full visibility into these channels,” Geoff Galat, vice president of marketing and product strategy at Tealeaf told CRM Buyer. “To ensure that support teams can immediately understand and respond to customer-specific Web site issues, companies are implementing a best practice of integrating customer experience management (CEM) solutions with their existing CRM consoles.”

Given the plummeting economic environment, fine-tuning your CRM is not enough; your company must be proactive in outreach efforts as well.

“Customer service conversations happening in phone calls, e-mail requests, forum chats and social media networks should be integrated into one system for easy access to a customer’s history,” Pamela O’Hara, cofounder and president of BatchBlue Software. “Companies should monitor customer complaints on Twitter and proactively respond with customer service outreach. And third-party customer service monitoring can be handled by sites such as GetSatisfaction.com and SuggestionBox.com.”

Bottom line, every effort must be expended in this unprecedented fight to the finish. No detail, no matter how small, can be overlooked. No complaint, no matter how petty, can be ignored.

“With large portions of revenue coming from existing customers, shifting attention toward customer retention makes sense: Not only are satisfied customers more likely to repurchase, they also serve as valuable references for both Wall Street analysts and future customers,” said Ragsdale.

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