Cost Deflection Out, Customer Experience In, Part 1

“Your call is important to us. Please hold.”

“We’ve automated our phone system for your convenience.”

“Our agents are busy helping other customers.”

As consumers, we are all too familiar with these rote statements that are somehow supposed to make us feel all warm and fuzzy while we cool our heels wishing we could talk to a real live human being. Whether you have a question about your mortgage rate, problems with your printer, or simply want to find out when a movie is playing, chances are you’ll have to run through a maze of options before you get the answer you want.

With companies seeking to squeeze every penny out of operating costs, by deflecting customers to use less expensive means of communication (the Web versus the phone), it seems we’re stuck in self-service purgatory. In reality, this drive for cost deflection is alienating customers and eroding profits.

Cost Deflection, Customer Defection

According to a recent JupiterResearch report, “self-service deployments continue to exhibit low levels of satisfaction and resolution for customers, spawning recontact through channels — e.g., phone, e-mail” — that self-service was meant to replace, at least is part. The era of cost deflection in the contact center has passed because customers do not want to deal with having to use multiple channels to get an answer to a fairly simple question. This aggravation is what spawned Paul English’s blog giving away the secrets to circumventing automated systems at more than 100 companies.

Self-service certainly has its place for basic transactions, but for high-value high-touch interactions, nothing replaces person-to-person contact. If a customer has a dispute, or wants to know if he’s choosing the right service option, live agent communication is warranted. Moreover, customers want to feel they are special. These conversations present very real opportunities to add value.

Case in point: A customer calls his bank to inquire about a home loan. The automated system requests his account number, pin number, his mother’s maiden name, and then asks for the amount of his last deposit. He doesn’t recall this information, so he hangs up the phone, calls his wife to check their records, and then starts all over again. After he’s entered all this information a second time, he finally reaches an agent, who asks for his account number again. Of course, he’s already fuming because he’s wasted all this time fighting the bank’s bureaucracy. He’s then asked endless questions about his financial and work history before the agent can recommend an appropriate loan program.

What if his experience goes like this: He calls the bank. His call is routed to an agent that has the necessary skills and authority to handle what his call is predicted to be about. Critical information is extracted and delivered to the agent regarding the type of accounts the customer already has, his financial transactions and what he does for a living. The agent is alerted that the customer is an independent consultant with a strong understanding of finance who has already paid off two previous mortgages. The agent skips the discussion about mortgage basics and advises the customer about a special program for independent 1099 workers in his income bracket that will save him two points on his loan. The customer not only feels his time is valued, but that the agent understands his needs and is delivering advice that is pertinent to his situation.

CRM vendors have long touted this “personalized” service, but many call centers found these systems offered little value in live conversations. Even if customer history was integrated with the CRM system, agents would have to scroll through pages of records to find nuggets of information that might be helpful in a live conversation.

A New Approach

Organizations today are turning to customer experience solutions that deliver this information in an easily digestible format so they can impact conversations in real time. Instead of rigid scripts, agents receive visual cues for directing a conversation. It may start scripting the agent to ask a few questions before approaching the customer. As the customer answers questions, the system quickly responds by prompting the agent on the best service to offer the customer. It may advise the agent that offering a new service at this time would not be prudent, or suggest that the agent explain how the customer can save money with a different service plan.

The system should leave room for agent discretion. He should be free to engage in a casual conversation but still receive progressive guidance along the way with the next best actions as the call continues. This approach also alleviates a common complaint from customers who feel companies are constantly pushing new products with no regard for the customer’s situation, or even if the customer already has the product in question.

A UK-based wireless carrier uses customer experience software to achieve a higher level of trust from its customers. If an agent sees that a customer is on the wrong service plan, he makes recommendations for saving the customer money. If the customer isn’t happy, the agent is given ideas right away on how to help turn them around. The agent can easily see not only usage rates, but how the customer is using his phone (number of text messages, usage patterns, etc.) so they can offer him the best deal. This positive customer outreach has had a tremendous impact. Agents report “customers feel like we ‘get’ them.”

Done correctly, this type of interaction can occur in a seamless, low-key way. The customer may not even realize that the agent has all this information at his fingertips, but the resulting conversation can have a profound impact.


David Barrow is vice president of vision, solutions and architecture at Chordiant Software.


Cost Deflection Out, Customer Experience In, Part 2

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