Call Center Customer Service Management: An Opportunity to Shine
by
Charles E. Day CMC, FIMC, President, Charles E. Day & Associates
for
The Journal of Business Strategy Handbook 
December 2001

Highly accomplished customer service call centers possess unique management capabilities in caring for and maximizing their most valuable resources: technology, business processes and, especially, people. To soar above the competition, high functioning teleservices operations understand customersí needs and preferences for doing business. They know how important it is to build relationships, install and implement the right technology options, use the most appropriate business processes, and, more critically, train employees to feel just as important as the most valued customer.

Technology Alone Is Not Enough

The teleservices industry is credited with attracting thousands of employees who generate over $1 billion in annual sales. Accordingly, installation and application of advanced call center technologies contribute significantly to efficiency gains and organizations' bottom lines. More important, however, is the management of not only system resources, but also business processes and human resources associated with the work environment and the ongoing workload necessary for conducting day-to-day operations. In particular, itís clear that without properly managing and motivating people with respect to desired outcomes in teleservices operations, customer service and/or sales, full benefit will not likely be achieved regardless of the extent of investment and advanced system technologies. In fact, overlooking human resources tends to have quite an opposite effect. It doesnít matter if a company with poor procedures and communications boasts the most sophisticated technology. Those companies tend to lose customers and revenues faster than a company with the same HR conditions and manual systems.

While the use of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system technologies should be driven by customer needs and profiles, they should be extremely user friendly when it comes to the navigational abilities of customer service representatives. Other technological features that depend largely on human and personnel factors include:

  • Call blending option to dynamically log other agents into automatic call distributor (ACD) during peaking process hours
  • Screen pops using telephone numbers and account information collected in queue
  • Automated callback capability to give customers options to receive return calls versus waiting on hold for long periods of time; this guarantees customers automatic dial backs when their waiting time is over
  • Conversational voice messaging on interactive voice response (IVR) with voice recognition; agent to be provided information on customer transactions up to that point in system and prior to transfer to live representative
  • Integrated voice mail capability at each agentís position to serve as voice, text and e-mail repository; this allows representatives to receive their own facsimiles and e-mails and hear or view them along with standard voice messaging.
  • Use of scheduling software and forecasting tools to the fullest extent in order to insure appropriate staffing
  • Integration of Web-based applications with existing call center configuration and strategies to assure performance standards that are satisfactory to customers and not overbearing to representatives
  • Online payment collection by representatives with credit cards, bank transfers, and zip checks if IVR systems are programmed with this capability
  • Integration of out-dialing applications or blended call center, to ease and extend sharing of technical and personnel resources
  • Automated encoding and reporting of transaction type and customer attributes
  • Graphical user interface (GUI) screen displays on all systems to be accessed by agent, including legacy hosts applications
  • Case management tracking history for representatives
  • Use of kiosk, Web enable, banking applications and IVR with customer routing history information made available to agents in the event of transfer to representatives for more help by customer
  • Customer relationship management systems, software, databases and procedures supportive of CSR and planned around employee requirements for information
  • Multi-media capability for CSR to review with customer while online; this includes, as an example, actual copy of past invoices, packing slips, etc.
  • CTI call queuing with transfers between areas and PC screen messaging to targeted CSR

The greatest opportunity for call centers to shine with advanced call center technologies is in upgrading the skills and staff responsible for understanding, evaluating and selecting business-oriented solutions. This can only be accomplished through training and recruiting people with specialized skills. This means people who are directly involved with day-to-day operations need to make a commitment to keep current with whatís available in related business and technology industries.

Processes and Preferences

It is important to plan management and implementation of procedures and processes that all but guarantee successful outcomes with customers. For example, todayís customers want companies to be available at their convenience - anytime of the day or night. Another factor is recognizing that business-to-business customers and business-to-consumer customers have different needs and expectations. Unlike business people, consumers only want to be contacted once some degree of marketing relationship has been established.

The linkage for matching customer preferences, profiles, calling history and similar variables is core for CRM business procedures and practices. Defined procedures cover customers who choose to mail correspondence, log onto Web sites, email requests or even fax documents. While some of these processes take longer, they are usually less costly than a telephone call and certainly all represent increasingly important communication options for customers.

Even with top shelf technology and well-planned business processes and procedures, the crucial element that makes an organization shine in customersí eyes is how employees treat them and handle their needs. Some often overlooked aspects of business procedures where employee and customer relationship goals often go unmet are:

  • A clearly defined and organized customer service department. This would leave no questions about where to go for information and why because there would be effective job descriptions for all staff functions.
  • Training plans for each employee. This would insure more effective staffs and continuous development of stronger supervisory and management skills.
  • A better understanding of field service groups (technical services, sales) and their respective interfacing with customer service departments.
  • Quality assurance and monitoring procedures as a day-to-day and hour-to-hour procedure. Using a specialized group of supervisors for daily monitoring and to take escalated calls is a must safety value in call center operations. Feedback from monitoring in an offline session with customer service representatives (CSRs) is also crucial. A self-assessment process is preferred in reviewing taped calls of agent and customers with CSR and supervisor together. It is also important to review comparisons of CSRís individual statistics (total calls, talk time, after call work, work rule conformance, etc.) against group averages as well.
  • Workload coordination and system administration functions in the organization are required to support operations. Workload monitoring focuses on real time performance of operations and compares actual performance to forecasts and recommends or makes adjustments immediately to meet goals. Work rule conformance absenteeism, non-forecasted peaking patterns, problem-generated calls are among the "look-out blocks" for which to watch. System administration can help repair network and system problems as well as make agent queue assignment changes supportive of operation goals.
  • Labor relations and communication responsibilities in place to address potential staffing/operations concerns in advance.
  • Performance measurement process to measure call center activity as well as outside influences. Issues that overload call centers include problems with inaccurate bills, missed service appointments, poorly timed collection notices, notice of rate changes, etc.
  • Incorporation of customer calling attributes and repeat call analyses to provide management with detailed information on customer profiles.
  • Use of estimated wait time (EWT) application along with automatic callback feature. This would help to avoid abandonments and lengthy hold times.
  • Disaster recovery measures in the event of minor or major crises.

Overlooking these business procedures can surely become the root cause for call center failure. Recognizing them and modifying them to incorporate customer and employee needs are a far more sensible way of seizing the opportunity to shine.

Human Resource Management and Motivation

The common stumbling block for short changing investment in personnel doesnít appear to be dependent on specific industries, products, compensation level or geographical differences. For example, the number one problem that is generally evidence of poorly staffed, inadequately planned human resource programs is high turnover of personnel. From previous business process reviews, some organizations and teleservices firms exceed a 10 percent turnover rate and often have 100 percent turnover of their complete staffs each year. Attempts to fix the problem with application of advanced call center technologies in teleservice operating environments often make matters worse. Fundamentally, personnel issues and less optimized manual operating environments are not candidates for advanced call center technologies. First solving the personnel issues and streamlining less automated functions are prerequisites for success.

The newer and well integrated CRM environments as well as Web-enabled call center operations are specifically poised for this experience. For ultimate success, before automating initially and/or extending automation with advanced concepts, it is critical to optimize the manual or more routine functions to the best of management's capability. This ensures that impractical procedures and processes are not carried over, amplified and extended to be more detrimental in new system concepts. In addition, a highly optimized manual operation should also be reviewed with an eye for eliminating redundancy or unnecessary steps, which if left intact, might reduce the effectiveness of advanced call center technologies. As an example, it may be better to make online faxing and automated fulfillment a priority versus purchasing more and faster facsimile machines or adding additional staff to print and package fulfillment pieces. The difference is one eliminates several manual steps to gain efficiencies online. The other adds more resources with the same objective in mind. Added benefits that come from streamlining manual operations first include improved service quality, timeliness and accessibility of information.

According to the expected behaviors and work process outcomes of teleservices personnel, itís important to consider six key elements:

  • Standards, Missions and Policies.

With much talk about communications from an automation standpoint, it is also critically important that verbal and written communications with employees, staff and customers be well established from the outset to ensure efficient and orderly operations. Itís imperative to apply standards to the manner in which a company handles customer data, distributes pricing information, measures employee performance, rewards sales accomplishments and recognizes overall performance within an operation. An example of a simple mission statement is, "We will always identify ourselves, our products, services and prices openly in our dealings with customers. We will respect their time and provide a basis for ongoing and continued professional relationship in conducting our teleservices operation."

Policies, quite often, are not as well documented in newly formed teleservices operations as perhaps they are in more traditional operations. There are a considerable number of straightforward policies that should be disclosed immediately to employees and customers. Examples include: conditions of employment, understanding of monitoring procedures, distribution of customer data, the ability to expedite shipment and the empowerment of customer service representatives to issue rebates and credits.

  • Employee Recruitment

The nature of teleservices operations and use of advanced call center technologies dictate much of the specific selection criteria when developing a strong employee base. Often, teleservices managers are forced to move individuals from various departments and, as a result, are constrained by compensation restrictions. The result is that the appropriate skills, background and personalities are often poorly matched to job requirements. In any event, itís essential that call centers have the right people for the right teleservices positions. By example, people who are capable of taking straightforward order entry calls as a result of TV response ads may not necessarily be best suited for call outs or for customer service type functions which require ability to negotiate with angry customers. Skill levels capable of conceptual thinking, deductive reasoning and probing should be considered when recruiting personnel, along with fundamental requirements of verbal articulation, grammar, tone quality and diction. CSRs who can listen effectively, sort through disjointed information and ask the right questions to discern key information will likely be best able to take full advantage of newer computerized systems and other technological advantages for mutual benefit of the caller and organization. When employees are mentally able to apply logic in listening skills and discernment of customer requests, they are typically logical enough in their thinking to take full advantage of higher technology offerings that require superior navigational skills. Recruiting processes should, therefore, be more fully developed from ad placement to telephone screening and in-person interviews. Additional training programs increase the chance of appropriate matching of work requirements to employee attributes.

  • Compensation

For some time, teleservices organizations have managed to pay basic rates between $7 and $12 per hour for basic order entry and customer service functions. The more advanced teleservices functions that require experience like IT help desk, market research, basic data collection, order entry and customer service functions often undervalued their basic compensation packages. Standard employee benefits like insurance and retirement plans are often left out of compensation packages. Care should be taken when assessing the appropriate benefits for different positions. Perks can be added where theyíre called for to provide incentives through promotions, commissions and frequent payouts for demonstration of desired behavior and customer service accomplishments, in addition to sales performance.

Remember, too, that careful consideration when setting up compensation plans also helps to insure that employees demonstrate desired behavior. Without attention to this matter, management can inadvertently build in incentives that cause CSRs to take advantage of system resources and data manipulation for personal gain. A method for validating legitimacy of compensation programs is also necessary. Feedback from employee groups and individuals is extremely important in assessing the expectations of employees with respect to earnings.

  • Training

When organizations tout their ability to train teleservices representatives and have them on the phone in two to three days, it usually means that other areas (like customer training for telephone etiquette, product knowledge and information about the organization) are left unattended. Initial, ongoing and more advanced training should be structured in order to benefit employees and cause teleservices organizations to progress in kind.

  • Job Descriptions

Unfortunately, itís not uncommon that call center operations are established without any specific documentation about individual duties, reporting relationships and other particulars. Accordingly, employees can begin with different expectations and understandings as to their levels of empowerment and responsibilities as well as how their overall roles fit into the larger organization. Creating position descriptions with tasks, responsibilities and reporting relationships is an easy step toward setting clear performance expectations.

  • Promotions, Recognition and Motivation

While many believe money is a primary motivator, it is a mistake to overlook most employeesí desire for interesting work, recognition and appreciation as well as a career development path. Fulfilling these basic employee needs helps when it comes to boosting morale, performance and profits.

Employees also want to know about new business opportunities, recognition of their companyís community status and how they personally contribute to the profitability of the company. With respect to incentives, again, it is important to direct efforts to the desired behavior sought. Additionally, recognition can come in the form of personal letters, visitation by upper management and even the use of wall display units for congratulating and recognizing employees. Both individual and group recognition are important, with more emphasis for group performance in order to minimize negative competition.

To be able to recognize staff appropriately, itís necessary to have clearly defined measurement procedures as well as a monthly appraisal process, which includes daily monitoring. This helps correct employees' unacceptable behaviors and performance as well as calling attention to and focusing on what they are doing well.

The Smile and the Shine

Without question, it is absolutely essential for teleservice operations to balance advanced call center technologies and business process procedures with human resources for quantum leaps in improved operating performance. It is better to over plan and give legitimate attention to the soft side of business and the people running it over anything else. The applications of blended call centers with improved voiced systems and customer relationship management techniques are all important in order to shine above others of equal size and operating complexities. At the end of the day, the smile apparent in the voices of teleservices representatives will make the ultimate difference in who outshines whom. Hire the right staff and implement the right management philosophy. Then customers will recognize the organizationís opportunity to "shine for them" and continuously earn their valued business.

 


 

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