Solving core business problems by listening to call centres

All too often companies continue to use their inbound customer service call centre as the "garbage processing? function of the organisation.

Then when the noise about poor service gets too loud and the costs of handling all this garbage gets too high, the trend is to outsource the call centre to a cheaper operator, which is often an off-shore location in a developing country.

Today, outsourcing call centres is the biggest trend since the rush to implement ERP systems of the late 1990s. A perceived benefit of the outsourced arrangement is that the company is able to prescribe service delivery through performance metrics as defined in the Service Level Agreement (SLA).

This is supposed to ensure that customer service levels and customer problems are suitably addressed. Due to the visibility of call answering times and call resolution, Speed of Answer (SoA) and First Time Fix (FTF) are often the favourite metrics defined in the SLA.

The interpretation is that the Call Centre that can resolve customer queries quickly and preferably in the fist contact with the customer can take more new calls. The irony is that these metrics are often mutually exclusive.

However, the call centre management team and Customer Service Agent (CSA) are bound by the SLA to chase these elusive targets.

At the same time companies are rushing to physically remove the call centres from core business, there is considerable effort being made to remotely reconnect the call centre through the use of technology.

The objective is to use technology to empower the CSA?s to fix customer problems in their first contact, FTX. A wide selection of Information Technology (IT) and Telephonic applications have been designed (and sometimes over-engineered) to specifically address these challenges.

So with all the SLAs and technology in place, why is first time fix so elusive? Why are customers continuing to complain about their service experience?

Is it because the IT applications missed the mark? Is it because companies have the wrong approach to their call centres? Or is it because CSA?s lack accountability?

The IT and Telephonic applications have certainly made the Call Centre Manager?s life a lot easier - but our view is that they have failed to address the root causes of the poor service.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and workflow tools try to re-establish the link between call centres and business operations but these tools are often a paradox creating more handoffs that further degrade the very service-promise that they endeavor to improve.

This lengthens query-resolution cycle time, thus limiting the ability of the CSA to provide exceptional service. In this environment, the call centre agent is only able to make a promise to resolve the query instead of being empowered to actually resolve the query.

This ironically sets in motion a guaranteed dysfunctional process and sets up the CSA and the call centre for failure. The result is a customer experience involving multiple calls to resolve a single (and often simple) issue.

The answer might lie in the approach that companies have towards their call centres.

Company executives have been moving in the right direction to enable their call centre agents. They appear to understand that the touch-points customers have with their CSAs are almost the only substance customers use to formulate an impression of their whole organisation.

There is a strong financial re-investment in the Call Centre to ensure that the CSA is empowered to perform a slick first-time resolution to queries. However, this effort still appears to be coming up short.

The common suspicion that CSAs lack accountability is misguided. Perhaps there are some ineffective CSAs that don?t have the knowledge or experience to solve problems, but this is probably not the root cause.

The real source of the problem usually lies in the fact that, at any one time, good, hard-working CSAs are juggling multiple client queries and are only armed with a patchwork of systems and a set of dysfunctional processes with which to offer service.

And although they are usually measured on call resolution, which they usually do achieve, they are also measured on First Time Fix, something that, in this environment, is nearly impossible to deliver.

What we have observed is that in the rush to solve the problem, a larger one was created. Companies have lost contact with their customers and their Customer Contact Centres. The disconnection created by disengaging call centres from core business robs the business of the data rich environment that can contribute to improving internal processes and customer service.

The bottom line is that more often than not, poor service is rooted in broken process and not call targets. These broken processes are the root cause of so many failed customer contacts. You cannot optimise your Customer Service Call Centre until the core enabling business processes have been established, stabilised and enabled by the right technology.

A stable platform of core and supporting processes, enabled by integrated technology, positions the CSA to give the exceptional service expected by the customer and desired the organisation. Only once this is done can the CSA offer real customer service and be truly accountable.

What we are talking about is that Customer Service Call Centres are a function of everything that happens elsewhere within an organisation. Due to this, separating a call center from its business organisation may remove the vital link that enables business operations improvement.

If we see call centres for what they are, an inspection and rework centre, we will begin to see that the root cause to the problems do not sit in the call centre but rather further upstream. What is experienced in a customer service call centre is a symptom of what is going wrong elsewhere in the organization.

Call centres are not just an annoyance that should be outsourced. Call centres are actually a data-rich environment capable of revealing a wealth of core business improvement opportunities.