CRM: The Importance of the People Factor in Call Centers

Many shared services organizations use call centers as part of their service offerings. In an effort to determine whether there is value in utilizing call centers in today’s business environment, SSON’s Online Editor, Abigail E. La Croix spoke with David Butler PhD., executive director of the not-for-profit National Association of Call Centers (NACC), and director of the Call Center Research Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Executives seek timely and dependable information to make strategic business decisions about their call centers and their business positions. For that reason, the day-to-day operations of call centers need regular and reliable tactical reports on how to improve procedures within the environment.

"Companies that keep call centers in-house believe they can do a better job in treating the customer well and selling their brand," says, Butler. On the other hand, some companies choose to outsource their call centers in the United States or offshore to another country, to save money, he adds. That begs the question: Is the call center the right path for meeting today’s customer service needs?

According to DMG Consulting, over 85 percent of today’s traffic that flows into a contact center is over the phone. "The value of a call center today is in meeting instantaneous 24/7 customer service needs, as well as branding and marketing a business to customers since interactions are not face-to-face," says Butler. Therefore, it is imperative that companies have the ability to gain valuable information from those phone calls, to determine the quality of service being provided, he says.

"A company should open as many channels as it can to service customers -- such as phone, e-mail, and walk-in centers -- and maintain a high level of service and consistency. Utilizing all the channels will determine which is most effective. "If you’re running a call center, you want a guaranteed labor force with no competition, without upward pressure and people out there potentially taking your trained employees and putting them in their own skill sets."

Achieving high performance in contact centers requires collaboration from employees, operations and the enterprise.

The Keys to Recruiting, Retaining, and Motivating Call Center staff

(a) Take a page from Southwest Airlines’ motto, "hire for fit" and "train for skills;" companies should look for the right candidate with a customer-service attitude. "They are usually born and raised with it for the first 18 years. "You can’t hire and train rude people in two weeks," Butler warns.

(b) Conduct a basic customer interview during a face-to-face meeting with applicants and put them through certain scenarios to see how they would react in specific situations. Are they personable, do they laugh, are they awkward, etc. Explore what’s good and what’s not. Subsequently, transfer to a non-visual test using headsets and phone, to determine good and bad service. Then follow with technology training of databases and CRM systems.

(c) When you recruit great people, leverage them to bring in others with similar attitudes. Make them your recruiting tool because good people hang with good people.

(d) Top reasons why people are interested in call center work are: benefits, pay, bonus and the ability to be promoted. Although many people do not consider it a career, they want to know that there is an opportunity for promotion, says Butler. However, most call centers do not offer upward mobility. "If you don’t have a place to promote employees beyond their potential career path within a call center, you would lose your best people. "Organizations should implement succession strategies to transition and retain those employees," asserts Butler.

(e) Empower employees by giving them the ability to handle a customer crisis "in the moment," as opposed to transferring the customer’s call to senior personnel or different departments. This motivates service personnel to do a better job each time. It also sends a clear message to patrons that the company is effective in handling their needs end-to-end.

Reaping the Value of a Call Service Center

"Quality monitoring and business intelligence is a time-consuming challenge, but a necessary one," says Butler. Keep track of what customers are telling the organization and what agents are saying in response.

Butler claims that it may take 20 minutes on the phone to make a customer happy, but that it’s worth the effort because it helps the company retain customers and gain market share.

By recording and monitoring all calls, companies would be able to:

--determine whether the customer was happy at the end of the call;

-- understand where the company needs to improve;

--give call center reps specific feedback; and

--know whether customers make complaints or offer compliments.

For an organization to really focus on truthful customer feedback and customer service responsibilities, it should have an auditing arm with a reporting structure outside the call center. For instance, if the call center reports to a vice president, then a company should set up a parallel entity to report to that same vice president, but ensure that there is no reporting laterally. As a result, the vice president can objectively look at call center data vs. the parallel entity, to gauge results.

Should the old adage, "the customer is always right," ring true?

Butler doesn’t believe in the idea, "the customer is always right," because it is a flawed strategy. "If the customer is always right, and the customer becomes angry about his service, theoretically, the service center rep is always wrong. I believe in the ‘employee first’ philosophy. If you empower workers to handle and resolve all problems with customers, then you give them the ability to empower themselves and support you – ‘the employer!’" he declares.

Dr. Butler, is executive director of the not-for-profit National Association of Call Centers (NACC), has published scores of articles on the call center industry and is the author of the "Bottom-Line Call Center Management," a book that breaks new ground in call-center literature, addressing key skills and techniques in assessing and implementing effective management practices to maximize the human and capital resources at the call center manager's disposal. Dr. Butler works to help call center managers evaluate their current status, implement cost-effective changes, and measure results of their changes to ensure a culture of accountability within the call center at all levels. He is the director of the Call Center Research Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi, as well as President of Butler and Associates: A Research Consulting Company.