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Customer Service Week: Here’s Your Call Center

Posted on : 07-10-2013 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Customer Service, Leadership


This post originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of their influencer program on October 7, 2013.  To see the original post click here.

As we begin Customer Service Week I want to thank all those who strive to serve Customers each and every day. In my view we do not always show them the respect and gratitude they deserve every day, not just during one week out of the year. These individuals do more to contribute to your brand than any marketing message ever will. In my book @YourService I wrote extensively about their experience and how that ultimately reflects on the brand. As leaders we do not equip them with the right tools or empower them to truly help, then when things fail we do not look at ourselves but instead to these same service departments. The fact is we are the one’s to blame for not creating the right culture to ensure our Customer Service staff are successful. Your call center is not a cost center, but instead it is the hub for the ongoing, fruitful relationship with your Customer. To celebrate this week, below is anexcerpt from @YourService, published by Wiley. Parts will make you laugh, but the fact is this is the reality of most call centers. Is your Customer truly important to you?

Chapter 18: An Inside Look at a Call Center

Let’s take a visit to a call center. Some of you may work in one, others may have drifted through, but some may never have had the opportunity to experience daily life in one, although we have certainly all called one! Over the years, I have had the privilege of working in many different call centers and visiting even more. Please note that the following scenarios outlined are not specific to any call center that I have worked in or have done business with, and you will want to thoroughly investigate the ins and outs of life in your call center after reading this. It is so very important to know exactly what is going on in your call center because the impact on the Customer is enormous. This is often how your Customer sees you or hears your message. Please try to wear all hats when reading the following, especially the Customer’s hat. If your business does not have a call center, you can still think of this through the mind of your frontline employees and the Customers you serve.

Imagine that today is your first day on the job as a new Customer Service representative. You walk in and see balloons and what appears to be a happy place. You check in with HR and are brought into a classroom. As you were walking to the classroom, you thought about how thrilled you were that you found a job where you can help people. At the front of the training room stands a cheery trainer excited to have you and the rest of the new recruits onboard. Training will be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on the type of call center it is. During the training they teach you the basic technical aspects to the job: usually the system that you will utilize and the knowledge base to obtain information to answer Customer questions. Often you will not be taught exactly what to say, but you will be referred to the talking points in the knowledge base. The systems can be confusing because many companies use multiple programs. This adds to the complications of the new job because you will be expected to know how to use each one.

Nevertheless, training is always a happy time, even when you get to go out on the floor to listen to calls. They will probably sit you with the best representatives at the company. These individuals are usually very nice and they always follow the rules to the letter, at least in the eyes of their manager. During the training process, trainees split time from the classroom to on-the-job training and listening to calls. As time goes on, agents start to share the reality of working in a call center. The first thing they do is start to go over pain points that Customers have and what, if anything, can be done to counteract this. Sometimes you will learn shortcuts and workarounds that are not demonstrated during training. Finally, the conversation shifts to the different managers and their styles.

Toward the end of training, a manager comes in to go over the rules. Much time is spent on attendance and behavior policies, emphasizing how you will be fired if you do not abide by them. You are now starting to wonder if some of the representatives are thinking that the balloons decorating the call center may be more appropriate in a day care center. The manager also spends time going over how your performance will be measured and what this means to you. Typical call center metrics will be average handle time, or how long you have spent with each Customer, compliance to scripts or quality, adherence to your schedule, attendance, and finally sales. Often the expectation is that you will sell on every call, whether it is appropriate or not. You can easily spot these call centers when you are a Customer calling with a problem; before the representative addresses the reason for your call they’ll try to sell you something. This is simply the agent trying to meet the quality goals, and this is part of the checklist.

You now start to take live calls, usually with a buddy right next to you. This is when you will learn all sorts of things that weren’t covered in the training class. Calls come in and they let you go listening half-heartedly because they are just excited to be off the phone for a little while. The cube that you are sitting in is fairly close to the person next to you and the noise level is high due to all the talking. During this nesting period, all is well but it does not last long. Suddenly you hear beeps across the floor and red digital signs are blinking. You see the manager walking around yelling at everyone to get on the phones. Your buddy jumps up and says that you are on your own, as she makes her way back to her desk to take calls. The next call comes through and now you are flustered with no help. You are hitting the keyboard going through each of the systems, trying to find the right answer, but with no luck. The Customer is getting irritated at the lack of help and is sniping in your ear. You try to ask those around you, but they are busy with their own calls. Finally you get up to ask the supervisor, who snaps back that the answer is in the knowledge base. Frustrated, you go back to look again. Finally, the Customer hangs up without the right answer and another call comes through even before you are ready to start again. Now even more flustered, you struggle with the next call and they wish to escalate as the caller hears the uncertainty in your voice. You go searching the floor for your supervisor and he is nowhere to be found.

Finally, another representative whom you sat with during training offers to take the call for you. Now you have some relief. After the call has been completed, you need to go to the restroom. So you place your phone in break mode to go. When you return, your supervisor is at your desk asking where you have been. He explains that you are not scheduled for break until later in the morning and asks why you only took a handful of calls.

Certainly this has not been a good day and definitely not a great start compared to the high hopes that you had for this new job. As you get back on the phones, you get a call from a Customer whom you want to help. You understand precisely what she needs, but the call will take a while. You think, I can’t have another long call, but there is no choice. Then the Customer, who greatly appreciates how well you are listening and the understanding that you seem to have, says that she has to run but wants to call back and speak directly to you. Unfortunately, policy and the phone system that the company uses do not allow you to give the Customer your extension. During training you were told to simply tell the Customer “Everyone is able to help you just as well as I can. Just simply call back at a time that is convenient for you and they will care for you.” With this the Customer, who is now yelling, says that she has called six times and you were the first one to understand. They then hang the phone up out of frustration.

Interestingly, many call centers are designed not to have personal phone extensions. This was based on the business decision that Customers might call the same person back frequently or they might call and leave a message, but the agent might not follow up or have that extension anymore, in effect causing a worse Customer experience. There can also be a concern that the agents will take personal calls.

The next call comes through and it is regarding a policy that Customers do not like. You heard all about this during training and reviewed many calls on the topic. The answer is always the same, so you provide it. You have yet to hear a call where the Customer was thankful for the answer. You read the answer directly from the script that references this as instructed and the Customer yells in the same manner as the last caller. The company requires you to end every call the same way and ask, “Is there anything else that I can do to help you today?” In response, the Customer yells back, “You have not helped me yet, so why start now?” The phone slams down. After that call you are late for break, so you go. Upon return the supervisor is right there at your workstation again stating that you are late coming back from break. You then explain that the call lasted after the start of your break so you went as soon as you could.

Once again you are back to the phones. As the calls come in you notice that your system is running slower and slower. You help the Customers as best you can, but it is taking minutes for an account to even come up on the screen. At one point you apologize to the Customer for how slow the system is. You eventually help them out, but when you have finished, you look up and the supervisor is back at your desk. He is upset because he was listening to the call, heard internal jargon regarding the systems, and is really upset that you told the Customer how slow the system is. You ask what else could have been said during the lull while waiting for it to come up. He responds, “Anything but that” as he walks back to his desk.

As time goes on, you start to get a little more comfortable but realize there is not all that much that you can change. You stick to the procedures outlined and you do your job. You watch the clock. Eventually the mirror that they gave you during training to encourage you to smile during calls breaks but you leave it hanging on the wall. Broken tchotchkes are not an uncommon site in a call center.

Often, a career for a Customer Service agent is not as pleasant as it should be and coworkers who often want to escape the Customer surround you. At many companies, service is at a location with other business units, and you will find that employees in the other areas look down on the agents and the job as something that is clearly beneath them. This sends a message to those serving your Customers about the focus of the company. Although there are excellent supervisors and managers out there, many are burnt out and many others worked their way up in similar conditions so they are not that interested in changing them.