By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
The call center has had its share of detractors over the years, from businesses that dismissed it as an unnecessary cost to consumers quick to voice their frustrations and politicians who want to fix it. (Actually most of the politicians just want to garner support from frustrated voters.)
One big salvo against the call center came during the dot.com bubble, which advocated online self-support in lieu of call center customer service. It was good in concept: a scalable solution with minimal labor expenses. The only problem was that self-support didn’t work all that well. With too many wrong answers and not enough good ones, self-support meant no support for most people.
The belief that end users didn’t need customer service support mostly died when the dot.com bubble burst. Call centers were needed, and businesses restored them. But because they focused only on the bottom line and viewed the call center as a cost center, many businesses offshored their call centers to the lowest cost provider. The results were disastrous. It’s not that offshore call centers are bad, but when the focus is on cost containment over quality service, callers are bound to complain. And complain they did: to the businesses, to each other on social media, and to their elected officials.
Many offshore call centers returned onshore, and most of the rest focused on improved quality over lower costs. Everyone won – well, almost everyone. Younger generations, reared on the self-service mind-set and then conditioned to experience low-quality phone support, wrote off the call center and never returned. Picking up the phone became their last inclination; we trained them to think this way.
Yet I see many reasons for call center optimism.
My hosting company has provided US-based phone support for as long as I’ve used them. For a time, they seemed to want users to contact them via email or text chat, but now they emphasize phone support and actually encourage users to call with questions. Their on-hold message even proclaims that they love talking to customers. They understand the value of having real people verbally communicate with their customers.
Another area is my business accounting software. It works well, but I have a low success rate when it comes to upgrades. The first time an upgrade didn’t work and broke the software, I had to search hard for a support number. When I called I was dismayed to learn that, even though their upgrade caused the problem, they intended to charge me to fix it. They demanded that I buy an annual support agreement that cost almost four times what I paid for the software. I declined their offer, and after a few hours of searching online, I learned the solution from another user. Over the years, however, they’ve gotten better. When my last upgrade went south, I found their support number easily, they answered quickly, fixed the problem (that they caused), and didn’t charge me a thing. It seems that they finally understand the importance of serving customers through their call center.
A related issue is my merchant account provider. In the early days, once they completed the initial setup, I was on my own to figure things out and resolve problems. If a card didn’t go through, too bad. Their online solution said to try later, verify the card information, or use a different card. Though it takes a couple of clicks to get there, their online help now gives a phone number to call. To my delight the agent I talked with was most helpful.
My credit union also dabbled in the self-service concept. Several years ago they began opening new branches with minimal staff and a row of ATMs. If you wanted to open an account, a person was available to help you. For everything else you had to use the ATM. Members were not impressed. The credit union reversed this failed strategy and began opening full-service branches. Plus they support members with one of the best call center operations I’ve ever experienced. They are growing fast and consistently receive high satisfaction scores from their members.
All these businesses comprehend the importance of having people serve people. It’s a sound strategy.