By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
Your call center may be an in-house operation or an outsourcer processing calls and contacts for other organizations. If you are an internal call center, you will be viewed either as a profit center or as a cost center (outsource call centers are always profit centers); also you could be under the control of another department, such as telecommunications, IT, or even marketing. Plus, there is the issue of who the call center director reports to. Does that person understand the critical role that the call center plays in your organization? Do they comprehend your technological needs and the importance of a reliable infrastructure? Or is their primarily concern that you don’t make waves?
Regardless of the type of call center you work in, its place in the money stream, your department assignment, or the boss’s affinity for your operation, there is a common need for increased, positive visibility. Increased call center visibility is necessary in two key areas. The first is budgeting; the second is your center’s ongoing viability and existence, that is, in self-preservation. Relating to both of these is staffing costs, technology upgrades, and additional software. And then there is respect.
One option is to do nothing and hope for the best, which typically ends in frustration. The other option is to be proactive. Does this mean making demands and becoming a general irritant to upper management? No. But it does mean taking careful and deliberate steps to elevate your call center to a point of earning the respect and admiration of the decision makers in your organization. There are three strategies to do this: reputation, referrals, and credentials.
Reputation: For your call center, reputation as a quality operation plays a critical role. Whether you are an outsourcing call center in search of new business or an in-house operation fighting for more funding or a better standing with upper management, your center’s reputation will go a long way towards reaching that objective.
When a reputation for quality service, fair dealings, and ethical practices exist, your call center moves towards the top of the priority list. The converse is true when negative connotations exist. Then it migrates towards the bottom, frustrating marketing efforts and political efficacy. As a low priority, it requires more time and energy to make the sale, obtain your targeted funding, or garner your CEO’s attention. Although it takes time and focus to earn a positive reputation, the road to a bad reputation is much shorter and quicker. Once a bad reputation has been established, it is incredibly difficult to overcome.
Reputation – either good or bad – is a great influencer of opinions.
Referrals: For the outsource call center, the second and perhaps easiest way to gain new business is when others do the work for you. To obtain more business, you can ask clients if they know of others who could use your services. These leads are generally pre-qualified and often pre-sold. Some outsource call centers and answering services have successfully added many new clients by merely asking existing clients for referrals. Some of these call centers elect to reward these “referring” clients with monetary or material gifts; others find that a sincere “thank you” garners even greater results.
The ultimate level of referrals occurs when clients tell their associates about your call center, suggesting they use your services. This is a sure sign of a delighted client. Sales via referrals occur when your actions match or surpass your words – you don’t just say what you will do, but you do what you say. These referrals are earned through the provision of quality service and are reinforced by honorable business practices.
For the in-house call center, you do not need referrals to gain more business, but you do need all the friends you can find when it comes time to expand your department, get budget approval for new equipment or additional staff, or provide new services. If your center’s work has earned the respect and admiration of others in your organization, they are much more likely to come to your aid when you need them.
Again, all you need to do is ask for help. When an agent receives a compliment, ask if they will pass it on to the manager, director, or upper management. Written compliments and recorded messages of accomplishment are even better, as they can be easily passed on to decision makers.
Credentials: Credentials are also important to call centers. You say and believe that your call center is the best, but can you prove it? Sure, you have callers or clients who say how much they value and appreciate the service you provide and written testimonials about your quality and professionalism. But doesn’t every call center possess that? How can you truly distinguish yourself? To substantiate your call center’s high level of excellence, you need credentials and you need someone else to provide them.
A credential is a verifiable recognition from an independent third party that you have achieved a standard level of performance. Having one credential puts your call center in a unique category that few can match. Having two or three moves you towards the top of any list. There are three general types of credentials: agent testing, certification, and benchmarking. Each provides an independent, third-party validation of your call center’s value.
Agent testing: When I was in the operations side of the industry, I enrolled our call center in a third-party testing program. Initially, I viewed its results as a quality report card. It wasn’t until after we earned this recognition that I realized it was an important, powerful mark of distinction that needed to be promoted.
The resulting scores provided 400 data points that could be analyzed to reveal areas of strength and weakness, as well as areas of consistency and inconsistency. (Here is something to consider: you may be better off being consistently weak in an area than to be inconsistent. At least when you are consistently weak, your callers know what to expect and you deliver it every time!)
Certification: Likewise, certification is when a third party organization verifies that your call center meets and complies with certain pre-existing and published criteria or values. The certification could range from technical viability, to agent quality, to adhering to best-practice standards. (The inability to become certified could signal a need for more funding, but that argument should be advanced carefully or it could backfire!)
Benchmarking: A third external source of credentials is benchmarking. Benchmarking focuses on quantitative call center measurements. For this reason, many CIOs and others in upper management like benchmarking; it gives a score on how one call center compares to other comparably sized operations. A good benchmarking analysis will also indicate performance gaps (even the best call centers will have some), make recommendations on options to close those gaps (which is a great asset when working on the budget), and may even include a cost-benefit or return-on-investment analysis of those expenditures. Hence, benchmarking offers a quantitative score and is one more credential.
Whether you are pursuing a client, requesting more funding, or seeking better visibility in your organization, it is my hope that you will have some credentials to share. That will make your job a whole let easier!
[From the Fall 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]